It’s the closest I’ve ever come to dying.
The setting: The Kern River of Southern California, Class III/IV whitewater rapids.
I was a teenager in high school, out from Michigan with my younger sister, my dad and his girlfriend, to visit my elder sister and her fiance during spring break.
A typical teenager, I acted all adventurous and daring, but might have held my breath a little during the ‘safety speech.’ And on the river … well … I basically held on for dear life, as we weaved through protruding boulders, the nose of the raft diving down in despair, then lurching up in redemption and me, constantly praying I would stay in the boat.
God chose not to answer that prayer. Correction: He did answer that prayer, the answer was just “No.”
It happened after I succumbed to a dumb group decision. There were six of us in the raft, plus a guide, and my younger sister was the only one in the lot with any common sense. The only one brave enough to get out.
It went something like this:
Guide: “So, who wants to go back and surf that hole?”
My dad: “Who wants to what?”
Guide: “Surf the hole. Basically, we turn the raft around, paddle like crazy upstream until we hit that hole in the rapids, where it’s swirling downwards into a tight spiral, and if we hit it just right, we’ll sort of float on top of it for a while, without moving anywhere.”
General, wavering nods and shrugged shoulders indicated an almost unanimous consensus. “No, thanks. I don’t want to,” my younger sister stated boldly.
“Okay, that’s cool,” said the guide, nonchalantly. “We’ll just drop you off on the shore over there, and pick you up afterwards.”
We paddled over to a little inlet, my sister jumped out, and the remaining five of us headed for the hole, guide perched on the high tail of the raft.
My dad had been sitting opposite me, and the next thing I remember was seeing his full, six-foot frame lunging over me, hurling me backwards off the raft’s edge into the raging river.
Like an ice cube dropped into a glass of Coke, I was plunged downward before my lifejacket raised me up toward the surface. But instead of finding oxygen, my head bumped against something hard at the top.
I was directly under the raft.
All the safety precautions announced at the beginning of the trip went rushing downstream with the current.
I swam to the left.
I swam to the right.
I felt all around in every direction, and couldn’t find an escape route.
With seconds ticking by, no hope could be seen in the blurry nightmare.
Well, this is it, I resigned. I’ve always wondered how I was going to die, and now I have my answer.
Oddly enough, I felt a strange calmness. A peace, as if it would be okay if I did die in that moment. A surety that there was nothing left undone, that I wouldn’t have any outstanding debts or unfulfilled regrets if that were to be my end, this side of the curtain.
With open eyes searching the cloudy aquamarine water, I suddenly felt as if I had taken a deep breath, as if my lungs had been re-filled. I calculated the bubbles I could afford to exhale, not wanting my fresh reserve to be depleted.
Looking back, it felt like an underwater James Bond scene, with Adele crooning in the background, “This is the end … Hold your breath and count to ten ….”
After contemplating death while fully submerged, my wits came about me, and I realized I had to stop floundering, pick a single direction, and just swim. I gripped the bottom of the raft, hurled myself to the left, and
“There you are!!” was the first exclamation in my ear before the guide grabbed the shoulders of my life jacket and flung me into the bottom of the raft.
I lay there, heaving, gasping, convulsing.
Glad to be alive.
My younger sister, the only wise land-stander, was on the shore sobbing, convinced that she would have to tell Mom that I had drowned in the Kern River.
Even the guide was surprised to see me. He later confessed that he was thisclose to jumping into the rapids to look for me — and apparently guides never do that.
In hindsight, the peace I felt when I was sure I was going to die remains inexplicable. It had to have been supernatural. It welled up within me from a wholly different source other than my self, filled my suffocating lungs with new wind, and carried me to the surface.
God could have let me get swept away that day, but
“The Lord is gracious and righteous;
Our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the simplehearted;
When I was in great need, he saved me.
Be at rest once more, O my soul,
For the Lord has been good to you.”
~ Psalm 116:5-7, NIVPhoto credits: David Berkowitz and Gabriel Amadeus (photos edited)