Tuesday, August 05, 2008

My close call on the river

Goofing on the road trip in!

Me and my older brother Marc.

So this past weekend me, my brothers Dave and Marc, and brother-in-law Chad loaded up Dave's Jeep and headed west for a long overdue guys camping trip. It was August 1 and 12 years to the day that my father, Jerry DeCoste, passed away. We all knew that he would be smiling down at us and happy we were all together enjoying some time away.

Dave prepares to "run" the river.

After a quick stop at Wal-Mart for the essentials (beans, dogs ans s'mores fixin's) we were on our way to our favorite campground below 11 Mile Reservoir—Spillway campground. After stopping at the only convenience store in Lake George and getting raked over the coals for a $26 floatin' tube rental for Chad (we did get $13 back but Chad was about ready to punch the lady) we rolled up to the toll booth at the forest ranger shack only to find out from a feisty old ranger lady that a wedding was going on that weekend and all of the campgrounds were totally full. Dave and I had made this same overnight camping trip last year and didn't have any problems getting a spot so this surprised us a bit but she mentioned that there might just be one of the few first-come-first-serve sites left for the night.

Our camp site by the river. (The river is just behind the willows in background.)

Gourmet beans and dogs for lunch.

We quickly made our way up the dirt road through the canyon, tracing the beautiful river below set in pines. At every bend we encountered fly fisherman contentedly casting and reeling their lines in the hot summer sun cooled only by the rushing water surrounding their chest-high rubber waders. The scene was perfect. The weather was great and we were in high spirits as we slowly checked off each campground from the list hoping to find a spot—ANY spot—that was not taken.

Chad missed some spot with the sunscreen (the infamous, patched ghetto tube in background.)

Finally, we found a spot, the last one available for only that night, right by the river and set in beautiful willows and pines. Chad fired up the Coleman camp stove as Dave, Marc and I used our extensive knowledge of tents to erect the monstrous family-size Eureka tent quickly. An hour later, after discovering several creative ways to incorrectly set up the tent, it was up and Chad called us for a brat, beans, chips and salsa lunch. Between bites we took turns using a rusting, rickety, old, mostly-broken bike pump to pump up our new shiny $16 orange and blue inner tubes we purchased especially for the weekend. Seeing Dave's slow progression with the contraption I did what any man would do, I went old school and nearly passed out trying to blow up a tube with my manly twin-turbine lung power. We needed to retrieve Chad's wedged in over-priced rental tube (thus forward referred to as the "ghetto tube" due to its lob-sided and misshapen form) from the back seat of the Jeep and as I did it popped and deflated like marshmallow in the microwave. Luckily, the high-quality (as advertised) tube made in China (I think I tasted lead paint) came with a patch kit. It wasn't pretty at all but it only had to hold for an hour down the river so we weren't worried.

Marc is first in the water.

Some dabs of SPF 30 later, after donning our colorful Bermuda-style swim trunks, we were headed to the peaceful rippling waters of the river behind our tent. Marc jumped in the impossibly cold waters first, eager to try out his new hotness tube followed by Dave and myself. The new tubes were great! Buoyant and colorful. We were on top of the world and the water. The ghetto tube that Chad tried sitting on was not. It practically sank to the bottom when Chad hopped on. We all, of course, loved it and howled and cackled in delight at his misfortune. Again he stated that the popping of the ghetto tube was a sign that he shouldn't go but it was too late now.

This seemingly innocuous spot between the boulders became our almost deathtrap. This was taken from the road up high after the fact.

The hole from water level.

A close-up of the down-river side I pulled Chad up from the water. Notice the water churning.

We passed through the first test unscathed—through oversized, steel culverts leading under the road and made our way down peaceful waters for 1/2 an hour or so. Then things got interesting. At the only warning sign declaring dangerous white water, we exited the river and walked for 10 mins. or so to put back in below. The feel of the water at this point changed dramatically. No more calm, gently flowing water that you could fall asleep on. We were now in 6-12 in. white water consistently. We were strung out on the water like fake pearls on a cheap necklace when the worst began happening. Marc was in the lead followed by Dave and they rounded a corner and went out of sight as the canyon veered to the right and then back to the left. I thought nothing of it as I heard the excitement in their voices grow as they entered rougher waters. Chad was just ahead of me and I had since traded for the ghetto tube because I felt a bit sorry for his predicament. Chad rounded the corner and went out of sight as well.

For a few brief moments I was alone with only the sound of the rushing waters around me. The sun warmed my already tanned skin and I didn't even notice how cold the water was anymore. As I rounded the bend I saw something that struck me as very odd. Off to the left between two huge rocks stuck in the middle of the river were two inner tubes. Strange. I figured that a couple of my bros had accidentally both lost their tubes in the same spot so I corrected my trajectory to attempt a retrieval. As I entered the v-shaped space between these SUV-sized polished boulders I quickly felt an enormous yet unseen pull of the water towards the larger rock. In an instant my mind flashed. I had the sickening feeling that my brothers had both been sucked down into this swirling vortex in the river and may even be under the water fighting for their lives at that very moment.

The swirling waters between the boulders that pulled us under.

But I had problems of my own. I ,too, was ripped off my tube and instantly felt the overwhelming tug of the water on my back and feet as the deep, cold river grabbed for my life. I remember this so vividly I am getting goose-bumps just writing it. As I fought for my life and clawed with both arms at the rocks I remember seeing my son Sam's happy face along with those of Katie, Grace and my new baby boy Nate. I remember thinking that this was it and if I didn't make it that I would never see them again. It saddened me but filled me with renewed vigor. I used every ounce of my weakening strength to tug at the algae-covered rocks.

After what seemed like a minute the balance finally shifted in my favor and as I extracted myself from the pull of the rive I flung myself up on the smaller boulder, exhausted but alive, still shaking at what had just transpired. Before I had a moment to think I heard a shout–"HELP!" I spun around and looked down to find Chad bobbing up and down in the water at my feet on the backside of the smaller boulder I was on. He looked helpless. I instinctively pulled him up by the neck of his life jacket and as he extricated himself from the water he was otherwise totally naked. No swim trunks, no sandals, no hat or glassed. Just the gray life jacket tightly strapped around his chest. The suction of the water pulling him under was so strong that it literally ripped everything off his body except for the life jacket that was strapped to his body. And to think, we almost didn't bring them.

Exhausted and shaken he sat on the boulder and didn't notice his trunks were missing until he sat down. When I mentioned this to him he replied, "I don't care . . . I'm ALIVE!" And we were. But my thoughts immediately turned to my brothers David and Marc. Was one or both of them trapped under the water? If so, were they still alive? Should I jump back in to the nightmare I just pulled myself from to check. I looked back in the swirling waters and could see nothing.

I turned and looked down the river and was relieved to see my brother David standing on the bank only 30 feet from me. He was safe. I yelled as loud as I could to ask if he knew where Marc was and if he was OK. Dave used hand signals to indicate that he saw Marc get sucked under the boulder like Chad and came up on the other side only to be taken through even larger rapids further downstream. He went to confirm that Marc made it through the rapids safely.

Dave and Marc take in the scenery with 11-Mile Reservoir in background.

As Chad and I sat thinking of what to do next I got a visual from Dave that Marc was downstream but OK. My worst fears quickly fled and I silently thanked God that all four of us were alive. Chad and I hopped from boulder to boulder to the far side of the river and I gave him the only thing I could to help him cover up, my life preserver. He tied it around his waste and while it covered his front, his backside still flapped in the breeze like an Indian in all those cheesy westerns I watched as a kid.


We realized we weren't out of the woods yet (pun intended). There were no good spots nearby to cross the river to get to the same side as Marc and Dave so we decided we would have to hike downstream about 200 yards to calmer waters through rough rocky, forested terrain. I felt bad for Chad in his condition so I loaned him my sandals for the short trek and after finding a random flip flop near the bank I put that one on and hopped one-legged through the needles and pine cones.

We made it to the calm waters below the rapids after about 10 minutes and spotted a fly fisherman casually casting his line down stream. He had no idea what we had just went through and had he looked up would have seen a half-naked man and a guy hopping on one foot trying to nonchalantly enter the water to cross to the other side. Dave had since caught a ride from some folks back to the campground and had returned in the Jeep with an extra pair of shorts for Chad. He and Marc met us on the other side of the river and at this point we all kind of breathed a sigh of relief and even laughed a little at the setting.

Staying up recounting the tale around the campfire.

We hiked up to the road and before heading back to camp we paused to look at the innocuous-looking gauntlet we just endured. We laughed a bit to calm ourselves but the the talk quickly turned more sobering as we realized how close many of us came to not making it. After arriving back to camp, I asked if I could say a prayer of thanks to God for His protection. We all grasped hands as brothers in the Lord and offered up our gratitude.

Chad reads some Scripture the next morning.

As it was only 2 in the afternoon, Marc, Dave and I began planning for a short hike to the top of the nearby rocks. Chad decided he'd had enough adventure for one day and decided to read his Bible a bit and journal about the incident. As we prepared to hike, Chad called me over with a smile on his face and said, "Matt, you'll never guess where I just opened the Bible and started reading!"

Psalm 40:1-3
1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.

2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.

3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.

I agreed that God had given him those verses for all of us. What a great God we serve. The rest of our time was great and relatively uneventful. We packed up the next night and back to town, again stopping by the convenience store to return the ghetto tube which had since lost its meager inflation through my hurried patch job. After Chad briefly recounted his tale on the water she agreed to give him the $13 refund I think out of pity.

Atop the summit of our short hike.

It's amazing how an experience like this can create a bond with people that can last a lifetime. I especially feel closer to Chad somehow through all of this. We have a story that will be retold (and exaggerated I'm sure) for time and memorial and passed on to our kids as a warning about the dangers of the river. My brother Dave asked me if I would be willing to float down that stretch of the water again next year and after pondering it I agreed I would as long as I avoided that spot and scouted the complete route beforehand. I can definitely wait a year to get back on an inner tube again and I don't think we'll ever get Chad back on one and definitely not on a ghetto tube.

–Matt DeCoste