Author’s Note to her mother: You might want to skip this one.
I’m pretty optimistic. I can find something good in just about every situation. But there have been a few times in my life when I legitimately thought “I might die right now.” These were not moments where I could find any good in the situation. They were moments of straight up sheer terror. These moments are now minorly amusing. Minorly.
The first time I thought I might die was during high school. My friend Alyssa and I were out riding horses, which we had done, ohhhh, I’d say at least 827 times before without any near death experiences. We were on the way back to her house, coming out of the woods into a field. Suddenly, both horses spooked and took off. (The author would like to note, that if you have never riden a horse, this story might be a little lost on you.) There is no way to really describe the power of a 1000 pound animal that you “control” with a piece of metal stuck in its mouth held on by a few straps of leather.
I had a false sense of control over a horse before this moment, I pulled back on the reins, he stopped, no matter how fast he was running. I had heard stories about horses getting spooked, and thought that whoever had the experience was just a crappy rider and didn’t know what they were doing. Wrong. SO wrong. Those horses took off as if Satan himself had lit a bonfire fueled by habanero peppers up their butts, and the only way to put it out way to haul ass back to the barn as fast as possible.
All I remeber was Alyssa being in front of me on her horse, and seeing her go under a large branch while ducked down, and watching a piece of said branch stick directly into the back of her neck, and snap off. I didn’t want a piece of the branch in the back of my neck, so what did I do? Well I just turned my head and let the entire branch rip the side of my face up. Because that seemed like a good decision at the time. The horses continued to run with a fury, I was pulling the reins back so far that my horse’s head was literally up in the air looking back at me, and he was still going full speed. I decided this was a bad idea, because if he wasn’t going to stop, perhaps he might need to see where he was going. We always rode bareback, which added an extra level of difficulty to staying on at this new-found top speed, and all I could think was I am going to go flying off the back and get kicked in the face, and die. Eventually they stopped, and by eventually, I mean three steps before the barn entrance . Lesson learned: Do not trust horses.
The next serious scare came many, many years later on the Kern River. The section of river our group decided to paddle was a Class IV+ (with three Class V rapids). It was a three day two night wilderness run. The only real way in or out of the canyon, was on the river. We were a group of 16, 14 of us were raft guides, and everyone on the trip had significant rafting experience. This was a bomber group, to say the least. There was one rapid on the river we were all pretty on edge about: Vortex. Here is a description from the California Creeks website:
Hazard: The Vortex itself is a concave hole that recirculates for many meters past the main falls. Please avoid Vortex at flows above 600 cfs. At flows above 1200 cfs, rafts can take a sneak route on river right, as shown in the pictures below. Even the sneak route is risky, however. Years ago a commercial trip was lining oarboats down this side when one boat piled on top of another, completely sinking the first boat. Not until autumn of that year did they find shreds of hypalon raft fabric and a bent metal oar frame deep in the rock tunnels below. Kayaks can portage easily on river right. In the winter of 2008, the right side changed and reportedly has a whirlpool formation at certain flows.
Now I know you are thinking to yourself, was the flow over 600 cfs? You betcha, above 600, and below 1200, so no sneak route option. Our entire group eddied out well about the rapid, and most everyone went down to scout it out to see if it was runnable. We decided that it, in fact, was not. And there was one slot in particular that the unanimous consent of the group was if you ended up in that slot, it would drop your boat right into the hole, causing a mass of recirculating bodies and gear. Also, if by some miracle you washed out of the recirculating hole, you would find yourself in perfect position to swim the next rapid, a Class IV, called Gauntlet. Gauntlet was basically a boulder sieve, with GIANT body entrapping boulders everywhere.
First drop into Vortex Rapid (giant recirculating hole on right, for scale, the drop into the hole was about 6 feet, hard to appreciate that from this picture)
View downstream of the second big drop in Vortex Rapid, followed by Gauntlet downriver
Before telling the rest of this story, I first need to explain the crew and captain of our raft, so you can fully appreciate just how badly 5 experienced rafters can screw up. If you have followed my blog from the beginning, you know who John Lane is (if not, I suggest you pause here and go read the first blog entry on this site, called “Get Tough”). John Lane is the most bad ass raft paddle captain I know. I would, and have, paddled for this man in all sorts of conditions, on many rivers. Next in the boat, the boys, Avi and Danny. Avi was formerly the water sports coordinator for the UC Davis Outdoor Adventures program and is an excellent guide. Danny and I were both currently guiding for the UC Davis program and both had a lot of paddling experience. Carrie (John’s wife) was the 5th person in the boat, and is probably one of the best paddlers I know. (The author would like to note, that Carrie was the only member of the crew who did not scout Vortex rapid, she opted to stay with the boat, so she did not know what the rapid looked like up close. This information will become important in just a moment).
Back to the story. There were 4 rafts total in our group. Our raft had been the lead raft for the majority of the trip. We ended up being the slowest to get back into our raft, so we watched the other 3 rafts safely eddy out above vortex rapid. Everyone was unloading gear and beginning the portage process. (Author’s note: portaging boats is a pain in the rear, you have to unload and carry all the gear downstream, typically over unsafe terrain, and then either line the boat downriver with ropes, or pick it up and carry it on land. So the shorter the distance, the quicker the portage process). John spotted an eddy a little downriver from the other three boats, and we all decided it looked good and would provide a much shorter portage distance. It was the last eddy before the entrance to the rapid, but it looked safe and we went for it.
The river had other plans for us, plans that did not involve that eddy. We took off and were like a fright train heading at a fast pace in the wrong direction. No matter what we did, we just kept heading for that drop. The exact drop that lead to Vortex Hole. We back paddled mightily trying to get to shore, and finally John turned us straight for the drop and screamed “FORWARD PADDLE!” Now, Carrie was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen because the entrance to Vortex looked pretty harmless from the top. The rest of us however, knew exactly where our boat was headed. I have never paddled so hard in my life. When you are going to hit a water feature you know is going to flip your boat, the phrase I learned in guide school is “Wrong and Strong.” Basically, if you have screwed up beyond the point of return, you better hit it hard and hope that you have enough speed to punch through it.
As we started to go over the drop, I looked up, and thought, this might be the last time I see the sky. And then in the next instant we were over the drop, the rapid stole all our momentum, flipped the boat up on one side, and dump trucked us all in the freezing cold water. Everyone, except John. Somehow that man stayed in the boat. I remember being underwater and seeing through my eyelids brightness and then darkness as I got pushed back down, then brightness again as I circulated up, then darkness, and then bubbles, and then breathing AIR. We all got recirculated, and luckily were all eventually washed out. Carrie, Danny, and I all swam the next drop and the rest of the rapid before we made it to shore, luckily before Gauntlet.
Now this is actually the moment where I was the most scared in all this. Even more scary than your own death, is escaping that death and realizing that someone you care about is drowning and dying.
Avi was not with us.
We could see John, but Avi was gone. Holy crap, he was still being recirculated in the hole! That’s all we could think.
And everyone was just standing there, looking at the river, doing NOTHING. The three of us scrambled on shore screaming at our friends to go get Avi. They were all looking at us like we were batshit crazy. And then we saw why. Somehow Avi had washed out further left, nearer to shore than the rest of us, and he was clinging to a rock about 10 feet from shore. Now here is the funny part of this story. 15 experienced water people, all with swiftwater rescue training, stood there and looked at him. For at least a minute. Finally the youngest member of the group thought, gee, maybe we should throw him a rope. Uh, yeah, you think that might be a good idea!?! I feel that John, Carrie, Danny, and I were exempt from the stupidity of the group since we had just almost died and were not exactly thinking clearly. Lesson learned: None. We got right back in the boat and kept on going. Only one way out of that canyon, and it did not involve dry land.
Several years went by before my next near death experience. On this trip, there were several times I thought I might die. And funny enough, who was I with on this trip? Yes, it was Avi, and John and Carrie Lane. The four of us ventured to the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific for a month long, self-supported sea kayak adventure. We had limited beta, but what we did know was that nobody had ever done what we were about to do, island hop in known shark infested waters with mostly unknown ocean conditions. John is very good at planning trips like this, and had done a lot of research before we left, so we were all confident that while things would likely go wrong, it was what would put the A in Adventure. Or… maybe A for Assholes, who ASSume they are better than mother nature…? Either way, confidence was high-ish among the group as we started out.
The first big scare on this trip came during our first open ocean crossing. We had only about 3 miles to cross to hit the next island, so in theory no big deal. We started out in the shelter of the leeward side of the island of Epi, we could see some swell and waves out in the distance, but it didn’t look too bad. Waves are funny like that, they look so benign from a distance. We made our way out into the swell, and soon found that not only was the swell HUGE, but also travelling perpendicular to us. So we were travelling north, and the swell was going due west, hitting us dead on the sides of out boats. The swell was huge, and some of the swell was turning into breaking waves, which created a very challenging cross.
View from the shore of Epi at the waves breaking in the distance. Our goal, the island of Pama, in the far distance.
You know those stories you hear about rogue waves? They are the waves that pop up seemingly from nowhere, and if you are not paying attention during a stroll on the beach or whilst check out tide pools, can knock you off your feet and drag you right into the ocean. Well, I’ve always HEARD about them, but I had never SEEN one. Well, mother nature, not being one to disappoint, decided that our group of two double kayaks needed to not just see one, but experience one. How cute! Out of the corner of my eye I suddenly saw this F*CKING HUGE ASS 19 foot wave on the brink of breaking. How do I know it was 19 feet you ask? Because my kayak is 19 feet long, and I turned my boat straight into that wave in hopes of getting over it before it broke. I’m pretty sure Avi and I paddled faster in the following 10 seconds than any olympic kayaker ever has, or ever will. And my kayak spanned the height of that wave, and it crashed over the back end of the boat. And I thought that was going to be the end of us, dumped into shark infested waters in the middle of the Coral Sea with a mangled boat.
Clearly, we lived, and I remember looking back and seeing Carrie’s face. Her eyes were approximately the size of dinner plates, she was mouth breathing, and I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something along the lines of I can’t believe you guys did not get flipped. Roger that sista. I couldn’t believe it either.
So fast forward like 4 hours. We begin our second open ocean crossing of the day, this one is about 6 miles between the island of Pama and the island of Ambrym. We make the crossing without incident, however, as we are getting nearer to Ambrym, all we can see is white mist along the shore, and as we get closer we hear what sounds like thunder. The thunder and mist was the waves crashing along the shore with ocean spray flying high into the air. Along the ENTIRE shore as far as we could see in either direction.
If you have never had the “pleasure” of experienceing a surf landing, let me explain what happens. You are attempting to navigate a boat that is twice your body length or more to shore in waves that are crashing with a fury on said shore. These waves like to catch the boat, turn it to the side, and then flip you over, resulting in your head, neck, and upper body being pummeled against the ocean floor. When you do it right, you surf in, land and get the heck out of the boat to pull it all the way onto shore before the next wave hits. When you do it wrong, you end up (if you are lucky) with a face and boat full of sand, a few scraches and bruises, and a very bruised ego. If you are lucky. If you are in a 19 foot long boat that weighs about 800 pounds loaded with gear and two bodies, that is constructed of an aluminum frame with a hypalon bottom and canvas top, your chances of luck dwindle.
Also of note, was that we had about 1 hour of daylight left, so not much time to paddle around looking for a nice place to land. Also of note was the thick jungle that appeared to be coming right down to the water’s edge. There were cliffs, steep beaches, no good camp spots, and giant waves as far as we could see. Finally we just had to pick a spot and go for it. As we were paddling in, I remember discussing what could happen with Avi. We both decided that if the kayak got turned to the side, there was no way we would have time to straighten it back out before the next six foot wave flipped us. We paddled in silence mulling this over.
As we got a little closer, we could see rocks, everywhere, big ones, near our landing spot. We then decided that if the boat got turned, it would be certain lower body entrapment inside a mangled mess of aluminum and canvas against those rocks. We both got ready for an emergency exit from the boat, and then started to paddle in. By some miracle, we managed to surf the boat in, and there was no part of surfing a fully loaded double kayak in six foot waves that I EVER want to repeat again. I feel like you get a one-time hall pass for that and it should never again be attempted. I in fact am 99% certain that I peed my pants during that minute of terror. I can’t be sure, but I do remember that before we landed I had to pee (we had been in the boat for at least 3 hours by then), and I did not go for a very long time after we landed.
Near death experience number three of the trip came about a week later. It was during the biggest open ocean crossing of the trip, 16 miles. 16 miles is a LONG way to be in the middle of the ocean in a very tiny boat, especially after you already traveled 14 miles in the morning of that day. Even more especially difficult when you can’t get out of the boat, for fear of being eaten by a shark or flipped by a rouge wave. On this day I found out an open ocean crossing in aforementioned conditions is made even more difficult when you have explosive diarrhea. Just sayin’.
So we head off, leaving the comfort of Ambym island with it’s many spots for pulling off to take care of aforementioned diarrhea issue, for the unknown landing conditions of Malakula island. We had big swell, but nothing to terrible, and even had favorible winds for sailing for a good part of the cross. Our winds died after a while, and we were left to paddle, listening to the silence that can only be heard in the Coral Sea with no wind, boat motors, or people talking. Just peaceful lapping of the paddles in the water, and splashing of waves over the bow.
And then, something happened that seriously disrupted my zen paddling. My rudder fell off of my boat. I looked back and it was GONE. I screamed to John and Carrie, “My rudder fell off!!!!” They were far away, and all I could hear was them mumbling followed by a “What???” They could both tell something really bad had just happened by my tone, they didn’t need to know exactly what my major malfunction was to know they better hustle over. Instantly they were next to my boat, and John had retrieved the rudder, which was dangling from the connector wires and a small piece of rope. It had snapped, and was not repairable, at least not in the middle of the ocean. So we started paddling. And realized just how difficult it is to paddle a foldable kayak loaded with gear in a decent size swell with no way to steer. Every wave that hit us turned us the wrong direction. So for 5 miles, Avi paddled and I used my paddle like a rudder and steered us, paddling when there were breaks in the waves. It was SLOW going. Painfully slow.
We finally neared the island, and what did we see? Giant crashing waves. Now we knew that there was an inlet to a nice calm bay, but it had taken us so long to get across that it was now low tide, and the coral reef surrounding the bay was nearly exposed, with just enough water left to create giant crashing waves. Also, we had been warned by nearly everyone we came across about the tiger sharks in the mouth of this bay. By this time we had paddled/sailed nearly 30 miles, I was experiencing serious motionsickness, and Avi and I were both physically exhausted. But we had to summon the energy to paddle over this coral reef that was just waiting to rip the bottom of the boat, and out skin, to shreds if we made one false move. Followed by those stupid sharks smelling blood and coming for us. Seriously?? Seriously!!! That was all I could think. Seriously, we just paddled 30 miles, the last 5 without a rudder, and this was going to be the end of us?
We started to head in, and surfing the boat was difficult in the waves. Avi was physically done, he had no energy left, and I wasn’t far behind. I actually screamed at him several times during that paddle over the reef, because he was not paddling hard enough and I did not want to have my face ripped off by the razor sharp coral inches below the boat! We did not come all that way to end it in this reef. No way.
We finally made it in. Upon landing we realized that we had an audience, what looked like the entire village had come down to the water to watch us come in. And they all looked as relived as I felt when our boat finally hit the beach.