Vail Daily column: Going deep
Not the normal sun-splattered quasi-dark that touches the river deep within the canyon, but dark like thick, black tar has been spackled across the thin veils of my eyelids.
I feel like a ragdoll in a washing machine, the hydraulics of the river pushing me down, down, further into the dark. I open my eyes and immediately close them against the onslaught of cold water. It wouldn’t do any good anyway; there’s nothing to see.
On the surface, the river tumbles and howls, its cry echoing off the canyon walls, a thundering wave of sound — but down here, everything is muted, the pressure of the water confounding my eardrums and leaving me alone with my thoughts.
The first one to bubble up is that I’m going to die here, alone, in the dark. I reach out in desperation, trying to clutch at something, anything, besides the relentless current, but my fingertips find nothing. The overturned raft is somewhere far above, and I’ve been down here for a second, a minute, an hour.
I contemplate inhaling the river, letting it flow into my lungs in an attempt to click off the nagging, swirling images that keep flooding my brain. I force myself to concentrate, to consider the facts: The raft flipped. I’m in the water. A human being can hold his or her breath for up to 3 minutes, and despite the voices in my head telling me otherwise, I’ve only been under for about 15 seconds.
The water is disorienting, but I throw a few hard strokes toward what I think is upstream, into the fray, and then curl into a ball and wait for the momentum of the river and the buoyancy of my life jacket to pinball me out of this underwater cement mixer.
I open my eyes again and I’m barreling toward the light. When I finally break through the plane of water, I can once again hear the river roaring at more than 10,000 cubic feet per second over the dome-shaped rock that gives Skull Rapid its name.
Hands are pulling me into a raft and a line is tossed to my husband, who stands on our overturned boat following his own escape from the watery depths. It isn’t until we’ve righted the boat and we sit in it, clutching each other, that I cry — and it’s an ugly cry. Big, fat alligator tears chase one another down my face, and my body shakes with sobs.
I’ve heard a bad swim described as “going deep.” The river recirculates you and, for a few seconds, you’re faced with your own mortality. It can happen to anyone, from a novice to a seasoned guide, and knowing what to do when the situation arises doesn’t make it any less terrifying.
The best you can hope for is that you’ve done everything you can to prepare for it: Dressing appropriately for the water temperature, ensuring your life jacket is buckled snugly around you, traveling with experienced boaters, carrying safety equipment and knowing how to use it and, most importantly, knowing your limitations and when to back out if a stretch of river is beyond your ability to navigate it.
At this time of year, high flows can turn what’s normally a casual float into a frothing whitewater animal. Never take your safety for granted.
Krista Driscoll is the editor of the Vail Daily. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.