Swiftwater Safety

The middle fork of Idaho’s Salmon River rushes fast, brown, and smooth, swollen with spring runoff.  In a few weeks, when the guides begin rowing tourists down the river, the water will be lower.  The snow on the surrounding peaks will have melted.  The river will have stabilized, but for now, it is huge, encompassing, and chaotic.  From the bridge, I focus on what looks like a ripple where the water flows over a submerged rock and then doubles back on itself, creating whitewater.  That’s what these people next to me on the bridge are crazy for.  Was I ever?  I didn’t know anymore.

David, our tanned and muscled twenty-six-year-old instructor, stands with his back to the railing, clip board in hand. He wears a bright yellow dry suit and black neoprene booties and talks about how ferrying, or swimming at a forty-five degree angle to the current, is the best way to cross a river.  My classmates, mostly male kayakers in their early twenties who spend their time in the off-season as woodworkers, ski guides, or students, already know.  This information is part of the course, but David makes sure to move slowly through the basics for me, the only one without whitewater guiding experience.  I try to remember what I was thinking when I signed up for the swiftwater safety course.  That I wanted to be prepared.  That if I was going to be a rafting guide for the summer, it wouldn’t hurt to know more, like how to keep myself from drowning.  I’d imagined myself as a buff, bronze beauty effortlessly maneuvering a raft down a serene river, not wearing a helmet and wetsuit on a chilly spring afternoon.

David continues: “If you get stuck in a hole, swim upstream or make yourself heavy.  Sink to the bottom, and the hole will flush you out.”  We already talked about preventing foot entrapment, and I am trying to figure out how I might sink to the bottom of the river and simultaneously avoid becoming tangled in debris, all while deprived of oxygen for several minutes.  These directions — caution statements — are second nature to the boys.

I am freezing.  My borrowed wetsuit is not as warm as the dry suits most of my companions are wearing.  All of them except one, a nineteen-year-old girl, young and immature enough to be my student, have been guiding for years.  They all know what number cfs is average, low, high, dangerous.  I know from the rafting trips I have been on that cfs stands for cubic feet per second; it is the way water is measured in a river, but I have no idea what the numbers mean.  They know how to read the water’s patterns and colors, how the middle, deepest parts are the fastest, how at the sides the water is slowest and forms quiet pools called eddies.  They have all the gear.  They aren’t afraid.

I hadn’t been afraid either, until my boyfriend, William’s, phone calls to me at my writing residency on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula became less and less frequent.   At the residency, as I walked the tops of the cliffs along the beach, the harder I breathed, the more difficult it was for me to get air.  It turned out I had reason to be anxious.  I’d been back in Idaho only three days before he dumped me.


Those words, his words, “don’t think we’re right for each other,” circle endlessly in my head, mimicking the water I can see shifting beneath the bridge.  His voice sucks me under until I can’t hear anything else: a whirlpool.


After he left my apartment, I remember wanting to discuss the breakup with him.  I was used to discussing everything with him, but really, there was nothing to talk about.  He was sure.  He was sorry.  It was sad, he said, but there was nothing that could be done now.  I went across the hall to my neighbor’s apartment.  My stomach was so knotted I refused the double chocolate brownie iced cream she offered.  I tearily watched Meet the Fockers with her and her boyfriend and then proceeded to pack for my weekend of swiftwater safety in Riggins.

I decided, six years before, at age twenty-one, to move West.  To me, being “Western” meant hiding my Philadelphia roots, so I willingly gave up monogrammed tote bags, the Devon horse show, shopping trips to Manhattan, and all things I associated with the East coast.  My Western fantasy involved learning to play the guitar, driving a car with a manual transmission, riding horses (the Western way), rafting, and probably other things I have since forgotten.  After five years in Idaho, I could still only play Neil Young’s “Helpless” on the guitar, I’d sold my Subaru with the manual transmission, and riding a horse was not nearly as romantic as watching them gallop across mountain-rimmed meadows.  But rafting . . .

When I received an advertisement for weekend guides from the company that took me on a day trip the previous summer, I was sure being a weekend raft guide would be more fun than teaching my ninth writing class that year at Washington State University, where I could count on endless hours of grading and tired, apathetic first-year students taking English 101 again, after failing it the first time.

Yes, rafting.  My summer would be filled with cool beers on white sand beaches, down-to-earth, tanned people in fancy sandals, and I could forget all about excuses for late papers, my temporary and low-paid status as an adjunct professor, and politically-laden committee meetings.  I’d fallen in love with the West on a rafting trip on Idaho’s Salmon River when I was fourteen.  I’d become enchanted with the stars, the wildlife, the wilderness, the water.  Ever since then, I’d fantasized about guiding.  Now I was twenty-eight and unemployed for the summer.

David is finished talking.  He says, “Ok.  I think we’re ready to go,” meaning he wants us to walk down to the river and take turns swimming through the gaping hole where the water opens into a chaos of whitewater beneath the bridge.  I am a good swimmer.  I know that much.  I have a bulletin board of swimming ribbons in my childhood bedroom.  I have endured enough already this weekend, but I am sure I will live through this too.


The day before, Saturday, fewer than twenty-four hours after the breakup, I showed up in Riggins and located Sam, the blond woman a few years my junior who’d hired me.  I wore sunglasses to mask my puffy eyes.

“You look familiar,” she said when I approached her at the whitewater fair in the Riggins city park.  She was wearing a periwinkle halter top and expensive-looking sport sunglasses.  She was sitting next to David, who was typing on his laptop.  I eyed David.  As sad and exhausted as I was, I could still recognize his good looks, in that rafting guide kind of way.

“You hired me,” I said.

That evening, after our first class, I realized that in my flood of tears I’d forgotten to pack my sleeping bag and asked Sam if I could borrow one.  I told her and David I wasn’t always so scatterbrained, that there were extenuating circumstances, about which I tried to inform them briefly and without sentimentality.  I’d been in the West long enough to know about stoicism.

This morning, I suffered through the knot tying session as I kept saying with a brave face that I had to use the bathroom or that I’d gotten something in my eye as I tried to hide the tears that wouldn’t stop.  David demonstrated the three wrap prusik hitch, the figure eight bite, and the figure eight follow through.  I had never been good with knots, and this class was confirmation that in the long term I belonged behind a desk, using my mind instead of my hands.

Each time David moved on to another knot, I often still hadn’t mastered the previous one.  Boys who probably could not have passed one of my classes tied their knots slowly, letting me watch, or undid my knots and said things like, “Basically, you just have it backwards.”

But everything reminded me of him.  Didn’t he like to tie knots?  For five summers, he was a fishing guide in Alaska, where there were more salmon and fewer dangerous rapids.  Most of the rowing there had been technical, he’d said: avoiding log jams, making sure you didn’t take the wrong fork in the river and end up mauled by bears.  Still, just before we parted Friday evening, after the breakup, after I cried, after he said, referring to the swiftwater safety course, “I know you’ll love it.”  Maybe he didn’t know me at all.

Then, across the green grass of the Riggins city park, which we were pretending was the swollen Salmon River, my group set up a pig rig and a z-drag, rope pulley and anchor systems to free a pinned boat or person in the middle of a river, both of which I could not imagine actually using at any point in my future; however, unlike in an English class, what you say is far less important than what you do.  The emergencies I knew in my line of work – a jammed photocopier, blank stares of students who hadn’t done the reading – were nothing like the kind of immanent death situations the pig rig was intended to fix or delay.


Back on the bridge, I approach David after he finishes talking.  I didn’t even say anything.  Just opened my mouth.

“I know you’re having a tough time,” he says, “but I’d really like you to push yourself.  Just swim through the rapid.  We’ll be right there.  I promise.”

I had been brought up not to be a quitter, to look for challenge, not to back out.


In my borrowed booties, helmet, gloves, several layers of fleece, splash jacket, and overtop of that, my new, hot-pink lifejacket, I follow the boys.  The boys in their dry suits, the boys who are mostly younger than me, stronger than me, shorter than me, and not crying.  I follow the boys, knowing that in their $600 dry suits, they will not feel the chill of the melted mountaintop snow.  They are spots of blue and yellow, shocking against the gray, brown, and dull green of the landscape.  I follow them as they descend a gravelly bank overgrown with shrubs to the shore of the river, the wide, swift-moving river, 100 wide yards of brown, smooth, beautiful water.


Sam asked at the initial interview “So, you like to raft?” She held a clipboard and pen in hand, her blond curls bobbing.

I nodded enthusiastically.  I thought of our family trip down the river fourteen years earlier: lazy stretches of calm water, my skimpi bikini, a cold can of root beer in my hand.  Life jacket unzipped.  No booties.  No helmet.

I was also a rower on my high school crew.  That was in a polluted, flat river in Philadelphia, but I also rowed through a few class two and three rapids on a trip down the Snake River with an ex-boyfriend, Joe.  Then, I was successful, steering the raft through rapids with oar strokes that felt familiar.  Also, perhaps I was young enough then – twenty two — not to care what might have happened if I was not successful.
“We’ll teach you everything you need to know,” she said confidently.


To pass the course, a whitewater rescuer has to be able to throw, coil, and throw a rescue rope in forty five seconds.  David stands behind us and off to one side, clicking his stop watch.  I can’t not think about William’s skin, his scent, how he doesn’t want to be with me anymore.  I throw the rope at the imaginary target and then coil it, tears sliding down my cheeks.

The cold, slick rocks.  The wide, rushing river.  Would it be so bad to give up and drive home?  What prevents me?    My mother’s voice saying it would build character.  She had also paid the two hundred dollars to take the course, urging me that the course would make me a safer guide.  But I have enough character.  And two hundred dollars?  She’d understand.  But then, I return to the unchanging fact that I need a distraction, and this is a good one.  We live three blocks apart, and when I arrive home, all I will want is to see him, for him to tell me he’s changed his mind.  And he won’t have.  Of course he won’t have.  That’s what he meant when he said he was sure.  That’s what he meant when he said he was sorry.

Like everyone else, I am throwing and coiling my yellow nylon rope, neon against the cool brown of the river.  Throw.  Coil.  Throw.  Coil.


I take a deep breath and dive off the rock into the water.  I want to prove myself, to show I am strong, that I am not the crybaby and confused knot tier I’ve been all morning, that I can withstand a breakup and then swim down the swollen middle fork of the Salmon River.  That I have stamina.

The water is cold, but the first thing I feel is the rushing current, moving and breathing, bigger than anything I have ever known.  It pulls me.  I try to show the group on shore that there are some things I can do: I can swim.  I swim as hard and fast as I can out into the river.  David, on shore, in his yellow dry suit, is shouting and waving one arm, but I can’t hear him.  I know I am farther out in the river than the other boys were, but the current has paralyzed me.  I lie on my back, my feet pointing downstream, my arms sculling: defensive swimming position, all I can remember of the talk.

When I reach the buttress of the bridge, I push off with tennis shoed feet.  I miss the hole, but I do not miss the whitewater, which covers my head.  I look up and see white.  I am swallowing water.  The current envelops me, trying to sweep me into the middle of the river.  I see the yellow ropes lingering on the water’s surface, but they are too far away, and the current drags me swiftly, efficiently past each of them.

We have already learned the cardinal rule: you are responsible for your own rescue.  When the tall boy with the long, blond hair tosses the last rope, adrenaline courses through my body as I swim towards it, using every muscle in my body.  As soon as my hands touch the rope, I hold on tight until I am out of the current.  He starts to coil the rope, signaling me to let go, but I say, “Can I just stay here?”  between labored breaths.  As I hang there in the water, clutching the rope, I notice my knuckles are white.

As I finally climb onto the rock, my limbs still shaking, my breath still rattling and heavy, I hear David saying, “you were too far out, Andrea.”

So that my chest can feel less constricted, I start to unzip my life jacket until David says, “Don’t ever unzip your life jacket.”

While the next person is going, probably a boy with eight years of rafting experience, David approaches me and leans over, his face close to mine, as I sit, still panting, on one of the rocks.  “Didn’t you hear me or see me waving?  You were too far out.”

“I couldn’t hear you,” I say, gulping air.

“Why didn’t you come farther in?”  He glances now and then at the boy who is smiling and swimming, not too hard, for any of the yellow ropes near him.

“I couldn’t,” I say, my breath still wheezing and labored.

“What do you mean you couldn’t?  Don’t you remember what we talked about on the bridge?”

“I couldn’t remember,” I say, my breath finally regaining some sense of normalcy.

“You panicked,” he says, standing up.  “And you know what will happen if you panic while you’re guiding?  The people in your boat will panic, and there will be death.”

It’s clear he’s trying to scare me into paying attention, but at that very moment, he doesn’t make me want to try harder.  Perhaps the fact that I am in my late instead of early twenties is sufficient edge on maturity to know I am not immortal.  Perhaps unlike these other seasoned, beer-guzzling guides, I know I will die, and I don’t want it to be this summer.

Later that summer, someone else would die on that stretch of that river, an accounting professor at the University of Idaho.  His dog, outfitted with a lifejacket, would swim his seven-year-old daughter to safety.  In that moment, my fantasies of lazy afternoons full of bikinis and beer have turned to thoughts of lawsuits and drowned grandmothers.

We have three more scenarios that afternoon: swimming over a strainer, rescuing an unconscious person trapped on a rock off shore, and capsizing then uprighting a wooden boat called a dory.  I swim over the half-submerged log; I help (as much as ten boys in their early twenties will let me) rescue the unconscious person (David) off the rock; I do not help capsize or upright the dory.  Still shivering in my wetsuit, I watch each pair of people go out, rowing the dory thirty feet or so off shore and then capsizing it, uprighting it, and rowing it out for a short ride in the current before coming back in.

Each pair is all smiles as they row, and although the scene is beautiful — the late afternoon sun casting through ponderosa pines – I remember the chill of the water, the pull of the current, how hypnotic the river looked when I dove in.  How could anything so beautiful be so dangerous?


That night, we meet up after dinner at the rafting company headquarters, a two-story house with an office and supplies downstairs and a house upstairs where the owner of the company lives in the summer.  Upstairs, the boys from class are making tacos.  Girls my students’ age wear midriffs, drink Milwaukee’s Best and watch Dumb and Dumber.  The room looks uncomfortably like the scenes in college I tried my best to avoid.  I sit in a chair in the corner.  The guys and the girls are flirting and talking about who’s having a party when.  I imagine in a month or two how it will be just like summer camp.  Everyone will be asking who’s slept with whom, and at some point, one of the guys my students’ age will make it a mission to try to get romantic with the WSU professor.

Eventually, David shows up, Sam tagging along behind him.  This morning they arrived at the park together as well — each with takeout breakfast from a restaurant.  I suppose I have no reason to know if they’re dating, but in this culture, a few casual nights together seem like an accepted practice.  David congratulates everyone on a good day.  I wonder if that includes my lecture about panic and death.  He asks if everyone has eaten, looking specifically at me.  I nod even though I have only been able to stomach a few bites of the hot sandwich I ordered at a restaurant.

David announces we will be watching a DVD called Swept Away.  I am the only one who has a pen and paper out for taking notes.  A healthy-looking woman in her mid-thirties with shoulder-length, auburn hair comes on screen.  She wears a hard hat and a life preserver.  She talks about the many reasons people might be watching this film.  She discusses the casualties that happen yearly resulting from poor decisions, panic, and ill-preparedness.  While in back of her flows what looks like a shallow, bubbling stream on a beautiful spring day, she calmly informs us how every year people die in swiftwater from asphyxiation.  She tells us about how they swim for a while, swallow some water, breathe in some water, then, in panic, breathe in more water, and drown.

The film then cuts to several scenes of city police wearing dress shoes and no life preservers trying to rescue citizens from flash floods.  Sirens ring, and images of white sheets draped over stretchers fill the screen.

Between each cautionary tale, the woman narrates instructions for tying different knots.  Although I dutifully copy the pictures, I know the directional figure eight and the double figure eight on a bite will still elude me tomorrow.  The last section of the film shows whitewater adventurers in rafts.  David pauses the film.  “What’s wrong with this picture?” he asks.

I have no idea, but everyone else does.  “The boat is overloaded,” the boys say between bites of taco.  David nods and resumes the movie.

“No matter how hard she tries,” David continues, “the guide is too small to turn the boat.”

We watch as the boat approaches a fork in the river.  All the boats go to the right, except the one David has pointed to.  The guide paddles furiously to turn the boat, but instead, the boat catches on a rock in the middle of the river.  “Watch that woman right there,” David says, pointing to the screen.  As the river sucks the boat’s upstream pontoon underwater, the rafters, one by one, fall out of the boat and are carried around the river’s bend.  Three heads go downstream.  The lady David pointed to disappears under a towering wall of logs and debris.  One of the rafters is climbing the log jam.  Then the videotaper says, “Hold on there buddy.  Keep climbing.  I’m coming to getcha.”  The cut stops.

David pauses the film before the next knot-tying instruction.  “There was a huge lawsuit over that, and it was six months before the water was low enough to retrieve the woman’s body.”  I imagine if that was my mother, my sister, me.  If I was that guide . . .

“That’s a shady company,” one of the boys says.

“It was in Washington, near the Cascades.  The water was freezing.”

“I heard about that.  The name is rubbed out, but I know who it was.  Totally shady company.  Always overloaded their boats.  Had a buddy who worked for them.”

The lady by the pastoral stream reviews the basics: reach, row, throw, go, helo (helicopter).  Always wear a personal flotation device.  You are your own rescuer.  The film is over.  There is one day left to the course.


The next morning, on the grassy bank at the Little Salmon rest area, David tells us to get into groups of three, and I pick two of the burliest guys who, I’ve noticed, always seem to know what they’re doing.  We are to practice three different techniques of river crossing.  The first time we ford in a line with me in the middle.  My partners are nice.  Perhaps they have seen me crying.  Perhaps they know I have never been a river guide.  Perhaps they know I will never be one.  In a way that is not condescending, they ask before we move forward “Are you ok?  Make sure you have a firm footing.”

Still, I am not prepared for the strength of the current.  When we reach the middle of the Little Salmon, the force almost knocks me down.  For just a few seconds, even though it feels much longer, I am convinced the pressure of the current on my legs will carry me downstream.  Still, my hands are on the shoulders of the guy in front of me, who is holding onto a stick, and the boy in back of me braces on my back.  I am not crying.  I am concentrating – on not being swept away.  And then it is over.  The pressure lessens.  We are wading through the clear, cold water onto the rocky shore on the other side.

We repeat this crossing, using different techniques, three more times.  Each time, at the critical point, where the current is strongest, I think I will fall and be washed away, but each time, I manage to press on.  As we reach the home shore the last time, and I have led this crossing (their idea), stick in hand, sweating from the hard work despite the water’s icy chill, I confess to them “This is one way to get over a breakup.”


That afternoon, we all swim, attached to a rope, out into the current to save someone else.  My stomach still hurts, but today I am eating.  I’m not crying.  When I am firmly hugging the boy who’s pretending to be a man overboard, the boy who has the rope attached to my life jacket pulls too hard, and I lose my grip.  When I lift myself onto the rock ledge, the boy who was holding my rope says, “Sorry.  I pulled too soon.  You had it.  I should have given you a couple more seconds.”

David tells us our last challenge is to create a pulley system across the river.  We have to maneuver all eleven of us to the other side and back to shore.  I know accomplishing this has something to do with the anchors, pulleys, and bites we’ve been learning all weekend.  I still don’t know the knots, but I am trying.  One of the boys swims across the river with a rope.  We wait around for him to signal he’s found a place to anchor it.  He does, to a slim willow on shore.  The rest of us split into two groups.

I am with two boys wearing dry suits, neoprene booties, and neoprene hats, but their sleek appearances are deceiving.  We are supposed to set up a pig rig on our corner of the river.  One of the boys takes the webbing and secures it around a rock to create an anchor.  I suggest they clip the carabineer into the webbing.  Then I say, “What’s next?”

They shrug.  Neither of them knows.  I run up the gravel path to my car and retrieve the instruction manual decorated with my detailed drawings.  I take over, lacing the ropes through the pulley system while the boys check over my knots.  David descends to the bank of the river and walks by.  “Looks good,” he says, and I wonder if I’ve heard him right.

We take turns holding the rope that will guide us, with the help of the current, to the other side.  On the opposite shore, we clip off one line and onto the other to make the return trip.  At one point, the deepest part of the river where the water is fastest, I feel the current pulling me, and I can barely keep my grip on the rope.  The water rises to my chin, and I tilt my helmeted head back to escape swallowing water.  Then I remember that I had this feeling before, earlier this morning, fording the Little Salmon, and I remind myself this is only what it feels like at the swiftest part of the river.  It will pass.


We sit on blue athletic mats at the headquarters, filling out course evaluations.  I don’t know if I have earned a badge.  I haven’t done everything.  I swam beside the hole, not through it.  I didn’t capsize and right a dory.  I don’t know all the knots.  I had to use the picture in the course manual to get the anchor for the pulley right.  I am exhausted, cold, sunburned, and eager to see my mom, who will be waiting for me at my apartment.  She has flown across the country, and she has promised to have dinner ready when I arrive home.  This is a trip she planned months before, to see my brother in nearby Montana, but when she gets there, he’s leaving the state.  She’ll come see me instead.  The timing couldn’t be better.  I could barely speak through tears as I called her my first night in Riggins and told her that he’d dumped me.  Oh, and now I was learning how to save people from swiftwater.

The boys and the girl go up, turn in their course evaluations and pick up a red and white badge that says “Whitewater Technician I.”  I sit on the floor until everyone has left.  Then I approach him.  He looks up and smiles.  “Good work,” he says.  “I know you were having a tough time because of everything that happened, but you really seemed to get more involved today.  I was impressed when you went to retrieve your instruction manual.”

I briefly wonder what kind of swiftwater safety student I would have been if “everything that happened” hadn’t happened, if I was five or eight or ten years younger, if I grew up rowing a dory on the Salmon instead of a shell on the Schuylkill.  “Did I earn a badge?” I ask.

“Yes.  You didn’t get one?  You earned one, just like everyone else.”  He gestures at the three remaining badges.

I choose one and hold it, rubbing my fingers across its rough fabric.

“And, you know, you’ll find someone else.”  He stands up, walks around the desk, and embraces me in a hug.

I smile, more tears careening down my face, and I want to believe him.

Appeared in Permafrost, 2008


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