Those of you who suffer through my ramblings already know that I can be a smug son-of-a-bitch. I freely poke fun at the proclivities, mental slips, bad habits, and strange mannerisms of others with some serious attitude, although the attitude is usually couched in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Much of that has to do with my lengthy life experience and the subsequent feeling that I'm prepared for whatever life throws at me. Mentally I still believe my body is 30 years old and fully capable of complying with my demands. Well today, August 26, 2011, I got one serious attitude adjustment. I have watched numerous television shows about people who were placed in life or death circumstances, and invariably they say, "I though I was going to die." To me that sounded trite and overly dramatic until I said it today. Instantly it became honest, frightening, and not one bit dramatic.
Mrs. Randall and I have for several years put aside a couple of days during the summer for a kayak trip. While that may sound adventurous for the social security set, let me assure you that our choice of kayak trips is far from being an advertisement for Mountain Dew. Instead of ''white water' kayaking, we prefer to call it 'wimp water' kayaking. We do the same run on the Youghiogheny River, a very flat water class 1 stretch that is about 6 miles long and takes 3-4 hours to complete, most of the time spent simply drifting and enjoying the scenery. Having made the same trip so many times, our main concern is sunburn and hoping we don't have to pee during the trip. The rental company provides small, moulded plastic kayaks with those double ended paddles, life jackets, and transportation to the 'put-in' or launch area. We are on our own until we finish the journey, drag the boat out of the water at the rental place, and return all gear. With familiarity comes complacency.
We had to sign a release forms that promised that we would not abuse the equipment, would not drink alcohol during the trip, and would wear a life jacket while on the water. Any of you boaters who have worn a life jacket on a hot summer day know how incredible hot and sticky they become very quickly. So we signed and returned our forms, got on the bus, and away we went to the launch point 6 miles upstream.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Youghiogheny river, it is a senic river that is too shallow for motorized boats. In fact, most of it is so shallow that becoming hung up on the rocks is a common occurance. Having made the trip so many times, I was well aware of how shallow the river is and, with my smug attitude fully in force, considered a life jacket an unnecessary burden. As we exited the bus at the launch point, I grabbed a small life jacket that I could pack away behind the seat of my kayak and out of the way. Mrs Randall carefully selected a properly fitting life jacket which she adjusted and secured. She and I launched with the group but soon left them behind to escape the chattering families and noisy teenagers.
The first 4 miles were relatively uneventful. Both Mrs. Randall and I found ourselves aground on the rocks a few times, but since the water was 12" to 16" deep, it was no problem for me to climb out of my boat and pull Mrs. Randall free. We cruised along in the clear water occasionally seeing rather large fish swimming below us. We negotiated a few 'rapids', successfully avoiding the large rocks while occasionally getting splashed as we crashed through the 'monster' 8" waves. It was all so routine. We entered a large pool of quiet water with almost no current. We seemed to just sit, unless we paddled to keep moving. Then it happened.
From my education and years of work, I know a lot about things like 'center of gravity', 'overturning forces', and 'stabilizing forces'. I know not to stand up in a boat and would not do so. I don't even know how it happened. Without warning, my boat began to rock and suddenly rolled over plunging me into the river. Somehow this event had occurred in what is probably the deepest section of the Youghiogheny River. When I hit the water, my glasses came loose and left my face just as I grabbed them with my hand. I went down for the first time expecting to simply hit bottom at 4 or 5 feet and stand up very embarrassed. Instead I found myself sinking into an abyss that could have been 20 feet deep for all I knew. After the first six feet, the rest is academic. I fought my way to the surface, struggling hard to stay above the water. My boat (and life jacket) were now 6 to 8 feet away, and my efforts at swimming were accomplishing little. Try as I may, I could not seem to make progress toward my boat and I felt like I had concrete blocks on my feet. I was in serious trouble. Of those people who said, "I thought I was going to die", you can add my name to that list. I've heard people say that their lives flashed before their eyes during a life or death experience. Had I been sinking to the bottom, who knows, but while I was still breathing, my mind was working at warp speed trying to find a way to get to that boat and the life jacket. I was rapidly running out of breath and the strength to keep swimming was fading. Suddenly my capsized boat was right in front of me. I went under and brought my head up into the air pocket beneath the boat, trying to catch my breath and hold on to the shell to rest. I spun around and saw that my life jacket was gone, instantly assuming that it had fallen out and was floating downstream. I could tell that the air under the boat was quickly being used up and knew I had to move. If I could get the boat turned over, I could cling to it until help arrived.
Help came from an unlikely source. Mrs. Randall is a short gal of roughly my age who, like me, has put on entirely too many pounds. She is far from athletic and has not done any swimming since college phys ed where she learned the basics and eeked out a passing grade. She has an artificial knee and a touch of arthritis in other joints. It is a real effort for her to get into one of the small kayaks and even more effort to get out of one. When I came out from under my boat, Mrs. Randall was there to help me turn the boat over and to slam my life jacket on my hands. The child's life jacket I had chosen did little to support me, but it was enough to keep me from drowning. Together we clung to the flooded boat.
When she saw me go under, she paddled as closely as she could. Knowing that she could not easily get out of her boat, she chose to roll her boat over, draw up her legs, and kick her boat away. That push enabled her to shove my boat the last few feet so I could reach it. I don't know how or where she found my life jacket, but she actually saved my life. I have always consider myself to be her guardian and protector but, in this time of danger, it was her who saved me.
As we clung to the boat, two people in a canoe nearby saw what had happened and came to help. Still on the verge of panic as the flooded boat hovered near sinking, I could hear a female voice calmly offering reassurance and shouting instructions. I knew from the tone of her voice that she was a nurse, and I later found out that I was right.
While we clung to the boat, she and her son gathered up our paddles and Mrs. Randall's boat, taking them ashore. When they got to us, she gave me a second life jacket (adult size) and told both Mrs. Randall and I to swim to shore while she hauled our boat to the riverbank. Abandoning our flooded boat, Mrs. Randall backstroked toward shore. I hung on to the life jackets but all of my kicking gained me no progress toward shore. With help on scene, my concern turned to my brave, loving, almost non-swimming Mrs. Randall. Frightened by any number of potential scenarios, I called to her regularly while stuck in my watery limbo. Each time I heard her voice, she reassured me that she was making progress. Finally, to my great relief, I saw her reach the slippery, muddy shore, although she slipped and fell. Soon our rescuers were with her helping her to climb into the rocking canoe. Once Mrs. Randall was safe with our grounded boats and equipment, they came back and towed me to shore.
With well-practiced skills, our savior nurse calmed us and set about reassuring us that the danger was passed. She and her son sat patiently with us until she felt we were ready to again launch into the river, with me now wearing the adult sized life jacket that she carefully adjusted and securely snapped across my chest.
The remaining trip was one of physical discomfort. Without the life jacket to prop up the back of my seat, I leaned back much too far, leaving me the choice of either looking at the sky and not being able to paddle, or sitting forward to paddle until my abdominal muscles cramped. I'm sure that Mrs. Randall was equally uncomfortable, but she bravely paddled on. Finally two wet, exhausted, sunburned, pain-filled people mercifully reached the rental company where we returned everything and gratefully headed for the car.
And so it was, on that attitude adjustment day. A day when I learned of my own mortality, my own limitations, and my own vulnerability. It is a great ego inflater to be the strong and capable protector. To be the 'master of all you survey', not needing help from others and sneering at the weak and vulnerable. Life has a way of taking that self-important image and flushing it down the toilet, leaving us to face the reality of our own limitations and the true importance of others who chose to care for us as we are rather than as we picture ourselves.