Trapped in the Rapids

The last day of duck season was nearly the last day of my life.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Danger doesn't always leap out at us with a roar and a flash of fang and claw. Sometimes the worst things that can happen to us outdoors slip in as quietly as a January snow.

The Colorado River reflected the flat, gray sky as my husband, Larry, our friend and hunting buddy Randy Swanson and I launched the orange Coleman canoe just west of Grand Junction, Colo. Layers of thermal underwear, sweaters, coats and life vests protected us from the chilly morning air.

The dun-colored current, carrying chunks of icy slush, caught the craft and tugged it away from the bank. I paddled bow in unison with Larry's strong stern strokes, while Randy manned the center thwart, shotgun at the ready. Amber, Randy's Chesapeake Bay retriever, lay at his feet. It was the last day of duck season and we intended to make the most of it.

The canoe drifted past farmhouses and fallow fields, around bends and between islands thick with skeleton cottonwoods. Away from roads and towns, we explored backwaters and pockets of weeds where ducks might take refuge. A flock of mallards rose into the pewter sky and Randy's shotgun roared. Amber, true to her instincts and training, leaped from the canoe and retrieved two birds.

Larry and I leaned to port to keep the canoe from capsizing as Randy heaved Amber over the starboard side. Amber shook herself, spraying river water that was only a few degrees above freezing over us.

In spite of the gloomy skies, we were in great spirits. We'd never floated this particular stretch of river, but we knew that the 10-mile trip would be over by noon. The short stretches of white water we encountered were about as dangerous as a wind-rippled pond, but we looked forward to "shooting the rapids" as eagerly as if we were rocketing down a Class IV cataract.

After an hour on the river, my life jacket seemed more like a straitjacket. It interfered with my strokes and I was starting to get claustrophobic. The water was so calm, I saw no reason to keep it on. But as I began to unfasten the ties, Randy stopped me.

"Better leave it on," he said. "If we capsize, you won't stand a chance, not in this water." I deferred to his judgment and refastened the straps, mentally grousing.

The river swung south and west, flowing farther into uninhabited country. Highway noises faded. So did conversation. Each of us became lost in his own thoughts, content to listen to the river and the wind.

[pagebreak] As we rounded a bend, the rusted superstructure of an iron bridge, abandoned years before, stood out like a charcoal sketch against the sky. The new concrete bridge that connected the town of Fruita with the Redlands spanned the river half a mile downstream. The road had been blocked off when the old bridge was closed and its surface had deteriorated to weed-choked, broken asphalt.

Just upstream from the old bridge, a tiny island split the river. The left channel swept under the bridge and hurled water against the rocky cliff that supported the south end of the structure. As we approached, we noticed that the waves looked higher and wilder than any we'd encountered before. The right-hand channel flowed smoothly around the north side of the island.

"Which one?" Larry asked as we backpaddled to keep the canoe steady.

"Let's take the left channel," I answered. "Looks like a lot more fun."

Larry lined the canoe out and we leaned into the strokes, powering the craft into the first wave. We whooped and cheered as we raced toward the bridge. The canoe dipped and swayed in the water and we paddled harder.

Then disaster struck. The bow lifted skyward as it swept up the face of a wave. I dug my paddle toward the river but it met only air. Without my stroke to power it forward, the canoe slid back down the gray-green curl and the following wave swamped us, rolling the canoe and tossing usnto the frigid water. Suddenly everything was a blur of flying equipment and jumbled arms and legs.

Almost instantly, my head dunked under, but instinct took over and I righted myself. Breathless from the shock of the frigid water, I clung to the overturned craft. My legs smashed into submerged rocks as the current swept me under the bridge. I held on, buoyed by my life vest and the canoe. In seconds, I was through the white water, but the current still clutched me in its icy grip.

I twisted awkwardly in my life jacket, searching the river's surface and screaming Larry's name. I saw no sign of him or Randy. I shouted again and this time heard an answering shout. They had been thrown out toward the island and had escaped the river's fury. Larry stood on the downstream tip of the willow-covered islet, waving his waterlogged arms.

I yelled to him that I was all right and would try to drag the canoe to shore without his help. There was no sense in both of us fighting the river. Soaked and freezing, Randy had used a downed tree limb to probe the depth of the muddy water and had made his way to the north bank of the river. Larry splashed ashore and joined him. I lost sight of them in the undergrowth.

[pagebreak] I remembered that even a swamped canoe would still float and support a person. I rocked the canoe until it rolled sluggishly upright. I tried to swim and steer the craft as well, but I couldn't make any headway against the current. By then I'd been in the water for more than two minutes and my legs and arms had lost feeling. It was like trying to swim with two-by-fours strapped to my extremities.

Give it up, I thought. If I can float down to the new bridge, I can hang on to one of the pillars until help comes. I let go and watched the canoe drift downstream with a paddle and two dead ducks in its wake. I lay back in my life jacket and let the river carry me. After a few yards, my feet hit a submerged sandbar. I rolled onto my hands and knees, shivering and confused. This wasn't going well, I knew, but I couldn't seem to concentrate.

I could see the bank a few short yards away, but I knew I'd never be able to swim across the channel in between.

My legs refused to hold me and I collapsed on my stomach. I was barely able to keep my face above water.

Hypothermia had drained me. I knew vaguely that I was dying, but it just didn't seem to matter. I was tired and drowsy. All I wanted was to sleep and be warm again.

Then the sound of splashing roused me. Amber plunged across the channel toward me and I noticed that the water was only up to her belly. Hope surged in me. I can crawl, I thought. I don't have to swim.

Amber whined and nuzzled me and urged me to my knees. She ran back to shore, then dashed toward me again, beckoning me on. She barked furiously. Cold water was dripping from my hair. I looked down at the stream but couldn't focus. Nothing about me seemed to want to work. Yet my mind still functioned and it told me that I had to heed Amber's call and get out of there. On hands and knees, I slogged through the channel to the bank and collapsed. When I was able to look up, Larry was there. He slid down the bank and lifted me to my feet.

Randy leaned over and reached for my hand as well. I managed to grasp his, and he and Larry heaved me to dry ground. I couldn't stand without assistance. Larry and Randy supported me as we hobbled toward the old road.

[pagebreak] As we walked my muscles locked and my vision wavered. I put one foot in front of the other, simply because my brain couldn't send the "stop" message to my feet. I knew Larry was talking, but I couldn't make out his words.

A farmhouse stood in a grove of winter-stripped trees. Smoke curled from its chimney. Larry and I straggled onto the back porch. A farmer, dressed in his Sunday best, came to the door and eyed us with suspicion, but he let us in when he saw that I was in need.

His wife and daughter quickly took over and led me to the bathroom, where they undressed me and dried me with a towel. While her daughter brewed tea, the woman threw a nightgown over me and tucked me in bed under an electric blanket turned to high. By the time the tea was ready I'd warmed up enough to shiver. The cup clinked against my teeth as the woman held it to my lips.

Randy had telephoned his wife and told her what had transpired. She sent a friend to pick us up. By the time we arrived at Randy's house, a fire was roaring in the woodstove and an open bottle of cognac stood ready.

I huddled near the stove, sipping brandy and shaking. Randy and Larry, in better shape than I was, went out to pick up the vehicle and search for the canoe. On one of the back roads, they flagged down a hunter in a pickup and asked if he'd seen it. By incredible luck, the man had spotted its bow and stem projecting from the water and had towed it to shore with his johnboat.

None of us had any lasting ill effects from our dunking, and we didn't seek medical treatment. We still float the river and hunt but take every precaution in case the unforeseen happens again: dry clothes stashed away, waterproof matches and a first-aid kit.

I haven't forgotten how close I came to death on that last day of duck season. I never will.

[pagebreak] survived, which is the most important thing. But some awful chances were taken that unnecessarily put her life at risk after the rescue.

"The woman threw a nightgown over me and tucked me in bed under an electric blanket turned to high."

The rewarming process she used could easily have proved deadly. The proper technique is to gradually provide warmth to the neck, underarms and groin, heating only the trunk of the body to guard against core temperature afterdrop. Afterdrop occurs when the extremities warm faster than the trunk, causing cold blood to reenter the circulatory system.

"I huddled near the stove, sipping brandy and shaking."

She should not have been given alcohol. Contrary to the old myth about St. Bernard dogs carrying a keg of brandy to save frozen wanderers, drinking alcohol is dangerous to a person with hypothermia. Alcohol is a vasodilator and will open the vascular system and flood the core of the body with chilled blood from the extremities. This can prove fatal.

"We didn't seek medical treatment."

She should have been taken to the nearest emergency room, to ensure against post-rescue collapse.

Jan Weeks was lucky to survive. In spite of these missteps, she managed to dodge four deadly bullets-any one of which could have killed her outright.

The Four Steps
As Jan Weeks discovered, falling into frigid wth suspicion, but he let us in when he saw that I was in need.

His wife and daughter quickly took over and led me to the bathroom, where they undressed me and dried me with a towel. While her daughter brewed tea, the woman threw a nightgown over me and tucked me in bed under an electric blanket turned to high. By the time the tea was ready I'd warmed up enough to shiver. The cup clinked against my teeth as the woman held it to my lips.

Randy had telephoned his wife and told her what had transpired. She sent a friend to pick us up. By the time we arrived at Randy's house, a fire was roaring in the woodstove and an open bottle of cognac stood ready.

I huddled near the stove, sipping brandy and shaking. Randy and Larry, in better shape than I was, went out to pick up the vehicle and search for the canoe. On one of the back roads, they flagged down a hunter in a pickup and asked if he'd seen it. By incredible luck, the man had spotted its bow and stem projecting from the water and had towed it to shore with his johnboat.

None of us had any lasting ill effects from our dunking, and we didn't seek medical treatment. We still float the river and hunt but take every precaution in case the unforeseen happens again: dry clothes stashed away, waterproof matches and a first-aid kit.

I haven't forgotten how close I came to death on that last day of duck season. I never will.

[pagebreak] survived, which is the most important thing. But some awful chances were taken that unnecessarily put her life at risk after the rescue.

"The woman threw a nightgown over me and tucked me in bed under an electric blanket turned to high."

The rewarming process she used could easily have proved deadly. The proper technique is to gradually provide warmth to the neck, underarms and groin, heating only the trunk of the body to guard against core temperature afterdrop. Afterdrop occurs when the extremities warm faster than the trunk, causing cold blood to reenter the circulatory system.

"I huddled near the stove, sipping brandy and shaking."

She should not have been given alcohol. Contrary to the old myth about St. Bernard dogs carrying a keg of brandy to save frozen wanderers, drinking alcohol is dangerous to a person with hypothermia. Alcohol is a vasodilator and will open the vascular system and flood the core of the body with chilled blood from the extremities. This can prove fatal.

"We didn't seek medical treatment."

She should have been taken to the nearest emergency room, to ensure against post-rescue collapse.

Jan Weeks was lucky to survive. In spite of these missteps, she managed to dodge four deadly bullets-any one of which could have killed her outright.

The Four Steps
As Jan Weeks discovered, falling into frigid w