Life and Death Beyond the Edge
First Published in Site Zed, a web site for essays on paddlesports.
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Life and Death Beyond the Edge
I watched a man die, for the first time, on the Green River. Witt was vertically pinned against a tombstone shaped rock at the bottom of Chiefs. I was scouting Gorilla when I heard shouting.
“He’s pinned” a panicked voice rang out. I turned and looked back at Witt. He was vertical but not moving. Water slammed against his back. In an instant, the boat collapsed violently and Witt was buried in a liquid avalanche.
We ran up river to help, but it was hopeless. I will never forget his hand. It reached up to the surface desperately. He was still alive and reaching, praying, hoping that somehow we could get a rope to that weakening hand and rescue him. He struggled for a couple of minutes before going limp. I could not see his hand after that.
Hours after the water was turned off we extracted Witt’s body with the help of a rescue crew. His femurs were both broken in half, his legs limp and deformed like bags of jelly.
The second drowning I witnessed was five years later on the Russell Fork, a notoriously deadly class 5 run in Kentucky. The rocks there are like Swiss cheese, full of holes. John was an older man and he was rag dolled in a hole for minutes and minutes. Eventually he flushed out, still in his boat. A friend pulled him out of the kayak and onto shore. CPR was initiated, but it was far too late. John’s skin was a blue-ashen pale. His life was over.
In both instances, I paddled class 5 the following day.
My Dad got me into kayaking when I was only a kid. We lived thirty minutes from the Nantahala in North Carolina in what seemed like the whitewater epicenter of the universe. What more could an eleven-year-old boater ask for? I spent several years learning the basics, and by the time I was thirteen I was ready for the Ocoee.
The Ocoee is a class 3+ play run, but, at the time, it was a rite of passage. I stood atop the long concrete ramp that leads to the water and stared at the maelstrom of whitewater in front of me. I was intimidated, scared but excited. I don’t remember anything else from that day, but I have a vivid image of the view below the ramp. Beautiful, enticing, rushing water led to a bend in the river. Beyond that the river was unknown to me-but I wanted to go there.
As time passed, I became a better paddler. I ran Section 4 of the Chattooga as a sophomore in high school. I was comfortable in class 4 and 4+ whitewater, but my Dad would not let me step up to class 5. At the time it seemed unfair, but I appreciated his conservatism later because it taught me patience.
I graduated from high school and got a job as a raft guide with NOC. It rained during the spring raft guide training. A group of us went to the upper Nantahala and ran the Cascades. At the time it was the steepest thing I had run. Big Kahuna, the crux rapid, felt like it was 28 feet tall (it’s about 8 feet tall). It was the first time I had to look up to see upstream. The rush and sense of accomplishment hooked me. I loved being in control and so intensely focused that nothing but the water, gravity and me existed.
A natural progression occurred. Paddling difficult whitewater 200 days a year paid off. I became an expert hair boater. A year or two after the drowning on the Green another experience changed my life forever.
It was a cold December day. My buddy Obie and I were running the Green. We knew the water would be high, but we did not expect the raging monster that we found at the put-in. Arriving at Gorilla, Obie began the portage. I stayed in my boat. “What are you doing, man? Are you fucking crazy?” he said.
“I can do this. Will you hold a rope for me?”
I ferried across the lip of the entrance, boofing clean into a big eddy. I looked over at Obie, and he held up his rope to show me that it was frozen solid. I was on my own.
A second ferry and I hit the meat of the Notch with all of my conviction. I typewriterred into the main flow and took a couple of quick strokes before flying off the main drop, a narrow 15 footer. Exiting the flume I punched a couple of large sliding holes and dropped into a final eddy. I had never felt so alive. I had entered the world of big time class 5 and 6 whitewater. I never looked back.
The next ten years held countless river days, countless adventures. There were solo runs on the Cullasaja, Linville, and Taureau; doubles and triples of the Taureau and Linville; class 6 descents of standard portages in NC, Colorado, and California.
One day I found myself alone, vertically pinned on the Cullasaja with the entire river pouring onto my back and head. I did not have an air pocket. I was doomed. But, as suddenly as I had pinned, I popped off the rock and continued on my way with sore legs and a broken boat. The next day I returned to the ‘Saja, solo, and ran the same rapid that had nearly killed me.
My greatest fear was not death. My greatest fear was losing my edge. My greatest fear was shoulder dislocation. I lived to paddle and paddled, literally, to live.
In the shadow of all the insane boating, I led a normal life. I graduated from paramedic and nursing school, working in the field for over 10 years. I married and had a beautiful little boy. We named him Ryland. I was aware that as I forged my way through life, running difficult water, my responsibilities were increasing, but the idea did not bother me. Nor did it change the way I paddled. I became a little more conservative as I aged-it’s inevitable. But I was still running class 5+ whitewater consistently.
Last August, rain fell in New England. My main paddling partner Alan Panebaker and I ran Glover Brook. Glover is steep, shallow and blind. Full of wood and pin rocks, it’s a true gnar run. We approached a blind slot, and I hopped out to scout from the top. I glanced downstream and everything looked clear. I got back in my boat and shouted some directions to Alan. As I ferried into current, I felt a twinge in my gut; “something ain’t right,” I thought. But it was too late, I was committed. As I dropped over the edge, I stopped dead. I could not tell what was wrong, but I knew it was bad.
“What the fuck?” was all I had time to think before I was ripped from my boat. I swam under a log breaching the slot.
“I should be dead,” I thought as I gathered my gear.
“If you had stopped in there, I would just be standing on the shore in a panic right now” Alan said grimly.
“Yeah, there’s nothing you could have done for me, that’s for sure”.
The close call did not have a lasting effect on us. We were immediately back in our boats running class 5 and 5+ whitewater. We laughed at danger.
Maybe we should not have. Alan died a month later. I watched him broach and pin against a sieve with a tree in it. He fought for his life, but he was on his own and there was nothing he could do. He flipped and went into the sieve. We were below him in a walled out, smooth granite bowl. By the time we got back up to the sieve he was nowhere to be seen. We weren’t even sure he was in the sieve but threw ropes into it with fading hope. He was there, but his hands never grasped our ropes.
An hour or two later, with more manpower, we were able to move the log around and free his body. He floated through the rapids before coming to rest in a large recirculating eddy. I ran to my boat horrified, and paddled up to my friend. He was the pale blue hue that is unmistakably dead.
“Ohh Alan” I groaned under my breath as I clipped my tow tether to his lifejacket. I ferried out into the flow and Toby grabbed his body. I caught an eddy and clambered onto a rock to help. We pulled Alan’s cold body out of the frigid, clear water. I lay across the top of him, hugging him. I looked up and saw tourists taking pictures of us with their smart phones.
“This can’t be real.” I was in a daze hiking out of the gorge. I called Alan’s girlfriend fifteen or twenty times before finally leaving a message. “It’s Adam. Call me.”
We drove to her house that afternoon. I quickly got drunk on a bottle of Knob Creek whisky. Its warm burn was the only thing I could feel. Everything else was a surreal numb.
When we arrived at her house, we hugged and cried. I apologized over and over. “I’m so sorry. So sorry. I never wanted it to be like this. I never wanted to make that phone call.”
Buddy, Alan’s dog, barked nervously like he expected Alan to walk in the door any minute.
The next ten days were a blur of alcohol and logistics. We corralled boats and gear, called family members and friends, planned a memorial service. We drank and drank some more. It was the hardest week of my life. I can only imagine how Alan’s family felt.
Now I sit here, trying to make sense of the senseless. There is no moral to this story. Alan, Witt and John were in the wrong place. They died. I have many other friends who were in the wrong place. They died too.
I love the sport. It has taken me to places physically and figuratively that most people will never see. And there are more good lines than bad ones-more near misses and close calls than fatalities. Kayaking dangerous whitewater is often forgiving. The problem is that when it’s not, the toll is too high.