My son and I are sitting in our cabin in Lotus looking at the swollen river some 400 yards away. Suddenly, a man in an inflatable kayak paddles quickly to shore, jumps out, and dashes up river on a deer trail.
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His speed, suggesting a crisis, inspires me to move fast, too. I gallop down our steps towards the river and soon see a hardshell kayak (the kind I use) upside down and pressed against a tree that is in the river because of high water.
If someone is wedged inside that kayak, it is an emergency of the worst and sometimes fatal kind. Fortunately, within seconds I’m close enough to see the kayaker, a man in his late twenties, swimming weakly to shore.
He reaches the bank, pulls himself from the water and sits on the dirt, breathing hard. He stares at the river blankly as if examining something in his mind, not in the water.
When I arrive next to him, I observe that his right shoe is missing and his foot is red with cold. Although he’s wearing a water-repellant top, the lower half of his body is covered only by a knee-length bathing suit. I wonder how long he was in the water. The word “hypothermia” passes through my mind, but his speech, though slow, is coherent.
“I thought I was going to die,” he says, and I realize that what he sees in his mind’s eye is a memory of terror.
His friend disentangles the kayak from the tree and starts pouring out the water. Hazarding some humor, he says, “I should have told you I want you to keep my paddle.”
“I’m sorry it’s gone,” says his buddy. “I thought I was gone, too.”
The kayaker, whose name is Ryan, is unable to produce a complete account of what happened. He says something about a rapid, a rock, flipping over, losing the paddle, having trouble getting out of the boat. During a pause, I ask my son, who arrives next to us, to run back to the cabin for a warm towel and a spare shoe.
It’s becoming clear that Ryan, who took his first lesson two years ago but didn’t paddle last summer, has no experience with high water. He thought of this as a Class 2 section: safe. Actually, in high water it’s more like Class 3-, which is beginning to get serious.
Finally, he gets to his feet, and I see that he is considerably taller than I am. Under normal circumstances, he would have struck me as a strong young man.
Accepting my offer to drive them to their vehicle, the men load their gear and squeeze into the cab of our pickup. While driving, I ask about the accident again. These men are clearly not stupid, but they have done a stupid thing. With little experience and no real recognition that the river is high, they came, just the two of them, for a fun day of paddling.
“I thought it was all over for me,” Ryan repeats. “Maybe I was only upside-down 15 seconds, but it felt much longer. My shoe jammed when I tried to get out.” He obviously has not recently practiced what kayakers call the “wet exit.”
Ten minutes later when we park next to the men’s car, everyone is feeling better. Ryan removes his paddle jacket, revealing a soaked shirt. I help transfer gear and get ready to leave. In the last moments, Ryan stands in front of me with big eyes, thanks me and adds, “I would hug you, except I’m all wet.”
He is a good young man, still needing support. I touch his arm.
By the time I’m halfway home, I’m annoyed with myself. I should have advised the two friends to join a paddle club, in order to boat with more people, and I should have told them about the website where you can check water levels before you come. I’ve failed on the emotional front (no hug) and on the rational front (no safety recommendation).
The next day one of my friends points out that Ryan probably acquired wisdom on his own, no intervention needed from me.
“Guys in their 20s think they’re invincible,” she says, “until something like this happens.”
Ryan will figure out how to paddle safely or quit the sport entirely.
Two days later, I detect a small bump on my back, like an insect bite, and I remember running down the deer trail to reach the overturned boat. Next thing I know, I’m face down on an examination table with a doctor excising a tick and handing me a prescription for antibiotics. A friend recently battled Lyme disease; I don’t want to be the next victim.
I’m fine now, but I’m reminded that from crisis comes wisdom—for the person in crisis and for his or her companions–and with wisdom comes the desire to share what you learn.
Be careful this year of high, cold water.
Check for ticks.
When it’s time for a hug, give it.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.