We had never rafted before or really spent time in the Southwest. But there we were—a family paddling down the Green River in Utah. Christopher was 14 and Nicole 11. My husband, Paul, thirsty for some adventure, had signed us up for a 5-day multi-family journey with the reputable Sheri Griffith Expeditions. The Green River had some Class III rapids, but was mostly gentle, at least in the summer when the water level was low. I endured middle-aged hot flashes in the 100+ degree southern Utah weather as we floated between red rocks, but Paul and the kids were in heaven.
Nine years later in 2012, post college, and bored with Connecticut, Chris left home for Utah to become a river guide for Sheri Griffith. My husband and I visited him as often as we could and signed up for some of his trips. Thus, in 2013, we found ourselves in the class IV rapids of Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River.
The Colorado River proved quite different from the Green River.
Christopher and his friend, Lauren, a more experienced river guide, led the trip. The rest of the group consisted of our intrepid daughter and another couple with two stoked teenage sons. Chris manned the equipment raft filled with cooking supplies, camping gear, the Groover (an outdoor toilet), and our dry bags while Lauren commanded us in the paddle boat.
To run these rapids required teamwork. We paddled to Lauren’s orders as she yelled from the back of the raft over the roar of the river. “All forward! All right! Back right! Left right!” Or “Stop!” She was the captain who would guide us safely through.
During this trip, we shot through all the rapids within the 17 mile stretch of water, including Skull—the second to the last and most technical. To make it through Skull, we paddled furiously to avoid the huge boulders in the middle of the river and the Rock of Shock on the right. The main current of the river flowed between these two formidable formations. If we veered too far right of the Rock of Shock, we’d be funneled into the Room of Doom, a powerful whirlpool where people got trapped and abandoned their crafts to hike up the steep cliffs to rescue.
Sometimes people drown in the rapids—even with helmets and life jackets which are mandatory on trips. Once, a guest fell out of the raft and died while Chris was co-guiding a trip.
We had shot past the huge boulders, the Rock of Shock and Room of Doom, waves of white water exploding around us. I could finally relax as our paddle boat entered what was informally called Swimmer’s Rapids. Lauren encouraged us to jump into the water and swim.
Everyone was excited.
Although Swimmer’s rapids were not nearly as turbulent as Skull, they were flowing swiftly with small waves. Everyone leapt into the water. Afraid of being the coward, I did too and immediately got caught under the raft.
The waves were bigger at eye level. I pushed up on the bow, and floated out and away, swinging my feet forward, downstream of my body while crossing my arms over my chest—the swimmer position. But my body, even with my life jacket, was heavier than the froth, and I sank and swallowed water while being propelled to the left shore. Lauren stood up in the raft; her arms flailed from left to right; her words drowned by the noisy river. Terrified that she was warning us about some danger lurking on the left, I swam as hard as I could to the right side of the river. Then her raft shot ahead, and she was gone.
That’s when I noticed I was all alone and latched onto a rock. Clinging to my rock and hyperventilating, I felt my heart racing. I was a skilled swimmer and lifeguard, but used to pools and flatwater. I was having a panic attack. The river was trying to pry me away as I clutched my rock. If I released my grip, I would be forced into the rapids again.
I remembered all the times I had to save myself--as a seven-year old, abandoned in deep water before I knew how to swim—I sank to the bottom but found I could push off to the surface to breathe, and bounced my way to shore. No one noticed my struggle.
As an adult, I was blown out into Chesapeake bay while windsurfing. I could barely see the shore as the strong wind grabbed the sail out of my hands pushing me into the bay laden with jellyfish. Finally, angry at the wind, I clenched the boom, which held the sail, and with all my strength held on and made it back to the dock.
Still alone and grasping that rock in Westwater Canyon, I remembered the most important rule in lifesaving was to stay calm. I forced myself to breathe slower.
Greyish Precambrian cliffs, eons old, loomed on either side of me. The ancient rock emanated a quiet vigilance. Be in this moment. See where you are. It’s not so bad, they seemed to say. My exhalations eased a bit more as did my heartbeat.
Suddenly, the bow of Chris’s yellow raft bobbed into view upriver. He spied me and tapped his head, which is the sign for “Are you all right?” I was to mimic back the same movement to show I was fine, but instead, I punched my fist in the air, a sign indicating “No! Help! Save me!”
He startled and immediately steered toward me, crashing against the rock, and in a split second, grabbed my life vest, pulling me into the raft. “Are you hurt?” His face was filled with alarm.
I lay for a few moments on my back panting, and then sat up.
Relief flooded my body. “No, I’m okay.”
Chris was quiet as we rode the rest of Swimmer’s Rapids. Turns out the only time you made that sign was when you were hurt, broke your leg, or bleeding.
What about a panic attack? When you’re afraid you’re going to drown?
Apparently, there is no room for fear in the world of river guiding and rafting.
Sometimes you save yourself, and sometimes you need help.
I had to forgive that panicked part of me.
I healed my shame by replaying the moment I was alone in the rapids, gripping the rock.
I made up different endings.
In one do-over, I never jumped into the water. Instead I cruised the rapids in the raft with Lauren. Or, Chris rescued me with joy and relief at seeing I was not injured. We laughed all the way back to the group. In another, I took a deep breath, jumped and trusted, surrendering to the strong current. This time I kept my head way above the water and my mouth closed. I made it through with ease. The rapids gentled, I floated blissfully on my back the rest of the way to rejoin the group.
About the Author
Marie Lavendier’s poems have appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Gaia Magazine, Crone Magazine and SageWoman. Also a memoir and nonfiction writer, she won Hartford Magazine’s 2018 writing contest “The Lioness and the King” based on the relationship between Mark Twain and Isabel Lyon. From 2005—2015, she taught English and Humanities at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut.