Several years ago, I found myself in Costa Rica, going down a Class IV rapids…without a raft. They had given us all a safety lesson before we got on the water, and explained how our life vests had a special pillow on the back that was designed to protect and cushion your neck from rocks, if you got tossed out of the raft. Because of this, it was important to make sure, if you found yourself in the river, that you were going down feet first, to allow the flow of the water to keep the pillow where it belonged.
We all listened attentively, and we all thought it wouldn’t apply to us. I certainly didn’t expect it to apply to me.
The river started out calm, with baby rapids to acclimate those of us who’d never been white water rafting before. It was a jovial, happy bunch in my raft – me, my ex-husband, the guide, a few other people our age. Everyone got along, and worked well together as a team. The ex and I got several compliments on how seamlessly we worked together, and we all quickly fell into a routine of laughing and teasing one another – and especially the other raft, which wasn’t functioning nearly as well as we were.
Then it happened. The river narrowed, canyon walls went sheer, the water picked up, and our raft slammed into side wall. We rocked, we nearly flipped, we righted, stabilized, wobbled, and as I wobbled, my ex-husband reached out to steady me, but missed, and instead of grabbing my life jacket to pull me towards him, pushed me right out of the raft and into the swirling fast rapids.
The water swallowed me, I sunk and spun and broke the surface, gasping for air and in shock. The raft was off to my side, and I could vaguely hear my name being called, in thick accent and in the panic of my ex-husband. Swim, swim, to them – I pulled my way through the water, fighting rocks and waves, to get back. A paddle reached out for me and I grasped for life, spitting water, trying to breathe without drowning, trying to move with the river and the raft.
They started to pull me in, joking about pulling beautiful mermaids from the water, and then I saw the look in the guides face. In a flash, he went from jovial to panic, and a moment later I understood why. The rapids sucked us in and swept us around; instead of being to the side of the raft, I was suddenly in front of it, being pulled under by suction and force.
They had warned us, during the safety orientation, that if we were sucked under the raft while we were in the water, we would drown. Period. We would be pinned under, and the weight of the raft would make it nearly impossible for us to get out. If we got in front of the raft, our only option was to get as far away as possible, as fast as possible.
I could feel the suction pulling me under. My feet, my knees, waist, torso. Within the blink of an eye, my arms and head were barely above water, in front of the raft, fingers locked in a death grip on the several ropes, the rest of me below, under, stuck. The laughing in the raft had turned to shrieking panic as they tried to pry me out from going under, and began to realize they were failing.
Over the din of the rapids and water, I heard – maybe just saw – the guide telling me to let go, let go. Telling me he was sorry. My memory goes white; I think, I remember, looking for my ex-husband, looking at his pale face, whispering I was sorry, but maybe that’s just a false memory, maybe it’s just intent. What I do know is that I let go.
I took a deep breath, and I let go. And like a hand had reached from the depths, I was pulled down and under. I could feel the raft against my skin, my face, I could feel the bumps that I realized were bodies above me, pressing down, and rocks below pressing up. Opening my eyes, I could see nothing but the yellow raft through water.
There was such an impulse to breathe.
And then the river turned, the raft lifted just slightly, and without thinking, I pushed off and shot out from under the raft, several feet away and off to the side. I oriented myself feet first and went into a dead-man’s float, looking up just long enough to waive to the raft and to note I was about to go down the worst of the rapids without the protection of the raft.
I closed my eyes, sun on my face and water around me, and relaxed into the experience. If I was going to do this the hard way, I was going to enjoy as much of it as I could – and I did. There is nothing like feeling the power of the river and the water around you, just you and nature, alone yet so caught up in a greater whole.
I bounced and bobbed, but always kept my feet pointing down river. The rocks took their toll, bashing and bruising and slicing me open; wounds I only noticed later. And just as suddenly as it all began, it was over, and I was floating lazily on my back on a still, smooth, quiet section of river.
A moment later I heard the splashing, frantic paddling, and the raft reappeared, everyone pulling towards me, pulling me in, touching me, hugging me, making sure I was alert and oriented, had not hit my head, was not seriously injured.
That I could breathe.