By Steve Stuckmeyer
It was the spring of 1998 and I had been boating in Oregon for 2 years. Overall I had been kayaking for about 5 years, but I had been averaging 150 or so days each year since I had moved to Oregon so my skills were really taking off. I felt superbly confident on class IV, and was just starting to feel like I could run class V with style. In short, I was becoming a very good kayaker.
Well, good kayakers can die just as easily as bad kayakers. All it takes is a lapse in judgment, a crucial mistake, or simply bad luck. I feel like I came very close to all three points on the White River in North-Central Oregon.
I had put together this trip on the White River through the University of Oregon's Outdoor Program. It was supposed to be a fairly tame river broken into two sections. The first was 12 miles of non-stop class III and III+ water; one long rapid. The second was supposed to be extremely scenic class II, with a couple of class III's. A few members of the group that assembled had minimal experience and were going to bring IK's; otherwise the average member had solid class IV experience and a couple had long paddling resumes.
The first trip down the upper section was exciting. It seemed like a slalom course through one 12-mile long rapid. We really had only one problem. A girl who had brought an IK didn't eddy out in time before a river-wide log. She hit the log and climbed onto it just before her boat was forced under. The water was fairly shallow and the IK stayed stuck under the log. It took a log of pushing before we finally were able to squeeze it entirely under the log and then free of it.
The second trip occurred on a very hot day. I bet the temperature was hitting 90 in the shade. Hot weather and slow water makes me lazy. I was so relaxed on that run as I alternated between staring at the scenery as I lazily floated through the class II stuff and deftly maneuvering through the few class III's. I was having a great day.
Then in one of the last class III's, we were confronted by a small horizon line. It appeared to be a 3 or 4 foot drop around the edge of a boulder with a short runout. I could see the drop was clean, but decided to eddy out behind the boulder even though I couldn't see the right side of the eddy. Well I caught that eddy easily enough, but suddenly noticed I was sliding out of it and towards a boulder behind me. The rock, forming the drop I had just run, was evidently pretty badly undercut and as a result the eddy behind it wasn't very stationary.
For some reason I made a misjudgment. I should have peeled right back out into the main current; instead, I turned to the right of the rock I was being pushed into. As I committed to the turn, I saw the channel to the right of that boulder was exiting through a 4 foot wide slot with a 1 1/2 foot diameter log wedged diagonally across it. At this point I had no choice but to try and boof over the 2 foot wide area where only about 2 inches of the log was not submerged. I got in a couple strong strokes and launched myself up onto it. I thought I was over it, when suddenly I stopped moving and started to slip backwards. I grabbed onto the rocks on both sides, but the current had grabbed my low volume stern and was inexorably flipping me and pulling my stern under the log. I tucked as I went upside down, and felt myself lodge under the log (where it had been out of the water by about 4 inches). I stopped there as the force of the log and the water pushed me up against the rock on the left.
I instantly knew the seriousness of my predicament. I popped my skirt and tried to get out of my boat, but I was being sandwiched between my boat and that rock on the left. I did not have enough room to slide out of my boat! I struggled fiercely, with one hand on the rock and the other on my boat, trying to push the two objects apart. But even relatively slow-moving water is remarkably strong when it's pushing on a large flat surface! I could just barely budge the boat, maybe a half inch but no more.
Now I was becoming frantic. I was stuck fast, and I was quickly burning what little oxygen I had left. I could see the surface a foot or two above my upturned face. It was bright from the reflecting sun and I could see the wavering shapes of trees refracted through the water; it all seemed infinitely far away. I had friends less than 100 feet downstream, but since I was just about midstream, I knew they wouldn't be able to get to me in less than a minute, maybe two. I struggled harder and harder, and I burnt up the last of my oxygen. My lungs felt shrunken and were burning hot, and at that moment some part of my brain decided I could breathe water. I almost tried it. Fortunately, some other part of my brain and/or heart quickly locked my lips together (and thankfully I was wearing noseplugs) even though my lungs were expanding, and made me try to get out once more. With an enormous burst of strength, I was suddenly able to do what I could not several times before. I pushed the boat away from the rock by about a foot and swiveled my hips and one leg out of the cockpit. One leg was still in the cockpit, but I had enough freedom now to grab onto the log and pull my torso to the surface.
I half-stood there in the moving water, draping my full body weight over that log that had trapped me and slowly gulped oxygen. After a few minutes I pulled my other leg free of the kayak, then pulled my kayak free, and swam to the right shore. I got back into my boat and finished the last several miles of that run. As it turned out, my friends had passed by in the fast flume and not seen how seriously I had been pinned. By the time they realized it and were trying to paddle back up to my position, I had been under water for about 20-30 seconds. Overall I think I was under for about a minute; probably not more, and possibly less. I normally have a hard time holding my breath for a minute when I am just sitting still.
Later that night, I lay in my sleeping bag and contemplated just how closely I had come to voluntarily trying to breathe water. I didn't sleep very well for a week or two. I don't know that I would have drowned; my friends might have gotten me free before I even lost consciousness, but I am very happy my friends did not have to find out. And in the years since, I have said many prayers to God in thanks for giving me that last burst of strength when I thought I had nothing more to give. In my book, a prayer is an invaluable safety/rescue tool.
In the years since, I have had other brushes with death and some serious injuries (mostly on class IV-V whitewater), but none felt as close to being the end as this one. A small log in a narrow channel of a class III. A simple blind drop that I had approached somewhat lazily and had not scouted. A lapse in judgment, mistakenly grabbed the wrong eddy, abandoned it on the wrong side, and had the bad luck to find the only exit possible plugged by a small log. I have had a healthy fear of even the smallest and smoothest pieces of wood ever since.