A few weeks ago, a friend and I were walking along Foster Ave. in Ocean Bluff. We were headed toward the beach, and as we walked, we could hear waves breaking against the nearby sea wall, the effects an incoming summer storm at high tide. Just as we approached the beach entrance, a large wave rolled in. Although the wave had crashed about forty feet away from me, down on the beach, it sent a a frothy stream of water all the way up to where I was standing. I backed away to keep my feet dry, but I could not avoid the spray. I ended up soaking wet.
We kept walking until we could find a safe spot from which to view the water. The waves were huge, almost brown in color, and they crashed in an endless succession against the walls. All I could think about was being stuck down in those breakers, tossed time and again against the sea wall. It was a scene from my nightmare.
It’s a recurring dream. I am in some sort of wild water — a river’s rapids or a stormy ocean. I have lost my boat and I am trying to tread water or otherwise stay afloat. The waves are huge, and I must time my breathing carefully so as not to take in mouthfuls of water instead of air. I am so set on merely surviving that it does not even occur to me to seek a way to shore, even though the river banks or the beach are within sight.
I started having these dreams four years ago, after my family and I joined nine other people for a whitewater rafting excursion on the Colorado River. For the most part, the trip, which took us through Utah’s Cataract Canyon, was an enjoyable one. We spent three lazy days floating through the most spectacular canyons, with wind-sculpted red and gold sandstone walls towering hundreds of feet above our heads. Since our guides did most of the rowing, our only responsibilities were to keep hydrated and sun-protected in the 100-degree-plus heat.
It wasn’t until the last two days of the trip that we encountered rapids. Some misguided sense of adventure had inspired us to make this journey in the late spring, when the water was highest and the rapids were most furious. We did not know what we were getting into.
I’ll say first that we all survived. At least physically. But I know I’m not the only one who still has nightmares about the experience.
Here’s what happened. We spent the third night of the trip along the banks of Brown Betty, one of the more innocuous rapids on the Colorado. Up until then, the days had been long, hot, and sunny, but we woke that morning to gray skies and 60-degree weather, with occasional rain. The guides gave us a quick lesson in “shooting rapids.” Basically what they taught us was that the proper way to confront a rapid was to “punch the tube,” to hurl your body up against the front of the raft, just as the raft rose to meet each wave. You were to avoid grabbing the boat’s “chicken” ropes in the process, no matter how appealing they might seem.
We set out on the river. My mother and sister chose to sit at the rear of the boat, where they were unlikely to encounter many waves. That left my dad, Graham (another of the trip’s participants), and me at the front, and Darren, our guide, at the oars in the middle.
At first the rapids were mild. I was enjoying myself. As the waves grew larger, I began to feel exhilarated. It was scary, but fun too; challenging. The rapids continued to intensify.
We had just made it through a difficult stretch. I must have looked in the other direction for a moment, because when I turned back, a ten foot wall of water had suddenly appeared before us. Dad, Graham, and I threw ourselves against the front of the boat. At first it seemed to no avail. Our raft was practically standing on end, bending back over itself under the pressure of the water. We all fell to the floor as the wave crashed over us. Somehow we’d managed to stay afloat, despite the water that filled the raft nearly up to our knees. “Bail! Darren shouted. So we did, emptying bucket after bucket of water over the sides of the boat.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Eventually we reached a spot where all the other rafts on the river (they plan it so that all the 3-day, 5-day, and 7-days trips reach the rapids at the same time) had pulled over: Big Drop #2. As we exchanged glances from boat to boat, there was a sense of dread, of foreboding. Even the guides seemed solemn; apprehensive. Scouts had gone ahead and reported that the river was wild.
Some of the larger, motorized boats (J-rigs) went first, and made it through what would be the strongest rapid on our route. Then some smaller boats went ahead. One or two flipped over, but the larger boats were there to help them out. Soon enough it was our turn. It might not have scared us so much if we hadn’t been obliged to sit there for an hour letting our fear grow, as we watched other boats attempt and succeed — or fail.
My mother and sister had opted to get out of our boat and onto a safer J-rig. That left, Dad, Graham, Darren and I. I went to the back of the boat, where I would not have to deal with as many waves; Dad and Graham took the front. We headed out. We were all paying very careful attention to the river, dutifully following Darren’s instructions. It wasn’t easy, but we seemed to be getting through okay.
But then all hell broke loose. The raft got turned around, leaving me alone at the front, with a gigantic wave coming right at us. As I threw my body against the front of the boat, I heard Darren shout, “We’re going in!” The next thing I remember is water, all around me. Time passed slowly; it took me a moment to realize that I was underwater. I could see light far up above, not too far. I figured I had fallen out of the boat.
But before I could even complete the “What do I do now?” process, before it had even occurred to me that I would soon run out of air, I had surfaced. And much to my surprise, the boat was still underneath me. I looked back, counting the people in the boat (all still there).
“Bail!” Darren was screaming.
We didn’t find out what had happened until later. When Darren said “We’re going in” he was referring to a “hole,” the most threatening aspect of a rapid. A hole is a depression behind a rock in which it is very easy to get pinned by a succession of waves. Some people never come out.
But we had. For reasons still to be determined, our raft had folded back upon itself as we entered the hole, leaving Darren at the high point in the middle. Somehow, despite all the water, the boat managed to spring back, popping us right out of the hole. Or perhaps the hole just released us, as they sometimes do. We’ll never know for sure.
There weren’t too many rapids after that, and the next day was a short float out to Lake Powell and Hite Marina. As the trip drew to a close, our guides told us about all the people who had died on the river already that year. It was only June. No wonder I have nightmares.
I have this sense that there’s something this dream is trying to tell me. If I could figure it out, the dream would not come back.
I love the water, but I am afraid of it. This fear does not prevent me from canoeing, kayaking, or even swimming — as long as the water is still. But waves make me nervous. I’ve been swimming in the ocean a lot lately, especially on days when there’s some wave action. I would never swim in a storm, but I’ve been practicing floating in the water and learning how to breathe in time with the waves. Usually I get a mouthful or two, but once I surrender to the rhythm of the water, I do fine. The next step will be taking on a few small river-waves in my kayak.
There are lessons to be learned everywhere. I take many of mine from the water, where I am constantly reminded of powers greater than me.
by Kezia Bacon
Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association