I must have made some kind of silent wish, listened to that story and let it rekindle some barely alive spark still smoldering. It fits, I’d listened to that young man and his tale, thought it the perfect call to adventure, and somehow wished it upon myself. He was young, approaching 19 and still in awe of all life held before him.
He’d stood in front of us, gathered to celebrate the passing of time, the beginning of adulthood and the end of high school. It was early summer and graduation parties for young men and young women were abundant, so was the excitement of new adventures and big dreams. I don’t remember his name, barely recall what he looked like, young, handsome, tall with waves in his light brown hair, but it’s vague. What’s not vague is the story he offered up and the wish that he bestowed upon us all.
“It was going to be the trip of a lifetime.” He started, ” three generations together, one epic journey to commemorate their solidarity, their love and to forever bind their hearts to each other. My grandfather, my father, my brother and myself were stepping out the door to tame the wild, slay dragons and navigate the the treacherous Rogue River down deep in the wild wilderness of southern Oregon. We had signed up for a guided trip, with other strangers looking for adventure, it was the summer before my brother would leave for college and everything would change.
My grandfather had booked the trip and now we all sat in the car at our rendezvous point with our group.
‘Before we get out,’ my Grandpa said, ‘I’d like to offer up a family prayer.’
This wasn’t abnormal for our little tribe and so each grabbed another’s hands and silently bowed their head. We probably should have paid attention to the building anticipation, been afraid of how things just fell together too easily, recognized it as an omen that time offs were granted, and schedules cleared, but we were oblivious, the smell of excitement filling our noses, testosterone coursing through our veins…heads hastily bowed, ‘hurry’, was my prayer, ‘before someone uses up all the fun.’
Grandfather inhaled, let it out and began, ‘Heavenly Father bless us that we will encounter all the adventure that we can handle. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.’
That was it. I was left wondering who was this guy and what had he done with my long winded grandfather, I quickly decided I shouldn’t question it, maybe God answered my silent prayer, the Lord works in mysterious ways, after all. And so it was that we all excitedly exited the car grabbing arm loads of gear and coolers of food. Enough, in hand, to last us three nights and four days in the wilderness, and we were off. Off on the adventure of a lifetime, we could not contain our enthusiasm.
The first half of the day was un-eventful, as far as rafting trips go, fun…predictable, there was a brief midday stop for grub but I hadn’t had time to build up an appetite. We nibbled on turkey sandwiches and drank bottled water, mingling with our new companions. My brother and I were filled with anticipation and excitement and saw this lunch break as unnecessary, spending much of our break skipping rocks across the burgeoning waters, full from the spring melt following a record year of heavy snowfall.
When lunch concluded and we began the process of relaunching half a dozen rafts we were armed with a brief run down of the next stretch of river and what to expect. Class 3 rapids were up ahead–I was going to see some action after all–and in the next half hour, adrenaline was swirling, I was on pins and needles.
Most rapids get smaller in the spring as the deeper melt-off water adds cushion to the underlying boulders, this upcoming area however was the exception to that rule. With vertical cliffs on both sides, a giant boulder more than ten feet tall pinned between them and a matching ten or twelve foot drop off the back side of said boulder. Lower water levels, meant a bigger drop off the backside but slower water too, thus making it easier to navigate your approach. The approach here is what mattered.
The boulder marks the first in a series of rapids. Entering these from the right side of the boulder is paramount to safely negotiating the next hundred yards of peril. It sounded fun, we were ready. Our boats began spreading out, making room for each other to chance the Rapids safely spaced out, we were the fourth boat with two following us. When the infamous boulder came into sight. The first three boats each took their turn paddling hard towards the right cliff, finding their mark and sliding effortlessly over the large rock of death.
Suddenly it was our turn and we were hurdling toward the left side of the cliff, we dug in our paddles, a singular and perfect effort…until the current ripped dads paddle from his hands. In his effort to retrieve the paddle he fell from the boat, the right side of the boat. Cliffs ever looming and fast approaching he scrambled trying to climb back in, each of us grabbing hold of his life jacket. Suddenly our raft was hurled into the left cliff with all the force of a raging river, we ricocheted off the left wall, then slamming into the right cliff and over the top of dad. He was gone, just like that; lost in the white water. Because of the manner of traversing the path over the Rock of death, we went over the water fall in a spin and to the left.
I barely had time to worry about the safety of my father when I found myself swimming in the icy water, our boat having flipped upside down at the base of the falls, all of our supplies and gear sliding out into the fast, swirling, rushing waters. My head broke the surface of the water and I felt the scream leave my lips but could not hear my own voice over the rush of the water.
If I tell you that it was maybe eight minutes of solid rapids that’s not doing the experience justice. Climb into an extra large washing machine and try to stay in it for seven or eight minutes while it’s going. It’s a better idea of what riding those rapids, outside the boat, felt like.
While I won’t deny I was afraid, I didn’t entirely have time to really consider how scary, just trying to find air and land, when I finally did, I saw my grandfather on the other side of the river, safety on land and sitting up. I could see a cut on his forehead but he looked okay. In the distance I could see the last two boats far away, upright and getting smaller and smaller on the horizon, our gear strewn about, some on the shore but most of it smack in the middle of the river and on a course far out of reach to us.
I looked up river from where we’d come and saw raging water, boulders and fallen logs all creating a hazardous maze of rushing white water. Standing on one of the boulders lining the opposite side of the river I could see my big brother, Joe. He was standing, arms in air waving at us, the orange life vests downstream. I could not yet see my father and a sense of doom seemed to grow in my heart.
Behind me was a small rocky beach and cliff sides that would soon prove inescapable. My granddad was yelling at me, I couldn’t hear him but understood the indication to stay put as he picked his way over rocks and boulders back to my brother. I watched and soon realized that below my brother my father was laid out on a rocky landing barely big enough for the boulder resting there, dad’s feet were still in the water and I could not see his head, my view obstructed by other obstacles between us.
It seemed hours passed but eventually my grandfather and brother had my dad between them and were carrying him back down towards my position. When they got into clear view I could see dad was hurt but conscious, weak but standing. Whew, thank God.
It took us a lot of time to realize that, though safe from the river, I was also trapped. After scraping every part of my body, and eventually falling from too many feet up I decided I could not safety climb the rock face buffering the river. No one was going to tell me to jump back in the water, there were still a dozen yards of white water. If I jumped in to cross the river, I’d be swept into it and though fine now, there were no guarantees I could pull that stunt twice and live to tell.
While the other side of the river brainstormed, no doubt discussing leaving me there and going for help, I became impatient. I felt prompted to act. I’m sure waiting would have left me weaker and less able, more exposed to the elements and in bigger jeopardy. I couldn’t wait. Dad and grandpa were arguing, again, I couldn’t hear the conversation but I could tell that emotions were running high. I looked at my brother, I must have a ‘tell’ because he stood up like he had a rocket in his butt. He said no words but walked directly to the edge of the water, staring me down. His eyes broke away for just a second and so did mine while I looked down river at what I was facing, when our eyes came back together I jumped in.
That’s when he started yelling and screaming, running down and over all the hurdles in his way, trying to converge on my hopeful landing point. I was lucky. I did make it to the other side, some yards down river, one thing is for sure though, I wouldn’t have without my brother Joe. He was thighs deep and braced against the current on green slimed rocks when he reached out and grabbed me by my sweatshirt-hood hanging from the back of my life jacket, barely grabbing, then dragging me to shore. I don’t know how he did that unless by some miracle.
When the four of us regrouped we stood there for a time, heads together, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, smiling, shivering, laughing. We were sure we were goners and something made that fantastically funny.
Eventually dad and I sat on a rock together unable to really function at full capacity and Joe and grandpa gathered what they could find of our belongings. This included: one smashed turkey sandwich still dry and sealed in a ziplock bag, one empty cooler, two cans of soda and by some other miracle a neon green, plastic tube with a watertight, twist off lid and 13–still dry–matches.
We gathered together all the dry bits of leaves, grass, twigs and sticks we could find and proceeded to build the tiniest, most pathetic fire you’ve ever laid eyes on. Being early summer/late spring most things were too green to burn or had already been swept away by the raging river. No matter, we were sure if we could just hold on, rescue crews would arrive in the next few hours.
Dark fell on us and still we’d herd no rescue choppers nor had we seen any other boaters. We knew our group saw us go over but we did not know they had no way of contacting search and rescue until later the next day. We were lost, deep in the thick of some of Oregon’s most remote wilderness and we’d just pulled ourselves from water barely over fifty degrees Fahrenheit… For perspective that’s only a few degrees warmer than your refrigeraters, to top that we had no food, (not counting the one, smashed turkey Sammy mentioned earlier) had skipped lunch, no dry clothes, no cell phones, no blankets, six dry matches–don’t ask–and a fire you could put out with one boot.
Rogue River temps drop significantly at night, even in the summer and I later learned the temperate that night hit a low of 48. We could see the glow of fog leave our mouths illuminated by our teeny tiny fire and a hush crept over us. When you have enough time to get out of survival mode, that is when dread smacks you in the face. We all reached that moment together as the night noises grew louder and the still air got colder. Finally granddad stood up, pulled one of dads arms up and over his shoulder and said it was time to get going. No one argued, Joe and I stood and followed, happy to let grandpa take the lead, hoping he knew something we didn’t.
We walked, hobbled, limped and shivered through the dark all night finally coming to a barbed wire fence. Knowing fences usually go somewhere we followed it on into the morning dawn. The fence eventually led to an old logging road where we took a break and shared our smashed salmonella sandwich…which is a lot like a smashed turkey sandwich that has been shoved in your pocket for 18 hours. I know we all felt guilty for eating, thinking each of us might need it more than the next but grandpa insisted.
That logging road held so much promise and we felt so hopeful even after morning turned to midday and we still hadn’t seen any other signs of civilization. Eventually after noon we came to a paved road that crossed the logging road and followed that another six or seven miles before we came to a rest area along, you guessed it, the Rogue River. This too gave us hope and renewed belief that we would be rescued soon.
Our father, in desperate need of some rest and surely having suffered a concussion was nauseated and dizzy wanting to lay down and rest. Grandad said there was no time for sleeping that we needed to get found and allowed only for a half hour respite from being on our feet. He set my father down on an ample rock big enough to be a small arm-chair and went to check for running water.
All of the sudden we heard this strange sound coming from the rock. The sound of a giant hornet on steroids or a mini freight train, if you will. I had never heard anything like it but some animal instinct in me knew it was bad, no chance it was something soft and fuzzy… Dad instinctively pulled his feet up on the huge rock and peered past his knees I took a few steps back and studied the rock, it’s then I saw the enormous timber rattler that had laid out its body along the south facing base of the giant chair rock. The snake had been startled from a snooze by our clambering and climbing on his rock and now, feeling threatened wanted to stake his claim.
Joe approached with a handful of pebbles and succeeded incompletely pissing the snake off until he was tightly coiled, buzzing his tail like mad and peering at us, ready to strike. Thats when dad stood up and lunged off the backside of the rock. We all began to argued how to best get rid of the beast and avoid getting snake bit in the process. Meanwhile, grandpa had seen the commotion, picked up a long walking stick sized tree branch, sharpened one end by rubbing it at an angle on the asphalt, walked quickly back to the ensuing mess, held a hand up to silence us, waited for the snake to lay his belly back in the silty sand and start to slither off then lightening fast, stabbed that snake right in the top of his head pushing the stick as far into the sand underneath as he could.
Then while the snake coiled and writhed on the stick grandpa scolded us saying that had we left the snake alone it would have caused us no harm and been on its way. I just stood there staring at the deadly pit viper, that wasn’t going to hurt us yet still managed to find a wooden spear in his or her head…I felt high but I think that was just hunger…
It was easier to find materials for fire here in the day use area so we gathered tender and wood and build another fire in a pit we made in the sand and circled with rocks (but not before we carefully inspected and kicked each rock, checking for any “harmless” pit vipers that might be hanging out.) Once that fire was sending out little glowing dust bunnies grandpa treated us all to cooked rattle snake. I wish I could tell you we were hungry enough that it tasted like fine dining but if you’ve ever had moms cooking you know the bar is pretty high…it was not fine dining and I could not pretend the sand was salt and pepper…but by the end of that chewy meal I did feel certain that all was right in my world and that things were going to be just fine. Ready for some smooth sailing…
It must have been my guardian angels whispering to me because just before nightfall a car came down the road to the day use area. It was a local man, alone, on his way home from a working out of town, he’d stopped here to relieve his bladder and was as surprised as us. We must have looked awful because after explaining the entire affair the man still looked nervous about taking us with him. It was momentary but even I could see that he thought he was making a mistake.
So it was, with no money, no I.D., no leverage or proof we were rescued by grace. He drove us to his house where loved ones, and eventually authorities were contacted and we were fed and clothed and ushered back into the arms of loved ones.
Joe said, In the back of the State Troopers SUV, on the way to a local hospital to be treated for dehydration and exposure, ” I know I must be insane for thinking this but I am so thankful for the last two days. I feel like I witnessed miracle upon miracle and I definitely had ‘all the adventure I could handle’ thanks for that prayer Granddad, how else would I have such clear proof that there is a God and he does listen and answer prayer.”
He was right you know, my brother Joe. I will be much more careful what I pray for from here on out!”
So I think about that young mans story in summer of 2013 and I’m sure the adventure gods heard my snicker when I had the thought that I could handle whatever they threw my way…cuz last year is proof of that!
I’m still ready for some adventures, I feel sure 2014 was gunning for me but I could be wrong, maybe 2014 was trying to teach me some survival skills, ready me for an even more epic endeavor…one where we are not doomed. Just to be safe, I put in a few request this time and conceded that I would prefer that this go around it’s not ALL white knuckle…but bring it on 2015. I’ve battened down the hatches, steadied my paddles, and thrown on some extra rope and matches for good measure, and though they might look like monkey’s, up close they are the real deal–hardcore, never backdown, never give up, fighters–I got my whitewater team and we are ready.