Sunday, January 12, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Three

We started around the island. The current quickened and we heard the burbling of water ahead, just beyond the bend. We rowed on.

The current continued to quicken. We were going at a good clip. This made it easier to row, but the energy saved was quickly spent just keeping the canoe stable as we moved into the curve.

The burbling—a pleasant sound at first, and suggestive of a peaceful, secluded brook—grew louder and began to sound like rushing water. Which caused me a flicker of concern. Were there rapids ahead? Surely not. This was not the Guadalupe or Rio Grande where the rapids are fierce; this was the Brazos, a river not known for rapids. And if there were rapids, we could easily navigate them, I thought. Or turn around if they looked unnavigable and take the other side of the island.

We rowed on. The rushing sound grew louder and the current still faster, carrying us—along with increasing amounts of leaves, tree limbs, and other bits of river debris also caught in the current—with increasing speed and turbulence into the bend.

It would have still been possible at that point, I think, to break free of the current and turn around. But neither Jim nor I saw any danger, thus we kept rowing forward, riding the faster-and-faster current straight into the narrowing stream of water that separated the island from the shore.

Only when we had cleared the bend and were actually in the eight foot-wide stream did we see the problem. My heart jumped. Jim gasped, “Oh my god.”

Twenty or so feet away, a great tree had fallen from shore to island, its half-submerged trunk not only creating a natural bridge from shore to island, but also—here was the danger—a wall towards which we were now hurtling at breathtaking speed.

Now we tried turning the canoe around. We dug our paddles into the current and fought it, but it was too strong. We could only manage a half turn, which meant that now our canoe was hurtling sideways into the tree.

Seconds from impact, we thrust out our paddles, both thinking the same thing (there was no time to talk about it): that the paddles might cushion our collision and keep the canoe upright.

But this strategy was quickly proven wrong; the canoe flipped over, dumping everything in one great splash—ice chest, life jackets, shoes, food, backpacks, paddles, ourselves—into waist-deep, cold water and a powerful suction that instantly yanked everything under the tree.

Everything, that is, except for us and the canoe, and the canoe (being between us and the tree) was next. We grabbed it …

And here I must take a minute to describe what Jim and I perceived in a second—that beyond the tree all our things were spinning in a massive whirlpool that would soon fling them around the other side of the island into the open river and be lost.

In other words, we were about to lose the canoe, as well as the deposit I had paid on the canoe, not to mention the deposit on the paddles and life jackets, and also everything else, including my backpack which contained my wallet, etc.

We grabbed the canoe—it was upside down and going under the tree—and struggled to hold on, tried to pull it free, but the suction was stronger.

The canoe went under, its sharp metal edge catching me by the left thigh and pulling me down deeper into the water …

Instantly (yet in slow motion) I understood my situation: I would soon be underwater and trapped beneath the canoe and tree, and if I did not drown first, the suction would pull the canoe clear of the tree, shearing off my leg in the process. Either way I would die.

Which meant I had to pull my leg out NOW—not later, because there was no later, not even a second to spare or think about it if I wanted to save my leg and life …

(To be continued ...)