I had been having a lazy day in town. As I am solo on this trip now I will often lounge around the center of where people meet and wait for what happens next. As I was relaxing an old friend appeared and invited me on a booze cruise down the main section of a class III river. I couldn’t come up with a reason not to go so I agreed to join them. The craft we were to take was monstrosity stacked rafts strapped together four rafts high. The crew captaining this vessel was about twelve raft guides, my friend Kaylie, and I.
Spirits were high and many beers were drank as we departed from shore and made our way through the start of the river. The raft guides were hospitable as we shared alcohol and laughs together. The stack of rafts teeter-tottered and felt quite unstable with so many people on top. As we successfully maneuvered the biggest rapid everyone shouted with joy. We may have gotten over confident with our abilities as we went for one of the most technical moves on the river which requires launching the whole ship over a pour over rock about 4 feet high. We launched alright, we hit it everyone tumbled out into the water. I had one of the most interesting flight as I was slingshotted out of the raft ten feet through the air landing head first and going deep under water. Everyone was recovered quickly and more alcohol and stories were shared. Everyone was ecstatic with the excitement of the trip.
At this point we saw something was wrong. An empty cataraft was at the shore of the river with two men shouting at us. We could hardly make out what they were saying, but we managed to hear that a man had gone missing on the river. The man was wearing a red T-shirt and no life jacket. After hearing this news the tone of the trip changed immediately. This was no longer a cheerful booze cruise, it was now a search and rescue mission.
The group of raft guides sprang to action immediately. We pulled to shore to break up the rafts so we could search and cover more river. It was hard to find direction of what to do as we had little information, many people trying to lead the situation, and the added element of impaired decision making. I had no voice of authority in the matter so I sat back and waited for the opportunity to help. Time had passed and it was now dark outside. We floated down river not knowing what we were looking for. For all we knew the man may have gotten himself to shore and hitchhiked back to town. The confusion was the hardest part.
As we got close to the take out the confusion was cleared up. A policeman from the shore informed us the man had been found and he was not alright. As we arrived at the beach to take off the river I got a glimpse at the sight. A crew of fifteen or so volunteer rescue workers trudging through the thicket of the riverbank carrying the man in the Red T-shirt. The ground was illuminated by their head lamps and as they all struggled to make headway. It was a surreal sight to see as we floated by unable to help.
We got to shore and witnessed a massive operation unfolding. There were many police cars, an ambulance, and a rescue helicopter landing in the parking lot. There was so much happening that I thought the best way to help was to stay out of the way. While I held on to a raft on the river bank I was called into action. The crew carrying the man had become exhausted and needed help to continue transporting him. I held the metal backboard by the left side of the man’s head and witnessed a lot at once. The man was dead and had an automated CPR machine working to revive him. There were massive lacerations to his head and blood covered his face. He was a middle aged obese man and the crew carrying him had to put in the extra effort to get him to the ambulance. I helped load him into the back and my part was over. The whole operation was over as the ambulance never even left the parking lot. He was past the point of saving. The man was dead and not twenty people working together could bring him back.
We loaded our rafts to our trailer and made our way back to where we departed from. Everyone recounted our crazy experience as we made our way back. I remained silent. I had never been a part of a body recovery mission and I had no idea that it would have been that day. We got back and I decompressed by talking to my friend Kaylie for a while before making my way back to camp.
It was only when I was alone that I was able to start processing what had really happened. The man had little experience, no safety equipment, and no fitness to help save him. He was unaware of the danger of the river and paid the price for his mistakes. The river can give so much and it will take it all away when it isn’t respected. What he thought would be a fun afternoon on the river turned into the last trip he would ever make. I learned that he was in town with another woman who I assumed to be his wife. She is the one that lost the most.
As I have been kayaking more and more dangerous rivers I have been having mental battles considering my mortality. I knew I would witness something like this at some point and I dreaded the day that it would happen. There are many forces at play when you decide to spend a day on the river. The river is extremely powerful and tempts your fate as you choose to play on its surface. It is hard for us to look past that surface level to see the powers at play beyond our observations. Witnessing the effects of the river’s destructive powers made me feel small. I feel like I’m dancing a fine line on rivers I don’t really understand with consequences I have no grasp of either. After witnessing the reality of what a mistake can mean it is harder for me to rationalize what I do. The man’s loved ones are the ones that pay the real price of his mistake.
As I fell asleep I imagined myself in that man’s position. I imagined paying the price for a negligent risk that could have been avoided as a crew of twenty trained rescuers fail to revive me. I imagined the news being brought to my loved ones. I thought about the man and his wife. I thought about the times my adventures could have ended with me in that ambulance. I thought about how I had felt so small in a world of risk and consequence that I don’t understand. I didn't sleep well that night.
This experience was a terrible one, but not one that I regret having. It showed me how quickly lives can truly change on the river. It reminded me of the risks I take when I brave the unknown. I will continue to exercise maximum caution as I make my decisions. I didn’t know the man in the Red T-shirt, but I will never forget about him and the lesson he taught me. I hope he had a good life.