When, not if, you get tossed out of your boat in a rapid on a river, don’t panic. Hang onto the boat if you can, and with or without the boat, assume the floating lounge chair position: feet up, knees bent, and head back. Ride out the rapid and then, in calmer water, make your way over to the river’s edge.
I know this advice—my extended family has been rafting the Rogue River in inflatable kayaks for almost forty years. I email this advice as a safety reminder every two years in July right before the family gathers at Indian Mary Campground in Southern Oregon for seven days of game-playing, socializing, and floating down the river. I don’t know whether anyone reads my email but my be-prepared mentality compels me to send it.
We, for the most part, are experienced river runners but as our family grows, with new partners and children reaching rafting age, the safety tips bear repeating. Moving water is powerful, and we’ve had our share of mishaps: broken paddles, kayaks pinned in shallow bends, people tossed into the rapids. Trouble happens fast on the river and you need to be prepared to save yourself.
So I send out the email. I talk to people in camp. I yell out last minute reminders at the boat ramp. Other family members do the same—we do our best to look out for one another.
I haven’t been tossed out of my kayak in years. Experience, determination, and a big dose of luck have kept me in my seat.
This year the river level is on the low side of normal, the rapids cresting high, the dips sinking deep. On our all-day raft trip, the second short rapid gives us some excitement—multiple kayaks flip, with people and unsecured gear drifting down the river. The people already through the rapid help guide unmanned boats and boat-less people to shore. Everyone is unharmed. Later, we stop for lunch at an old mine, the rust-colored tailings marking the spot. Further down the river, we hang in the canyon and watch a few people jump off the rocks. Then we tackle the final rapid, a long class-three punctuated with exposed boulders.
I’m with the handful of kayaks at the end of our group. The rapids are high and continuous. I follow my cousin in the kayak in front of me, notice which way her kayak is shifting in the swells. My kayak noses up high, swings left, and I straighten it out. The kayak plunges down and then back up, left again, and this time my paddle stroke doesn’t connect with the river, and then quickly yet slow-seeming—I watch my body slip out of the kayak into the rapid. I’m in the river, the paddle and the kayak tucked under my right arm, my left arm flailing, my feet up. I’m a little shocked—I’m in the middle of this class-three rapid strewn with boulders.
My body is doing what it has been taught: I am indeed in the classic floating lounge chair position. My right arm swings the kayak in front of me and my left arm grabs on. The rapids slosh all around me. My body is keeping me safe, but my mind, never to be left out, asks “What should we do?” And with that wondering a jolt of panic sluices through my body: what am I supposed to be doing? And then another prize thought: I bet I could get back in my kayak. As soon as that thought registers, I press my upper body forward, glimpse the boulder I’m heading for, and my feet come down. If your feet get trapped by rocks, the current will push you under.
The moment my feet graze the rocks underneath the roiling water, my body takes over again, my feet jerking back to the surface, back to the floating lounge chair position. My arms squeeze the kayak into my chest, my nose points at the sky, my knees bend, and my feet prepare to bounce off the boulder I’m hurtling toward. All panic flees. I am calm because this is what I am supposed to do, this is how you get through a rapid without your feet getting stuck, without hitting your head on a rock.
I never touch that boulder. The river jostles me and my kayak around it, and spits us out downstream. I look over my shoulder at the retreating boulder—I can’t believe I didn’t hit it. The current tugs me onward, and I ease my way over to the side, to my cousin, eddied out and watching.
Back at camp, I keep reliving that moment of indecision in the rapid and the panic that abruptly flooded my mind and confused my body. I give one group of family after another a play-by-play of what happened, my mind trying to override my body, my mind trying to get me in trouble. My brother-in-law intones a piece of advice.
Two years from now, I will again send the rafting safety email, reading it not only for clarity and typos, but to embed the information deeper into my brain. I will keep telling my family what they believe they already know, and encourage short river runs of increasing challenge so incremental skills become muscle memory: You hear the rapids and make sure your life jacket is secure. You read the river picking a line that suits your abilities in this moment, and if you fall out, kayak or no kayak, recline and watch the sky. If your mind tries to lead you astray, use my brother-in-law’s suggestion and tell yourself: Remember your training.
Ten second video of me, staying in my boat. Zoom in for better viewing.