Monday, January 13, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Four

The metal edge of the upside-down canoe tightened its grip on my leg, pulling me down deeper into the water.

I tried to free myself, but couldn't. The only way I could free myself, I knew in a slow-motion instant, was to injure myself.

And knew that whatever injury I sustained would be nothing compared to what would occur if I did not act. And act NOW.

I pulled myself free, feeling the canoe tear the tissue along my thigh in one blinding flash of pain.

The canoe shot under the tree and came up the other side, sending up a great wave of water on our side that tossed us over the tree like rag dolls—sharp branches ripping my shirt and scraping my chest—and landed us on the sandy shore of the island.

I was dazed. My thigh was numb and stung at the same time. I sat up and looked at it, and to my horror saw a huge blood-streaked bruise several inches in diameter—the damage so deep that to this day, 15 years later, I can touch that area as I write this and feel a lump of dead tissue.

Meanwhile, Jim had gone back into the water and was struggling with the canoe, trying to pull it free of the whirlpool. I went to help him—wincing as the water touched my bruise—and we wrestled the canoe free and carried it to shore. Then we went back into the water and began working fast, grabbing things on the perimeter of the whirlpool and tossing them onto shore and hurrying back for more.

We worked our way towards the things bobbing around in the center of the whirlpool—but the swirl was so strong we could not keep our footing. We had to grab hold of low hanging branches and climb out over the whirlpool and reach down to grab our things—paddles, backpacks, bottles of water, this and that—out of the vortex.

We managed to save everything except for our lunch meat, ice, soda pops, and other things that fell out of the ice chest, and one of Jim’s shoes, which the whirlpool flung around the island into the open river. We watched it float away, too tired to catch it.

Jim took his remaining shoe and threw it into the water. “Those were my river shoes,” he said. “I always wore them when I came out here. Well, they belong to the river now.”

I sat down and looked at my bruise. It was really starting to hurt. It burned and throbbed. Jim saw it for the first time. “Oh my god!” he exclaimed.

Fortunately, I had thought to bring a first-aid kit. I took out the cold pack, but couldn’t snap it open. Jim opened it, and I placed it on the bruise. It started giving me some relief.

I remembered my wallet, and reaching into the back pocket of my shorts was relieved to find it still there. But the dollar bills inside were soaked. I spread them out on the ground, anchored them with rocks to keep them from blowing away, and let them dry in the sun.

Then I took inventory of the items in my backpack. Some water had leaked in, but not much. I looked through the lens of my camera; it was blurry with water. Only time would tell if it was damaged.

I checked our stash. Everything was dry. I had had the foresight to pack everything—joints, lighter, mushrooms—inside a quadruple layer of plastic bags inside the backpack. I lit a joint.

Jim was surprised when I handed it to him. “You saved the dope!” he exclaimed.

“Yes,” I said, “I know my priorities.” We smoked, staring at the whirlpool, and were quiet a long time. Then Jim said, “That was stupid.”

“Yes it was,” I said, “but we're alive.”


“Yeah, we shouldn't have rowed into that situation blind.”

“Don't tell George about this.”

“I won't.”

“He'll call us amateurs. 'Rank amateurs,' that's what he'll say.”

“What should we do now? Do you want to camp here? Seems as good a place as any, and I'm in no hurry to get back on the river.”

Jim thought a minute. “No,” he said, “the sleeping bags are wet, we don't have any ice, and you're injured.”

“I'm okay, I think.”

He looked at my bruise. “I don't know. That's the worst bruise I've ever seen. It might get infected. You could get blood poisoning. No, let's push on. I’ve had it with this damn river. I want to sleep in my own bed tonight.”

We loaded the canoe and rowed away from the island. This time I put on my life jacket, but Jim continued using his for a seat cushion.

Jim said, “I’ll row. You rest.”

“I can row.”

Jim shook his head. “No, we’ve got a long way to go. You take it easy. Stay hydrated. I'll row.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I did all the rowing when Eddie Ray had his heat stroke. I can do it now.”

(To be continued …)

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 ...)