Personal Travel

My vacation rafting misadventure

Or that time I accidentally body-surfed a Class V rapid on the Penobscot River in Maine.

Trigger warning: discussion of near-drowning, death.

The day so far…

My husband and I were spending the week with four friends at a rented lake house in Lincoln, Maine. The friends and I had done a rafting trip the prior year on the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire with ELC Outdoors, and had really enjoyed it – in all it’s mild Class I-II glory. It was mostly a float/paddle down the river, with a few mild rapid sections to get us wet and get the heart rate up. I had been bummed that the hubby missed that trip, and looked forward to getting him into rafting on this outing.

For this outing, we arrived at NEOC’s HQ bright and early for our all-day rafting trip, and everyone in our group – indeed, everyone on the entire trip, about two busloads of people – opted to rent wet suits. Except me. I tend to run hot, and if you’ve ever been overweight, you know how fraught outdoor apparel shopping can be – apparently fat people never go outside or do anything – so I didn’t want to deal with potentially not finding something that would fit, or being wrapped up like a sausage in an overly-tight wet suit. Ugh. No thanks.

After everyone was geared up, we had to stand around while a rafting guide gave us a safety briefing that felt like it went on far too long, and included too many attempts at humor that did not jive with my own sense of humor.

The things I remember from that safety briefing are: if you end up in the water, try to get your feet/toes up, because it’s better to encounter underwater rocks with a padded butt vs. fragile limbs; and if you end up in the water, one of the guides will shout out “Rope!” and you need to look for a rope being thrown to you, and try to grab it.

(What I forgot, which one of my friends helpfully pointed out later, was that you are supposed to try to point your feet downstream, so they’re the first thing to encounter rocks vs. your fragile helmeted head. Minor but important detail.)

The morning was a relatively tame float down the “lower Penobscot.” (An area below Abol Bridge Campground and Store, maybe? I’m not sure exactly where it was, but we passed Abol’s on the way to our morning landing, and then again when we were going to the afternoon landing.)

There were a couple of rapids up to a Class IV, but you could more-or-less opt out of the Class IV which was mainly a drop down a “12-foot waterfall” at the beginning of the day, and then a little bit at the end of the trip. It was a good way to get our feet wet, build up some confidence, practice paddling at our guide’s command, and hear a lot of dad jokes. In short, it whetted our appetite for a slightly more adventurous afternoon.

We had a riverside lunch, in which I literally stood around getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, and then another short excursion toward our take-out. At the take-out, we had to decide if we wanted to do the afternoon portion of the trip, with more intense rapids, and our group decided we were in! Into the bus, and off we go.

Ripogenus Gorge

Our afternoon landing took us to Ripogenus Gorge, to a hydroelectric dam. Right away, it was obvious that this was a different beast. We passed several warning signs: “Warning: the Upper Gorge is hazardous, proceed at your own risk” – and signs warning about danger when the siren sounds. The group was much smaller; only four rafts; and the terrain we had to portage the raft across was much rockier to get down to the river.

The first big rapid we had to navigate in the afternoon was the colorfully-named Exterminator, a Class-IV “hole.” When we hit the hole, the amount of water that flooded over the front of the raft – because of course I wanted to be in the front of the raft – was enormous, almost sucking me out of the raft right then. I felt myself being pulled from my perch on the side of the raft, and tried to dig my feet harder into the footholds; one pocket in the floor, and the other foot wedged between the edge of the raft and the raft floor, willing my core muscles to engage and keep me on that raft. Fortunately, it was a brief moment, and I managed to stay in.

Afterward, our guide Caleb remarked to me: “I saw you almost come out of the raft!” I laughed and replied: “I know! I felt myself being sucked out and hung on; I told myself: ‘you are not coming out of this raft!'” But it had been an unnerving experience, and I asked how that compared to other rapids we’d encounter in the Upper Gorge. “Is that about as bad as it gets, in terms of potentially being swept out, or are there more treacherous rapids to come?”

He thought for a moment, and then replied: “That’s about as bad as it gets. The Exterminator is the one that keeps me up at night.”

Alright. If that’s as bad as it gets, I can handle this. Onward! Down the river through Staircase (IV), Fist of God, Big Heater, Little Heater, Troublemaker Hole (III+) – plenty of paddling and work to get my heart pounding – and plenty of water to completely drench me over and over – but nothing like almost getting pulled out of the raft at Exterminator.

Then, we approached the Cribworks. Our guide told us this was a longer, more technical section; this is a place where we’d need to use finesse to steer the best line through the rapids, vs. simply pulling hard to get out of a hole or avoid some rocks. I either didn’t know, or had forgotten, that this was a Class V rapid – the only one on the trip? I blithely had it in my head that nothing was worse than Exterminator where I’d almost come out, and the stretch of river ahead of us didn’t look too bad – so I figured we’d just follow the guide’s instructions and do some tricky navigating, but it would be fun.

Spoiler alert: this is where it stopped being fun.

Body-surfing the Cribworks Class V rapid

The sun had finally come out from behind the clouds. The Upper Gorge so far had had a few challenging moments, but mostly it was beautiful and a lot of fun. I had forgotten all about my mosquito bites, and my not wearing a wet suit was kind of awesome, because the water was cool and refreshing in the warm sun. I was ready for this more technical section, so when the instructor said “All ahead 2!” – we paddled!

Because this was one of the biggest rapids of the trip, there was a photographer nearby waiting to capture photos of this section… so I’ll let a few photos describe what happened next.

That’s me in the front-left – the one not wearing a wetsuit!
And the raft goes into a massive wall of water…
Note a missing blue helmet in the front left of the raft?
Aaand there’s my arm and helmet in the water behind the raft…
Bodysurfing the rapid.

What it felt like

One minute, I was paddling – the next minute, this massive wall of whitewater came rushing over the front of the raft, and pullllled me right out. I felt myself going, but there was nothing I could do about it. My hands seemed too far from a rope to grab it as I went by, and couldn’t really see what was around me as the cool water tugged me overboard. I hung onto my paddle as I plunged into the water, and started kicking.

Initially, I was pushing through a mass of aerated water where it felt like I wasn’t making much progress. I kicked harder and felt my head pop above water. I took a breath. I knew I was in the water, but it was in my eyes and everywhere – I couldn’t really see what was around me, and it felt like I got pulled under again right away. I kicked some more, trying to get to air again and get oriented, but I felt like I had no control as the river swept me along.

I kicked for the surface. I hit a deeper stretch, where it felt like I kicked for a long time and the river wasn’t letting me up for air. The water was pulling me down – I felt my swim shorts being dragged down and grabbed for them, as I realized I was in some serious suction – so I kicked harder, and tried to use my paddle to help push me up toward the surface.

After four or five strong kicks, I broke the river’s surface again, and took a gulp of air into my lungs before being pulled back under.

By this point, I was completely disoriented. I got pulled underwater over and over again. Even when my head popped up, I wasn’t able to see anything through the splashing whitewater, so I kept my eyes closed, hung onto my paddle and kicked.

The water made a tremendous roar as it tumbled me down the rapids. When I went under, it gurgled and bubbled angrily as I progressed through the rapids. When my head popped up, all I could hear was the loud splashing of water thundering over the rocks.

The river shifted me to the right, and my left leg and knee crashed into a rock. I remembered I was supposed to try to get my feet up, and it felt like I succeeded for a moment, but the water kept sucking me under and I instinctively shifted to kick for the surface again. My left wrist whacked against a rock. I might have tried to hold my paddle in front of me to fend off of rocks – but the river kept tumbling me along, and I’m pretty sure I went down most of the rapids backward, leading with my fragile helmeted head.

I have no idea how long I was actually in the rapid, but it felt like about 40 to 60 seconds. In reality, it was probably half that? No idea. But when I started crashing into rocks, and felt myself getting tossed around like a piece of flotsam in the river current, gasping for air when I popped to the surface but feeling that it was happening less and less often… I started to realize that maybe I was not going to be alright. In my mental map of this experience, this was around 15-20 seconds into my swim down the rapids.

An article I’d read once flashed into my head; a woman had come out of a raft and had been battered by the rocks, breaking bones and almost drowning as she was tossed down the river, waiting to be rescued. She’d had to be airlifted out of a gorge and suffered long-lasting injuries, and was bitter about the experience. She reported thinking about how stupid it was that she had voluntarily and blithely put herself in that situation and now she was about to die.

I thought it sucked that I might get broken on the rocks, and I wasn’t a big fan of this not being able to breathe when I wanted to breathe thing… but on the whole, drowning didn’t seem so bad. I stopped struggling so much and let the river take me, hoping I’d pop up for air again but resigning myself to the fact that this might be IT. Like, seriously. I might be done.

I thought about my husband and dogs. I hoped that none of my friends had come out of the raft, and were now going through the same thing I was. I worried for my friend who’d been more timid about the higher-intensity rapids, and how much it must suck for him to see me get pulled out of the raft and now be fighting his way down the rapids in the raft. I worried he’d freeze up instead of paddling, or that he’d get pulled out, too – I felt like it would have been way more traumatic for him than it was for me.

As I felt the world around me get darker – it seemed like a while since my head had cleared the surface – I took mental inventory of my life, quickly scanning through things I might have left unresolved. I had no big personal projects in the works, or that would require my husband to deal with if I was gone – so that was good. I didn’t feel like there was something I’d “missed out” on doing, so that was good.

I felt a brief twinge of regret that I hadn’t yet finished the new documentation site I was working on for a client, and thought about whether my husband would think to let them know what had happened, and that I felt bad I hadn’t gotten it done – they’re good people, and I didn’t want to leave them hanging. Not bad for my only regret.

Mostly, I was glad I wasn’t leaving something big and unresolved for my husband to deal with.

Up. Take a breath. Back underwater, the thunder of passing through the rapids surrounding me, the water tumbling me wherever it will.

As I continued to get tossed about in the rapids, my mental process narrowed to a few key thoughts on endless loop.

“Try to keep feet up. Just keep hanging in. Just keep going. Breathe when you can. Conserve energy when you can’t. Don’t struggle unless you feel like you’re not moving forward. Eventually the rapids will end. Hopefully, you’ll still be conscious and able to help the rescuers get you out of the water.”

The rescue

After what felt like a very long time, but my mental timeline tells me was around 40 seconds, my head popped up again and I heard a voice shout: “Rope!” I opened my eyes for the first time in a while, and saw a strand of rope unfurling above me, flying through the air. I reached up and grabbed for it, letting go of the paddle I’d been hanging onto for so long. Blessedly, my hands caught the rope, and I held it up into the air, trying to show whomever threw it that I had it.

I closed my eyes again as I was pulled back underwater, but this time it was the force of the rope being pulled toward my rescuer that pulled me under, not the river tumbling me to and fro. I hung on.

I heard a voice telling me to let go of the rope. I really didn’t want to let go of that rope; I felt like it was the only thing keeping the river from sweeping me away again. The voice said I needed to open my eyes and let go of the rope, and I obeyed. I grabbed for the rope on the side of the raft, remembering another element from the safety briefing at the beginning of the day, and hung on.

My rescuer told me that he needed my help to get me out of the water, and asked me to jump and kick. I had no idea what I was doing at this point; I was in shock, and everything from this point is a fuzzy patchwork of moments.

He told me to jump and kick. I feel like it didn’t work the first time, and thought to myself that this was why I hadn’t gotten out of the raft in our earlier float for some swimming – getting back on was never going to work, because I’m so heavy. But somehow, he got me over the side of that boat and flopped on top of his legs in the bottom of it, panting for air. My chest hurt.

“I can’t breathe, I need to get up,” I remember saying to him. But he wouldn’t let me move right away, telling me: “Take your time, lovie. You’re safe. Just lie there and catch your breath. Don’t move yet. Just take your time.” So I did.

Eventually, I became aware that I could still hear the rapids around me, and my legs were still dangling off the side of the raft, and I was probably crushing his legs. I still couldn’t breathe right, and my chest hurt. I wanted up. He helped me struggle farther into the boat, and the other members of the raft moved to make way for me to sit in the middle. It wasn’t my boat; it was one of the other rafts that had been with us. The people around me gave me small, encouraging smiles. One woman said: “You were so brave!”

I sat there gasping for air, and looked around for my boat. I saw them downstream, with one of the other rafts, pulled up along the side, and it looked like everyone else was there. I couldn’t tell how well they saw me; I hoped they could see me sit up and could tell that I was ok.

With a start, I realized there was a small section of rapids still below us that we’d have to traverse before I could think about getting out of the raft. I didn’t want to move to the side of the raft and paddle. I just wanted to sit in the middle and hang on to the ropes and not get swept away again. The guide had moored the raft on a rock to try to pull me out of the water, and now we had to get off the rock and finish going down the rapids.

“Well, shit,” I thought to myself.

I wanted nothing more than to get off the river at that point.

The guide asked how I was doing. I said: “I’m alive. I’m breathing.” The people on the raft gave me small smiles, and I could tell the whole thing unnerved them. My voice was thick and hard to understand, even to myself, and I felt my words slurring.

“Well, shit,” I thought to myself again, wondering if I’d hit my head and if I had a concussion.

I don’t remember the exact series of exchanges that followed, but I communicated that I would like to get off the river when possible. The guide said we’d have to go a little farther down before we could make landing, so I sat in the middle of the boat and hung on grimly as we traversed a small rapid.

Our guide signaled, and the rafts ahead of us moved off. Show over, it was back to the business of rafting. “All ahead left” and “right back” as we worked our way off the rock, and then took a line hither and thither. The guide went back to his patois, interposed with the occasional dad joke, and the people in the raft kept giving me encouraging smiles or asking how I was doing.

Meanwhile, as I adjusted to life back above water, I worried about how slurred and thick my speech was… and realized how thirsty I felt, all of a sudden. It seemed ridiculous, given the volume of water that had just been sloshing me around – and how much of it I’d probably swallowed – but I needed a drink.

When we got to a smoother section, I turned my head and asked the guide if he had any water. He pulled out a bottle, and I drank some, swallowing carefully. My chest hurt, and I felt nauseous; I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t just throw it all up, along with a metric ton of river water.

I decided it was better not to chance it, and stopped there, carefully putting the lid back on the bottle and fumbling with the carabiner to re-clip it where he’d had it secured before. He saw me having trouble, and told me to just set it down in the back compartment of the raft and let it float there; he’d probably have some himself in a minute. I knew he was humoring me, but didn’t care; the medically-trained part of me was busy noting that my hands were shaky with shock, or adrenaline wearing off, and worried about the potential concussion.

We approached my former raft, and I tried to smile for my friends. They mostly looked very concerned, but happy to see me sitting up. Our rafting guide pulled alongside my rescue raft, and asked if I’d like to climb on across back to my raft – and I apologetically said: “I’d rather not, if that’s ok. I’d like to just sit right here until I can get off the river, if I could.” Both guides nodded, and I looked back to my friends. “Sorry, guys – I love you, but I really don’t want to fumble my way across and potentially end up back in the river again.” They made understanding noises, and paddled away again, and we continued down the river.

We passed a riverside camp, which I looked at longingly and wondered how difficult it would be to get a ride out of there if I asked them to drop me off there. But I kept my mouth shut, and focused on keeping it together just a little longer. Just until I could get off the river.

It felt like a while, but probably wasn’t that long before we reached a point where they could drop me off. My former raft and my rescue raft both pulled over to the side of the river, and I could see my husband climbing out of the raft containing my friends as I pondered disembarking myself. The river was very calm where we were, and not deep, but I really didn’t want to get back into the water, and was concerned I’d be so shaky I’d fall as I tried to get out of the raft again.

The guide helped me out of the raft, and my husband was there to offer me a hand, so I sternly told myself not to be a baby about having to step back into the water so I could wade in to shore. The guide who’d rescued me waded in to shore with us, and handed us off to one of the other people from NEOC who was standing there waiting as we disembarked.

I turned again to my friends, and apologized for bailing. And apologized to the guide for coming out of the raft just as we headed into the rapid. Everyone was a good sport about it, but I really just wanted to be off the river now to deal with whatever physical ailments I’d suffered in my adventure.

After the rescue

The guys from NEOC were very solicitous as I carefully walked away from the river. The gent who was waiting for us explained that I’d have to wait for about 10 minutes while he took his truck to get the bus driver, who would bring the bus here to pick me up. I nodded assent and sank down onto a nearby flat stone; I was feeling weak and just wanted to sit down before I fell down. Now that I was off the river, it was time to take stock of my physical condition.

He drove off in the truck, and my husband held my hand very tightly as we talked about what had happened.

I explained that I was worried about a possible concussion, and that my speech was thick and slurry when I got pulled out of the river; we’re both trained emergency medical responders, so I wanted to make sure I brain dumped my physical condition to him in case I deteriorated and he needed important details to pass on to medical providers. Even then, probably 10 or more minutes after I’d been pulled out of the river, my speech was still a bit thick and slurry; I made a concentrated effort to enunciate clearly so he could understand me. I also felt a headache forming, and while I didn’t remember hitting my head on any rocks, I worried that I might have.

I looked down at my left knee; there were abrasions on the side of my left calf, and my left knee hurt and was starting to swell, but nothing was broken. I had some bruises and abrasions on the inside of my right calf, too, and on my inner thigh above my right knee, but I didn’t remember hitting that leg on anything. I noticed that my Apple Watch screen was cracked, and as I lifted it up to check the time, it started glitching and then died. Apparently I’d hit the back of my left wrist on something, too, but didn’t remember that, either.

Most concerning to me was chest pain; pressure and the occasional stabbing pain if I moved a certain way. I was concerned that I might have aspirated some water, but I wasn’t coughing. I also felt nauseous, but I couldn’t tell whether that might be from shock, or adrenaline wearing off, or potentially hitting my head, or swallowing half the river, or aspirating water. I mostly sat still, and waited to see whether I was going to throw up or not, and felt grateful that I was sitting on a rock beside the river with my husband instead of… not.

When the bus driver arrived, he was also very solicitous; they offered me warm sweaters and blankets, which I rejected because I wasn’t cold, and a granola bar, which I accepted because I had in my head that helped with the post-adrenaline crash.

We explained to him that we were trained medical responders, and were concerned about a potential head injury, and asked if he had a flashlight so my husband could check for pupillary response. He offered his cell phone flashlight, so my husband took a look – not an easy task because I’ve got very dark irises, and in the semi-dim light of a forested campground, both my husband and the bus driver had a difficult time making out my pupils. My husband eventually concluded that the pupils seemed smaller than he liked, and seemed sluggish in responding to the light – a worrying sign. I told him that he should check me every few minutes to see how things were progressing, and then climbed into the bus.

It’s a weird feeling to be a trained medical responder and recognize that things are likely affecting your body, but knowing you have to rely on other people to deal with them. I was grateful that I was “with it” enough to help my husband remember what to look out for, but was worried about how he’d deal if I deteriorated, and how long it might take to get me to medical care.

I still felt nauseous and didn’t really want to eat, but I forced myself to consume a quarter of the granola bar. I asked the bus driver if he had any water, and he was surprised to find there wasn’t any on the bus. I was still thirsty, and wanted to drink, but also didn’t want to throw up, so I drank enough of the morning coffee still left in my travel mug to wash down the dry granola, but stopped there to see if it would stay down.

Time passed. I made sure to chitchat casually so my husband could monitor my neurological condition. I was beginning to feel exhausted, and the headache was getting worse, and I was also starting to feel the other aches and pains from getting banged against rocks. My chest felt tight and painful, and there was a lingering feeling of “can’t breathe” that got worse after we crammed everyone else into the bus, and I had to huddle into a side of the seat to fit everyone while we traversed the rutted roads back to NEOC’s base.

When we got back and everyone was putting equipment away, one of the women from my raft came to check on me. She and her friend had wound up on the raft with my group of six, and she’d watched things unfold firsthand. She told me that she’d been rafting with this group every year for the past four years, and that her guides knew she was a bit more adventurous so they’d let her and some of the other folks in her raft swim down some rapids before. (It wasn’t clear to me at the time if it was the same rapid I’d accidentally bodysurfed, or if it was another rapid on the river – and I didn’t think to ask.) She said that she had felt concerned for me, but also a little envious.

Envious! Imagine my surprise, readers. I was feeling lucky to be alive, and also concerned about a potential head injury, and bummed about skipping out on the remainder of the rafting trip while my friends went on down the river without me, but completely unable to conceive of joining them. And she had been envious of my unexpected plunge!

She also asked me if anyone had talked with me about secondary drowning. Say what now? I told her no, so she told me about how people who aspirate water can develop infections, pneumonia, and potentially die – relatively quickly – after near-drowning experiences. She seemed a little surprised that no-one from NEOC had talked with me about it, but I thanked her for the info, let her know that my husband and I were trained EMRs (turns out she’s a trained EMS who hasn’t done her ride alongs yet), and assured her we’d keep a lookout for symptoms.

And then, as I walked down the hill and my chest pain became much more pronounced with my effort, I wondered if this was what secondary drowning felt like. Also, my head hurt.

Somehow, I managed to fumble my way through a shower, which in retrospect probably wasn’t super wise. I probably should have just sat down and stayed near people who could keep an eye on me… but it did feel good to wash the river off and put on some dry clothes. And as I took a shower, I was able to get a closer look at the contusions and bruises that were starting to form… and discover a few more.

Clean and dry, I looked around for my husband but saw no sign of him. I wondered if he’d gone back up to the car, so I braved my way up the hill, in spite of my misgivings – the chest pain got much worse with the effort. In retrospect, I really wasn’t thinking clearly. He wasn’t at the car, either, so I had to go back down the hill again to try to find him.

My sinuses felt painfully full of river water. Sound around me was muffled, and I could still hear water in my ears. When I spoke, my voice had lost the slurry thickness from when I’d been pulled from the water, but it sounded like I was stuffy with a heavy cold or allergy reaction.

My chest hurt, my head hurt, I was exhausted, and I just wanted to lie down – but worried that I shouldn’t, because I might have a head injury. Lending more credence to the idea that I’d hit my head, I’d discovered when I showered that my forehead above my left eye was tender to the touch; roughly where the helmet strap had been sitting.

Back down at NEOC’s base, I flopped on a couch and waited for my husband to find me. He did, shortly later, and I asked him to get me a bottle of water. I drank it carefully while watching the slide show of photos from the day; and first saw what it looked like to other people while I was in the water in those pictures I posted above.

One of my friends asked me if I’d seen that I was rushing toward big rocks, and had avoided them on purpose; I hadn’t. The river kept pulling me under and I was very disoriented, and couldn’t really see much when I did pop up. He told me that it seemed like I was mouthing something and seemed in distress at one point when my head was above water; I told him as far as I knew, I hadn’t been trying to communicate anything, but had just been trying to breathe.

Someone told me that the guide said I’d gone down the “safer” route that the rafts take, instead of the route that the river naturally wanted to use – the one that would dash me against more rocks – and asked if I’d gone that way on purpose. Nope! I had basically no control over where I was going or what I was doing; I went where the river wanted to take me, and breathed when the river let me breathe. I felt fortunate the river took me down the “safer” path.

Someone else told me that they’d thrown the rope for me three or four times before I finally grabbed it, but when I popped up and heard “Rope!” and saw it flying over me, it was the first time I was aware that someone was throwing a rope. I hadn’t heard anything over the noise of the rapids, and hadn’t been able to see anything because I’d been down in the whitewater or constantly being pulled under.

Lingering medical concerns

When we left NEOC, I was still worried about a head injury; my pupillary response was still sluggish, and my pupils were constricted more than they should have been based on the level of light. My headache was getting worse, and I just wanted to sleep it off, but was afraid I shouldn’t.

To add to that, my chest still felt tight and I still worried that I’d aspirated some water, so I was worried about secondary drowning. I told my husband what the lady from our raft had told me, and he agreed that it sounded like a concern.

We had planned to have dinner with our friends post-rafting, but when we arrived at the restaurant, it was just too noisy for my now-throbbing head. I wanted to be somewhere quiet and semi-dark and keep an eye on my symptoms. Fortunately, we didn’t all fit in one car, and hubby and I had driven separately, so we were able to drive back toward the rented lakehouse in Lincoln – conveniently just four miles from a hospital we passed as we drove to the house.

We hit a Rite Aid that was still open, and grabbed a pulse oximeter to measure my blood oxygen saturation level. A little Googling while we drove told me that keeping my eye on my oxygen levels was a good way to measure whether we should be concerned about secondary drowning. It also reminded me of something I’d forgotten – that I should not take Ibuprofen for a headache if I have a potential head injury – because it could cause a brain bleed, so I had him grab some acetaminophin for me.

Fortified with medical supplies, we got a bite to eat at the only place in town that was still open at 8:30pm on a Sunday that wasn’t McDonalds; a blessedly quiet and not-too-bright place with decent poutine and very disappointing nachos. Fortunately, my nausea had abated – I hadn’t thrown up after all – and I was able to keep some food down.

The pulse ox showed my oxygen levels a little low, but not so low we should worry. My speech was more-or-less back to normal, and the ~6-7 hours since I potentially whacked my head meant I was probably past needing emergency medical care and just needed rest, so it was safe enough to sleep.

After returning to the lake house and debriefing with friends, I was off to bed and slept the sleep of the dead. Except when I rolled onto my left side; my left calf and knee were very tender to the touch, and I cried out involuntarily when I rolled onto that side.

In the week that followed, I took it very easy; I had headaches off-and-on in the days that followed (and even now, 10 days later, am still having periodic headaches). I’m tired and want to nap almost daily, when normally I’m not a nap person. Signs point to a definite head injury. Sadly, this isn’t my first rodeo; I’ve been concussed before, so I know what to look for – and I also know head injuries are worse if you’ve previously had one. Bah.

My left knee was visibly swollen for a few days, and even now it’s achy and doesn’t want to support my full weight. I still can barely get up and down from the floor, and sleeping on my left side is still uncomfortable on my left calf where it’s still tender. I want to get back to a regular exercise regimen, but am worried about potentially prolonging a knee injury. I probably should get that checked out at this point…

The mental effects

Did I almost die? Probably not. The rapids had to end eventually. But if I’d hit my head hard enough to knock me unconscious, I could have drowned. I definitely worried that I might drown once I realized I was at the river’s mercy. And I certainly could have gotten a lot more banged up on the rocks.

However, I could have died… and that kind of experience leaves a mark. I know it worried and upset my husband and friends, and I definitely have some sorting out to do about my feelings around the whole thing. Part of that is writing this down, and beginning to untangle the knots.

Do I want to go rafting again? Yes. We had another trip planned for Labor Day Weekend in which we were planning to go rafting with the same friends, and I was onboard for another rafting adventure… but maybe not a Class IV – V level of adventure. Alas, we’re not able to go now, but I’ll look for the next chance to do it.

I did not go into the lake during the remainder of our week in the lake house. I think I’m not quite ready to be in water where I can’t see the bottom just yet, even though I can swim, I have a good PFD for kayaking, and the lakes where I tend to spend time don’t have strong currents.

I took a bath in our deep bathtub when we got home, and had a moment of anxiety submerging myself in that before I was able to relax. So yes, my rational mind is willing, but my animal instinct knows some stuff went down and my body is still triggering a flight reaction. I’m going to have to work on that.

In terms of the potential head injury, I am finding it a bit more difficult to focus than before, and am tired a lot. Writing this post took more time than I expected it would, and I struggled for words more often than I typically would, so I’m definitely noting some cognitive effects. Concussions suck for everyone, but it feels worse as a knowledge worker who has to use her brain intensely in the course of her job. I know from my last concussion that these things should fade, in time… but I need to work now and have to figure out an effective way to do that.

Emotionally… an experience like that raises the same old questions about what you’re doing with life, and whether you’re doing the work you should be doing, whether you’re surrounded by the people and experiences you want in your life – all that stuff. I grapple with this stuff semi-regularly anyway, but a reminder of mortality makes answering these questions seem more urgent. So back to the gristmill for me.

I guess I’ll leave you with the parting words I had for my rescuer when he asked how I was doing: “I’m alive. I’m breathing.” And that’s a pretty good place to be, all told.

I'm Dachary Carey. I write stuff. It's kinda my thing.

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