We’re going to hit that rock, I thought, and then rebuked myself with, You really should trust your husband more.
Riding in the stern of our blue rubber raft, my husband used his oar as a rudder to navigate us safely over the numerous boulders in the Lower Deschutes River. The abundance of whitewater explained the popularity of rafting the stretch the river running through the berg of Maupin, Oregon.
From my position straddling the left side of the raft, it appeared we were heading directly for an enormous rock. It sat nearly center stage with only a narrow two-foot ribbon of water eking by on its left. A six-foot span of frothing white water, sounding like a dozen showers left running full blast, flowed to the right. The side of the boulder facing us was flat and rectangular, a rock table in nature’s living room.
“We should paddle.” A hint of hysteria touched my tone.
Everyone ignored me. After all, I’m famous for saying things like, “Rafting is fun, if you live through it.”
My husband called out, “Forward paddle” about five seconds before the raft mounted the stone coffee table.
Screams, shouts, flailing arms and flying paddles accompanied this unwelcome meeting. The azure August sky disappeared as the black interior of the boat rose higher. Eight people, dumped unceremoniously into the 70 degree water, were swept along in the thrashing waves.
I bobbed to the surface, gasping, trying to pull my feet up. There are only two rules when you’re in the rapids without a boat. Keep your feet up and pointed downstream is the first one. Strong river currents prevented me from keeping this rule at that moment.
Fighting the water, I called out my sons’ names, swallowing water thrust into my face by the churning river. Time didn’t stand still; instead, we were stuck in fast-forward.
My youngest son said, “Here,” spewing water from his mouth.
“Where’s Miah?” My husband called from somewhere behind me and to the left. He’s in “captain mode,” counting heads and coming up short.
Around me, the kids sounded off, while the water constantly pushed us onward. Finally, tossed over rocks and around another huge boulder, the river widened.
Two kayakers appeared on the left, offering assistance. My sister called out that Miah was under the raft. The kids helped my sister pull it toward the right bank. My husband was being towed toward the left bank by one of the kayakers.
I’m claiming that the disorientation of the fall and the confusion in the aftermath are what kept me from remembering the second rule: stay with the raft. Without thought, I tried to side paddle after my husband – not the raft. Attempting to swim while wearing a bulky lifejacket proves challenging for an accomplished swimmer. Since I hate being in the water almost as much as I hate being underwater, I’m not a great swimmer.
In wide spots, the Deschutes appeared deceptively still, but the water formed into eddies. The current relentlessly marched on, ever moving toward its goal: the sea. Before I made progress past the center of the river, I was caught in the next section of fast-moving water. I laid back and popped my feet up, aiming them downstream.
Behind me, I heard Jeff call my name. There’s no looking back.
Ahead of me, the water reflected the bright sunlight. I squinted. The brim of my baseball cap didn’t shield me from those piercing rays. At that moment, floating along, I felt no sense of immediate peril, only inconvenienced.
The current slowed again and I floundered toward the shore. It seemed to be a mile away. The Deschutes is a narrow river, so this was my mind playing cruel joke. I didn’t feel like laughing. My stomach was clenched as tightly as my jaw. For every inch I gained toward the shore, the river dragged me two feet further downstream. Thick brush lined the bank, backed by a rock wall. My ears were filled with the galloping sound of water slamming against a boulder ahead of me.
How did I get so far downstream? I wish I wasn’t so close to this bank. That’s Billy’s Rock ahead.
Said rock hid less than two feet from shore, covered by a few inches of water. Even in the raft, I hated going over this rock. Besides bottoming out, the boat got sucked under the downriver lip of the rock, making the raft a bucking bronco.
A chunk of ice formed in my stomach. I stopped swimming and fought to bring my feet up. The toes of my black water shoes peeked up and beyond them I saw the frothy water.
“Please, God, don’t let me drown,” I prayed.
My muscles stiffened, preparing for the onslaught of rock and water. Roaring filled my ears and then my feet were yanked under. Water covered my head. My hip scraped the rock. Pulled and pushed by the powerful grip of the current, the river swallowed me.
I squeezed my eyes shut. But there was no peacefulness. My ears pounded beneath the water’s bombardment. Struggling against my liquid captor gained me nothing. I was completely at the river’s mercy.
As my lungs began to tighten, begging for air, my eyes popped open and I could see the light above me. Bubbles and foam obscured my vision. I wasn’t far from the surface. Still, my arms and legs were uselessly pinioned by the swift current. I wanted to breathe. I wanted to scream. I wanted to be freed from the river’s chains.
Wish granted. I sprung to the surface, with Billy’s Rock several feet behind me. My back was facing the left shore and I couldn’t feel my legs. I tried to turn and swim toward the shore. Flailing, twisting, struggling, my body refused to respond. I passed a fisherman, standing on the rocks, holding his pole.
“Help me!” I cried out. It sounded like the mewling of a newborn kitten.
“Please, help me!” Panic popped out along with the words.
Finally, the current heaved me toward the shoreline, which was just a scrabble of brush.
It was like tug of war against the river. I pulled toward the shore and it pushed me away.
My fingernails slid on the slimy rocks. There was nothing beneath my feet; the river was a dark hole. I grasped a bush on the shore and held on. My arms trembled and my rubbery legs folded beneath me. With a desperate yank, my body flopped onto the rocks and underbrush, free from the river’s hold at last.
Water ran in rivulets down my arms and legs. My legs quivered and the rest of my body began to shake. I blinked against the glare reflecting off the river. Blood oozed from a small gash in my knee, but I felt nothing, my body numbed from the dunking.
When the rest of my family rowed up in the raft, expressing concern, I nodded but couldn’t seem to find my voice.
“What happened to your hat?” my youngest son asked.
I reached up, touching my bare head.
“The river,” I said through chattering teeth. “It was my peace offering.”
Apparently, my five dollar white hat from Wal-Mart satisfied the hungry beast. Everyone stayed in the raft on the remainder of the run.
I hiked the steep, vegetation covered slope to the road rather than take another chance against the river. I’d had enough water for one day.