Friday, May 26th 2000
I had been anticipating this trip for quite a while, and I considered the rest of my hikes this year to be a pre-cursor to the bug out.
Since 1996, I have participated in what's become know as the Memorial Day Bug Out. The idea originated with my brother Joe and John "Bear" Kuhn back in 1987. The concept is simple--do something adventurous in the outdoors on Memorial Day.
This year was our best planned, certainly, and for the last four years, we have gone to Pine Creek Gorge and canoed two days and camped/hiked for two days over the long weekend. There were six of us this time: Joe, Bear, Brad Long, Lori, Ben Novak (almost!) and myself.
When we got to the Outfitters, the water looked much much faster than we had ever seen it before. In fact, in 1999 there was hardly any water and we simply camped for all four days.
Despite the fact that we had two amateurs with us, Ben and Lori, we decided to make a go for it, since adventure is what we were looking for.
As it turns out, Ben, possibly in a depleted condition, decided not to go, and left for State College. This allowed bear to use his kayak, which turned out for the better.
We hit the water a little late, and we had Dave Willey shuttling our gear to our campsite in Tiadaghton.
With empty canoes, we felt a little more secure than if we had a boat load of stuff to lose in the fast water.
Lori took a bit of training, but after an hour or so, she managed well enough to calm my fears about the rapids. I had never steered a canoe before, so I wasn't terribly confident about our match up. nevertheless, things worked out pretty well, and we made it to the island just before the Owassee with only a little yelling and screaming, and no capsizing.
Scouting the Owassee gave me a sick feeling n my stomach. The water was moving far faster than I had even imagined, even having hiked the west rim the week before. The waves were four or five feet higher than the gunnels of the canoes, and I wasn't sure how to proceed, but the path along the left of the rapids seemed relatively mild, so that was our plan.
Bear went first in his kayak, and I got some nice photos. Joe and Brad went next, and they seemed to get through just fine . . . again, nice photos. Lori and I went to give it our shot.
What we didn't know, was that after we left, Joe and brad were capsized by a large rock that had created a nasty hydraulic and 'hole' in the water. It didn't look like anything from the scouting vantage, and it was exactly where I wanted Lori and myself to aim.
We hit the water and we were immediately drawn away from where we wanted to be. The current was so strong that our paddling was pretty much useless. I kept the front of the boat facing downstream, but the was about all I could do.
We sailed through the worst part of the rapids without incident, although I have to admit that seeing waves higher than my shoulders was pretty scary.
Feeling a bit bullish, we headed towards the hole, but as soon as we got close to it, the current pulled us into the rock next to it. We hit it pretty fast, and nearly missed it, but between the rock lifting us on the left and the hole under the right of the boat, we got thrown out of the boat. We weren't simply capsized, we were actually thrown out.
The rest of what happened is pretty blurry for me, but I was immediately sucked into the hydraulic that created the hole. I had no idea what happened to Lori.
I thought that the cold water would have been the worst part, but it wasn't. The hydraulic was spinning me around and around like a washer and dryer, not that I was being spun around my own axis, rather, I was along the perimeter of a larger circle, being bumped and scraped on the bottom and on the rock causing this. The current was so strong that I really couldn't believe it. It was very disorienting, and the water was deep enough where I couldn't touch the bottom except when I got thrown into it.
Every once in a while, I would hit the bottom or the rock, and when I opened my eyes (this is harder than you can imagine!) I could see the sky through the water. By this point, I was past being able to hold my breath, and I took in a gulp or two. I pretty much acted on instinct, but I managed to wedge my hand in between two rocks long enough to push off the rock and get my feet under me. I kicked off of the rock and popped my head above water long enough to get some air, but not long enough to catch my breath.
I got tossed and turned for a little while more, but I was pretty much above the water. After a bit I managed to get to a shallow part of the river and with some difficulty, managed to stand up long enough to catch my breath. At this point, I was taking deep rapid breaths and I could feel my lungs burning. I was about 20 feet from the tip of the island with the water up to about my thighs, and I thought that I would be able to walk out. I took one step and got thrown into the current again.
Now I was pretty dazed and confused, and I new that I was in trouble. My life jacket didn't keep my head above water, and I kept trying to get my feet downstream since my back was taking a beating over the rocks. Twice I got my feet downstream, and twice I got reversed. At least three or four more times I got taken under, but the water was shallow enough to just push out of the smaller hydraulics. The entire time, I couldn't get enough air, and I was yelling "help" as often as I could. I figured that the rest of the people in the party might not know how serious my situation was, so I thought that yelling help would let them know.
What I didn't know was that everybody else had been taken downstream too. Only Bear didn't capsize, but we was franticly trying to get the rest of us out. He threw a rope to me, but I couldn't get over to it, and I passed on by.
After missing the throw rope, I gave up trying to get my feet downstream and I just went with the current. Oddly enough, I never felt cold or panicked. I did feel very, very tired, and I was somewhat 'out of it' from not getting enough air.
After what seemed to be about 15 minutes, Bear pushed his kayak out to me, and I just barely was able to grab it. The river was shallow at this point, but I couldn't move a muscle. Bear and Brad had to lift me as dead weight out of the water.
I learned later that Brad and Joe had gone through something similar to me, and Lori had just got out of the water about the same time I had. She was fortunate enough to be near the canoe, and she grabbed hold of it until shore. Meanwhile, Joe had made landfall on the opposite shore, but after seeing me, he jumped back in to help me.
I owe my life to these guys.
I couldn't move a muscle. I was literally exhausted, unable to move anything but my fingers, eyes and mouth. Later I would learn that I had emptied my bloodstream of oxygen except to keep me conscious.
Bear and brad struggled to get me out of the water, but we were on a rocky hill, and they too were tired. I couldn't help them at all, but they tried to accommodate my requests when I couldn't breathe in a particular position. I also thought that my problem might be low blood sugar, and somebody tried to help me eat some powdered hot chocolate. I don't know if it helped, but I appreciated the effort. It was kind of funny, though, when Bear tried to get me some water and I couldn't swallow . . . it went right into my lungs.
They say they knew I was going to be OK because I was complaining and as grumpy as usual . . .
Joe went to get help, as did Lori, but Joe found people first, and what seemed to me to be about 10 minutes later, there was an ambulance. Everybody else says it was more like an hour. Lori was hysterical, but mostly unhurt. Joe and Brad had a rough time of it themselves, but everybody did what they could. I could do nothing. I have never felt closer to death than at that moment, but luckily, a host of good people were able to help.
Just as I was about to pass out, a paramedic put an oxygen tube on me, while the others prepared a basket. It took six rescuers to pull me out. I think I know what the 'lights' are that people see during near death experiences. All the light and color I could see became extremely intense. It was like somebody turned the color and contrast controls all the way up. I hope to simulate the look in a photo soon, which I will post here. I probably would not have died once I was out of the water, but it was as close to it as I want to get. The helplessness of spinning in that hydraulic is one of the most vivid experiences I've had, and I can relive those seconds just by closing my eyes.
Once I was in the ambulance, I actually felt OK. I suppose it was the oxygen, but at that moment, I knew I would be alright. I did, however, throw up everything I had eaten that day. On the way to the hospital, an EMT measured my blood pressure at 80 over 60, and my blood sugar was good at 140.
In the hospital, I pretty much just rested until I had enough strength to get up and walk out.
More coming . . .