This is a true story, for the most part. Working as a counselor at a drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation home in Rincon Valley in California, we took the boys on a two day white water rafting trip in June 1993. On that trip, out raft hit a rock and I had a boy land on top of me, sending me into the deep current of the river. Three minutes later, I surfaced having come very close to drowning. This experience was quite amazing as I hope you come with me on this exciting trip.
I Remember Drowning
I remember drowning. Most people would pick a more pleasant memory, but to me, the day when I nearly drowned in the South Fork of the American River on June 17, 1992, created a memory that will be with me the rest of my life. I have many other memories, some good as well, some not so good, some I wish I could forget because they weigh me down like an anchor. I will never forget how quickly I was pulled into the rapids, helpless as a newborn and then at the exact moment when I thought I was going to die, I came to the surface of the rapids and took a big gulp of air, reborn once again.
White water rafting can be one of the most exciting activities and it can also be one of the most hazardous if you don’t know what you are doing or happen to get careless. Rivers can be unforgiving, because they are filled with fast flowing water and rocks that do not move.
At the time of this white water experience, I was working as a counselor at R-House in Rincon Valley, CA. The job turned out to be a lot more than I had bargained for as our facility had about twenty-five juvenile substance offenders who had been placed there by the juvenile courts. The behavioral program was based on the twelve step book that each resident had to read. Many of them did not know how to read, so we would have process groups where the counselors would read from this book. Some of the boys hadn’t been to school for a long time. We had two certified teachers on site to run classes for seven hours a day. The boys had to prepare their own meals and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Santa Rosa after dinner. It was a real fiasco getting twenty some kids out the door and into the company van each with their own different colognes making it difficult to breath. There were women who attended these meetings, you see.
Most of the boys were from unban places where the sun does not always reach their ‘hood. Drugs and gang violence, on the other hand, was a daily occurrence. Some of them had been victims. Some of them were perpetrators in drive-bys. All of them were there due to drug possession as well whatever other felonies they had committed. While each of their stories were different, some of them contained a common theme. One of the boys wanted to jump out of his gang, but said they would come for him and do him harm. I did not ask what kind of harm. It was better not to know.
While I worked at R-House, I was living in a small place on the Russian River in Sonoma Country surrounded by redwoods trees in a small cabin that once was part of a popular campground from the 1960s. Some of the places had gone downhill, but my tiny cabin was cozy and there was plenty of adventure to be found. It was also about thirty miles from R-House, so the commute was always long and, since there are no straight roads north of San Francisco, driving these curved roads was always like a carnival ride.
But ah, to live in the redwoods was beyond anything I could have hoped for when the sun does not get through the trees until around 3 pm. While I could top triple digits in temperature in Santa Rosa, it never went above eighty degrees out there on the river.
The facility was part of the United Way and so we would get money for clean recreation that included a summer white water rafting trip down the American River. In order to make this happen, a minimum of six counselors were required to go as chaperones.
I volunteered because camping in the Sierras sounded like fun to me. I had never been white water rafting in what amounted to be an oversized inner tube. Each raft was supposed to have seven of us in it, six of the boys, one counselor and one guide from the Golden Eagle River Experience Company.
Part of the trip included two overnighters in a tent and a chuckwagon to feed us meals. If I were to take this trip on my own, it would set me back around $150, so I was grateful to be a part of this experience.
What I did not know was this was almost the last thing I did in my life.
Leaving R-House was an experience as we rented a blue bus to transport both counselors and residents up to where the American River split off and emptied into Folsom Lake in Sacramento County. To get there you would have to also go through El Dorado and Placer Counties. We would pass by Sutter Mill where placer gold was discovered back in 1849.
Living in my idea of paradise meant that I would have to eke out a living after being discharged from the Air Force after thirteen years of service as I attended Santa Rosa Junior College. Life was not as idyllic as I was hoping when I moved, but this trip would give me a break from some of the pressure and anxiety that flooded into my life.
As we set up our tents on the banks of the river, I was intimidated by the thundering sound of water rushing over and past the rocks. As I stood there, I wondered if I could survive two days in that river. The sound of the rapids played a soothing lullaby however and I slept very well until sunrise when we were all rousted from our comfortable sleeping bags for a hearty breakfast. As I ate, I watched the guides put the rubber rafts into the water. They made it look so easy.
I put on my camping shorts and a t-shirt. Then I put on my life preserver provided to me by the Golden Eagle River Experience Company. I felt safe once I had put it on properly like the guide had shown me.
I also wore my multicolored baseball cap with the white silhouette of a U-2 aircraft on it (known in Air Force jargon as the Looney Bird). I loved that hat. It had been issued to me when I went down to Panama for about half a year to work in a hangar as the Supply-Guy. The hangar had a warehouse of Lockheed parts and the Looney Bird. The area was considered Top Secret and guarded by armed guards. It was during this six month tour that I decided not to reenlist after spending a lot of time with the civilian crew of the planes who spoke of adventures in the world I could only dream about.
Now I was about to get into a rubber raft with seven other people and travel down river meeting challenges I had never encountered before.
The guide in our raft went over a few basic things to keep us afloat and safely in the boat. We were told that the were eddies that were hazardous to the rafts since they were like whirlpools and sometimes bouncing off rocks could send the entire raft into the drink. We were taught how to use our paddles to avoid these river hazards. After an hour of instruction we launched our raft. It was nearly nine in the morning and the sun was just peeking over the mountain summits sending down golden rays that made the river water sparkle.
I can’t remember feeling so exhilarated as we began our trip. The boys were seated up front while the guide sat next to me using his paddle as a rudder. Across from me was one of the boys who was as big as I was, a quiet boy who did not appear thrilled to be in the raft. The guide pointed out different geographic landmarks as we passed them traveling at about twenty five miles an hour or more.
As lunchtime approached, I felt the heat beating down on us. Before stopping at a river bend, at a place where the river pooled a bit, the guide told us to exit the raft and jump into the water. He did this to acclimate us to the temperature of the water so we would not be shocked by the difference between the air temperature and the water. It was fun because the river current pulled us along as we bobbed in the calmer water. After ten or fifteen minutes, the guide had us each get back into the raft as we prepared to come to the landing where we would eat lunch.
We had sandwiches sitting in the shade of oak and ponderosa trees along the river banks. Some of the boys were talking about how they had conquered the hazards of the river and were becoming like real pioneers.
“I wish I was back on the streets.” One boy said, “So I could tell my homies about this trip.”
There was more laughter as I let my mind drift to a peaceful place when I was in the Russian River back home. The Russian River was slow moving and I could ford the river since it was just chest deep, but then I had my inner tube and my black lab Jordan who loved to swim in the river. I’d just reach over, grab her collar and let her take me to the other side of the river. Watching this river, I doubt we’d be able to do the same thing. I knew there were parts yet to come that would challenge us and our amateur boating skills.
Back in the river and the rapids seemed to accelerate. We hit a rock and one of the boys was left sitting on the rock with his paddle in his hands. The guide and I reached over and grabbed him by his lifejacket, pulling him back into the raft.
We hit an eddie and the front of the boat disappeared under the water. The guide yelled out instructions to keep us from being sucked under the brown water. Two of the boys in front just had their heads out of the forceful water. While they seemed overwhelmed, we were able to get the raft out of the eddy and continue on.
White water rafting is regulated by the hazard imposed by the rapids from Class One rapids which are navigable by anyone to Class Five that require training certification and are found in places like the Rogue River in Oregon. The American River is considered a Class Three which means that the rapids can be hazardous to beginners, but if accompanied by professional guides can be accessible to them. Class Three does not mean the entire river is dangerous, just certain parts here and there.
As far as I remember the first afternoon was relatively uneventful as we all became expert oarsmen. Rocks were no longer the river monsters they had been during our first hour on the water. Eddies became a good way to cool off a bit as the afternoon got hotter.
“Death Rock ahead.” The guide called out a warning.
Ahead was a rock as bit as any I had ever seen as it took up half of the wide river it seemed.
The front of the raft cleared, but the side scraped against the giant boulder. Then we began to tip.
“Ro----” The guide yelled in panic. I did not hear the “ck!”
The side where I was sitting submerged as the raft was now at a 90 degree angle to the water. The large boy sitting opposite me now fell on top of me forcing me into the hard current of the river. I was now completely at the mercy of the river. My lifejacket did not bring me to the surface of the water as the current now held me in its grip.
Opening my eyes, all I could see was brown water. I could not see what was up as the sunlight did not penetrate this far down, all I could feel was the force of which my body was being pulled through. My hat was gone, but I was wearing the rest of my clothing including my lifejacket, but at this moment, the life jacket was not serving its purpose. I was drowning.
I was drowning! How could this come to be? I am not going to make it. I need air, but I have no air to breathe, all I have is water.
I heard a voice.
You will be okay. This is not your time.
Even after I heard this voice, I was angry. I did not want to die, but the choice was not mine. I heard the voice again. It was a familiar voice. It sounded like my father who had passed away fifteen years ago.
You will be okay. I am here with you.
All I could see was the headlines of the San Francisco Chronicle “Camp Counselor drowns in white water rafting accident.”
I was sure that any voice was just my own imagination telling me what I wanted to hear. I did not want to drown in the South Fork of the American River. There is so much I would miss. I did not want to die, but I needed air and all I had was water. I was not a fish. As soon as I took a breath my lungs would fill with water and…
Suddenly I felt a great peace come to me in the realization this would be the final moments of my life. It was as if someone had taken me in their arms and I was as safe as an infant in his mother’s arms. Great comfort filled me. I could see a light. It grew stronger. I was sure as soon as I reached that light someone would be waiting for me there, someone I loved very much. I could not wait to reach whatever destination I was going to.
As it turned out the light turned out to be the sunlight as my head came out of the water and I drew my first breath. I was alive. I did not drown as I thought I was going to.
As it turned out I was nearly a quarter mile down river from where I had gone in and the other rafts had formed a barricade across the river which was much calmer. One of the rafts pulled my hat out of the river before pulling me out. I coughed up a lot of water once I was inside the raft.
“Everyone else got back in the raft after it tipped over.” The guide told me as they passed me my soggy hat. “You okay?”
I coughed, “I thought I was gonna drown.”
“Naw that wasn’t going to happen.” He laughed.
In less than ten minutes we arrived at Folsom Lake where they docked the rafts as our first day had come to an end.
There was the blue bus waiting for us at the dock. Still very wet, I climbed on the steps.
“Go for a swim, did ya?” The bus driver laughed as he saw my soggy condition.
“Yeah, the water is refreshing.” I answered.
I kept to myself that night. The next day we would get on the blue bus again and we would be going into higher country the next day to complete our trip. We would end where we started at the campsite where we had begun our trip.
I did not tell anyone about the voice I thought I had heard when I thought my life was going to end, but I do recall that moment knowing that there was a saving grace that had rescued me. To this day, I do not know whose voice I had heard, but it doesn’t matter. All I remember is I was drowning, I heard a voice telling me that I would be okay and then I was.
The one thing I know for sure, is that I have certainly kept my Guardian Angel busy throughout my life.