Saturday, May 3, 2008

Split seconds

We paused to regroup. We had hit a rapid that had spilled each of us in succession. One of us tipped over first and while our leader and teacher Jim was attempting to assist we got swept into a larger, more complicated rapid that dumped most of the rest of us. Jim flipped too, and unusually, for him, was unable to roll upright again. Five of us were out of our kayaks in swollen Eagle Creek, each attempting to extricate ourselves. Some of us ended up on one bank, some on the other.

At least we were able to retrieve our boats, paddles, and we were unhurt, if a little shaken. We shouted to each other for a while across the roar of the current. Jim must have been on my side of the creek, because I remember a line strung across. He must have tied it off at our end and then ferried it across in his kayak. I think that Ruby used it to cross, and then Jim called back to me to see if I wanted to use the line or if I thought I could paddle across on my own. For some reason I felt confident and my voice must have convinced him because he nodded and I threw him my end. Now the only way across was by my own skills.

The tricky part is crossing the ‘eddy fence’, the wall that divides the slack water by the bank from the swift-moving main current. The technical skills required are to keep the nose of the boat pointed upstream at a distant point on the opposite shore, then balance and timing to paddle madly when punching the current. The laws of fluid dynamics and force vectors will take you neatly across if you can balance all the forces, and remember to lean downstream. It’s like not-thinking of a white elephant. When the current strikes and you feel your body start to tip downriver, the tendency is to overcompensate and lean upstream, which then presents the deck of your kayak as a lever to catch the force of the current and you’ll flip right over. I got knocked—I leaned upstream, I flipped. Bye bye.

Away I went. I caught a glimpse as I went underwater of my companions beginning to run downstream to follow. I tried to roll, but I’d not yet even rolled in a flat pool, let alone in combat conditions. I came out of the boat and tried to get in defensive position: sitting, almost, hips and knees flexed, heels thrust forward to fend off rocks. I must have lost my paddle; I’d tried to hang onto my boat but got separated sometime back when I was trying to swim into an eddy where I could gain the bank. But the current was too strong. A logjam presented itself—a split-second decision, I ducked underwater and was washed through. Later Jim told me, “I had a real bad feeling when I saw you being swept toward those logs.”
Shortly after that I made it out of the creek and onto shore. We were all in disarray again. I located my paddle, or maybe someone else had fished it out. Got my various pieces together, but other members were still in trouble.

Pat and I were given the job of sitting up on a rocky overlook. I can’t remember for what. Maybe to see if some lost equipment would come washing down; maybe waiting to for some upstream friends. Alone, we talked for a bit, edging closer until we were in each other’s arms kissing experimentally. In dry suits that functioned in this case as chastity belts, there was no easy way in or out we joked. Before we could get to the point where it made sense to start thinking about ripping them off we saw our companions walking on the bank below and so returned to the business of getting to the end point of this misbegotten journey.

It was indeed misbegotten. We were all former kayaking students of Jim’s. Patrick and Ruby had been in an earlier class, so they were a little more experienced than Charlie and me. It was November, there had been some good rains, and this creek was really too much for our skill level, and it was too much for Jim to be trying to take care of all of us by himself.

Still, we were at a stretch that looked fairly straightforward, and that maybe we had a chance to finish and get to the take-out where the truck was waiting. On each side of the creek was private property and Jim was loathe to have to go find a hostile property owner and beg permission to use his road to come and get the rest of us.

So we reassembled and started again. But again the elevation dropped and the banks narrowed and the current accelerated. I tried to pull out at an eddy and got swept into the low limb of a tree. I was pinned there, my head above the water, but not far. I began to moan.

It seems like it was only seconds before the others were around me. They had gotten out of their boats and were standing next to me using the limb my boat was pinned against for support. Charlie used some line to tie my boat to the tree. Once it was secured, Jim said, “OK, Debora, it’s time to come out of your boat.” Oddly, it was hard to leave—it was a moment with its own stability and making a move had some risks I didn’t want to think about. I exited and surfaced in time to see the current catch my boat. The nose point caught briefly on the limb and as the tail swung it may have hit a rock or another obstacle. Whatever force carried by how many cubic feet per second were flowing that day was concentrated on the cockpit and it folded like a piece of paper... Because Charlie had tied it off it wasn’t swept downstream.

At this point it became preferable to Jim to humble himself before a property-owner than to try our luck again. Four of us hung out on the bank watching my boat unfold while he went to take his chances with an owner. Later we rode out in his truck.

Later still it occurred to me how easily things could have gone in very different ways. Just for me alone the log-jam could have been a life-ender, had there been another log beneath the surface where I ducked. The force of current could have pinned me underwater and I would have been powerless to overcome it. No one would have been able to get to me on time and they may not have been able to do anything even if they had. Suppose I hadn’t exited the boat before the current bent it? At any number of places in the whole adventure the outcome could have been shunted down a different path—an arm stuck out at a place where there was a tight fit and small tolerances, a boat hitting a rock at a certain angle and bouncing to a certain position. It seems an incredible amount of luck kept us all intact.

I think the river became a sort of crucible for me—an object lesson in the role of split-second decisions in the face of random chance and chaotic input. I never felt I had my skills down to a point where I could trust them to put me in the best position to be lucky. My worst fear was that fear would cause me to hesitate just a beat too long before taking a necessary action, or that I would try to think too much and miss a crucial moment.

I’ve often thought of the river as a metaphor. I tend to be anxious when I can’t see too far ahead, and I’m not sure if I’ll have what it takes to make it through a tight spot. Then I fear that this anxiety will keep me from having the looseness and flexibility a tight spot might require.

I have been seeing the river in my dreams, lately; turning blind corners where I can hear a roaring but can’t see, or I’m perched above a drop where I can see that it’s like threading a needle, and I need to know that I can make the right moves where and when necessary.

I’ve had some nice experiences with luck where my mind shut off and without knowing beforehand I made the right responses with the right timing. My problem is not knowing ahead of time I can do this.


Douglas W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas W said...

In moments of emergency we can either find super-human speed and strength and decision making ability that we never knew existed; or we can freeze into complete inaction. I have seen people do both.

It is fortunate that in your time of emergency you reacted as you did. And yet, your experience of not feeling confident in advance that you will do the right thing in an emergency is common.

Many years ago I was renovating our first house - remodelling the kitchen. I was using an adhesive to glue the laminate onto the new bench tops. I had them layed out onthe laundry floor. I had read the labels - use in a ventilated area, no naked flames. So I had the door wide open. There were no naked flames... or so I thought. I had spread the adhesive all over the bench top ready to fix the laminate to it when suddenly the whole thing was a mass of flames. I had forgotten about the gas pilot light in the hot water heater. It comes on automatically when the water needs heating. The fumes from the adhesive had found their way to the water heater and were just waiting to be ignited.

What did I do? The first thing I did in my fright as I jumped backwards was to step right on top of the adhesive covered board. So not only was the board on fire, but my shoe was covered in adhesive and it caught fire.

Instantaneously I shouted "Call the fire brigade"; kicked the can of adhesive like a football through the open back door; grabbed the burning board and flung it out after the can; stamped my feet to try to put out the flames on them as though I was doing some crazy war dance; rushed into the garden to grab the garden hose and spray water all over my legs, the laundry, the burning boards, and everything else in sight - all in the space of about ten seconds.

When we need to we usually react in a way that saves the day.

But sometimes it is the anticipation of the event that we fear the most.

You spoke about dreams you have had recently. Dreams can be disturbing.

When my children were small, whenever I took them anywhere I would watch over them with an eagles eye to ensure no harm came to them and that they did not get lost.

For years after I separated from my wife I had nightmares in which I would be taking one or more of the children somewhere. I would turn around and they were no longer at my side. There was always a crowd of people and I would fight my way through the crowd of people looking for them. I never found them in that nightmare because I always woke myself up shouting their names.

In recent times I had another nightmare in which my daughter, now 25, was at some much younger age. Somehow she had found her way into an underground drain pipe. I could hear her calling to me from under my feet. "Daddy, I'm here". And then from somewhere else. "Daddy, I'm here". In the nightmare I did not know where the entrance to this pipe was so it wasn't just a matter of finding the entrance and going down after her. And she kept moving. I would get down on the ground to listen for her voice and she would be somewhere else. Then the voice would get weaker. And disappear.

I would leap out of bed trying to escape the image and sound of her voice. Almost too frightened to go back to sleep in case the nightmare continued.

I would hope that in cases of such emergency I would react with super human strength.

excavator said...

"In moments of emergency we can either find super-human speed and strength and decision making ability that we never knew existed; or we can freeze into complete inaction. I have seen people do both."

What has paralyzed me is that I don't know which I will do. In the case of the logjam an option presented itself, to duck, and I was compelled to do so in the way that water is compelled to run downhill. I don't know if I was in alignment with some sort of meta-self-preservation wisdom, or if I was merely lucky.

I've had similar experiences in other venues--situations where I've slipped and fallen while skiing an exposed and icy slope or losing my balance on a friend's porch: if I'd made the wrong move it would have resulted in a snapped ankle. A slight change in my body's position during the event would have had a serious outcome.

"But sometimes it is the anticipation of the event that we fear the most."

In situations where I've had a chance to think about things beforehand my problem is not knowing which I'll do: will instinct see me right again, or will I freeze.

An emergency is just a compressed time where action is required; but choices in a slower setting have to be made each day.

Having two children is far more difficult than having one in terms of keeping track of their safety when out and about. I imagine that adding the third multiplies the stress effect even more. No wonder you had such terrifying dreams.

I was about to ask when those dreams faded when I reread your message and see that the one of your daughter underground was recent. *shudder* It's not encouraging to hear that the awesome responsibility of our children's safety weighs heavily even after they are grown...

What an interesting dream that was: kind of mythic in scope.