Facing Fear Of Death
Apprehension filled the air as nine of us stood by the river’s edge. Under normal conditions this river was fast and choked with boulders, plunging downhill at an average gradient of 110 feet per mile and was known for being complex and physically demanding. Our adrenaline was in full flow, because of heavy rainstorms this river was now two feet above its flood level, and none of us knew what to expect.
After very serious consideration we fastened our life vests, put our helmets on and decided to go for it. We took our lives into our own hands as eight of us placed ourselves into two four-man rafts and made our way out into the churning water.
The first mile and a half was a deceptive introduction to what lay ahead. The water flowed swiftly but smoothly at 10 to 13 miles per hour over the gravel bottom. We used this time to practice and synchronize paddle commands. Although I did not like to admit it, I was the least experienced among our group with only about a dozen trips under my belt and silently welcomed all the practice I could get. My feelings were in total conflict as we quickly approached the first major rapid. I was wary of unknown water having almost drowned twice when quite young, but there was another part of me that thrived on challenges that spurred me on. The previous encounters with this river had greatly reduced my fears but the river had never been this fast and my yellow streak begged for consideration. However, facing and overcoming my fear had been my initial reason for getting involved with this sport, so I suppressed the urge to leave while there was still a chance.
Within the next few moments, the river went mad: plunging us over a seven-foot ledge, down into explosive back washing waves, which kept trying to suck us into a vortex of deadly white water. The raft immediately filled with water and our guide commanded us to “Dig it in!” We all struggled to pull our weighed down load safely over to the river’s edge to bail the water out before tackling the next major rapid. Just when we thought we had finally made it and eased up on our paddle stroke we felt a hard jolt; the raft spun abruptly around and was whisked back out into the rapids. Left hanging behind was a crewmember that only seconds before had grabbed onto a tree branch to help in securing us ashore.
Now numbering only three and having lost all our momentum we were heading straight for massive boulders at high speed. The water was crashing furiously down on us, blinding us when I lost my balance and was thrown to the floor of the raft. My foot had slipped out of the safety stirrup and my body was being pounded up, down and sideways. I was trying desperately to get my foot secured again before moving back into paddle position but our guide began pleading with me to “Get back up and paddle!” Sensing from the tone in his voice that we were in serious trouble I immediately scrambled back into position. No sooner had this been done than my body was lifted and hurled clear to the other side. The only thing that prevented my flying out into the water’s turbulence was my crash landing into our guide. Before we knew what was happening the raft was airborne, slammed against a boulder, pinned firmly on its side with water cascading in what seemed to be ten-foot waves everywhere. Our guide screamed, “Get to the high side!” just as my body landed half out on the low side.
The lower half of my body was no longer my own, it now belonged to the river and the water was forcefully thrusting its way down through a narrow chute that dropped over a six-foot ledge. The word ‘fear’ had never been fully comprehended until that moment. What lay ahead should I be forced to let go terrified me and I used every ounce of fight within me to cling tenaciously to the edge of the raft. I heard the cries, “Hang on!” to which I screamed, “I am!” but each upward movement made was met with a hard blow shoving me even further down. The water’s forceful pull was overwhelming and my strength was no match for the power of this element. My body was ripped away from the raft, sucked under the water, shot and scraped through the narrow chute then bounced over the six-foot ledge. The powerful waterfall pounded me down under, slammed and restrained me against a rock. Recovering ever so slightly from my impromptu arrival, the realization of facing my death caused feelings of panic to well within. These feelings had only just begun to absorb my thoughts when the invincible water released its hold. The buoyancy of the life vest immediately popped me right to the surface and the boulder that lay ahead further down the river looked like the largest mountain in the world surrounded by boiling white water.
As my body rocketed down to what was certain to be my death, I grabbed at anything to prevent this from happening, which only succeeded in aggravating my circumstances. I was sucked below and torpedoed into a mass of whirling water that hinted at undreamed of depths. Everything was happening so fast that my mind could not comprehend each new demand that my body was experiencing. After several rotations in this whirlpool and without any conscious command from me, my extended limbs automatically contracted into a fetal position as I was simultaneously catapulted outward and fired right up to the surface. Filled with anxiety, my eyes quickly scanned the water only to see that no one was there to rescue me and the mountain boulder was seconds away. I choked in a breath of air as the undercurrent pulled me beneath the whipping waves and plastered me against a rock where the incredible force of the water began taking its toll on what little air there was in my lungs.
Uncertain but still clinging to the hope of life, I instantly began to have a mental conversation with God. I begged, pleaded and made all kinds of promises as to how I would change if only I would be allowed to live. But, the expected response did not come instantaneously and my mental conversation with the forces that be changed drastically. I defiantly resigned myself to my fate in no uncertain terms and waited for death.
Those seconds at death's door seemed like hours before an undercurrent finally made its way under my back to peel my body away from that rock and cast me out even further into the wild water. Much like a ping-pong ball, my body caromed off several rocks before being sprung to the surface again. While catching my breath, I quickly realized that my eyes and feet were facing upstream rather than downstream and it felt much like riding backward on a roller coaster. Frantic to see what lay ahead, I somehow managed to invoke the strength to twist, roll, and push myself around just in time for my feet to take the impact of the blow from the jagged mountain boulder. No sooner had this been done than the boiling white water flipped and slammed my face right up against this boulder. I battled to keep my dismembered thoughts under control and be as objective as possible while my body was squeezed and hugged around before its release back into the runaway river.
Not knowing my final destination was absolute torment. The words, “As long as there is breath there is always hope” crashed through my chaotic thoughts. Even though I saw no way out of this maelstrom, my mind refused to admit or accept defeat. However, my body was another story - it was completely exhausted and I did not know how much more it could endure. The whipping waves were relentless forcing water up my nose and down my throat while my body sank. When I surfaced, “Breathe” echoed through the fatigue. My mind instantly implemented this word like a mantra, which helped me to remain focused on catching the infrequent opportunities for air as my trapped body went with the flow of the river - wherever it was leading.
Relief swept over me as my limp body was dragged into a bend of the river and my eyes saw the ninth person of our group paddling his kayak as hard as he could against the river’s flow. Not realizing I had been trapped under water, he had raced passed me to rescue me. Since I was moving much faster than he was against the current, the ninth person fought to keep his kayak stationary until my body was closer. The timing was just right; the kayak sliced through the waves cutting out in front of me and offered a brief opportunity to interrupt my descent. The fingertips of my extended arm caught the handle on the back of that kayak like a claw. What reserves I had left struggled to pull my body close enough to secure my hand, which locked down on that handle like an iron fist.
Safely on land, my trembling and battered body collapsed on the riverbank where it remained for quite some time. Listening to the roar of the water and looking out over the river, lingering and remembering the whitewater darkness as being unforgiving and unforgettable. I felt like a warrior who had gone off to war with herself to receive the gift of life. The forces of nature demanded total surrender - you cannot push a river. Becoming a conscious witness was a crucial requirement for living.