Destinations

Floating Into Danger - Whirlpools & Logjams On Little Cottonwood Creek

Part Two

In part one of this story, three 15-year olds, one boy – that was me, and two 15 year-old girls – Melanie and Shele – were floating on a creek, on inflated tubes, and we had just encountered a dangerous whirlpool. Melanie had been sucked into the 10' deep whirlpool and was not able to get out of the vortex without help. So we pick up this second part of the story as Melanie, Shele, and Mark are sitting in the sun, drying off, and discussing what had just happened.
Shele suggested that the river may still be dangerous further down, and that we should probably go home. However, the more we talked the more I was convinced that it was a freak incident and that we'd be safe going on. I vocalized my thoughts to Melanie and Shele. I can't recall what was discussed, or where the turning point came, but somehow – and don't ask me how – I had unwisely, and perhaps selfishly, convinced them both to keep floating down the creek. We were soon back on the water, alternately bouncing over small rapids, and then drifting lazily, while soaking up the sun. Reflected light glinted on the rippling surface of the creek, dragonflies zigzagged around us, and birds flitted through the trees and brush.

Did I mention that we were all teenagers?

It seems that we floated safely for awhile before we rounded a bend where a massive pile of flood debris clogged the entire surface of the river, from bank to bank. Unbeknownst to us, many trees upstream had already been undercut from their positions along the creek-bank and had been collected at this pinch-point on the creek. I called out to the girls "let's get to shore," and Melanie seemed to have herculean strength, likely generated by the fear of her earlier ordeal. I saw her leap from her tube, and charge out of the main current to a safe shallow spot where the water was knee-high but she could easily step out of the creek. She glanced anxiously at us, ready to give a hand.
Shele slid into the water to a standing position, mid-creek, while trying to drag the tube with her to shore. Despite her efforts the traction of the current against the large surfaces was pulling her closer to the logjam. I unsuccessfully tried chucking my tube toward shore only to see it land short of the bank and continue downstream. I turned my focus to Shele who slipped on some mossy rocks and went down eye-level with the surface. We were within 15 feet of the log jam when she also released her tube which quickly joined mine to be pressed against the logs and debris. Shele and I both were drawn up to, and against, the wall of fallen trees. Water surged all around us, and under, and through the natural dam of debris and trees. Standing left of Shele I took a firm grip with my right hand around her left upper arm, surmising that somehow we could climb onto pile of the debris. Suddenly Shele was simply gone. She had been sucked under the dam of logs and disappeared from sight. I could see over the logjam enough to discern that a large field of floodwater debris covered the creek's surface for 60 or more feet down-stream, and I was certain that Shele was jammed against a sieve of natural rubble, with no escape.

My mind raced back into history as highlights of my life, some good and some bad, flashed before me. It seemed that I was suddenly concerned with what value my prior 15 years of life had been, and with sorrow for my misdeeds that now flooded by rapidly.

At the point of facing possible death, why was I so concerned with what I could have done better?
That's a discussion for the end of this story.

Almost abrubtly my mind switched from the past, to the future, and I now stood at Shele's front door. I wasn't anxious to knock, but did, and then sadly explained to her mother how she had died, and how she would have been alive had I not encouraged her to go back on the water. I felt great torment as Shele's mother collapsed before me in tears and anguished sobs.
My mind then carried me across the street to my house where I began explaining to my mother how Shele had died, and how it was my fault for encouraging that we all continue downstream, even after Melanie's near-calamity. The look of disappointment and sadness in my mother's eyes caused me greater sadness and shame. I didn't understand it then, but I was deliberation on whether to go under the logs to find Shele. It wasn't what I wanted to do, but I knew I couldn't face two mothers with news of Shele's death. I agonized over this decision for what seemed to be 10 or more minutes. Later I asked Melanie how long I stood at the logs before going under, and she said "about one second." How a mind can process everything I considered, in one second, is beyond my comprehension.
I anticipated getting pressed hard against an underwater pile of debris but the waterway was initially clear between the riverbed and the logs at the surface. The current was strong and I feared that at any millisecond I would certainly get stuck, or scratched or stabbed by sharp sticks, but I scanned the dark waters around me looking for any sign of Shele. There was none. I allowed the current to pull me approximately 15 feet downstream before I paused, and pressed my feet into the riverbottom, and my back against the floating debris in an effort to push through. It wouldn't budge. I scanned left and right and could barely see images of river rock where small streams of light pierced the blackness to the bed of the creek. As I continued further the combination of the cold water, fear, and uncertainty, were causing me to consume any remaining oxygen.

Desperately I stopped a second time, braced my body in opposition to the current, and again forced my shoulders against the debris. It budged and then broke around me as my body pushed through. I gasped for air as I glanced anxiously in all directions. Melanie was on shore to my right with look of concerned surprise on her face. I could see Shele's head further downstream, just above the surface, her head slightly tilted to enable her to breathe. She had both hands grasping some trailing branches of the surface rubble, while the current pulled her body perpendicular to the water. Forcing my entire body upward I was able to walk momentarily on the interwoven conglomerate until, near Shele's position, it began to weaken beneath my weight. I slid back into the edge of the creek and reached for Shele's hand. She was shivering, and emotionally distraught, as we both clambered on to the creek bank.

I hadn't seen or talked to Shele since school, but in a recent phone call with Shele she described her vivid memories of her experience as she passed under the debris field. “It was dark and cold, and there seemed to be streams of light in various patches. The wood above me must have been aspen, birch, or some other type of whiter wood because up close I could see how white it was, at least where there was light coming through. I remember grabbing at roots, logs, branches, anything I could get me hands on, but they all slipped through my grasp. Finally I just recall that I had passed through and was hanging on to a branch at the end of the debris that covered the creek.”

After we were all out of the creek waters, there was not much discussion. We sat in a sunny space by some cottonwood trees, to lose the chill, and gather our wits. Melanie was the only person still with a tube, the others were punctured and gone.
Finally we began walking upstream, dodging brush and picking our way along game trails, till we spotted the hillside exit point that led back over the ridge to our neighborhood. Melanie and Shele were, perhaps for a time, not very happy with me and I was worried about the tongue lashing I would receive from all three mothers, but at least we were all headed home – alive!

So what are the Lessons Learned? The Lessons Learned Outdoors?

The obvious ones are...
– Don't listen to your new neighbor when he encourages you to get back into the water.
– Peer pressure can easily be the wrong thing.
– Don't go into a creek during spring run-off.
– Some things look fun, but can have hidden dangers.

But, I'd like to bring us back to the part where my life “Flashed Before My Eyes”, and then went forward in time to recount to two mothers, something that thankfully did not actually happen. Remember, Melanie, an eye-witness said it all must have happened in one second. But for me, it seemed like a long time as I relived so may different things in my life.

So why did those things come to mind, as I was seemingly making a choice to put my life at risk.
Possibly to lose my life. I'll suggest this.

The word Infinite comes to mind. Synonyms are...
Boundless
Continual
Perpetual

From this experience, and many others in my life,
...many of them outdoors.
I'm convinced that there is more to us,
...within us,
that is greater than this world, only.
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