Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Big Water

In which my healthy respect for the destructive power of water is reinforced through a terrifying personal experience.


Yesterday, I went white-water rafting for the first, and probably last, time. It's not likely something I would have agreed to do, but my dear spouse bid on, and won, four tickets in a silent auction to support Voices for Vermont's Children. So, off to the Maine wilderness we went.

I grew up in Kansas, and while there were a couple of lakes around, I never really had occasion to go out on them in boats of any kind. Boats make me nervous, even large stable ones in calm water. I just like having my feet connected solidly to the earth (I dislike flying, never learned how to ride a bike, and prefer not to drive whenever I can avoid it, for the same reason).

But, of course, what really freaked me out, when I thought about it (which I tried not to do), was the idea of one of the kids going overboard, and not being able to help them. That "do I dive into dangerous waters when I don't know what I'm doing and can barely swim but I'm counting on the superhuman strength parents are supposed to get from adrenaline when their kid's in danger" moment played over in my mind more than a few times.

The safety lecture at the beginning of the trip was somewhat reassuring; we all had lifejackets (or "personal floatation devices" as they are apparently now called), fitted by the guides. They reassured us that the river was deep, that the guides were professional, that even if we had an "out of boat experience" we would be fine, that no one had drowned in forever, etc. And, of course, this is a major industry up here, which it couldn't be if the change of harm weren't extremely low. But still, there were the waivers, and yesterday was "big water" - over 8,000 cubic feet per second rushing down the river.

* * *

I developed a healthy respect for the destructive power of water three years ago, when Vermont experienced not one but three major flooding events. First, in the spring, the increasingly erratic climate (thanks, Big Oil!) followed a winter of heavy snowfall with a week of eighty-degree temperatures in March. I was working at the time in Winooski, a former mill town that shares the Winooski River with Burlington. Crossing the bridge every morning, I saw — and heard — the runoff-swollen river pouring over the top of the dam with so much force that you couldn't really see the dam, just the water crashing against the concrete walls on either side and then turning and cascading down like a sloping hill into what is normally the tranquil eddies of Salmon Hole fishing area, below the dam.

All that water raised Lake Champlain to record highs; low-lying homes and businesses were flooded. Parts of the waterfront park and all of the lakeside beaches were underwater until July, and the water eroded the soil under the lakefront bikepath in numerous places, causing it to collapse and requiring a couple of million dollars worth of repairs over the last few years.

In the middle of the summer, there was flooding in central Vermont, flooding which unearthed enough storage tanks from gas stations and so forth to make all the traditional swimming holes unusable.

And then, of course, came Irene at the end of the summer. Although it was downgraded from "Hurricane" to "Tropical Storm" by the time it hit Vermont (because the wind speeds had reduced, presumably), the torrential rain dumped into the narrow mountain valleys carried a shocking destructive power. The sudden swelling of rivers and creeks took out bridges, destroyed homes, and killed at least one person.

Irene really brought home the realities of climate change for me, and I think for most people in Vermont. In addition to the sheer destructive power, it also made me realize how fragile our technology-reliant society is. With bridges and roads washed out, whole towns were cut off from food and other necessities, which had to be airlifted in. An industrial food system depends on trucks, which depend on paved roads and bridges. Which continue to exist only at the pleasure of the rivers.

* * *

Editor's note: this is the part of the blog post where, if it were a New Yorker article written by a professional writer with a budget, there would be a fascinating and well-researched detour over into economic and social history. Since it's just me tapping away on my computer in the morning before everyone else gets up, in a lodge with no internet access, it will instead be a brief bit of hearsay and speculation.

While we were milling around getting our gear and waiting for the safety speech, I overheard a young woman asking one of the guides how many people died while rafting. He gave the standard answer: "A lot fewer than have died logging."

The Kennebec river (like many others in New England, upstate New York, and I suspect anywhere with rivers and forests) had long been used for transporting logs. Loggers would lash the fallen trees together into rafts and ride them down the river — when safety gear consisted of leather boots and wool clothing.

In the 1950s, a modern hydroelectric dam was built on the Kennebec. One of its features was a sluice for running logs down.

The guide on our raft told us that in 1976, the night that logging on the river was finally shut down, one enterprising guy rounded up a bunch of soon-to-be-unemployed loggers in a bar, paid them each a thousand dollars to go down the rapids in a raft, and thus was born the modern rafting industry. The rafting company founded by that guy now runs a resort with a hot tub, a brew pub, and all the amenities (we stopped there for dinner the night before our trip).

We're a bit further up Route 201, where I'm writing this on the front porch of a much more primitive lodge, watching truck after truck go by, trailers piled high with logs.

* * *

We lowered the raft into the water just below the dam. The rafting industry depends on controlled releases of water from the dam, which happens at 10 o'clock every morning. The dam operators tell the rafters the amount of water they are going to release, so they can plan for conditions on the river. Yesterday was 8,000 cubic feet per second — "Big Water."

When you go white-water rafting, you're not strapped into the raft at all — in fact, you're not really "in" the raft, you're sitting on the very edge, with paddles. The secret, apparently, is to have enough momentum going into the big waves to, well, stay upright, and you create that momentum by padding furiously along with your raft-mates, under the direction of your guide.

I've been flying a lot recently, and have had some success in dealing with my nervousness during takeoff, landing, and turbulence by trying to mentally lean in to the motion of the plane, not expecting it to be some luxurious space for relaxation that just happens to get you to another city (as, say, airline commercial portray it), but more of a wild ride, a dangerous but thrilling trip with some arrogant mythical beasts who believe they have conquered the air.

I found, surprisingly, that I was able to do that we started going through the Class 1 rapids. I realized I had been preparing myself in the wrong way, thinking about this as a trip in a vehicle, and obsessing about whether the vehicle was safe, what would happen if I or one of my family fell out of the vehicle. I was worried about whether the vehicle would protect us from the river. Instead, as we careened through waves, I realized that we were just out on the river, ourselves, with a few tools — the raft, the life jackets, the paddles, the helmets — that would hopefully keep the river from damaging us. Remarkably, I passed through my fears and started enjoying myself.

Which was damn good, because when we hit the Class 4 wave — "Maytag" — the wave, as they say, tagged us. It is a 16-foot wave, about the length of our raft, and there was a sudden moment when I realized we were flipping over.



And then I was in the water. They say that in times of crisis, time seems to go slowly. I am incredibly thankful that, at least in memory, those few seconds seemed to only last a few seconds.

I was completely submerged in water, no idea even which way was up, felt the bottom of the river with my feet (which is pretty deep there, so I must have been thrown straight down, and with a lot of force, when the raft flipped). The first phase: pure animal, physical terror.

Within a second or two, the lifejacket pulled me up and suddenly I was half-breathing, half-drinking, being buffeted around by the waves. They tell you, if you go into the water, you'll most likely come up near the raft — but this is less true when your raft is overturned by Maytag, apparently; I was a good ten feet from the raft. I started flailing towards it (you can't really call it swimming).  Some of the safety instructions, most of which were heavy on "self-rescue" techniques, started floating back into my brain.  While flailing towards the raft, I tried holding the paddle, which I still had a grip on, out towards it, in the vain hope that someone would grab it and pull me towards the raft.

They also tell you to keep your eyes open, anticipate the waves so that you can breathe when your head is above water and not when you're hitting a wave.  This is all very fine in theory, but I was now highly conscious of how utterly incapable I was of doing this. The second phase: the conscious realization of what you need to do to save yourself, and how you may not be able to do it.

Then I heard my wife (who, along with our son, had been hauled up onto the flipped-over raft at this point) yelling our daughter's name.  The third, and worst, phase: realizing that your child may be in danger, and that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

* * *

Our daughter was (I learned later) briefly trapped under the raft, but by the time I got to the raft had gotten herself out and been hauled up. Eventually (well, within a few seconds), I also got to the raft, grabbed on, tried to pull myself up onto it with no success, but got hauled up by the guide.

The river is relatively calm after Maytag, so we were able to regroup pretty easily; they loaded us onto one of the company's other rafts while the guide flipped our raft back over, then we got back onto it. The guide pulled some candy and knit hats out of the dry bag, and we floated uneventfully down the remaining eight miles or so to our disembarkation point.

Water.  Don't fuck with it.

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