Saturday, June 7, 2008

Contemplating Mortality: Flood Stage of Lester River

A picture of "mini-octopus" on the Lester River courtesy of the Duluth News Tribune

It was no ordinary day. The night before it had rained torrentially and by morning it was clear that the local rivers were flooding. As I sat in class, my excitement grew as I poured over Flash Flood warnings and found myself having a trouble sitting still. At noon I hurried out of class, quickly ate lunch, and headed out to the rivers.

Myself and Nate first pondered over Tischer Creek which is a full on class V run that is only runnable at flood levels. It was too much intensity for my tastes. We then took a look at Chester Creek and had the same feeling. So we went to the ever reliable Lester River. We drove up and decided to take a "quick" run before the rest of our fellow paddlers arrived. Upon putting on it was clear that the river was running BIG...things were looking and acting differently than my last seven runs on the Lester. After the first rapid, Nate took a swim. In attempting to eddy out and be of service, I broached my boat and was unable to roll up and found myself swimming as well. Luckily, I was able to swim my boat into a tiny eddy where we could empty the water from it. I got back in knowing I was going to need to run what I could of the river by myself and search for Nate's boat. It's interesting how nerve racking it is to run a river by yourself despite the fact that even with a partner there's not always a lot they can do to help you in a bind. We ended up finding his boat intact quite aways downstream and continued the rest of the run. Within a couple of river bends, I managed to get myself stuck in a hole just above above a fairly significant class IV drop ("mini-octopus). I side surfed it for 5 min, getting window shaded and rolling up, still in the hole. Finally, I desperately stuffed my back end into the hole and up-ended my boat free of it. I quickly rolled up and frantically got on line for the drop ahead and was relieved as it went smoothly. The river was HUGE and the amount of whites of my eyes showing was probably equally large as we finished out the run. We met up with another fellow paddler , Jorge, and went to do another lap.

All was going smoothly, the first couple of significant drops went well. Up ahead was a drop entitle "Naked Man" . I had always portaged it because I heard that that it breaks boats often. Having never run it previously I was easily encouraged to give it a go. It started with steep a double peaked wave train/reactionary lead-in before dropping over the crux, a 7-8 ft shallower drop/slide containing some lovely piton rocks and a hole at it's base. It went well as I ploughed through the wave trains. Cresting the crux of the drop knew I was right on my line. I thought to myself, "you've got this in the bag". It was nearly fatal mistake!

Hitting the hole at the bottom I missed a single and needed paddle stroke to propel me past it and was quickly pulled into meat of the hole. I stayed calm while side surfing and worked hard to attempt to power out of it, but was eventually flipped. Not having a plethora of energy and feeling that my boat was clearly still stuck in the hole, I popped my skirt and swam. I went for my first and instinctive breath of air but couldn't reach the surface. It immediately became clear that I was being recirculated and held under by the hole. In the chaos of the surging water, all I could perceive with my eyes was light and darkness and all I could hear was the immanent roar of the water in my ears. As the water went dark, I barely touched the bottom and desperately tried to push off and away. Fighting back to the light, I reached my arms and face up for the surface but I still could not get a breath as with lungs burned horribly. I aspired some water in the attempt. I was hoping there would be a rope from my fellow paddlers to pull me out, but I knew that they were down stream and unable to get to me in time to help....I knew I was on my own. I plunged back into the chaotic darkness and touched bottom and again was still unable to get a good footing. I went into the light water and got pulled down into the dark again and again. I was tired and knew I didn't have much longer. "This it IT", I thought. "I'm going to die". Thoughts raced through my head, some instinctive and some conscious. That which I loved, people, places, events, flashed through my mind faster than comprehension. I made one last push for the surface and managed to get my face with 4-6 inches of the surface and breathed only water. I couldn't fight any longer. I had no energy left. I felt myself starting to go limp and my body giving up.

It was at that instant that I came back into the light and reached surface. I took my first glorious breath in over a minute. Defensively surveying the river to make sure I was clear of the hole, I coughed violently and I struggled to get the water from my spasmodic lungs. While being swept down stream and clear of the hole, I found shallow enough water and struggled to stand. My fellow paddlers shouted instructions that I could barely comprehend in my primal state of being. I staggered towards shore holding my body haggardly; my arms limp at my sides, hands hanging flaccid, and my balance failing me. I fell to my knees and crawled to the bank of the river. Ripping the helmet from my head, I dropped to my chest and laid in the dirt breathing so hard that my ribs ached.

After a short while, there were shouts of "grab your boat". I turned to see it floating by and quickly grabbed a hold of it and was dragged into the river. After fighting with it and being drug over rocks, I gave up as a Jorge paddled to coral it downstream. After some further instruction, I crawled up the slippery clay banks to trail above and hiked in a daze down stream. After following a whistle blow, I found my comrades hauling my boat ashore. They greeted me with some valiant attempts at encouragement. I don't fault them for trying... what would does anyone say to comfort someone who just escaped from the verge of drowning? After some discussion of the incident, feeling somewhat animate and stable, I decided to drag my boat to the road and walk back to the take out. Emerging from the woods, I dumped my boat and paddle on the edge of the road and walked back. It was a surreal. The events that had just occurred were too difficult to wrap my head around. I walked strangely blank and emotionless feeling as if what had occurred had been a day dream gone wrong.

Lester River at flood levels just above Superior St.

I didn't hit me until 11:30 pm that night as I lay at home alone resting. It was the gravity of what I may have lost in a few more seconds. I had already wore out discussing the incident with Jorge and Nate. I had probably less than 10 more seconds under water before I would have blacked out. Loosing consciousness in whitewater is grim. Clearly I under estimated the power of the river at a level in which I had never paddled and it was at an extremely high level. Had we been aware of the danger, setting up safety would have our experience the drop had been run countless times without incident and at a lower level the hole barely exists. If I would have known, I would have never run the drop. In any case, through all the analysis, the truth wasn't worth it. I would have rather broken my arm than to face what I had faced. Knowing what I would have lost was hard to stomach. Yet on an optimistic note I began to reevaluate what was important and what I have yet to accomplish in my lifetime.

Everyone will confront their mortality and over the course of a life time. It is not uncommon to have a brush with it, whether it be in confines of a car, the result of smoking cigarettes daily, or in a kayak. I woke up the next morning and went back to the Lester River and ran it twice.... but I will never run that drop again. I love to paddle and will continue to do so, but not at any cost. When I wake in the morning I know where I'm going and where I want to be.


Nora said...

You would have lost the rest of your life and we would have lost you. I can't tell you how glad I am that you came out OK!! Summer is here and it's time to get into the playboating mode!

Anonymous said...

big props for nutting up and getting back on the horse. you had your first real good beating, as everyone does. good to see you got back in the boat the next day.

Nora said...

Hey Burgess.
Now that a few days have past I wonder how you're feeling about it now. I'll admit it scared me when you told me about it and then when I read about it but in no way let the incedent keep you from creeking. When something like that happens it's best to step back and just problem solve from an objective point of view. There were most likely many factors that contributed to the swim. Just use it as a learning experience. You're a great boater and I love to see how far you've come!

Andy said...

Glad to hear that you're ok. Even more so glad that you've mentally gathered yourself to boat again.

Great river descriptions, tell Zimny to live-bait your ass next time. Joerg's worthless in those situations and you're better off on your own. :) kidding.