I dropped my left edge and raised the right. Swift current from upstream piled under my boat shooting me quickly into the main flow. I had time to take two paddle strokes before the bow of my kayak sunk devastatingly into one of the most powerful, river-wide holes I have ever dropped into. I was unable to gain enough momentum peeling out of the eddy. The foam pile behind the hole, like a sledgehammer to the chest, stopped me dead in my tracks. The stern of my boat dropped deep into the hole behind me. I was along for the ride now. My boat looped backwards twice, each time I took a huge breath before reentering the swirly water. I rolled up still helplessly stuck in the hole.
Quickly, before I could wipe the water from my waterlogged eyes, the upstream current caught my edge and sent me under once again. I reached as deep as I could with my paddle hoping the current along the bottom would rip my boat and body from the hole. No go. Water was pounding down on the bottom of my boat. It wasn’t the first time I had been stuck in a hole, so I relaxed. I set up to roll, remembering the calmer I remained, the better my roll would be. I went for it again, I was tired. My lungs screamed for oxygen. Fail. I knew the inevitable was near. I set up one more time, this time the water shot my boat against the river right wall. The hit against the wall was so hard it dented the front of my Dagger Nomad and jolted my body. There was nothing I could do. I was pinned against the wall, upside down, with the majority of the river pounding down on me. I let go of my paddle, reached for the pull loop on my skirt, something in my 6 years of whitewater boating I have never had to reach for, and swam.
Somewhat disoriented, in the back of my head I remembered the significant hole that was waiting for me downstream. The river constricted between two rocks known as the Goal Posts. The hole that formed was infamous for recirculating bodies. I had to get out. The water forced my body in multiple positions. The splashing water left me unable to see. I lunged for the side. The slippery rocks were hard to grab. Finally, right before I slid down between the Goal Posts a tortoise shell-like rock caught my eye. I grabbed it and pulled myself out. I was exhausted. Beat up. My right leg had received such a blow it made it hard to walk from the water. The torn knuckle on my thumb sent blood running down my arm. I could feel substantial pain coming from my left butt cheek.
I scurried up the bank. Our friend Quinn, the person I was boating with, went for my boat. My paddle was gone. He made an attempt but the water was so swift and so restricted there was no way he could safely rescue the boat. He was floating backwards trying to position the kayak to make the rescue, but flipped over, caught off guard by one of the holes below. He was able to roll back up. My kayak was gone, out of my sight. Quinn came running upstream to make sure I was okay. We climbed a bit higher on the bank. I took my helmet off and just sat on the ground. From our vantage point now we could see the boat. It was pinned on the river right side of the creek, opposite where we were. Both bow and stern were pinned. My boat was locked there.
There was nothing we could do. Quinn put in up stream to try and catch the eddy my boat was creating and dislodge it. He couldn’t budge it. The situation was unsafe for two people to try and tackle. Quinn was late for work. Apologetically he headed for his car and headed back to Denver. He yelled out the window of his truck, “Welcome to Colorado!” Before he left he put a post up on the Front Range Kayakers Facebook page letting local folks know there was a boat loose on Clear Creek. Turns out I wasn’t the only person who lost a boat that day. The water was rising so quickly it seemed to have caused problems for many folks that day.
I still didn’t have my boat. I was pissed at myself for swimming where I did and even doubted why I was out there in the first place. The thing that was heavily wearing on me was the fact that, that same day, I had already paddled the run and with no complications. I had paddled more substantial whitewater in the past and couldn’t for the life of me figure out where I went wrong. For every bit the river beat me up, I mentally beat myself up 10 times that. I had to just get over the fact that I could potentially lose my boat. Like Quinn, I too, had work obligations that day and was pressed for time. I said good-bye to my kayak and left. Jess drove the van. I sat silent in the passenger seat.
About a mile downstream I spotted three other kayakers packing up their gear on the side of the road. We stopped. I got out and approached them. “Any chance you all could help me get my pinned boat unpinned?” I asked, partially rushed. Like most kayakers, they were eager to give me a hand. We now had the proper number of people to safely remove the boat. Accessing our throw ropes, slings, and carabiners we headed back to the water’s edge to formulate a plan. As the plan took shape and we started to stage the rescue, one of the guys that agreed to help actually jumped into the water, dislodged my boat, and was now himself in need of a rescue. I threw a line to him as Jess and the other two guys ran alongside the water tracking down the loose kayak. I was able to safely get the swimmer out of the water, but he too was beat up by the pounding water and jagged rocks.
“What a shit show,” I angrily said to Jess. My boat was caught in a low head dam now, being recirculated. There was absolutely nothing anybody could do to get it out. We’d now have to leave and wait for the levels to go up in hopes the boat would flush and still be in one piece. Between the stress of the swim, losing my boat, and having to save my help, I was at a low point . I made sure all the members of their crew were okay and left. For the rest of the day I wore the incident quite heavily. I felt completely out of place, like I didn’t belong paddling. I know everybody swims, but it was the compilation of the swim and the lost boat that I couldn’t get over. The day ended silently. Jess knew I was upset.
Two days later, miraculously my boat was back in my hands. Though it was significantly beat up it was still in one piece. The Front Range Kayakers managed to rally significantly in an effort to get my boat out of Clear Creek. I let the sun do its magic on the large dents and rebuilt some of the outfitting. The next time I got back in the boat the very guys who taught me how to kayak accompanied me. On their way back to Virginia from a boating trip they took in Idaho they met with us in Buena Vista, CO. We paddled the Numbers section of the Arkansas River and like the swim never happened I was feeling awesome catching eddies and smashing through holes again. Kayaking is as much mental as it is physical. I shouldn’t forget we are all in between swims.