"Is that Skull?" The question came from the stocky oarsman at the back of the raft. John had maneuvered rubber rafts through this part of the Colorado many times. But this summer, the water was running higher than usual. It would take a keen eye and a cool head to make this a smooth trip. Skull would be the trickiest part of our run through the whitewater.
"Look, there's Room o' Doom," John pointed out the landmark that was our cue to watch for Skull.
My grip tensed on the nylon rope that was threaded around the raft. The adrenaline began surging through my body. I felt my stomach tighten into a fist. Was it only last week that the river raft crew had consented to let me come aboard?
Sid, my crazy outdoorsy friend, my rock-climbing, cross-country skiiing and backpacking mentor, was on the phone with George, one of the owners of Comin' and Goin' Whitewater Adventures.
"I have a friend here who would really like to go down the Westwater with us...Well, no, she's never been rafting before."
"Sid," I whispered, "Tell them I can swim; I'm a lifeguard!"
"George, she's a great swimmer. She coached a local swim team and she's lifeguarded all summer." Sid held his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone.
"George says if a raft flips over, it doesn't matter if you can swim or not. You really need to be experienced with whitewater rafting in case you run into trouble."
My hopes fell. I wanted so much to go on this trip with Sid. We did almost everything together. Sid resumed his phone conversation. "George, she's a good kid; a real 'granola girl.'" His eyes smiled at me through his darkened glasses. "I think she can handle it." Silence. "Hey, that's great. Okay, I'll remind her. See ya."
So here I was, fulfilling a dream. Such a risk-taker these days. At 23, I often found myself in the mountains of Utah, drinking in all of the natural beauty and doing things I had never dreamed possible. At that moment, I found myself sitting in the bright southwestern sunshine, surrounded by friends, fresh air, and flowing water.
My mind raced to our leader's speech on the shore of the river earlier that morning. We were a somber group during breakfast, in contrast to the bawdy bunch that had partied in camp the night before. George got everyone's attention as we were milling about the river's edge, loading our gear and securing all of our gear with ropes. Our eyes locked onto his gaze as we sat on the damp sandy beach.
"Ya heard the park rangers yesterday warn us how high the river's runnin' this summer. When the Colorado's high, she's fast. I'm not tryin' to scare anybody but we need to talk about what to do in the off-chance one of the rafts flips over. Yer first instinct may be to try to breathe. Don't do it. And whatever ya do, don't try to swim! You just hold yer breath and let the life jacket do yer work."
I was jolted out of my reverie by a neaby voice rising in pitch. "This is it! This is Skull!" With all of this water around me, I found it hard to believe that my tongue felt like a thick cotton ball in my mouth. I tried to swallow as my knuckles whitened with my clenching fists. The voice was screaming in my ear now. "Turn! TURN!"
Our raft jumped onto the back of a wave that was building in momentum and size. John's obscenities floated toward the front of the craft. We were now at the mercy of the river. The raft slipped over the wave into a deep hole and then flipped up and over. Water came crashing over my head as I was swept from the boat. The rapids swirled and churned around me. The river tightened its hold on me and pulled me beneath the roar of the rapids. It was strange being in the center of so much movement, so much force, and hearing nothing.
This sensation was nothing like I had imagined in the nightmares of my childhood. I had an unexplainable fear of death by drowning. Breathing is something most of us take for granted until we are presented with a lack of oxygen. I had imagined myself gulping for breaths of air only to fill my lungs with water. Drowning would be a violent, terrible way to go.
Everything was dark above me. I was shooting down the river UNDER the raft. My hands felt their way across the floor of the raft. The silver-colored tube reflected a little light. I could see the yellowish frothy water and then sunlight! I grabbed a quick bite of air and was swept under again.
I was spinning, turning. For a few moments, I forgot George's words of advice and gave in to my instincts. Swimming furiously, my arms moved in wide sweeping motions and my legs kicked violently against this angry wave that had taken hold of me. The more I swam, the colder the water felt. My brain engaged itself once again and I realized I was swimming toward the dark bottom of this wild river. In my mind, I saw George's sun-tanned, bearded face looming in front of my own. "Let yer lfie jacket do the work. HOLD YER BREATH!" I stopped swimming, clutching the font of the plastic-coated life vest. My body shot up through the water, bobbing up to the surface like a cork. AIR!
Through my dripping hair, I saw Creed holding onto our overturned raft. I desperately clawed at the boat to get a handhold. Over the roaring current, I heard Creed shout, "Face forward! Feet first!" I dropped the rope from one hand as I tried to face forward to fend off any submerged boulders with my feet. The wind was knocked out of me when I was swept away from the safety of the raft by the impact of another ruthless wave.
Once more I found myself bathed in the silent peace I had come to know under the seething surface of this wild river. The longer my brain went without oxygen, the more relaxed I felt. Perhaps this is how my life would end. Fighting it was as senseless as trying to swim had been.
When my lifejacket popped me up one more time, I breathed deeply and searched wildly for Sid. If this weren't my time to go, I was going to get back into survival mode and swim like mad! I heard someone shout from the paddleboat ahead of me, "There's one! Pick her up!"
To borrow a thought from Oscar Wilde, "There is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at and missed." Unless perhaps it is being swept away in a drowning torrent of water and living to tell about it.
Death by drowning no longer has a part to play in my dreams of fear. The monster of my childhood has been tamed and can frighten me no more.