Saturday, November 20, 2010

Almost drowning

They used to tell us in nonfiction workshops to write 'as if your parents were dead.'

This is very difficult advice for all but the totally detached. However, at least in terms of entertainment value, it is those very things that our parents would cringe to see in print- poor decisions, repeated mistakes, mating habits- that are worth writing about at all. And to approach that material with allowing it to shrink from shame, or guilt, or dread of the 7am what the hell were you referring to in that one paragraph? phone call is a valuable skill.  But for the sake of the parents, with their weak hearts and the staggering ability of their imagination to conjure unlimited scenarios wherein their children take on the world and lose, some stories are truly better left untold.

Here is one of those stories.

This is my account of nearly drowning on the San Pedro river in Northern Chile.

February 2nd, 2009,  the middle of the Chilean Summer. I'm traveling with the kayak school from Pucon to the Rio Fuy in Choschuenco. On Route, we stop to run the Rio San Pedro. I am a very new kayaker, but have been on a crash course ever since landing in Chile three weeks earlier. I survived the waterfall laced Palguin creek run, and barreled down the big water of the Upper Trancura with only a skirt implosion and an easy swim. The intense fear I once had for white water is gradually shedding.

It rained heavily that morning as we packed up, but we drove out of it and into blue skies and a perfect day for paddling.

We've been told that the San Pedro is the easiest river we're going to run the entire semester.  The water is a bright, exquisitely clear turquoise, nearly the same warm temperature as the air. As we glide along the miles of calm water and splashy waves, the round stones and mottled sand of the river bottom are perfectly visible. We flip over on purpose and hang upside down, eyes open, taking photos underwater:

The Rio San Pedro from below. Photo by Palmer Miller
The river is over twelve miles long and slated to be dammed in the coming months. On some stretches, the current moves very quickly but the surface of the water remains smooth. The sensation is as close to flying as I'll ever get. The river branches apart and comes together again, branches apart and comes together. Little waterfalls splash down from the surrounding cliffs and send swarms of bubbles jetting to the surface.

There are two are major rapids on the San Pedro, class 4 big water and very pushy. They come one right after the other as the river narrows into a tighter channel, bends to the left against a sharp rock wall, and the water crushes into massive, chaotic wave trains. Emery and I both tense up as we approach the first of the two. 'Where do I go? Where do I go?' we ask David. Siren song of the worried kayaker.

David just laughs and teases us. This is what he did before the intimidating but harmless drops on the Palguin.'Just point to the left, there's nothing to worry about.' We bounce into the rapid.  It's big and crashing, with waves so steep they throw your bow completely vertical into the air. After powering through without even a flip, we end up in a small stretch of flat, fast moving water.  I'm exhilarated and careless, my heart pounding but no longer in fear. I want more of those huge waves. This river is deep water with no rocks,  nothing to get stuck under, pinned against. I go into the second rapid without asking any questions, without any beta, without following anyone's line. My last thought is to turn and reassure Emery, who is still gripped.

I paddle ahead and get immediately flipped. The water is so warm and clear, I can barely tell when I'm up and when I'm under. It feels strange to be submerged and moving so fast. I roll up wobbly and get punched back down on the opposite side, up and over, over over.  I can catch maybe a fragment of breath every time I come up. I realize that I'm getting totally slayed, but I'm fairly nonchalant about it. I'm not going to swim. I know I can barrel-roll the whole thing like this because the rapid flattens out into a pool at the end and there are no rocks to worry about.

I talk to myself as I'm up and under, up and under: hold on girl, tuck forward, snap up, breathe, steady. I'm smiling a little under water, knowing how the kids will tease me about running such a long rapid on my head.

I'm finally able to roll up and steady myself long enough to take a quick look around.  I'm in the middle of the rapid, on the right side. Things are flying by too fast and explosive and confusing to think. I see one of my students, Nelson, paddling past me on my left. Nelson, my AP student, who is always showing up late to class, he's the only one in the class, and he's always asking me to brush his hair. I look at him for one second and he twists his face into this horrible expression and shouts NO! NO! NO!

This is when everything shifts. I can hear him above the roar of the water. NO! NO! NO! I don't even need to look to know that I'm going somewhere very bad. I turn my head to the right and the world slows down just a bit. I see that I am heading full speed into a wall of hard volcanic rock. There's no time to change direction. I slam against it, taking the entire force with my face and the outside of my right shoulder. In an instant I'm flipped upside down.

Underneath the water I'm pinned and perfectly still. The force of the current is pushing the back of my boat against the wall at a 90 degree angle to the river bottom. There's a loud bubbling like the sound of a fish tank at night, much more peaceful and deep than the smashing of waves above. I let go of my paddle and it flies away.  I grasp my skirt and pull it with a concerted effort, somersault out of the boat and my face emerges onto surface. I gasp at the air and for moment I think, I'm safe now. And then I look around.

This particular spot on the river creates a rare feature known as a death eddy.  The eddy is like a pocket on the side of the river surrounded by steep, sharp walls. The entrance back to the main current is as narrow as a double doorway. The turbulent water moving inside the eddy collides with the downstream current to create a barrier so strong it's impossible to swim across. If you tried, it would suck you down into a whirlpool and push you back into the eddy. The downstream side of the eddy is backed up by a an undercut rock wall. If you're not rescued and pulled out with a rope, you will eventually be swept underneath the rock and stuck.

I am not aware of the undercut yet. I'm not aware of anything because I can't figure out where I am. And I;m curious about it but strangely calm. The water is white foam, slashing and spinning. The powerful recirculation slams me against the upstream wall like a rag doll, then under, down,  up, and back into the wall. I'm on spin cycle. My PFD is built with padding to protect my organs but, arms out and flailing, I take the blows with my face, hands and bare legs. Each time I get pulled under I'm feel terribly confused- I keep thinking, I'm wearing a PFD, how am I not floating? Did it stop working?  I want Tino.  My brain starts this mantra where is tino where is tino where is tino, round and round like a nursery rhyme.

Tino is the coach. Like me he's from New England, and he's only 20 years old. He went to New River Academy for his last year of high school and never left.  I've really liked Tino since I met him, but especially so ever since he pulled me out of the Trancura. It was my first swim of the season, on a tricky but pretty harmless rapid. We'd scouted and Tino stood on the bank setting safely. I flipped in a hole, my paddle was ripped out of my hands and I pulled my skirt. The instant my head resurfaced in the nearby eddy, Tino had his hands on me and was pulling me onto the bank. It's easy go get attached to the someone after they care for you when your sick or pull you out of a spot where you're scared. I feel the same way about Dave.

But right now on this river, neither of them are with me.  I am struck with the staggering loneliness of being in a place where literally no one can help me. Tino is well behind me with a group of  students, surfing every play wave they find, the group I was paddling with are all down river.  But Nelson- Nelson! A current of hope cuts through through my tumbling, fragmented thoughts. Nelson saw what happened, he knows where I am.  But for him or Dave to rescue me, they'd have to finish the rapid, eddy out, he'd have to explain what happened, and then they'd have to hike out of the river and come look for me. It wasn't going to happen in time.

I decide I will climb out, which is just absurd. I give it a go anyway.  I grab at a piece of the rock and try to drag myself out. The piece of rock comes off in my hand.  You have got to be kidding me is exactly what I think.  with a note of detachment, as if I was watching this from the bank, as if this was all some huge joke. This is so bad! You have to be kidding me this is so bad.

Just then I feel something bump against me and I throw my arms around it, thinking it's someone come to rescue me. It's my boat, which has only now become unpinned and resurfaced. It is bright red amongst the swirling white and the front is scratched deeply and dented from the collision with the wall. I put my arms around it and try and rest my cheek on the bow.

With my arms hugging the plastic, I notice that there is red water leaking from my hand. It takes half a second to realize there is blood in the water and it is my blood. This is so much more violent than I thought drowning would be. By all accounts drowning is a peaceful way to go,  not that anyone who is alive to tell about it should be considered a credible source. But at the very least,  I always thought it would be quick.  Now I'm stuck here, pulling in little bits of air, circling the drain but not being held down long enough to actually die.  I don't feel any panic, just a dull curiosity as to what will happen next.

 And then I am then pulled under and shot deep, ripped away from my boat, and sucked against the downstream wall of the eddy.  My eyes are open and I can see a dark green tunnel as the light blinks away,  my hair floating in front of my face as fine as spiderwebs. I put my hands out and feel rock on all sides of me. I've finally been pulled into the undercut.

Very quickly, a voice from the deepest recesses of my brain takes control. It begins firing out instructions, urgently but calmly.

You are going to lose consciousness. You have one hour to stay alive after you lose consciousness. You will stay alive during that hour. Nelson knows where to find your body. You will remain alive and they will resuscitate you.

I feel an extreme fondness for Nelson. The loneliness of that dark tunnel is cut by his knowing where I've gone.

I am almost out of breath. Half a lungful of air lasts only a short time when you're struggling. It's different than when you're in the bathtub, and you slip under the water and see how long you can count.  Behind my closed eyes I black spots appear, like pockmarks burnt into old film strips. From the moment you become a kayaker you dread this moment. But a little part of you  is also very curious. I wonder if my lungs will implode, and whether that will feel like two balloons bursting. And then what?

I decide I'd rather not wait any longer. If I suck water into my lungs I can aspirate, which might hurt less. I guess the fear of pain lasts to the lasts second. I open my mouth and draw in a throatful of water. I feel very subdued about it. In a few seconds I'll be gone and my rescue will be someone else's problem.

Two seconds later, my head breaks through the surface of the water, face tipped forward like an infant at birth.  By some wild luck, this undercut had an opening at the other side, and I have been sucked completely through.

The rest of the rapid crashes around me and then it's over.  I am pulling myself out on an island in the middle of the river. The kids are clustered there in the eddy, and David is standing above me. He's collected my boat, paddle, and all my gear that floated down before me. Everyone starts talking at once. Only Nelson and Dave are quiet. Dave is helping me up on shore. He's staring into my eyes. He instructs, gently, 'just look at my face. Sit down. Keep looking at me.'

I feel slow and cold. The whole time I was stuck, my heart rate didn't even raise above its normal rythm. I'm alive but yet I feel so defeated for some reason. Palmer, one of my favorites, shrieks and points to my hand. The rest of the kids say 'Palmer! Don't yell! Don't upset her!'

 'Oh sorry.' She says. 'I didn't mean to. Sorry sorry. It's just- your hand.'

My hand is split on the backside and it's bleeding. Then she shrieks again, her hands over her mouth, and makes these wide 'I'm Sorry!' eyes. Now she gestures towards my leg. My leg is cut from halfway up the calf to the back of my knee. It is split right through the center of my Vermont tattoo and watery blood is going everywhere.  I look at it mutely. Like it's someone else's leg. I certainly don't feel any pain.

The kids are rattling off the stories of their own worst swims. I imagine their words all floating up from their mouths as long strings of capitol letters. This is how teenagers try and soothe you. They sound like geese. I want silence. I turn my head to the opposite side of the river, support my body with my arms and gag up water. I start to cry silently. The terrible loneliness I felt in the cave clings to me. David makes me focus on his face. It makes it a little better because I'm always trying to impress him and I like that he's so focused on me right now.

I cannot sit on the island forever. There are still a few wretched miles left of the river and I have to get back into my banged up boat and finish it.  I keep spitting water and crying without making noise. Then I turn my head to the side and hyperventilate. Aah ha aaah ha aah. The rest of the rapids makes me feel a little angry but mostly that weird, sad, defeated feeling prevails. I feel like I am nothing.

By the time we're all gathered back at the van, trying down boats and pulling off dry tops, some of the kids are talking about what happened. Some of them aren't interested at all.  'But youre still here!' says one of them, brandishing a camera. 'Let's document that!' They take this picture:

We arrive that night in Choscuenco on the Rio Fuy. Our little hotel has a tin roof and even though I expect to have nightmares, I don't. The next day after classes we are going to run a 25 foot waterfall on the upper section. I don't really care to go. I walk downstairs with an armful of text books to do my lesson plans while everyone is gone. Then Matias, the Argentinian physics teacher who is the hairiest man I've ever seen takes me aside in the afternoon after classes. He grabs my elbow.

'You must get back in the horse, Melina,' he says.

'No,' I tell him. 'I'm not boating today.'

'Hey-hey- you are being a pussy. I know you swam. You must get back in the horse.'  Matias is not a normal person. Only a few days before the San Pedro, Tracy had lost hold of her boat on the steep hike out of the Palguin.  The boat bounced down the train and ricocheted over a 50 foot waterfall into a canyon of. Without a word, Matias grabbed a paddle and made a running leap over the cliff. He chased after the boat in the water,  and paddled it out (it was much too small for him) through a set of serious rapids which hardly anyone runs. We picked him up in the van a few miles down the road. Since then the kids revered Matias like some sort of God, although they still hated his classes.

I know I do not need to listen to Matias. But I find myself feeling surprisingly neutral about paddling. I haven't let go of the shock yet.  I run the waterfall that afternoon and it is really easy.
Palmer and I at the bottom of the drop
 Later that night, I inspect my bare legs on my narrow bed in the rickety wooden hotel. I am surprised that the bruises haven't shown up. And then the next morning, they do. A deep, speckled blue and purple over my shoulders and arms and a bluish black stain on my legs, the long gash yellow and red and glossy, like tropical fruit.

Later on that day, our 2nd day in Choshuenco, we're running the middle Fuy and I don't want to go. None of the kids will leave me alone. They all cheer for me to come with them. They think they're being really nice by encouraging me. I run out of the hotel and across the town to hide from the kids. Since nobody knows where I am, the van leaves for the river without me. I slink back to the empty hotel feeling relief.

I write my friend Will an email about what happened. He's the first person I tell about the swim and for a while, the only one. Will is far away in cold, Snowy North carolina where he goes to school, but I think about him all the time. Constantly. I tell him what happened and how bad I feel about it. How I was totally fine the day after but the shock has worn off and now I feel like some sort of criminal. Selfish and shameful and scared for the rest of the trip and the countless rivers ahead, rivers that will be much more difficult. Unconcerned with punctuation and constantly tripping on the foreign keyboard, I banged out incomplete thoughts:

okay i know how dramatic that sounds, all of it. but it was so terrifying. it was such a nightmare. i know it turned out okay. I know that but....what the hell....i feel so selfish. this sport. i have such a good time but what do a lifetime´s worth of experiences on the  river matter to my mom if i hadn´t come out of the cave. they would mean nothing and i cannot wrap my mind around that. i know it turned out fine and that bad swims happen. i8 just wish i didn´t know what it was like. okay gotta go. love you.


Looking back now, I might label that whole incident as foreshadowing.  Because after that, everything went nuts.


Tracy said...

Jesus Lina you weren't kidding that your relatives shouldn't read this. It sounds terrible and terrifying and upsetting and scary. I'm very glad you made it out safely (although bruised and battered). Please don't ever do anything adventurous and/or dangerous ever again. Love you!

Brittany said...

I want more! I love your writing!

Ali said...

No. More. Kayaking.

SJJ said...

Maybe the only post of yours, I wish I hadn't read.

SJJ said...

Maybe the only post of yours, I wish I hadn't read.

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate your detachment in the "I am about to die" scenario. During mine I was thinking my brother and parents are going to be SO PISSED if I die like this! It is scary that yours involved giving up. Mine involved decisive action that saved my happy ass and somehow that makes it easier for me convince myself that I have it under control. Really nobody has anything under control. The submission of giving in... I don't know where you go from there. Good for you for getting back in the in the horse.

You look remarkably good in the photos taken after your beating.

Sarah said...

You just wrote about my worst fear! Drowning is so NOT the way I want to go....hell, I don't want TO GO at all!

You live quite the crazy life! Amazing!

Cathy said...

Amazingly well written. I find it interesting to realize at the end, after all the words, I think about how you never really DO feel any pain right when something really bad happens. We sort of remove ourselves from the situation and watch ourselves feel for a brief moment. Then it's game on... the feelings always come after that.