slowly, her eyes slit, blinded by sunlight. She blinked to clear
the gummy substance away. Licked dry, cracked lips. Trees took
shape overhead, fall leaves turning gold and red. Blue sky peeked
beyond them and puffy clouds floated between. She was lying down.
Outside. Lifting a hand, she encountered slithery cloth and held
it up. It was her sleeping bag.
an arm out of the bag and braced her elbow on the ground, then
pushed. Her arm quivered, so weak it barely lifted her. Slowly,
she sat up. The world rocked and whirled, dipping like a class-V
rapid. A mallet thumped rhythmically against the inside of her
her over; Nell reeled, retched, grabbing her head. Her pulse pounded.
She retched again and again, dry heaves slamming around the pain
in her skull, a wrecking ball intent on pulping her brain into
mush. Intense thirst ripped at her throat. Her eyes burned, tearless.
Shivers caught her. She clutched her head with a hand and the
pain over her temple doubled. A pulpy knot rested beneath her
Shock? Yeah, shock. Bump on the head, likely concussion.
help, figuring out a diagnosis, she thought. She eased back
down and eventually the nausea dissipated. Trees overhead stopped
dancing. A bird called. Whitewater roared nearby. The air was
cold and damp, the sensory stimulation as familiar as her own
skin, yet nothing looked familiar from where she lay.
sleeping bag, she fingered polyester fleece, smooth against her
hand. Under that, she felt the ultrafine knit of water-wicking
syntheticsher cool-weather, stay-warm-even-if-you-get-wet
turned her head and was rewarded with only a small increase in
the rhythm of the hammer beating against her brain. The coals
of a long-dead fire were close by. Four full water bottles.
Nell slid an arm out and grabbed a bottle, pulled it back under
the sleeping bag. With trembling fingers, she opened it. Managed
to drink a few sips without losing much to the cloth of the sleeping
bag. After a few minutes, her stomach settled and she drank half
of the water. Her body sucked up the fluid, demanding more. But
she waited, allowing her system to accept it. If she drank it
too fast she might throw it up and lose all the benefit. She remembered
that from wilderness first-aid class, or maybe it was the swift
water-rescue course. She didn't remember why she was on a riverbank,
alone, but if she could remember that much, the rest would surely
sip by sip, Nell drank almost all of the twenty ounces and capped
the bottle. Slowly she sat up again, holding her head to keep
it together, sure it wanted to fly apart. She was lying on a flat
space in a tiny clearing, not more than ten feet wide and maybe
twelve feet long. A shelter had been built over her, thin boughs
of fresh-cut tree branches resting over a single, larger branch.
She held her hand over the stone-ringed fire pit. It was as cold
as it looked. Deadwood was piled nearby, but hadn't been used
to feed the fire. Her kayak was overturned, hull up, resting atop
her PFD, paddle, helmet, dry suit and kayak spray skirt. Her rescue
rope had been used to secure the pine branches of her shelter
in place. Her other rescue equipment, biners, pulleys, prusicks,
were all piled together, half in, half out of the rescue-equipment
bag. Near them was a cell phone, in pieces, turned on its side
as if to dry out.
an arm out of the bag and flipped the dry suit over. Each of the
limbs had been sliced and the neck hole had been cut out, the
gashes irregular, as if made by a rescue knife, slashing. The
chest area was ripped and torn, punctured, as was the abdominal
area. A sharp twig, dead pine needles still attached, was rolled
into the neoprene fabric over the chest, which should have been
protected by her flotation vest. It was twisted and snarled through
several holes. A feeling of dread slid between her ribs with all
the finesse of an assassin's blade.
the neck of her fleece shirt out and looked at her chest. Across
her neck, ribs, abdomen and along her sides were field dressings,
mounds of gauze held in place with elastic cling wrapped around
her. Blood had seeped out and dried in the dressing. Her ribs
and chest throbbed with each breath, and she had a feeling that
if she coughed, she was going to hurt. A lot. She was cold, shivering,
the skin of her hands white and puckered.
around. First rule of whitewaternever paddle alone. But
she was alone, and had been for a while, it seemed. Second rule
of whitewateryou can only depend on yourself. It looked
like she would have to.
an eighty-year-old instead of with her usual vigor, Nell peeled
out of the sleeping bag. First things first, and the most urgent
was the call of nature. Too weak to bend properly, she held on
to a branch to rearrange her clothes, using the moment to inspect
herself more thoroughly. She was covered with lacerations, punctures
and bruises, sure evidence of being caught in a strainer. The
feeling of dread increased. Finished, Nell pulled her clothes
back in place and caught sight of her left hand. The plain gold
ring brought her up short. Memories flickered. The feeling of
Joe? She looked around the clearing. Joe had been here. It was
his phone in pieces. His way of stacking firewood, with a package
of corn chips nearby. Joe would never have left her alone.
to the stacked firewood and bark. Kneeling, working by instinct,
she positioned the bark, leaves and fibers in a cone, placed the
kindling over it and took two Fritos corn chips from the opened
pack. With the lighter she found beneath the chip bag, she lit
the corn chips and set them to either side of the cone. The oil
in the chips burned a long time and was a time-honored way of
getting and keeping a fire started. The leaves and bark ignited
and Nell fed the small flame with kindling until it could support
itself on the deadwood. The blaze felt unbearably hot on her face
and hands, testament to hypothermia.
be impressed at her recall of medical terms. He used them fluently,
while she more often stumbled over them. She held her hands over
the fire, warming herself, rubbing them gently together. They
were bruised and cut, nails broken with filth crusted beneath
them. She leaned into the smoke, holding her breath, letting the
warmth seep around her head, through her snarled hair. Her face
was chapped and raw, and the warmth felt wonderful. Rocking back
on her heels, she took in fresh air for several breaths, then
bent back into the smoky heat. And again. And again. Thawing herself.
When she was
warmer, Nell rolled to a sitting position and slid her feet into
her lightweight, neoprene river shoes with tough rubber bottoms,
constructed to be worn by paddlers in cold water, and stood. The
shoes were dry and warmer than her feet. Joe had left them beside
the sleeping bag, which, when she looked it over, was both bags,
Joe's and hers, one inside the other.
with vertigo, and a cough threatened but held off. She crossed
the clearing to the pile of supplies, strength returning more
quickly now that she was moving, but pain bid for attention. Her
head injury made the world sway drunkenly.
cell-phone parts were two itemsher rash-guard shirt, which
Joe had somehow pulled off her body, and the Ziploc baggies that
Joe used to keep sensitive electronics dry. They looked as punctured
as her chest. Inside was a piece of paper, a letter with her name
at the top. A shiver trembled through her, teeth chattering.
opened the ruined bag and let the plastic fall to the ground as
she read her husband's neat, block writing.
what you'll remember about the accident. Water went up fast just
before we reached the Double Falls. The class IIIs looked and
sounded like class Vs. Big water. You were out of position river-left,
and elected to take the cheat. I was too far right and had to
take the crapid.
at the river runner's term for a crappy rapida difficult
and dangerous rapid, but one without a hoohaah component, without
joy at the bottom. She touched the paper, her fingers sliding
over the word.
I was scared
shitless when you weren't at the bottom, in the pool. The end
of the cheat was blocked by a dead pine and you got caught in
the strainer. Force of the water had lifted your boat up enough
so you could breathe, but the tree was shifting, dragging you
down. I did a hairy ferry and took to the rocks, climbed to get
to you. By the time I did, you were bleeding pretty badly and
starting to slip under.
the paper. Badly . . . Joe with his perfect grammar . . .
the description of the rapids. The double falls, the cheatthe
easier drop taken by novices or wimpsthe mention of a pool.
She remembered the trip. Joe had planned it as a delayed honeymoon,
kayaking on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Not a
bad run, but not easy, and not one they could paddle without a
lot of rain. The South Fork had notoriously unpredictable water
levels. Not a dam-fed river, rather, a rain-fed one, it was usually
dry this time of year, but the remnants of a late hurricane had
stalled over the Tennessee plateau and dumped a lot of rain. The
South Fork had been running big waternearly 2500 cubic feet
per second, or CFS.
eased as she began to put it together, and as the water she had
drunk entered her bloodstream.
I got you
out of the boat but we had to swim the last of the cheat to the
pool. The water took a squirrelly curl and it knocked you into
a rock. You went out. Concussion. Shock. I'm so sorry, baby. I
couldn't hold you. I banged up my knee, getting you to shore.
around. They were river-right. Joe had gotten them across the
river in big water. Swimming. With a bad knee.
I got us
up the shore to a flat spot and set up camp, made a fire, got
you warm. I watched for other boaters but the weather must have
turned nasty upstream . . .
Gwen Hunter - Reprinted by permission - All rights reserved