Clinging for Life – PT. 1

Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself tethered to a kayak clinging for life on a Class III rapid. But just three years ago, this was indeed the case. 

It was my third weekend in my rafting guide training on the Wenatchee River. Just as I conquered getting my crew through the infamous “snow-blind” rapid, I found myself falling off the raft in what seemed to be a slow motion replay.

It’s important to note that even the most seasoned rafters get knocked off the boat every now and then, but here are a few lessons to be learned…

Lesson 1: To get through a rapid without flipping the boat you have to plow head-on while paddling.

As much as fear wants you believe that it’s an illogical move, you have to point the raft straight into the wave and just go for it! My angle was spot on and my crew was paddling hard. As I screamed “FOORWAARD!!” a 6 foot wave came straight at us and while we made it through initially, in a split second the wave dropped and rose popping the back of the raft and ejecting me backwards into the river. My paddle was lost and I was being swept away in the opposite direction of the boat.

Lesson 2: If you fall off the boat grab onto the chicken line.

A rapid moves at the speed of light and so does the person caught in one. My crew managed to redirect the boat and throw the safety line. I missed. I started to swim hard but the freshly melted mountain snow made the water painfully cold.

Becky, one of my trainers, had been following us in her kayak and immediately paddled towards me.

Fighting the current wears you out very quickly and my hands were frozen stiff. Bending one finger was more painful than being in the frigid cold water.  At this point, I was really starting to get scared as the only thought running through my mind was that I was going to drown. Becky’s military instincts kicked in as she screamed at me to grab onto the kayak.

This was it. I had ONE chance.

I’m not sure if I was afraid of dying or afraid of Becky, but I managed to grab the front strap of the kayak.  I held on with my head to the side of the kayak, facing towards Becky. As she paddled forward fighting every wave, the currents kept pulling us further apart from the raft. I couldn’t see what was behind me and even though the rest of my body was underneath the kayak, my life jacket kept my head above water.

Becky tried to reassure me that everything would be alright. In fact, with the roaring rapids, she actually yelled at me “DON’T LET GO! HOLD ON DAMMIT! DON’T YOU DARE LET GO!” I began to wonder if she really believed it was going to be alright or if she was just saying that on the brink of my demise.

Before I knew it, the crew grabbed my shoulder straps, counted 1-2-3, dunked me back in the water, and pulled me back into the raft. Keep in mind, the crew is trying to save my life while battling the rapids and attempting to keep the boat from flipping again. That would have been worse.

Lesson 3: Hypothermia is still possible. To prevent this, keep moving.

I was numb, discombobulated, relieved and shaken, but there was no time to waste. I grabbed the paddle and joined the crew as we moved into calm waters. Once we made it to shore, I tearfully thanked everybody still in disbelief of what had happened.

It made me very aware of what could really happen to my clients in the future. How would they react? How would I react? Would I be able to think fast and save a person?

I continued my training, but the story doesn’t end here. Stay tuned for Part 2.

~ Carla

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