The day was not going to wait for anyone. I felt I was missing out on a summer show already in full swing. Bird echoes carried from longer distances than usual through the open bedroom window.“Sky must be crystal clear,“ I thought to myself, as the room slowly came into focus.Every moment spent in bed suddenly seemed a colossal waste of summer, almost criminal, seeing as the Northwest had thumbed its nose to ‘climate change’ for much of the year, making latecomers of the sun and warmer breezes.It was 6:30 am, and over Hood strawberries, fresh Oregon blueberries and Greek style yogurt, I decided it was time for Tricia and I to pump up the kayak again, pack a little sustenance and head to the Sandy in the next hour or so.
As soon as Tricia entered the kitchen, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes, I sprung the plan on her. What a sport my woman is—only a pause, a half yawn, a raised brow followed by a scarcely audible “m’kay”.Sandy River seemed a little faster, a little colder, and a much deeper shade of jade green than when we had last kayaked upon it a year before. Because of a couple of violent winter storms, a good many old growth trees were downed here and there, lying half exposed in the river like dinosaur fossils.
First order of the day was to stay away from those sharp claw-like roots and jagged boughs—sure to puncture the Eagle if we weren’t careful to keep clear of. By July the river usually slows somewhat, owing to the snowmelt most often coming in April and May. But because of the persistent cool weather, Mount Hood is still heavily capped in white fluff; thus the colder and quicker torrents than usual.Every turn or attempt to avoid the uprooted trees and new rocks that had rolled down due to erosion had to be planned at least 50 feet in advance. We were floating along pretty fast. Suddenly we could see three huge fallen rocks and a couple of downed fir trees lying in our path. Tricia and I tried to determine which rocks to navigate between, but hell, it was too late. No matter what muscle we both put into it, we couldn’t seem to steer away from that giant slice in the river that almost looked like some man-eating sea creature swimming straight for us. First came the collision with the stone, then came the ninety degree swerve, then, the hiss and roar of rushing current and, as if it was happening in stop action, with only future reflection and analysis to fill in the missing frames, we flipped over and found ourselves both flailing in forty-five degree water.
I have been kayaking for years, and in some places that are considered high risk: like the St Lawrence Seaway, the Puget Sound, even the Pacific itself. I never gave much thought to wiping out, especially in the Sandy, a deceptively quaint, bucolic looking river, at least if you’re vantage point is Dabney Park where the river hasn’t much to go before it merges with the Columbia. One hears of the many reported accidents and deaths over the years, but it has been easy to attribute them all to either foolish risk taking, some teen with one too many in the tank, or some hormone-vexed adolescent who jumped off the Troutdale Bridge trying to demonstrate the size and composition of his stones to his peers. Suddenly I understood the river’s hidden treachery firsthand. Forty-five degree water is a big blow to the body and brain. It is hard to think clearly as you’re reeling and gasping for air due to shock. It is simply almost impossible to catch your breath for the first minute or so, as your chest contracts and heart shrivels. Tricia and I were caught in the rushing current, tossing and swirling this way and that. Tricia had the early wherewithal to grab hold of the side ropes attached to the kayak, whereas I found myself trapped in the icy torrents, doing everything I could to keep from being pulled under by a lower cross current. Life preserver and all, it was as if someone kept pulling the rug from under my feet taking me under. For the life of me I couldn’t make it to the overturned boat. But as bad a fix as I was in, it was of great relief to me to see Tricia holding on and with her head above water—one thing less to worry about while my own frantic survival calculations continued. Suddenly I felt a large rock beneath my feet and tried to spring myself forward and get into a headfirst swimming position. It worked.
There we were, white-faced and blue-lipped, bobbing in eight feet of charging water, barely hanging on to the slippery inflatable, wondering what our next move would be.How that woman can maintain her composure through such a sticky wicket, what’s more, find it within herself to produce a little rational thought from the murky depths, I just don’t know. I say this because whilst I was still gnawing at the air, trying to fill my lungs with H2O, Tricia was now giving free rein to strange and unbefitting mutterings, so it seemed to me at the time—something about, wallets, keys, cameras and other important personal belongings that the river had just swallowed. “W-w-what?” I said through my chattering teeth, amazed at how she could take such precise inventory over lost articles while we were still over our heads in snowmelt. Somehow we had drifted towards a pile of logs that forced the kayak to a standstill—at least one pickle solved. Suddenly we had leverage and could slowly pull our way to more shallow waters. “Camera!” Tricia shouted out of the blue. I managed to snag it before it floated down river. (I suppose I’ll never look at a Ziploc the same way ever again.)“C-camera, in tact,” I said, holding the plastic-sealed camera up like the fresh catch of the day, smiling and shivering, with the occasional twitch shutting and rebooting my brain now and again.“There! There! My wallet,” Tricia cried out, chasing a couple of birds out of their tree. “S-seems to be floating towards the shore, “ I assured her calmly, now sensing my manhood return to me, at least in certain areas above the neck. Just as the heavy, newly cash-replenished, coin-filled, plastic-laden wallet began its trajectory to Davy Jones’s locker, a man by the shore scrambled into the water with a long and pointed branch, and with slightly mad eyes stabbed the thing as if it was a shifty Chinook that had been escaping the point of his spear for hours.“Got it!” he yelled. Pickle two now solved.“You guys best get out of this water,” he suggested, as he tossed Tricia’s life sealed in a freeze bag at us. He reached out and handed me his long branch.“Here, this might help, while you try to locate your paddles,” he added—ah yes, pickle number three.The staff proved useful only in keeping us from running into sharp roots and other large stones, but it was the palms of our hands that eventually lead us to our lost paddles.Tricia and I stopped at a small desolate beach to try and get warm and dry ourselves off in the sun. I think it was mostly just to get the nerves settled and spy on each other’s feelings. “You okay?” I asked, plopping my wet bottom on the sand. “You?” Tricia said, plopping hers.