This is the story of how I went canoing with my family and almost died. No, I’m not kidding. I may be exaggerating a little bit, but I’m not kidding. Really.
See, my family went canoing together Sunday, and if you know my family already you’re thinking, “Oh, dear.” I mean, we’re known for many things (being way too smart and articulate for our own good, rampant eccentricity, having read too many books), but any sort of physical ability or sports aptitude is usually not included on the list. The one time we went canoing before was remarkable for how much time we spent out of our boats, not in them. This, coincidentally, was the cause of a lot of hilarity, giving us several stories we happily told in the years since then. And so, the weather being beautiful and Judy’s birthday coming up, and while we were all still in the same geographic location (an unusual event typically prevented by my family’s tendency to wander off when not watched), we decided to go canoing again.
Everything was going really well. Mom decided to paddle her own kayak instead of being a passenger in someone else’s canoe, which lasted just long enough for her to discover that she cannot steer and does not like paddling. After the second (maybe third?) time she ended up in the water she wisely let someone else trade places with her. Other family members also discovered that they could not steer. Michelle and Larry seemed to make their way downstream by heading horizontally bank to bank in zig zag fashion. I was doing very well, though, sharing a canoe first with Eddie, and then with Mikey when Eddie decided that he wanted a turn in the kayak. My canoe never seemed to run into difficulties, serenely avoiding sandbars, lightly getting through rough places. As I successfully navigated challenge after challenge, I started to think, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this.” And that’s where things went wrong.
We came to a kind of tricky place in the river. There was a large branch overhanging the water on the right side, the water underneath it running smooth and deep. If you cut to the left to avoid it, the water looked ripply and disturbed, the turbulence evidence of rocks beneath the surface. Close to the right bank the branch lifted up enough to make an arch you could paddle through if you steered precisely enough, but you would have to cut left immediately after you emerged to avoid a huge tree stump that jutted out of the water a little way further down. In my hubris I decided that I was up for this, and steered us towards the opening. And it went really well, until in our triumph at having navigated the arch, we didn’t cut hard enough and ran up against the tree. Mikey in the front was able to avoid it. I … couldn’t, and the whole canoe tipped over.
I came up under the canoe. There was still a little pocket of air under there, so I could take a breath and then duck back under to push it off of me, assisted by Mikey. (Mikey: “It was really scary when I came up and you didn’t, and I couldn’t see you.”) The next few minutes were very confused. Everything happened really fast. Judy and Heather were in the canoe right behind us which at first avoided the tree, and then tipped a little way past us. The current was very strong, sweeping us and the canoes downstream fast. We were trying to get our feet under us, hold onto the boats, and grab for paddles and life jackets (which, um, we weren’t wearing) that threatened to escape. The canoes were rapidly filling with water, which made them incredibly heavy and difficult to handle. Still, it looked like everything was ok. We were all above water, and working hard and fast to fix the situation.
And then it happened. I was on the downstream side of our canoe which was on its side in the water, trying to keep hold of it as the current pushed it down like the wind filling a sail. The river wasn’t very deep, so I was trying to get a foothold that would let me stop the thing so we could empty and right it. And then I got stuck on a submerged log. It was behind me and completely under water, so I never saw it. All I knew was that suddenly I was up against this big thing in the water with the canoe and the full force of the current crushing me against it. My right leg and ankle were trapped under water, snagged on something. I couldn’t get it free, and the force of the canoe was trying to make it bend in ways legs were never meant to bend. I couldn’t get out. The boat was getting heavier by the second, and I was up to my shoulders in rushing water.
Our family’s normal procedure when someone runs into difficulties while canoing is to hang around casually while they right themselves, pretty confident that they’re fine, but there just in case. So there I was, trapped near the right bank of the river, with Judy by me trying to hold on to the other canoe, now pressing up against my canoe. The rest of my family was fetched up on the left bank, unconcernedly waiting and unaware that I was in deep trouble. Larry was out of his canoe, watching us. “Do you need help?” he asked pleasantly. Judy started to say that we did, and I cried, “I need help NOW!” my voice rough with panic. I think the raw terror in my voice got their attention. Within moments I had Larry, Mikey, and Sean all over there trying to help. Their first attempt to pry the canoe away only forced it harder against my leg. Then they got Judy’s canoe away, which eased the pressure a little. But my canoe wasn’t moving, and my ankle was still securely caught. Mikey started feeling around under the water trying to see what was holding it. I started praying a Hail Mary out loud. And then somehow I came free. (Later I realized that the whole side of my Tevas, which was what had snagged my foot under the water, had ripped away, freeing me.) I was able lift my ankle up and over the log that had snagged it, and stumble away from the group holding on to the canoe. With me out of the way they could let it go a little further downstream to calmer waters where they could right it.
I stood away from the group for a long moment, almost unable to believe I was free. I suddenly felt a deep need to not be in the water at all. I haltingly made my way up onto the bank a few feet away. I turned and looked at my brothers in the water with the canoe, at the sunlight glistening on the water, at the people and boats drawn up on the rocky beach opposite, at the lush green trees framing everything in beauty. “I just almost broke my leg.” I thought, and I started to shake. “I could have died.” I thought, and right there had a small, quiet bout of hysterics. Larry noticed. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said as I hyperventilated, “I’m just having a reaction. Give me a minute.” Guy-like, he stood and waited for the tears to stop, then walked with me as, still jittery from the adrenaline rush, I crossed back over the river to the rest of my family.
And then we all got back in the boats and continued on our way.
I’m still amazed that I got off so easily. I think my Tevas must have been cushioning my foot under the water. My ankle is bruised some on the front, and there’s a huge scrape/bruise/contusion on the back of my calf that will be turning interesting colors for some time. Other places are sore to the touch, but there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. Nothing broke. I only have a few scratches. I think I aspirated a little water, which made my breathing rough for a little while, but that’s easing off. All in all, I’m fine. And I’m enormously lucky. If my brothers hadn’t been there, if they hadn’t been strong enough to get the canoe off me (in the end it took four of them to right it), if anything else had gone wrong… I don’t think I would have been typing this right now. Instead you could have been reading some newspaper story about the incredible tragedy on the river. But none of that happened, and I am typing this, and I’m so, so grateful to be alive.
I might even go canoing again some day.