Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Astral Swim Contest - Twenty Seconds

The contest is now over - I finished second :(  But the story's still a good one, so read on. Help! I'm a finalist in Astral Buoyancy's 'Swim' story contest. It's my write up of my swim through an underwater cave on the lower Kern river a couple years ago. There are three finalists and Astral is letting votes on Facebook decide the winner. So take a quick moment and read the stories HERE and then go vote HERE.

The winner gets a new Astral PFD but since I have plenty of PFD's if I win I will raffle it off for a good cause: The Jason Craig Recovery Fund.

And here's the video from the swim, just in case you want to see what really happened:

And here's a different write-up I did for American Whitewater (they didn't use it but I think it's actually a better version - just didn't fit in the size constraint for the contest...)

Twenty seconds

Time passes differently on the river. The days are longer, filled with more than should fit into a twenty-four hour period. Each minute seems to have endless possibilities. Every second gets stretched out to a tangible period of time with multiple thoughts and actions. This slowing of the passage of time is often a pleasing aspect to river travel, but it takes on a more extreme character during a crisis.

We’ve all heard the stories: I was in that hole forever; I was under water for minutes; I thought I would never get unpinned. But usually these are exaggerations, the actual time spent under duress being far shorter than the true reality of the situation (or what our friends experienced while watching the action). But there is a difference between the time measured on a clock and what we experience on the river.

Twenty seconds. That’s how much time I spent underwater, mostly in a cave. The helmet cam video proves it, though it is black for a lot of that time. It felt longer to me. And to my friends watching from shore. But I still had plenty of air in my lungs when I emerged so it might actually have only been twenty seconds. But those twenty seconds were filled to the brim with thoughts and reflections.

At the top of the rapid I am focused as the rocks and holes fly by at high speed. Then the final hole spins me around before the big drop and everything switches to slow motion. Once backwards I have time to debate whether I should try to spin around or just go with it. In a fraction of a second I weigh the pros and cons: if I miss the spin I’ll go over sideways and get recirced – or maybe surfed towards the cave; if I go over backwards I could still stay in the current and go past the cave. I decide to stay backwards and backpaddle for as much speed as possible. It doesn’t work.

As I hit the bottom of the drop I feel my stern get turned sideways and the current grab my edge. I’m flipping with too much force to try to brace so I immediately go into a tuck, ready to roll before I’m upside down. In the white chaos I pause to see if I’m in the hole or flushing out. I feel the push of current that says I’m free and have time to note the power of that current as I begin my roll. Part way through I'm stopped – I hit the rock on my way up and know that the rock is above me, holding me down. I'm in the cave and the light quickly fades.

I pull my skirt as my boat comes to a rest pushed against the back wall of the underwater cave. I know exactly where I am and quickly exit the boat, choosing to release my paddle since it will be no use to me now. I quickly scan my environment – I can see the light coming from upstream but the flow of water pushing against me makes that route unattainable. I reach to the ceiling to try to get above the water – but there is no air pocket to be found. I start to feel around with my hands, looking for a passage out or anything that might prove useful. I notice that my boat is still right next to me and I wonder if it has an air pocket of its own. I leave that for later since I still have plenty of air at the moment.

As my search comes up empty part of my mind considers my situation in the abstract. I might actually die in here. There’s no flash of past memories, no thoughts of regret or curses for the cruelty of fate.  There is acceptance, the understanding that this situation is simply a logical outcome of the choices and actions that led to it. This is what we choose to risk when we paddle at this level. I accept that risk but I am not ready to accept that final outcome so I focus back on the situation and how to change it.

I feel a tug on my feet, the current going down and pulling me with it. I remember the story of a past boater swimming down and out this very cave; I remember that he got stuck on a tree branch in the process. But I know that to stay is to die so I push myself down, further down into the dark, further from the air above.
Now the sensation of speed has momentarily returned. I feel the rush of the water and sense the walls flying past. But the darkness is complete and my fingers no longer reach the rock. I note that the tunnel seems long, that I’ve been moving fast for a long time now. 

Then I'm out. The current fades and openness returns. I orient myself and see light far above. As I slowly rise I know I am safe. I think back on my time in the cave and how my mortality was so starkly laid bare before me. I note how calm I stayed through it all and marvel at the clarity of my thoughts. As I am still rising towards the surface I realize that my friends are up there waiting and now I feel distress. What must they have been thinking during this long stretch of time? What horrors were their minds conjuring? What did I just put them through?

And then I break the surface. I grab a lungful of new air and time resumes its normal flow. I still have a sense of purpose in swimming to the shore and I note my friends waiting there with throwbags in hand. I reach the rock and climb up and out of the river. Now safe my thoughts become a tangled mess: I am happy to be alive; I feel awful for my friends; I am pissed at myself for my mistake in execution; I am totally uncertain if my decision to run the rapid was foolish, stupid, brave or all of the above. The clarity and calmness are gone. But I am glad to trade the cool, detached awareness of imminent danger for the chaos and hassle of a complicated boat recovery. As long as time continues to flow on I am content to move at its pace. But those twenty seconds now account for a large portion of my life, what I learned and experienced during that time will stay with me forever. Those twenty seconds were full.

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