The rafting trip…finally posted

Posted: January 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

I wrote this blog on January 6th, after I went rafting on the Shotover River. I still think about the events of that day, now one week later. I’ve had many flashbacks and dreams about it. I don’t know why I hesitated to post this when I wrote it, but I found that waiting a while has made me actually remember more details for some reason, and I can also wrap my head around the day a little better now that I’ve had some time to look back.

For those reading this for the first time, I suggest you scroll down and start at the beginning of our trip.

Here goes…

It’s hard to even wrap my head around what happened on the Shotover River today. If I had to describe it in one sentence, I would say that it was the most harrowing rafting trip I have ever taken in over 20 years of rafting.

It rained all night last night, and so the river level was rising quickly. I called ahead this morning from the lodge to see if they were still going to have a trip today, and at that moment, the answer was yes…so I had a quick breakfast and drove over the to Queenstown Rafting headquarters located literally two minutes away from our lodge in Arthurs Point. It was still pouring.

I was a bit early, but soon the buses that picked up rafters from downtown arrived, and we were given the green light to get our gear for the trip: a very thick farmer john wetsuit, booties, neoprene jacket and then a nylon shell with neck and wrist gaskets to go over all that. Underneath, I wore a bathing suit, two thin layers of poly shirts and fleece socks. I knew the water was going to be cold.

We loaded ourselves into the very tightly cramped buses that would take us upriver where our journey would begin. It was on that bus that I met the wonderful people that would be my raft mates on this trip.

The bus ride itself was so crazy, you’d think I was making it up. It started on a winding paved road, but soon emptied onto a narrow dirt road (Skippers Road) that was first built along the edge of the mountains over a hundred years ago when gold was discovered in that area. Barely wide enough for one bus, there were very few places where an oncoming vehicle could pass…and there were absolutely no guard rails of any kind. The road was rocky and muddy, and it amazed all of us that these rafting guides traveled this route twice every day during rafting season…there are two rafting trips each day.

There were times where everyone on the bus let out a scream, as we could see the river thousands of feet below us. Thank goodness the foggy windows of the bus prevented us from seeing at least some of it!

The road we traveled is only one of two roads in all of New Zealand that is banned by all car rental companies, and we were not the only adventurers out on it: four-wheel-drive companies, jet boat companies, bungy companies…they were all out there competing for road space as well. Even the rafting guide on our bus admitted that if they ever really accurately described this bus ride on their website, they wouldn’t get half the customers.

You have one last chance to change your mind about rafting the river when the bus finally reaches the drop-off point. But no one thinks the river could be any worse than the return bus ride you would have to take…so they stay. (By the way, we were lucky in that we had a smaller bus that held about 22 people. The larger ones hold up to 30 PLUS they tow the large trailer with all the rafts behind them! Insane.)

It seemed pretty clear during the safety lecture that we had a very small window of time to ride this river. Two solid days of rain meant that water levels were rising dangerously fast, and we had to get moving. Soon we were off and the first part of the trip was much like any other rafting trip where we hit a series of small rapids that got us all to get in synch with each other and to work as a team. Our rafting guide, who looked kinda like a Kiwi Drew Barrymore, seemed knowledgeable enough.

For those who have never rafted before, the rapids are given a designation of levels…one being the easiest rapid, going up to level six, which is considered unsafe. What makes New Zealand different than the rivers I’ve run in Maine and Massachusetts is that their ratings system of levels are not the same as ours…not by a longshot! For example, what they considered a level three here…we would never raft in New England because it’s too dangerous…it’s that big of a difference. The massive rocks that are all around the river gorge are also razor-sharp, most of it eroded by the millions of gallons of water running through it every day. When we made it through a level three rapid and I saw just how big it was, I got this bad feeling about what might lie ahead.

But we were doing OK…we had our rhythm together and we were in a calm spot about halfway through our trip, looking at the next series of rapids ahead. They listed these as level four, and there were six of those huge rapids in succession without an option to bail anywhere.

The general consensus from everyone in our raft is that Drew Barrymore made a pilot error. Instead of running straight through the rapid, our boat went sideways from left to right and hit the rocks with the right side of the boat. The right side went up over the rocks, lifting the three people on that side into the air. The force of the river was too strong and the boat flipped, the people on the right side of the boat falling on top of those on the left side of the boat, pushing them below the surface of the water.

I was on the front left of the boat, so Ian, the guy on my right, was now above me, and he came crashing down on top of me as the boat flipped. Suddenly, it was lights out. I was deep underwater with Ian’s entire body weight holding me down. Ian was fortunate to be able to swim to shore almost immediately and even helped pull a few others out. I was still underwater.

I was struggling to hold my breath, struggling to somehow get to the surface. The water was a silty gray, so it was hard to see what was going on above me. When I finally surfaced, I was gasping for air and trying to find the side of the raft so that I could grab the safety line that ran around the outside of it. I grabbed on with both hands, but by this time I had swallowed a lot of cold water and breathing was very difficult.

All this time, of course, the raft is still hurling through those six huge rapids, spinning, bouncing off large boulders in the middle of the water. I see one of my boat mates, an older woman, clinging to the safety line next to me. Our guide is now on top of the overturned boat and shouting commands to people: “Swim! Swim! Watch out for the rock! Hang on!!!”

The water is really cold. My chest feels like someone is stomping on it, and I still can’t breath. My helmet is pushing down over my eyes and I struggle to push it back, so I can at least try to see what’s ahead of me. My life jacket, though tightly strapped around my body, is trying to come up over my head and is cutting my chin and covering my mouth. The waves from the upcoming rapids are pounding me in the face and making me gag. I am swallowing and inhaling lots of water. I keep telling myself: if you only do one thing, it’s hang on to that safety line! (Lucky for me, I chose to wear biking gloves because I never would have been able to hang onto the nylon safety rope without slicing my hands up.)

The next thing I know, the raft crashes hard into a large rock, and I slip underwater again, this time under the raft itself. This is very not good. I have to get myself out, but I can’t see anything, so I have to feel my way around under the raft until I sense I’ve reached the edge of it. (I’ve been under overturned rafts before. Very often, you can look around you, grab a breath from the air pocket created by the overturned boat, and push yourself off and under. There was none of that this time…no visibility, no air pocket…nothing.)

I managed to grab the safety line around the raft again, and I hear the guide yelling for me to swim to the edge of the river. A very big rock is quickly approaching and I’m between it and the raft. My arms are so numb from clinging to the safety line, that I can barely move them, but somehow I think I stumbled and swam my way to another raft that was securely parked on the side of the river. I grabbed the safety line around that raft, clinging for dear life. I was absolutely exhausted, and the river still wanted to take me downstream. My legs and feet were literally sideways, pointing downstream, and I was just hanging on!

It took three young people who in total weighed less than I do to help me into their raft. I was gagging, hyperventilating, coughing up water. I could not calm down. The guide on that boat, a big guy they call Chief, gave me what I needed: he basically gave me shit! In the back of my mind, as scared as I was, I knew that I was out of danger if he was yelling at me like that. It actually helped calm me down.

I was out of breath for a good 15 minutes, and they were still plucking people out of the water. I could see by the rafting guides’ faces that a few people were still missing, and husbands and wives were struggling to see if their spouses were rescued by other boats.

Clearly, this was not what was supposed to happen. And despite the way the rafting guides tried to calm everyone down by saying things like: “Hey, you got your money’s worth today,” it was very obvious that not only was this not in the game plan, but that they were seriously shitting bricks and were overwhelmed. Rather than refund money to about 150 rafters, these guys took a chance that they could beat the rising waters of the river and make it through before it got really dangerous, and they were wrong.

Most of my raft mates did not have the dramatic experience I did, fortunately. We all swam, but most were picked up by other boats or got to safety quickly. I think I was one of the people that really got the worst of it…other than one guy who we found out later had to be evacuated by helicopter…which, as you might imagine, is very difficult and takes a long time in such a remote area. We were all already back at base having coffee when we heard the news.

Once everyone was accounted for, we still had to go through a series of other rapids before we could get off the river. We had only gotten through four of the six rapids in this cluster, and there was more whitewater to come downriver. So despite the fact that the last thing I wanted to do at this point was to continue rafting, that’s exactly what I had to do.

Chief plopped me into his boat, wedging me in between two paddlers, so all I had to do for the next two rapids was to hang on for dear life until we got to an eddy where we could all get back to our original rafts. The extra weight of myself and another rescued rafter helped keep the raft a little more stable.

Once we were all back on our raft, I could see that everyone was nervously babbling about what had just happened, but they were all smiling, high-fiving each other. I was sort of in a fog, still breathing hard, just trying to focus my thoughts on what was still ahead. I was a bit nauseous from swallowing all that silty water.

One more challenge before the rafting day was over: the Oxenbridge Tunnel…a 170 meter tunnel originally built by gold miners. It is cramped…barely wide enough for a raft to get through, and it has a very low ceiling. So the idea is to hit it straight on and have everyone in the raft scrunch down in the middle of the boat as low as possible and let the river squeeze you through. Then, when you get to the end of the tunnel, you have to jump back into paddling position as quickly as possible, because you get spit out into another huge rapid! Fortunately, this rapid ended in a pool of calmer water that also signaled the end of the trip.

It’s hours after trip and I’m still shaken. Kelly and Ava went shopping, so I just told Kelly the story.

I went on a rafting trip with my buddy Lee back when we both turned 40. We rafted the Penobscot River in Maine with a bunch of fearless young rafting guides that put us old dudes through the ringer. We hit rapids on that river that you were not allowed to run commercially, because of the dangerous whitewater. I was pinned to the floor of that river by the pressure of a waterfall in that trip…held down for what seemed like eternity but was probably about 30 seconds. I kept telling myself: “Just hold your breath…hold your breath!” Finally, the river just spit me up and threw me 50 feet downstream in an instant. For the last 12 years, Lee and I and my rafting guide buddies have told the story of that crazy trip time and time again, shaking our heads in disbelief, laughing about how insane we were to do it.

Today’s trip made that look like a walk in the park.

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