I was Expendable

by TJ Hanson

It was Labor Day Weekend on the upper Deschutes. This year’s Family Float consisted of 27 participants, including 10 kids and an odd assortment of dogs. Since this was the last big weekend before school, the river was crowded and campsites were scarce. We got the Whiskey Dick camp for our first two nights by having a few people launch on Friday; however, our next camp (for Sunday night) of Lower Paradise was doubtful.

The solution was simple; just send a runner down there early Sunday morning to reserve the campsite. Since I was a single and familiar with the river, it was decided that I was expendable. So early on Sunday morning I packed my gear and set out for Lower Paradise.

Whiskey Dick is just above Whitehorse Rapids. On approaching the rapids I made sure my life vest was secure, including the crotch straps; I swapped my hat for my crash helmet; and I put some croakies on my dark glasses. I was wearing a splash suit, wet socks and sandals. To stay safe, I decided to cheat Whitehorse by running on the far right side, near the shore.

The entrance was easy, but that was all. I was only about 25 feet into the rapids when my right oar blade jammed on a boulder, shoving the handle into my gut. With my 12.5-foot cataraft lurching toward the rock, I was lifted off the seat and shot out of the other side of the boat. The force of the oar expelling me from the boat was so strong that I was a good 5 to 6 feet from the boat before I hit the water. I went into the river with my back first. It only took a few seconds for my life jacket to pop me up so I could survey the situation.

     1. My boat was at least 20+ feet away by now.

     2. The shore was about 30+ feet away.

     3. It was 7:35 AM

     4. The air temperature was 49 degrees Fahrenheit.

     5. There was nobody else on the river, so no chance of a rescue.

     6. I was inside Whitehorse Rapids, but still above “Oh S__t” rock.

     7. I was not wearing a dry suit.

I had a decision to make. Should I swim for my boat or swim for the shore?

My first raft trip was in 1976 down the Shoshone River in Wyoming. I’ve owned all my own rafting gear since 1980 and have been an avid rafter for the past 29 seasons. However, no amount of experience can prevent you from taking a swim. It can happen to anyone. The important thing is to remain calm and continue thinking. Evaluate your options in a logical, intelligent manner. A wrong decision could just provide you with additional problems. The things I considered were:

     • I need to capture my boat since there are no other people on the river to help.

     • Trying to capture a boat in a rapids is extremely difficult. You can be 3 feet from the boat but unable to grasp it since it is moving with the current. I know this from experience.

     • Whitehorse Rapids is over a mile long. I could be swimming for a long time.

     • There’s the remote chance that while swimming, I could get wrapped on a rock.

     • Since I only had on a splash suit, at some point the river temperature will start to have an impact on my ability to swim.

With the above logic running through my mind, I decided to swim for the shore. I pulled myself up on some rocks, then climbed to the railroad tracks. My left sandal had been pulled off during the mishap so I sat down to straighten that out. As I got up to start hiking down the railroad track, a jogger came by. She thought I was simply scouting the rapids.

“Checking it out,” she called out as she ran by.

“Not really,” I said. “If you see a boat downriver, give a holler.”

She continued on, probably wondering what I was talking about. She hadn’t gone far, maybe 150-200 meters when she stopped and starting peering down at the river. Then she came walking back.

“I guess I should have asked if you’re okay.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied. “Just a freak accident.”

“Your boat is caught on some rocks up ahead.”

I was due for some good luck, so I hurried along before the boat worked its way free. Sure enough, there was my boat. It was loosely bobbing between two boulders about 10 feet from the shore.

“Well, look at that,” I said, “and it’s still upright. If I can get into it and throw you a line, could you help to pull me off?”

“Sure,” she said.

I slid down the embankment, worked my way through some brush, then surveyed my chances of getting to the boat. There was a fair amount of fast water between me and the boat, along with some slippery boulders. I gingerly worked my way out until I got one hand on the boat. With that I quickly boosted myself in and pulled out my throw line. I tossed her the bag while tying the other end onto my frame. My weight and movement in the boat was literally enough to free it so a pull was not necessary. She tossed the line back as I drifted free.

“I owe you dinner,” I called out while gathering in the remaining loose line.

She smiled and politely said that I did not owe her anything. I suspect she was really wondering why she would ever have dinner with some whacked out loser that runs Whitehorse alone in the early morning.

I continued on down river without further incident. The entire time between getting ejected from my boat and continuing down river was less than 30 minutes. I got a little hypothermic before arriving at Lower Paradise. My body temperature was at about 95 or 96 degrees as I started to flirt with uncontrolled shivering. It was just a friendly reminder of growing up in Wisconsin. 

When the rest of the group arrived at camp, I decided that the better part of valor was to keep my mouth shut. With about 14 anxious parents and 10 kids, this was no time to have a dinner discussion concerning “Terror at Whitehorse”.

Don Benjamin was the only one to ask if I had any problems, so I mentioned that I went for a brief swim. Word seemed to leak out so that by the next morning, all the adults knew of my adventure.

My only injuries were some soft tissue damage on the outside of my lower left leg, and a bloody knuckle. I have no idea how these occurred, other than they must have happened when I was ejected from the boat. When I got home on Monday, I noticed a good size bruise on my gut where the oar handle was. Since I had the padding of a hefty life jacket, this provided an idea of the force put on me by that oar.

In retrospect, we should have sent two boats down to secure the next campsite. One boat alone would be adequate only if there were no serious rapids.

As a side note, my life jacket has 27 pounds of flotation, which is near the maximum. This jacket has saved my life more than once. A life jacket is not a fashion statement, so don’t skimp when buying one. Get the best you can.