I never intended to make public a story of my near death experience on the Animas River last Monday, however the lead River Guide present suggested that I post something that may provide some inspiration to boaters out there. With so many recent stories of deaths on the river maybe a survival "success" story is merited.
To say the least I am lucky and thankful to be alive right now writing this message.
I got invited to be a volunteer safety kayaker on a two boat commercial overnight upper animas trip, and although I knew no-one on the trip, I jumped on the opportunity and drove through the night 5 hrs to meet the crew of 10 at Rockwood. The river was at bare minimum flows but I was excited to do a scenic overnight trip and it was great weather, people seemed cool, too.
The other safety kayaker and I scraped along and watched the rafts constantly get stuck and hung up on rocks in the low water. It was a challenge to keep the group together as hang-ups on rocks were at random intervals. Us kayakers decided that I would paddle behind the front raft and the other would keep an eye on the back raft. All guides and kayakers were very experienced and having a good time.
10-mile rapid was a shit-show as the rafts bumped, scraped and twisted there way down. We caught eddies along the way and waited for the rafts. One guide snapped an oar and was ejected from the raft. No big deal though.
Bouncing along just above No-name rapid the raft in front of me abruptly got stuck on a rock, blocking the main channel for me, I decided just to skirt around them to the left, that’s when I saw THE UGLIEST STRAINER ON THE WHOLE 26 MILE RUN. Immediately identifying it as a NO-GO zone I paddled hard upstream enough to pin myself up on a rock and delay downward progress. I could push upstream around the rock and into the next channel to miss the strainer. Scooting around the rock I lost balance and the current caught my boat quickly and peeled me off the rock instantly flipping me.
Underwater heading straight into the strainer, I thought to try to wait out my roll thinking I might pass right under the log/branch I noted 8” off the water (maybe there’s no blockage below the surfacing I prayed) Nope, Instantly I was pined and I pushed out of my boat. I didn’t panic but quickly started wiggling my way through branches to get through the strainer downstream. I pushed through but my skirt was caught on some branches upstream and it prevented me from getting my head to the surface. I could see the surface of the water maybe a foot above my head, but I was caught, I couldn’t get there.
That’s when I had my first though of, fuck I might not make it. I could see the surface of the water, that’s where I needed to be. Determined I braced off the bottom of the river with my feet and pushed hard up through the branches. Rafters eddied out on the other side of the river watched the giant log shake as I pushed through to the surface. The branches bowed and my skirt stretched to give me a small air pocket to catch a crucial short breath. I dove back under to try to free the skirt to no luck. I did re-position my feet and brace off the bottom again fully extending my legs, this time I got my whole head above water.
Breathing, bracing, looking around, I glanced across the river and saw the concerned faces of the other rafters. All I could think of was, I can’t die on these people’s trip, I can’t perish in front of these people. I imagined them rafting out with my cold dead body and I couldn’t bare the trauma it would cause. That’s all I could think about as the guide swam across the river to help me. He kept me calm as the cold water rushed over all but my head. He tried to pull me forward with no luck, so hard that the skirt pinched painfully on my belly. The other kayaker arrived and climbed on the log to help. I dove under a couple more times to try to wiggle at the caught skirt in vain. Confused, all I could think of was getting this pinching tight skirt off! I wanted to take off my life jacket and walk out of my skirt. One guide didn’t want me to do this and still wanted to pull me forward with a sling now attached to my pfd. I didn’t think to use my own knife in my life jacket pocket to cut the skirt, but when I turned and saw a knife on the other kayaker’s PFD I yelled, “take your knife and cut my fuckin skirt!”
The positioning was awkward and he started cutting the skirt off me and then handed the knife to me to finish because he couldn’t reach. It cut through in less than 40 secs and I got to shore, horribly cold and exhausted. I warmed up and got a ride on the put-put cart to Needleton where the overnight camp was.
During the next 2 hours my memories were a blur of thoughts of death and battling with the strainer. I was given the option to take the train out or to camp with the group and raft out the next day. I camped and had an amazing time which was way better than dwelling on my own death solo at the take out. Actually one of the best camping parties I’ve had in a long time! Celebrating life to its fullest. We were a rowdy bunch and being that there were 9 guides/kayakers on the trip and only 2 custy’s there was no holding back! Fire jumping, booty shots, the “anything but clothes” party, savage yelling and singing all fueled by alcohol made for a night of a lifetime.
The next day we put my kayak on the train and I rafted out with the group. I spent that night in Durango at the “guide house” and reinforced some of the connections I made with the wonderful people on the trip. So thankful to be alive!
I could not have imagined how horrible it would have been had I not made it. I am so glad I fought as hard as I could and was so lucky. The situation was even more profound in that a guide and kayaker on the trip had both experienced recent deaths on the river. The lead guide just lost a friend on the Big South and the other safety boater had a woman perish while pulling her to shore on his last trip down the Animas.
The last couple of days it’s been hard to keep focused and I am still wondering how I should or may change my life or outlook on life since this experience. I want to explore what I learned in this experience and maybe write on that later. Right now all I can say is “Stay away from strainers”, “Stay away from rafters” , “When in trouble, don’t give up”
I hope this story can provide a positive survival outlook on rafting and kayaking.