Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Most Fun I've Ever Had in a Near Death Situation

This fine tale begins one beautiful May weekend in the year of ought eight. The sun, blistering. The responsibilities, waning. The foolishness, immense. I was living couch surfing with my good friend Joe D. As an avid outdoorsman, or perhaps just someone who loves mixing substances with the outdoors, he suggested we spend the day floating the river while consuming copious amounts of adult beverages. You know, it'll be great- the sun, cool water, beers, shooting the shit- perfect, in fact.

Eager for such fun, I hastily answered yes, reveling in my naivete of river floating, as I had never been. Now, you may ask yourself what, exactly, is really needed to float a river? Sun, intertubes, a river, beer, and friend(s) appear to be the only real necessities, right? Seemingly, nothing beyond a few physical needs, and certainly not any particular knowledge. Besides, implicit knowledge informed me that floating could easily be accomplished with only three steps:
  1. Throw intertube in water.
  2. Get self in tube.
  3. Get drunk floating.
Simple enough, yes?

Joe and I make our way to Freddy's to make our essential purchases. I chose a twelve dollar intertube and a brick of some cheap gross beer. Joe, for some reason, has difficulty selecting a flotation device, hung up between a dolphin and an inflatable twin bed. After numerous failed attempts to persuade his decision towards the adorable dolphin, the twin bed appeals to him for maximum relaxation purposes, amidst considerable ridicule from me. Total financial obligation between the two of us? Approximately forty clams. 

After Freddy's, we park my car at the exit point of our float path and drive to the launch point. Immediately, Joe notices the incredible lack of people present. He finds it odd, but we progress. Red flag number one. Jo pulls into a parking spot and we disembark from the car and immediately begin to prepare. With beer. We pop our shirts off, beer race, and look around. Observations include: A cop speaking to river-goers, a small number of other fun-loving individuals, and a swift, high, brown river. Red flags two, three, and four. There is nobody in the river, and we both get a feeling of uneasiness, as if everyone present could sense how dangerous it would be to even fathom entering the river. 

We move closer to eavesdrop on the cop's conversation, and it is as we fear- No one should be entering the river. Jo and I return to his car to weigh our options- a) postpone our fun 'til a safe day and b) say, "fuck it," and go. The debate goes as follows:

Jo: "Um, Jay, I don't think it's safe. I've gone floating a lot before, and this looks dangerous."
Jay: "Fuck it, let's go. I've never gone floating before, but I'm sure it's going to be just fine."
Jo:  "I dunno..."
Jay: "Jo, we just spent like, twenty bucks each, drove and parked our cars, and one used whole afternoon planning and prepping for this. We're invested."
Jo: "Yeah, but not much at all. It's not like we can't just go some time soon."
Jay: "<Unintelligible questioning of Jo's manhood>."
Jo: "Ok..."

So, let's keep in mind what happens when the first 80 degree day of the year hits Oregon. First, the positives: Everyone flocks to common outdoor spots, Oregon is beautiful in Spring, and there is a region-wide lifting of Season Affect Disorder. The negatives include: Everyone flocks to common outdoor spots, snow-pack melts that result in swift, high rivers, and invariably, there is a water related death or two. Again, the first few hot days in Oregon always result in considerable snow run-off and rivers that are fast, deep, dirty, and damn near freezing- all good reasons to not play in the water during these few days.

We finalize our preparations (e.g. tying the beer bag to an intertube to keep them cold in the river, Joe putting on water shoes (which I don't have), and consuming a bit more liquid courage) and meander down to the river. 

Finally up close, the river's current takes us both aback. We watch for the policeman to drift away from us, continuing to address other parties further away from us (to avoid a lecture and/or a citation). Between where we are standing and the river itself, there is about ten feet of large jagged rocks. We share a glance of, "You're sure?" and exchange nods. Joe starts with gusto, flying down the rocks in his water shoes and jumping onto his big, dumb, inflatable bed. Shocked and speechless, I watch him hit the water and immediately begin speeding down the river. My mind still in the process of boggling, I can only muster a, "Wait! Rocks hurt! Jooooo!"

I brave the pain, hold the intertube behind me, over my butt, and hop in. Hop in. The. Water. Is. Freezing. We are no more than a hundredth of a second into this adventure and I'm already regretting it. How could I be so stupid and cheap? At once, I attempt to prop myself up on the intertube and not let my hindquarters dip into the water, but it's difficult work. Ahead, I see Joe lying on his stomach on his ridiculous bed, kicking furiously against the current, buying me time to catch up. I speed up to him in no time and give him the ole' wide-eyed what-the-fuck-did-we-get-ourselves-in-to look. 

The river, being so high, fast, and dirty, makes quick work of Joe's memory of the layout of the river (i.e. sand bars, rock beds, inlets) and we realize we're on alien territory quickly. So quickly in fact...

We don't see, or perhaps can't react to, the huge tree stuck longways (parallel) in the river, carving it into two paths- Continuation resides on the left side of the river, and a rock bed sandwiched between this tree and completely impassable land (should we chose to evacuate the river) on the right. The current is far too swift for us to get left enough to pass safely and we smash into the tree. My intertube is done. Popped. Who would have thought a twelve dollar plastic tube is incapable of smashing into submerged tree branches at high speeds and not popping? Weird.

More frightened than ever, my mind is beginning to short-circuit, "For fuck's sake, seriously, what do we do?" While balancing on this tree as shiver-inducing cold rushes by, up to my knees, I attempt to make sense of our situation- We are at least two miles from the launch point, down one flotation device, and scared. Even if we choose to bail and somehow make our way through the chilly, standing water, I literally can't ascend the blackberry ridden bank, much less pass two miles of trail-less Earth. As bad as it sounds, the river and floating it on the back of Joe's once admonished bed appears to be our best option. 

Ever so tenderly, I position the now literally life-saving bed on the correct side of the tree and await Joe to get into position. If ever we need luck on this adventure, it is now. River launch number two needs to be done simultaneously, as it is impossible for one of us to hold it while the other embarks, just based on our immediate precarious positioning and the fact if we don't launch far enough away from the tree, we risk a popped bed, and then being really screwed having to swim in nigh freezing water to get to shore quickly enough to avoid falling prey to imminent hypothermia (a.k.a. totally and completely fucked). A deep breath, another nod, and we're air-borne.

One splash and a quick jolt, and we're away. We're above water, safely perched on a still inflated aqua-carriage, fit even for a king at this point, beer in tow (staying especially cold, we've learned). I ask Joe how long the float usually takes. "Three hours, usually. But with the speed of the river, I have no idea what it will be." Still nervous as hell, we begin a delicate dance, balancing sobriety, a buzz, and fear. Some buzz is necessary to stave off nerves, while too much could cloud our judgment and literally be deadly. Joe warns me to keep my eyes out for rapids, rocks, and little whirlpools- All of which decrease our chances of continuing to love living life by upwards of 100%. 

We balance ourselves on either end and side of the bed, submerge our legs to act as meat rudders, and give it our best to avoid any possible bed-sinking objects. Despite the insanity of it all, I found a lot of beauty (not to mention, respect) in the river. It certainly put a lot of things into perspective. Joe and I keep our wits about ourselves, as much as we can, and enjoy what there is left to enjoy.

Enjoyment ceases the moment we quickly round a corner and Joe realizes our exit point is afoot. "There," Joe points to the left side of the river. "We need to be there. Now." 

"What?!" This section of river is probably sixty to seventy feet across. At best, we're thirty-five feet from the bank. Additionally, the exit is about a quarter mile away, but we are moving so quickly. "Get in, start kicking!"

"JOOOOOO!" I hold onto the front right corner of the bed with my left arm. My lungs instantly contract from the sudden envelopment of my body by the frigid water. Breath is hard to come by. My thoughts, non-existent. Instinctively, my right arm begins to paddle, legs kick. My head is turned to the right and I am incapable of easily viewing our destination. After what seems like an hour, I move my head to check our progress and it seems we have gone nowhere. Regardless of how furious we may be paddling and kicking, it feels like the raging river overpowers us completely and renders our actions completely meaningless. 

If I was any more numb, I wouldn't have been able to feel my muscles and lungs burning, nor realize that I was no longer holding onto a fully inflated bed. Popped, and more resembling a garbage bag than an inflatable bed, our last life-line has been used. If we're surviving, it's all on us now. Unfortunately for us, my "fight" response lasted likely no more than thirty seconds, courtesy the ice bath that to which I was now subject. With little progress across the river to positively reinforce my actions, and all my energy sapped by the icy water, I was done. "Jo! I can't do it. I'm done." The brutal, freezing river popped me too- I honestly gave up my will to continue living at that very moment. 

"Don't you fucking dare quit right now, Jay! I am not done living! Kick! KICK!" Sure, my death would be on my own hands and no one else's. But having Joe's too...? That is too much. Accessing a reserve physical and mental strength I was sure did not exist, I swam and kicked as hard as I possibly could, knowing full well Joe was doing his damnedest as well. Re-invigored, I look up to gauge our progress. Crestfallen, I watch us completely miss our target, and it isn't even close.

I turn forward again, unsure of what exactly we were now attempting to reach, doubting my body's ability to press on in such cold water. Perhaps struck with the greatest stroke of luck in my life, there is a bridge leg jutting up out of the water fifty yards down from our target destination that appears to be pooling water between it and a concrete bank. It seems like a pretty safe departure point. Summoning whatever strength I have left, and still holding onto the deflated bed, I kick. As we approach, we free ourselves more and more from the raging current and find it easier to cut through the river. Sapped of strength and oxygen, I stop kicking, totally drained. Fortunately, we catch a current that pushes us right into the calm. Somehow, we hoist ourselves out of the river, and look at each other exasperated. 

We made it, no worse for wear, and appreciating life that much more. We struggle up the embankment, walk through the park holding our now passed savior, bearing the confused stares and gaping mouths, reach my car, and leave. Later that day I heard on the news the water temperature was forty-two degrees and there was one death on the river. 

Words are inadequate in expressing my gratitude for life now. To say I certainly see some things through a new lens since this experience is an understatement. Were it not for Joe, I'm sure things would have resulted far differently. 


  1. Geez,Louise, what is it with boys? ;o}
    One question. What happened to the beer?

    Certainly glad that that turned out well, and a wonderful read! One word of advice from one who grew up on lakes and rivers: if it's too cold to swim in, it's too cold to fuck around in.

  2. PS-I'm not unknown, I'm Bonnie, Nadia's mum.

  3. Great advice, Bonnie! As for the beer, I have no idea. I think we drank all of it. There was some mixed garbage drink in there we didn't touch, for fear of becoming too blasted.