By Jason Rackley
This is a hard story to tell, but I need to tell it because of the kind of paddling I showcase on this site. I show photos of a lot of big drops, and even though I have a few stories and photos detailing what happens when someone gets worked hard, I don't really have any describing what happens when someone screws up and gets hurt badly.
In this case, that someone was me.
It was just another day on the world-renowned Little White Salmon. For those of us who are geographically fortunate enough be able to paddle this creek regularly, this run is pretty much second to none. As usual there was plenty of action culminating in a series of waterfalls to finish up a great day of boating. The grand finale as always was Spirit Falls, one of the most spectacular runnable waterfalls in the world.
We had a pretty big group. Phil Donofrio, 'Fireman Dave' Mcneil, Brian Little and Joules out of Corvallis, Gabe Flock, Steve Stuckmeyer, and John Whaley.
Anyway, we got to Spirit and the usual happened. A few folks automatically shouldered their boats and walked it, and a few others stood at the lip and thought: "I feel good today. Really good. I feel good enough to run this huge waterfall and pull it off..."
Today was a little different though the week before Dave had been beaten nearly to death against the right wall at the bottom of Spirit, so everyone was paranoid about getting against that wall. Nevertheless, Joules went first. Joules is from Ireland and is a very good boater ( the way he paddles, you'd better believe they've got some hard stuff over there! ). Anyway, Joules paddled up to the lip and was way left. As he went over the bow of his boat caught on the lip and he tumbled upside down in midair, dropping 33 feet onto his head!
We all held our breath as he rolled up and shook it off, much to our relief. Gabe Flock went next and had no problems, and then Brian Little. I had already run Spirit a couple of times, but after seeing my buddy get pounded the week before I didn't feel good about running it so I decided to portage. I was all alone at this point, as everyone had either run the drop or was in the process of portaging it. I walked back up to my boat, but instead of picking it up to portage I climbed into it and pulled my skirt on.
Now, I have one cardinal rule for paddling class five and it goes something like this: Don't take long to scout a drop. Look at the darned thing, and if it doesn't look good or feel right then walk it. Once I make that decision, I never, ever change my mind, even if I see fourteen tandem canoes loaded with Cub Scouts clean the thing while I'm hiking down the river. I don't know why I got back into my boat, but I broke my number one rule. I changed my mind and decided to run Spirit, and that decision changed my life forever.
I peeled out into the current and got on the left side of the river. As I dropped over the lip the last thing I saw was Gabe, Joules, and Brian look up in surprise far below, because they had thought I was walking it.
I dropped into hell.
It takes a long time to fall 33 feet in a kayak. As I sailed through the air my bow planed towards horizontal and I began to boof out. Ordinarily landing flat off of this drop is Ok if you hit the 4-5 foot high aerated pile at the base of the falls, but I missed the pile.
At the last second I knew I was going to land totally flat and I was too far left and too far out with too much speed. I started to tuck to protect my back but it was too late. I hit the green water going over 30 miles per hour stopped cold. There was a boom like a rifle shot as my boat hit and there was an explosion of pain in the middle of my back.
I slumped over for a second in shock. The tremendous impact had knocked the wind out of me and my body wasn't working right. I gasped for air and I paddled feebly over to the side of the punchbowl, trying not to flip because I knew I couldn't roll and the evil ledge-drop known as Chaos was waiting just downstream, ready to finish me off.
Gabe, Brian, and Joules KNEW.
They swarmed all over me and stabilized my boat so I wouldn't flip. Gabe was saying something but I was in shock and I don't remember what. They got me out of my boat and I was cursing as Gabe began his examination, calmly firing questions at me: "Can you feel your feet? Jason can you feel your feet?   Jason move your feet for me. Good.   Do you have any numbness anywhere? Jason, do you have any numbness anywhere?   Don't move. DON'T MOVE!   SOMEBODY GET DAVE DOWN HERE NOW!!!
I know this sounds strange, but my guts hurt. I later learned that this is called coup-counter-coup and is a common injury in car accidents. Basically, you stop moving suddenly and your internal organs collide with your ribcage, pelvis, and abdominal muscles. It hurts like hell, but I digress. Dave, the paramedic in the group, was already coming. He fired a throwrope off the edge of the cliff and rapped down in seconds and traversed across the wall of the punchbowl. When he arrived on the scene he shifted into paramedic mode and took charge. After he had examined me, he said: "First, we gotta get him around Chaos. I'll rig up a harness. We need more rope. I'll go get the rigging out of my boat and get everything set up above, and we'll leave him here in the meantime. Is he stable? Ok. Don't move him. Gabe, you stay here until we are ready to move him so he doesn't fall in the water. We don't have much time, it'll be dark soon..."
"I'll Paddle OUT." Somebody said, and that somebody was me.
Silence, except for the eternal thunder of Spirit. Dave was speechless for a second, and then he said sternly: "Jason, you are NOT paddling out. You are NOT getting back in your boat Jason. Jason, there is a very good chance your back is broken, and if it is you could have bone splinters loose in there. If you get back into your boat, you could sever your spine and be paralyzed for the rest of your life."
"Get me in my BOAT!" I commanded. I struggled painfully to sit up, and I reached over and grabbed my boat. "I'll paddle out. I can make it."
Dave was angry now. "Jason, you're being a stupid, stubborn, jackass. What if you end up in the hole below Chaos? You can't roll, you can barely paddle!!" His face darkened as I struggled to get into my boat. "Don't let him get back in his boat!" He commanded and with that traversed back along the rock wall to organize the rescue.
"Get me in my boat." I said to Gabe as soon as Dave was gone. Gabe shook his head ruefully and said: "Jason, you're being a reeeally bad patient" but in the end he complied...
Soon Brian, Gabe, Joules and I were sitting in the punchbowl with Spirit behind us and the horizon line marking Chaos just below us.
I was feebly splashing the water with my paddle, which was suddenly incredibly heavy. Every movement required tremendous effort, and everything felt wrong. It was like I had never boated before. "Jason, listen to me." Brian said as I looked downstream. He was all business now and the kayak instructor in him surfaced. "The first six inches of a stroke is the most important. That is where most of the power comes from. You can do it. Concentrate, stay focused. Look where you want to go, and then go there. Don't look at Chaos."
Somehow I made the 'easy move' into the right side eddy above Chaos, but it felt like the hardest thing in the world. Then it got easier. The ferry above Chaos was next, and if I screwed up I couldn't begin to imagine what was going to happen. Suddenly I was on and I dug deep and made the ferry. I turned and waited while Gabe, Brian, and Joules ran Chaos, and then I went next. I hit a rock about halfway down and boofed, landing flat from about four feet up and the pain was unbelievable. I gasped and struggled over to the right, and then I was swept downstream, more or less out of control.
Everytime I hit a rock my back screamed at me to STOP but I kept going for about two hundred yards until we got to a small ledge above Master Blaster where I couldn't take it anymore and I gave up and let Dave take over. "Are you ready to stop being a dumbass and start letting us help you?" he said, shaking his head in frustration. "You're a bad patient, you know that?"
We were now out of the gorge below Spirit, so Dave got me out of my boat and swam me across the pool above Master Blaster. From there Steve and Dave helped me climb over the boulder jumble on the right side of the rapid, and then Dave swam me across the pool above the lowhead dam. I got out here and walked the final quarter mile out, while everyone else finished the run and got my gear off the creek.
Twenty minutes later I was sitting in a wheelchair at Hood River Memorial hospital in agony while a bored nurse droned:
"Could I get Your Name? Your Address? Your Social Security Number? Your Date Of Birth? Do you have insurance? Who is your provider?
Oh, do you need a painkiller..?"
Later the doctor came back with my X-rays and said bluntly: "Well, I don't have any good news for you Jason. You broke your back. Specifically, you crushed L1 and L2 down to about 60% of their original size. You have a couple of pretty large bone fragments loose in there too, so we might have to do surgery. You're lucky you're still walking..."
That night I stayed in Hood River with John. I called my girlfriend, who was understandably upset. I didn't even want to think about how I was going to tell my parents.
The next morning Dave showed up with his mother's car, a very nice late model Honda sedan. You see, Dave had driven three and a half hours down to Eugene the night before to get a comfortable vehicle to drive me home. Then he got up early with very little sleep and drove another three and a half hours back up to Hood River to pick me up. When he arrived early the next morning, red-eyed and grinning, I said: "Dave, you're my Hero!"
"I gotta be somebody's hero!" He quipped, but he was too modest. Dave saves peoples lives on a regular basis in his work as a Eugene Paramedic. He really is a hero in my book.
I spent the next two and a half months in a metal torso brace that cinched down tight and effectively splinted my spine. The first week I was confined to the couch on painkillers, stoned and oblivious. Then I got tired of being drugged so I tossed the pills. I wanted to remember every second of the pain for the next time I think about breaking my number one rule when I'm paddling class five.
After a week I was able to walk up the stairs and sleep in my bed. The pain was severe, but it grew less intense as the days flew by. Showering was very difficult; I don't think I washed my feet for a month after the accident. (and I never was able to trick my girlfriend into doing it for me either.) By mid-April the Orthopedic Surgeon X-rayed my back and had great news: The two thumbnail-sized pieces of bone that had broken off when I landed had reattached to my vertebrae, and I wouldn't need surgery. My vertebrae were permanently deformed, but my prognosis was good.
The outpouring of support from the paddling community was overwhelming. I got emails, cards, boxes of food, books, you name it. Wow. We are family....
It was now May and I went to the doctor's office. After a quick examination he said I didn't have to wear the brace anymore. "I have a question" I replied. "I was feeling my spine the other day, and I have these lumps in the middle of my back that weren't there before. Is this because of the injury?" I showed him the spot. He felt my back and after a moment he said: "No, those lumps are there because you have no muscle left in your lower back, so your vertebrae are sticking out. You have a lot of physical therapy to do..."
So I went paddling, and life was good.
I was a big runner before the accident, and I can't do that anymore. No running. So now I ride a reclining bike for Cardio. It drives me crazy that I can't run for exercise anymore, but I only have myself to blame. I also have to be very careful about stretching. Anything that involves bending my torso forward and holding it aggravates the injury site. So I have a modified stretching program. I have learned to work around this injury, but it is really terrible to be this young and have such limitations. Think about that next time you're standing at the top of a big one.
Five more paddlers have broken their backs running Spirit since my accident, at flows up to 3.6 feet. High water and a big pile is no guarantee of safety there.. Spirit is a deceptively dangerous falls because it is one of the purest free-fall drops around because of the fast lead-in.. It is both the best drop I have ever run, and the worst..
See you on the river!