[ La Bataille l'Argone ]

A New Lease on Life

I finally did something I've wanted to do for at least 10 years, and it changed my life. I hadn't planned on it changing my life that much, but it's not the kind of thing you plan.

In August, I organized a weekend kayaking class with some friends of mine. Ever since my dad took me whitewater canoeing as a boy I had been jealous of the kayakers. I watched them run a set of rapids, say: "Well, that was fun," work their way back up stream and do it again. It didn't seem fair.

I have a healthy respect for a river, I knew the only way for me to get there was to take a class. After talking about it for years, and "planning" to do it for months, I finally made the call.

In the end, the air was hot, the water was cool, and the weather couldn't have been better. Six of us went up to the South Fork of the American River. It was nearly five that returned.

The first set of rapids was indescribable, even to someone who has run a river. If you haven't run a river in a kayak, then you haven't run a river! The difference in perspective from a kayak as opposed to a canoe (and this goes double for a raft) is like the difference between driving a car and doing street luge in San Francisco. You are right there! This makes sense intellectually, of course, but until you've experienced it, you can't possibly grasp the immediacy of it.

I learned many things over those two days. I even had several things impressed upon me which should have meant that this page was never written. But I am not what William Nealy would call a "body genius." I usually have to learn these lessons the hard way. Many times.

Our final activity on the second day was to run the river from where we had driven to back to our campsite. After successfully navigating a stretch know as "Meat Grinder" (it sounds far worse than it is, it was Class II, but the water MOVED!) we were starting to feel the fatigue of the untrained novice. Then came "Mesa." We scouted the run, making sure to note a strainer followed by a sieve (a strainer is a fallen, stationary log in the river, water flows around it, a kayak doesn't, thus strainer. A sieve is basically the same, but rocks instead of a log are the obstacle) It was actually significantly easier than some of what we had just been through.

A kayak is designed to turn on a dime and return 9 3/4 cents change. They LIKE to turn. Half of what we learned the first day was how to make the boat go straight, and later how to work with it when it wouldn't. I started the Mesa run, and started drifting toward the strainer. I turned easily enough, and started to power forward. If this had been the beginning of the day, rather than the end, I would have little difficulty. Unfortunately I couldn't get away fast enough, which meant I took the log broadside.

As I tried to steady the boat (I have enough river experience that I should have recognized that as hopeless) I was quickly flipped over while leaning backward in an effort to balance. One of the first things a novice learns is that when you flip over, kiss the deck. It lowers the chance of head injury and puts you in a good position to release your skirt if necessary. I had made a typical novice mistake. ("And a classic way to die," said Mykel upon hearing this part of the story).

The water did an excellent job of pinning me in place. I tried to lean forward to release my skirt. I tried to lean sideways to get a breath of air. Failure on both counts. I placed my elbow over the side, and worked myself up far enough to get a single breath that was mostly air. Unfortunately I pulled all of the muscles in my side and shoulder doing that, so it wasn't really a viable option for breathing. I failed utterly at freeing the skirt, or myself from it.

Because of adrenal time dilation, it is impossible for me to have any idea how long I fought before I gave up (and decided that was silly, fought some more, and then gave up again) but it seemed like I have an inordinate amount of time to ponder my predicament.

It was here that I had what I would like to call an unique experience. I would like to, but I can't, for as soon as I realized what had happened I was immediately reminded of the plight of Peyton Fahrquhar, the condemned man in Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

Somehow, I escaped the maddeningly tenacious grasp of the neoprene skirt. I was free in the swift current of the river. Making my way to the surface I marveled at the perternatural edge on my senses. I felt as though I could see the most minute detail in the passing rocks, and every leaf on every tree when I broke the surface. I made my way to shore, far downstream from where my kayak was still hung up. I had a very bizzare reunion with friends and family. But I could not tell you whom. My memory of these details faded quickly, like the dream so real when you first wake, that slides right through your fingers.

It was at this point, I believe, that the two instructors started making some headway in freeing my kayak from the log, with my limp, unconscious body still firmly attached. It would seem that my mind, unable to accept the predicament it found itself in, had given me a flight it so desparately needed.

I had been under for somewhere between two and three minutes, by one instructor's estimate. I was not breathing, but as they dragged me franticly to shore, a small push on my stomach produced coughing and I started breathing again. I started to regain consciousness just before they beached the boat, and finally pulled the skirt off, and slithered out of the boat on to the best wet sand I have ever tasted.

I started asking questions while we were still moving toward the shore, in a desparate attempt to piece together what of my experience was real. But my questions seemed to raise even more concerns about my well-being in everyone, so I stopped after one or two. I was able to put most of it together eventually.

From here the story is fairly bland. We waved off the life-flight helecopter, the amulance arrived, I spent the night in the hospital, and after too many chest X-rays (hey, that machine was COLD!) I was discharged the following afternoon.

Some people look at me funny when I say this, but of all the people in my group, I'm glad this happened to me. I have the most river experience, and I know that these things do happen. The only way to face them is to respect the river and it's power, but you must get back on that horse.

I'll be back next season.

Last modified: 11:09pm (PST) on Dec 2, 1998

[ Eye ] Erik Ogan