By Rob Cruser
By Rob Cruser
"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." T.S. Eliot
How do you even start to tell the tale of the event that changed your life forever? How about at the beginning and we'll just see how it goes. It had been an interesting year: it was August, 1997 and my marriage had just officially ended. For the last few rocky years, whitewater had been my sanity and my solace. My ex had spent the last three years rueing the day she surprised me with my first inflatable kayak. As our relationship worsened, I fell into the arms of others (the rivers). I had become kind of reckless and accident prone and had a bad, spacey feeling on that day at the put-in for the Green Truss run on the Upper White Salmon. That Spring, I had been rowing a gear-boat on the Illinois and had gotten bounced-out at the top of Green Wall and had a hair-raising swim all the way to the bottom of the next rapid. Yes, I was the first boat and had to rescue my own sorry ass. I was pretty sure that I was "unbreakable" after that, though, and was becoming a little too fast and loose with my personal safety. After all, what did I have to lose?
The WS was running about 3' at Husum, about 5-6 weeks after Rich Weiss lost his life below Big Brother. I felt more comfortable with 2.5' or below, but John Cliff, who I had met on the Net, had come up from Corvallis and I wasn't going to be the only one to back-out. The group consisted of John, Robb Keller, Mark Yauney, Riley Baxter, two kayakers I don't know and Ron Blanchette. I credit Ron as the person in the Material World with saving my life that day along with an assist from...? Everyone has heard run descriptions or been on GT so I won't bore any of you with a blow by blow, suffice to say by the time we approached Zig-Zag Canyon, I was feeling pretty confident. (For those interested, I swam at Bob's, walked Big and Little Brother and Double Drop). After DD, I was feeling the water pretty well and was ready to shred the Zig-Zags. Whether in an R2 (two-man paddle raft) or an IK (Inflatable kayak), Zig-Zag always gets me going.
However, either one of these rapids can be the kind of place where the best laid plans are laid to waste. I always love to watch the really good boaters clean these rapids. Myself, I'm just happy to be upright and breathing at the bottom. My run through Upper ZZ went really well until I failed to punch the last big hole on river right. About a minute of Class V rodeo IKing ensued before I decided to roll the boat to try to break the hydraulic. It worked and I had the boat back over and was in it before I hit the pool above Lower Zig-Zag. OK, now I'm really feeling like I'm "the shit" and do a perfunctory scout of Lower ZZ before climbing back in my Stilleto to rip-up what was (for me) the crux of the trip. Confidence is a funny thing: sometimes it creates incredible focus and competence and sometimes it creates incredible mental laziness. It was the latter that had manifested itself, I realized, as I was pushed sideways onto a barely submerged rock and precariously broached. As I worked myself loose it became obvious that, despite my newfound concentration, I was not going to recover. Anyone who has ever run GT is now saying, "ooh, this is going to be heinous, dude", and they would be right.
The bottom of this rapid has three nasty hazards: a sieve on river right, a monster boulder/hole dead center and a cave on river left. Let's see, Door #1, #2 or #3. Hmmm, that's not really fair, Monty, they all suck! I flipped but found that I had managed to hang onto the boat. About 10 seconds of whimpering and desperate clawing and knashing of teeth followed as I tried to turn the boat and get back in. I was torn loose from the boat and, as it appeared I was headed for a full-on collision with Door #2, curled into a ball and wrapped my arms around my head. Feet downstream? In Class V? That's a good one, that's rich. Anyway, I've been a fireman/EMT for 15 years and knew that one good rap on the noggin can make you mentally 3 years-old and shitting in a diaper for the rest of your life, so I prioritized the protection of body parts. WARNING!!! IF YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR WHAT IT'S LIKE TO DROWN, STOP HERE. Still here? OK, I warned you.
So anyway, you know how you hear that drowning is such a peaceful way to die? You just kind of drift pleasantly away...WELL, BULLSHIT! What happened next was the exquisitely distilled, 200 proof epitome of pure terror. As I collided with the big boulder I found that the upstream face is undercut, and underneath is where I initially was drawn. I was facing upstream and reached behind and was able to push myself upwards, which, to my horror, resulted in a perfect broach. My lower back became the fulcrum point as the river gave me a quick lesson in hydrology and physics as it plastered me to the face of the rock and then tried to rip me in half as my upper torso was being forced over and my lower body, from the pelvis down, was forced under. The hopelessness of my position rapidly became apparent and the ol' fear-ometer pegged at 120. I don't care how scared you've ever been, unless you find yourself all of a sudden with a minute to live, you don't know scared you can be.
I gave it my best shot: twisting, pushing, lots of screaming in terror. I was going nowhere. You reach a point where your body says, "I know we're underwater but I've got to try to breathe." I irrationally craned my neck towards the light 3-4 feet away and took big lung-fulls of water. The need for air was torture beyond anything I could have imagined. Yes, I know, you can hold your breath for 2 minutes. Try it in cold water, after a Class V swim while fighting for your life, then we'll talk. On top of that, I felt like I was being broken in half. Remember "The Rack" from medieval torture chambers? I couldn't paddle for 3 months because of torn muscles across my lower back.
It's amazing how fast you can go from "let's see, how am I going to work my way out of this to HOLY SHIT THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING to I HOPE THIS IS OVER QUICK to I'M OK WITH THIS. I've mostly been agnostic as far as spiritual beliefs go, but knowing there was only one way out, I put in an emergency call to The Man. I've seen, and retrieved broached boats, and now I was one. Crucial point here: I was, without a doubt, a semi-permanent part of that rock. I wondered briefly as the lights went gray and faded to black how long my body would be stuck there, how my parents and my kids and friends would deal with this. I just wanted to be with my kids; I would have given anything. The last few seconds were a relief; I didn't need to breath anymore, my options were down to one, acceptance. This was it.
I figure there is about a 5-10 second blank spot in the narrative. I don't have a clue how I came to be semi-conscious and floating helplessly through the Class IV runout. Yes, I definitely did go out. It must not have been for very long or I would not have regained consciousness. I saw Ron Blanchette off to my left and with a last, desperate breath croaked "HELP!" In the moving pool before the next set of Class IV, Ron stuck the stern of his boat in my face and I was able to grab it. He and several others lifted me out of the water and checked me for injuries. It was many minutes before I could speak and about 20 before I could stand. Thank goodness for all those hours running and in the gym. A sense of unreality consumed me; I'm supposed to be dead.
FAST FORWARD TO PRESENT:
I could go on and on about Post Traumatic Stress, life philosophy, gratitude, fear, hair-boating, why I was sent back, am I one of the dead people walking around like in "The Sixth Sense", etc., but that would take too long to do justice to it all. Let's just say that instead of counting sheep when I can't sleep, I count blessings, starting with breathing. After that, it's pretty easy to find a lot more to be thankful for. I figure I've had 3 1/2 years of bonus time added on to my life and if I was to die right now, I'd say that would be fair. I've dealt with my fear of that run and R2'd the GT with my good friend Val Shaull a couple of years ago, and then about 4-5 times since.
I don't need to do the over-the-top shit to be happy anymore. I love the rivers and still boat, but Benham Falls is not in the cards anymore. This is not by any means an indictment of cutting-edge Class V boating. If you're not taking risks and finding out where your limits are, you might as well be dead. However, when you're scouting Satan's Apocalypse Falls, think hard about it. It's a cool world with a lot of cool things to do, and, unless you're a real prick, there are also a lot of people who love you and would miss you if you left suddenly. Find your own balance. Live to paddle another day.
-Rob,  December 21, 2000.
Scouting 'The Move' on Lower Zig Zag. The large boulder in front of Pete with the water piling up on
it is the one that body pinned Rob, and the cave is highlighted on the left. This photo was taken at
approximately the same flow as the day Rob was here.
Editors Note: To date five people have drowned in paddling related accidents on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon. As this story clearly demonstrates, this continues to be a terribly unforgiving stretch of whitewater. Be careful out there.