Into the Drink: A tale of white water rafting

It was last Friday night when my husband and I were on our way to Eastern Washington decided to book an all-day 17 mile white water river rafting trip on the Wenatchee River for the next day. As your average weekend adventurers we’ve done it a few times and it’s been safe and exhilarating. I make sure I stop and pick up a pair of $4 sunglasses at WalMart. This year I will not lose another pair of Oakley’s – forget that.


Wenatchee River. Yes, that’s me in the back left before I entered the drink.

After arriving at the park in Cashmere where all the rafters meetup we were assigned our sleeveless wetsuits and booties and got on a school bus to take us to the mouth of the river. It’s a really sweaty ride to sit in a wetsuit on a school bus in summer. About 60 rafters were split up into several rafts and assigned their guide. For about 20 minutes before we push off with our group, the guide provided basic instructions for everyone and this included where to put our feet to stay in the boat and how to rescue someone who has fallen out of the boat. These are class III and IV rapids.

Our guide tells us that our raft will be a little shorter than the others and have two less occupants. So including the guide, there would be 7 in the boat instead of 9. I didn’t think this would be a big deal. Looked plenty big to me, after all I’ve rafted a few times. We ask the guide how high is the water? He tells us it’s something like 9050 cfs. It’s mid June and the glacial run off is high. I can understand this, its spring and a lot of water is pouring off the Cascades.

The occupants of our raft consisted of me and my husband sitting in the back of the raft with the guide behind us. In front of us were two brothers in their mid-forties, the girlfriend of one of them and the bleach blonde teen daughter of one of the men. They were a friendly family, all Boeing workers and were proud to tell us what they did at Boeing. We asked them if they’d ever done this before and they had not. I told them “Oh, it’s great. We’ve never had a problem”.

The trip started out easy enough, we passed several osprey in their nests feeding their young. We point out nest after nest. It seems so peaceful and we travel along through some gentle rapids. With temps in the 70s we couldn’t complain. It almost seemed like it was all going too slow. There were several rafting groups on the river. You can tell them apart by the colors of the rafts, white, yellow, blue. Our guide Chris tells us it’s his second year doing this and expands on the training that he’s been through to become a guide. “We had to flip the raft over and over and over, and be able to get back in it” he says, I am feeling fairly confident he can take us down the river. At one point I say out loud to my husband “I wonder if we could ever do this on our own”. I forget what my husband said but it’s to the effect of “No, we can’t”.

In the calmer water, the two Boeing brothers take turns back flipping out of the raft into the icy water and then are pulled into the boat. The teen daughter does the same. In my mind, I’m like you people are nuts. There’s no way I’m voluntarily taking a dip in swift moving ice water. One of the Boeing brothers turns to the other and says “You know we need to take more time off”. The other brother yells “What??” “I said we need to take more time off!” says the brother.

We then enter our first set of bigger white water. And it feels like we have a little less control on the river than in past trips. The teen daughter gets launched out of the raft and we quickly pull her back in the boat.
We catch our breath and say okay we’re ready for the next set of even bigger white water.

And that’s about 30 seconds away…

We enter more white water aptly named Boulder Bend. The rapids are all named; the next is Rock n’ Roll. Even the parts of the each rapid have sub names. We hit some huge white water and see about an 8-10 foot large wave coming up and in an instant know we will not clear over this wave. And if it hits us head on it’s going to toss the raft like a rag doll. What happens reminds me of that movie The Perfect Storm with George Clooney, you know where the boat tries to climb to the top of the giant wave and gets flipped bow backwards. On a slightly smaller scale, this is what happens to our raft, we are losing control and try to climb the wave and the raft and all 7 of us occupants are flipped backward raft nose first.

All 7 of us land in the drink.

My first thought is crap, I’m going into this water. I go underneath, there is a larger boulder directly to my right. Then all I see is bubbles and more bubbles and I feel like I’m in a washing machine. I kick hard to surface and it doesn’t seem I’m getting anywhere and I suck in a gulp of water and cough. As I cough I surface and say what is this? I’m under the raft still going down the rapids. I’m holding my breath and see the moving air pocket under the raft and suck down some air. I think this isn’t good. This is a nightmare, I’m stuck under a raft going down a river. For half a second I think this is it, this is how it ends for me. But, wait I think fight, fight, get this thing off of you! So I push as hard as I can and I’m able to get my head to pop out from under the raft. A fat cold wave slams into the side of my head. That felt good. Well, no it didn’t. But I am out from under the raft and I’m still rolling down the rapids which is like an icy rollercoaster ride. I kick and grab hold of the raft and the rope around the side of it and I hold on hard. I turn my head and I see nobody. I think oh my god where is my husband and the other people. I think Mike is fit and strong. He’ll be able to get out of this but I don’t see him. And what about the other people in the boat? A few seconds later my husband appears in the water next to me and is breathily saying are you okay, are you alright? He keeps saying “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I think I’m hyperventilating.” He says he was under the raft, too. I don’t see anyone else that was in the raft around me. But I hold on to the side of the raft and continue down the rapids which seem like an eternity when you are floating in a vat of ice water. I think hell how long can I hold on like this?? A couple minutes later I see two rafts full of people heading back up rived heading to rescue us. Nobody on the rescue raft looks happy. Two big guys pull me onto their raft. I see a couple of the people that were originally in the raft with us. The others are pulled onto another raft that is also rescuing people.

It seemed like forever before we paddle through to calmer water off to the side of the river. We stumble out of the raft like beat up wet rats. I see the rest of my raft mates and ask the middle aged woman in the group how she is. She says she was stuck under the raft, too and also thought it was the end for her. I find out there were four of us stuck under the raft. Yet I saw nobody. Our young guide Chris looks very solemn. I can see he feels terrible and the other guides are telling him it’s okay, it happens. I ask again what was the name of the rapids where we flipped. He said it’s called satan’s a-hole. So, essentially we all almost drowned in satan’s a-hole. Great. What a way to go.

One of the Boeing brothers is there and he’s all happy like this was a really cool thing that happened. Except he seems really hyped out. He comes over and gives me a hug. In my mind I’m like dude I don’t know you for you to come over and hug me, I wonder if you are okay? My husband says “Now I know what it felt like to be on the Titanic, except… we lived”. Are we overreacting here? Is it the emotions of the moment? I tell my husband that I don’t think we’ve processed what just happened to us. I mean we’re not marines, we’re not navy seals. Just people out for a day of nature.

All the rafts from the same rafting company are together now. We prepare and get back in our rafts and shove off for the second half of the trip. None of us are looking excited. We are still wet, still cold and very quiet. I think we are still a bit shook up. I look up front in the raft and I see the Boeing guy that was all hyper previously is now very quiet, too. The back of his shoulder is bright red and I start to keep an eye on him. Something isn’t right. He keeps extending his arm and making a fist and then opening it and extending his fingers. I watch him do this a couple of times and I tell my husband I don’t think that guy feels well. I turn around and tell the guide “hey I don’t think the man up front is feeling well.” Suddenly, the man – a fit 40 something year old guy clenches his chest, pushes his oar aside and slumps down in the raft. He’s in cardiac arrest. I tell the guide that the man is having severe chest pains and get him to call for help. The guide looks helpless. We paddle hard to the side of the river and flag down another raft for help.

Watching this guy writhing in chest pain and shivering is hard to watch.

He is breathing. We keep him calm and call an ambulance. It always seems like an eternity to wait for an ambulance doesn’t it? In reality it was probably fifteen minutes before the ambulance arrived and hauled the man off to the hospital. We never got his name and the rest of his family left with him.
So then it’s me and my husband and the guide on our own to get down the river the next 5-6 miles. We ask a couple from another raft if they can help fill up our boat for the rest of the trip and they do. The rest of the rafting trip couldn’t be over soon enough. To first flip a raft, go into the drink and then watch a guy have a heart attack after this would shake anyone up.

Will I go river rafting again? Probably. It might be a while. I’ve learned a few things:

  • Helmets might have been a good idea. Nobody I saw on the river (with the exception of kayakers) had a helmet on. The next day I had a goose egg bump on my head. Who knows what hit it, maybe an oar, maybe a fellow rafter. Either way a helmet would have helped.
  • A little instruction on how to get out from under the raft if it flips over on you could be helpful. Another guide later told us to remember to move four feet in any direction and you should be able to get out from under it.
  • A wetsuit with sleeves. When swimming in a vat of ice water, not only having your legs covered with a wet suit but your arms as well. Protects you from the summer sun and ice water.
  • Remember to have some cold beer and a towel waiting for you. It really helps at the end of a white water adventure.

And that’s what happened to me June 16, 2012. See you next time Wenatchee River.

The next day we went wine tasting in the Red Mountain region of Washington State. It’s been said that’s a little safer.

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