Close Call

I’ve always wanted to write a series of short stories about times I almost died…not to have a ‘devil may care’ attitude about how impervious we are in the face of danger, but to espouse how we sometimes are separated from death by nothing more than a fragile silken thread of good luck that could snap at any time.

Today would definitely go in there. I almost died today….for real.

They say stories should start at the beginning, but beginnings have roots. The roots of the beginnings of today started a few weeks ago when I decided to do some maintenance work on my canoe.

I love my Mad River Explorer: its wooden rails and seats, the curve of the hull, how I acquired her, the trips we have been on….everything about this canoe is warm and personal. I even talk to it when I’m paddling solo, feeling in tune with the motion in the water and the stroke of the blade. I have paddled for years…almost too many to count, and have more river miles beneath me than many people have in their cars. And I love taking care of my boat…reciprocating the care it has given me. So when I saw that the cane seats on the Explorer were punching through, as they inevitably do each decade, I happily set out to buy some top quality replacements, but ones with webbing instead of cane, for durability.

Looking at the offerings at LL Bean, I was stunned at the cost: almost $200 for a pair of seats and the hardware to go with them. As I was resignedly taking them down off the rack, another shopper came up and asked if I was repairing my canoe seats.

“Yeah” I said, “but I’m pretty surprised at the cost of the replacements.”

“I did my own,” he commented. “Saved a bundle, and it’s as good as new, with a personal touch. They’ve lasted, what, about 6 years so far, and going strong.”

I asked how he did it. He explained that he bought his own webbing, removed the seats, tore out all the old cane, turned the seats upside down and stapled the webbing in the same way the commercial ones were done.

“Why turn the seats upside down?” I asked.

“There’s a little groove where the cane is attached. If that’s on the top, it catches water and dirt, and will rot out your seat. Putting it on the bottom makes a nice, tidy finish, and I think it makes it stronger.”

That made sense, so I put the seats back and went to go buy the parts and have a great fulfilling time with some Do-It-Yourself maintenance on my canoe. It was a fun project, the result was very nice, but little did I know how inauspicious one tiny piece of his advice was going to be.

So today, it’s a beautiful day…not a hint of a breeze, bright cool clear skies, and after the cold nights of this last few days, the warm sun is recharging. Winter is approaching, Fall is right outside the door, the trees are changing, the air and water are getting cold, and fishing season is ending in about 10 days, so I felt a bit anxious to make use of the remaining time and get some time on the water. I drove over to my friend’s house where my canoe has been stored, loaded it on my rental car, threw my fishing gear in the back seat, and headed off for my favorite smallmouth bass pond.

When I got there, I was a tad disappointed to see another car parked in the dirt lot: word of this great fishery has gotten out, and what was once a private little paradise is now often shared with other people. But when I parked, got out and looked around, I could not see anyone anywhere. I was blissfully alone.

Smiling to myself, I unloaded the canoe and put it at the edge of the water, pulled out my fishing gear and threw it in, and went back to lock the car. Feeling like something was missing, I looked inside one last time and thought “Ahh, right. Grab the cell phone in case you get a nice fish and want a photo.” So I collected my phone, shoved it in my pocket, thought for a split second about leaving my wallet behind but dismissed that, locked the car, hopped into the canoe and pushed off.

As the sleek hull glided away from shore with my firm paddle strokes, I adjusted the gear around me and thought about how smoothly she moved with the new skid plates I had layered on last week. I was thinking that they weren’t going to interfere with the handling of the boat, and as I paddled out across the lake, I thoughtfully looked over the woodwork and hull of the boat in front of me.

I heard and felt a little creaking sound by my left butt cheek, and nodded to myself: yeah. I figured the webbing I had put on was adjusting. Drawing from the experience of my years as a raft guide, I had wondered afterwards if I should have soaked the webbing and installed it wet, as webbing stretches when soaked and shrinks tight when it dries. With that little creaking noise, I figured that I might have to redo the webbing in the near future to tighten it up. I took a few more strokes, letting my mind drift back into thinking about how much time it would take to really fix up my boat, when suddenly there was a loud CRACK, and I was suddenly falling to my left.

People say when disaster strikes, everything goes into slow motion. I found that not to be true….events continued in their normal speed, but my thoughts went into super high motion. Entire chains of thought….lines of history, predictions, deep understandings…all these things flashed through my mind at the same time, in milli-fractions of a second.

It was like someone had kicked the left legs out from under a chair I was sitting in. I paddle on the right side, so there was no chance of bracing myself with my paddle or even catching my balance. One second, I was sitting in my boat gently paddling out to the middle of the lake, deep in comfortable, warm and familiar thoughts, and the next split second I was rolling out the left side, watching the boat gliding out from under me.

It was like I was looking through the lens of a camera, observing something from somewhere else, but my first thoughts were simultaneously; “Shit, I’m falling out of the boat” and “Well, now I’m in the water”. No panic, just acceptance: in fact it was the same feeling as when you jump off a dock…you’re just going from one environment into another.

I realized that I didn’t have a breath of air in me, so I just stopped my breathing until after the big splash and I popped up, then took a big inhale as I saw the boat gliding away from me. Instantly I registered that the boat was right side up. In fact, I might even have thrown my weight as I fell to keep it from capsizing, and it didn’t look like it had taken on even a drop of water.

I was immensely thankful about that; many years ago, in my mid 20’s, I had paddled out about 20 feet from shore on a sunny warm midsummer’s day and practiced self-rescuing myself from a capsized canoe. I tried several ways to get the boat right side up and floating, and eventually had to resort to just swimming alongside it, bailing water out with the bail bucket while being careful not to tip it over. I learned that it is brutally hard to right and empty a full canoe while floating in a lake, so when I noticed that my canoe was entirely dry and that I didn’t have a bail bucket, I knew that this was a great thing. A Very Great thing.

The second thing I thought of was on that same summer day 30 years ago, I tried with all my youthful strength and agility to climb back into my canoe. I first tried swimming up and over the side, but all I succeeded in doing was to let more water into the canoe. One time, I committed to straight-arming myself up over the rail with both arms, kicking fiercely with my legs the entire time with supreme effort, and the boat ended up tipping, slamming the far side into my Adam’s Apple, choking me and causing a week-long sore throat and bruise. I tried several methods, eventually getting back into the boat only after climbing up over the pointed stern, balancing carefully and falling off several times, then finally slithering along until I fell into the bottom, exhausted and disoriented.

So I knew today that I was going to have to swim to shore, no other option. And I was going to have to tow the canoe along with me.

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With a quick glance, I was suddenly shocked at just how far that was….maybe about 100 yards back to shore, which was thankfully close to my car. But I’m a very poor swimmer, and this was a LONG way. And the water was cold! I was suddenly a bit spooked, as the realization of my predicament started to hit me. This was FOR REAL, and it was happening TO ME. I was in the middle of a large lake, out of my boat, in cold water, fully dressed, and with no one around. And I had better get started.

I pulled off my cap and sunglasses and threw them over the side into the boat. Then I swam around to the stern and hung on, scissor kicking and pushing the boat ahead of me. After a very short time, I realized that this was a horrible way to move the boat as it would not go straight and it felt like I was going nowhere, so I moved along the side to the bow.

At that moment, the thought dawned on me that I could kiss my iPhone goodbye, as it was in my front pocket. The next thought that dawned on me was that the thing I had forgotten back in the car was not my iPhone, but my life jacket!! This was probably the first time in 30 years that I had gone out in a canoe without a life jacket, and it was sitting in the trunk of the car, useless. This was something I never leave behind, and the one time that I desperately would have benefitted from it, I didn’t have it! At least I had the canoe to hold on to, but it meant I could only use one arm to swim with.

I got to the bow, and using the boat to hold me up, started side stroking and kicking. I saw my paddle that was floating nearby, had a moment of considering if it was worth the effort to grab it or to just leave it, but I love my paddle just as I love my boat, so I side-stroked over to it, threw it in, then commenced working my way toward shore, so very very far away. I tried to get into a groove, to just ‘get it done’, but that initial feeling of ‘wow, what an experience’ had passed and the realization of just how much danger I was in had truly sunk in. Shore was still very far away, the water was cold, I was a poor swimmer, and there was jut no way to efficiently swim while hanging off the side of a canoe.

After a few minutes, as it felt that I was getting nowhere, I started to despair. The cold was affecting me: I was coughing and gasping for breath, and even though I had the boat to hold on to, the cold and exertion were making it very hard to keep my grip. I could feel myself getting weaker…my kicks were getting jerky, and I just wanted to get this over with, as I was starting to get spooked. I knew I had to get out of the water, and that climbing into the canoe was not possible, so all the options between me and drowning were winding down. I tried resting by just hanging from the canoe, but the cold was still sapping my strength and I was getting no closer. I tried pulling myself up to get as much of my body out of the water and rest, but the cotton pants and wool shirt I was wearing were weighing me down too much. There was nothing else to do: I had to keep swimming, dragging the boat along with me. And I was getting very exhausted, fighting off panic.

For a brief moment I thought about abandoning the canoe, thinking it would be much more efficient without trying to haul the boat behind me, but two thoughts hit me at once. First, despite the added burden, the boat was providing flotation and without it I would not make it to shore before I drowned. Second, even if I did make it, I’d have to retrieve the boat.

So I kept side stroking…I don’t know how long it took; maybe 15 or 20 minutes, but it could have been an hour or it could have been 2 minutes. Time meant nothing….I was very aware of the grim fact that what was happening was absolutely real and there was no one around to help, and I could very very, very, very realistically drown today. The cold kept sapping me; my breath was coming in shorter, useless gasps, my kicks were almost spasms, I was getting too weak to even hold on to the boat, and I fully knew that if I lost my grip, it was all going to come to a very bad end very quickly. I know this sounds melodramatic, but I really was in deep trouble, and I was fully aware of it.

The shore approached, but it seemed to take longer and longer to get there. They say that most free diver drownings…those people who swim to immense depths then slowly reascend without any oxygen….happen within a few feet of the surface. Something about being so close to safety…but of course that’s exactly when your reserves of energy are at their very lowest. As I got within about 50 feet of shore, I was pretty sure I was not going to make it. The irony of being an expert canoeist, a river guide, drowning only a few boat lengths from shore was not lost on me. But I had struggled a long way and was pretty much out of gas…..I could see the bottom only about 10 feet below me, but I was so weak and terrified of letting go of the canoe, gasping feebly and kicking lamely.

I had already given it my second and third wind, but I kept on just kicking and pulling, watching the torturous slow motion of the bottom rising up, trying not to think of how numb I was with cold and how tired I was, until suddenly I could reach it with my toes. I stood up, walked a few steps toward shore, and just stood there waist deep, coughing and gasping for breath, holding onto the canoe for balance.

I stood for a long time, then I dragged it up on to shore. My phone is ruined, but I’ll see if I leave it to dry for a few days if it will work. My wallet is soaked, but that’s no big deal. My clothes were, of course, totally soaked.

I stripped off my shirt and t-shirt, oblivious to the air temperature, and looked into the dry interior of my boat. I am so thankful that she stayed dry and was close by so I could hold on to her. I have no doubt that, if it had dumped or it had been a windy day and she had blown away from me, I would have drowned. In fact, exactly 15 days from today is the 14th anniversary of the day my father drowned out of a small boat, when he fell overboard on a day not unlike today, about the same 100 yards from shore and the little electric trolling motor drove his boat away from him. And like me, he did not have a life jacket on…although I suspect his was a choice rather than a stupid oversight. But for the first time since he died, I have a deep and clear understanding of what he went through…the terror, then the realization and acceptance.

Looking into the boat, I understood what happened. Turning the seat over to put webbing in it, as the man at LL Bean’s had recommended, meant that the seat was installed so that the forces it had borne for the past 25 years were reversed. What was once the right top, was now the left bottom. Where the seat had arched downwards, it now arched upwards. And where all of my weight over the years had helped the wood settle into a comfortable position, tightening up the joints, suddenly it was pulling the joints apart. The little interior pegs that held the seat together were now pushing down against a piece of wood with a deep groove in it…where the old cane had been attached…and the bracing failed. Reversing the seat had spelled its doom, and with that, nearly spelled mine.

My boat saved my life…I have no doubt about that. I know it’s inanimate, and I know that Fate is a mysterious thing. But it was there, dry and waiting, and held me up for the long swim back to shore. I now appreciate how quickly people find themselves overwhelmed when they go through the ice, or fall from a cliff, or get caught in an avalanche. It’s something you can’t imagine, and it happens FAST, and you are helpless to do anything about it as it happens. And something as small as the boat not tipping over is what makes the difference between life and death. If not for my clearheaded reaction; not to try to climb back in (which would have tipped the boat over) and to strike out for shore immediately rather than flail around in the deep water, the story would have had a very different ending. As it was, I think I barely made it.

However, people are resilient…time (sometimes surprisingly little time) heals all, and events take different shape. Even now, while my iPhone dries slowly and my wet clothes drip on the floor beneath the clothes rack next to me, this amazing experience is already fading into a brief memory captured by the line “I fell out of the canoe and had to swim a ways to shore.” I’m not traumatized at all; in fact, I feel like this was a good (but scary) experience, and makes me stronger as a boater.

But I also know I’m lucky to be writing this right now.

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