Ominous signs mark the road winding through Sequoia National Park leading to the Kern River in Southern California: “161 people died on the Kern River this year,” the sign shines in the darkness, with the number handwritten in, as if it might increase at any moment.
“If you never take off your life jacket, you won’t die,” our guide, John, says about the sign as he explains the rules for our two-day Class-4 rafting trip. We are fine, that first day, as our six rafts navigate through the rushing waters. By the time we camp for dinner, we still want more, so John takes some of us to a cliff so we can jump and swim in the baby, Class-1 rapids.
The cliff is about 10 feet high. “After you jump, swim to the right, and go around that rock,” John says before he jumps in. My friend Diana follows, and when I see them safely on shore 100 feet ahead, I get ready to go: Three-two-one, jump, fly, airborne, splash, submerge, emerge. Did he say left then right? Right then left? I can’t remember. I point my toes ahead, toward John and Diana, who are deep in conversation, I see, as I float closer to them.
And then they’re not getting closer. I’m not moving. I look down. There’s a log at my waist. My feet have slipped through the curve of a fallen tree, fitting in perfectly like Cinderella’s slipper. I push my hands on the log and try to pull out my legs, but the current, which only moments before seemed mild, is thrusting at my back, vacuum packing me against the tree. I push again on the grainy, ribbed wood. My head submerges, my body sinks lower. The tree is at my chest now and the current is behind me, over me, in me, like a thousand Niagara Falls. I’m stuck. I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe! There’s no air! Don’t panic, I think. Don’t panic. Don’t panic, I repeat to myself the lifeguard’s mantra. I am under. I see the bubbles, the murky, muddy ground, my curly hair dancing like worms, and the hazy sun over the water’s edge, beckoning. I whip my head toward it. Air. I gasp. I have some air! But I’m under again, the water wrenching my head under like a washing machine cycle, me wrenching it out — a tug of war that I’m losing. My neck is taut, like it’s going to break from the strain. I need air. I need help.
“Help!” I shout when I wrench my head out momentarily. But the water is too loud. I raise my arm and wave frantically. Diana waves back in greeting, and turns around to talk to John. “Help!” I shout again and wave, but I’m sliding further under water without holding on to the tree; my savior, my captor. My head is under and out as I try to get their attention. I see, in slow motion, John jumping up, pointing, turning and running; then time shifts into action speed and John is standing over me. With one hand he cradles my neck, and I stuff my mouth with air. With his other leg he tries to push my leg out from under the tree. “No!” I scream. It’s going to break if he pushes. John lets go of my leg and furrows his brow.
“Help me,” I whisper, but he’s not there anymore. Am I a lost cause? I feel the log shaking and hear John shout in my ear: “When the tree comes up, swim as hard as you can to the left bank, or you’ll go into a second set of rapids.” Slowly and all at once the pressure on my chest, my ribs, my thighs, relents, and I’m floating quickly with the current, being yanked downstream in my life jacket. I feel like I will never move again, not even from this water.
“Swim left, swim left!” some people on the left bank call out. I can’t swim anymore but I do. Finally the water is not fighting me. It’s just water. I’m in the eddy and arms are around me, pulling me to the shore.
John seats me down in a chair, buries my waist, my hips, my thighs in ice packs — brown where the tree pinioned me — and has me fill out an accident report, which has a red mark near the top of the page, with the multiple-choice question:
3. Near Miss
“Near Miss” is circled. Under the clear starry sky, hot tears pour down my cold face, and I gasp for breath like I did in the water. Was it really that close? Now I can panic.
People come over to me to ply me with questions: “Did you see your life flash before your eyes?” they ask. “Did you pray to God?”
I didn’t. As the torrents washed over me I only thought, “Air! Water! Air! Air!” I didn’t have time to think about my life or about God.
But I don’t tell them this, and over the next few years, I don't tell anyone about the feeling I get when I’m taking a shower, swimming in the pool, or walking on the ocean’s edge. The wetness brings me back there, not in memory but for real, to that moment when my feet slipped seamlessly under a log. I can feel the weight of the tree against my ribs, and taste the sweet water in my lungs as my neck cranes out to get a puff of air.
I never say anything because no one would understand that even though I’m so happy I didn’t die, sometimes, in my mind, in my heart, I take myself back there, under the water, above the water, in the water, back to the Kern river, because those moments, fighting for sun, fighting for air, those long moments were the most alive I have ever felt in my life.