On Almost Drowning

I’ve almost drowned twice. Once during the whitewater rafting trip I described here a while ago. The other occasion came many years before, on a school trip in India, close to a river known for its fearsome flooding, for the toll it often extracts when its swollen waters disdain its banks and make their way over the neighboring lands: the Teesta.

In my high-school sophomore year–the tenth grade–I traveled to Kalijora in West Bengal on a schoolboy expedition. We were to spend a weekend in a forest service bungalow, swimming in the local rivers, hiking through the forests nearby, cooking our own food. It would be three days of blessed relief from school discipline and regulation.

When our bus dropped us off at our digs, close by the Teesta, situated on a cliff next to its banks, we stopped to stare at it in some awe. The summer rains had turned it into a beast. Readers of George Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire will be able to imagine what we saw if they remember this passage from A Storm of Swords when the Hound, Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark are confronted by the river Arya takes to be the Blackwater Rush – on their way to Walder Frey‘s castle:

The tops of half a hundred trees poked up out of the swirling waters, their limbs clutching for the sky like the arms of drowning men. Thick mats of sodden leaves choked the shoreline, and farther out in the channel she glimpsed something pale and swollen, a deer or perhaps  a dead horse, moving swiftly downstream. There was  a sound too, a low rumble at the edge of hearing, like the sound a dog makes just before she growls.

Years later, when I would see the Cheat River–in flood–in West Virginia during the rafting trip I described in the post linked to above, I thought of the Teesta again.

The Teesta was fed by a tamer tributary that ran below our bungalow; our plan was to use its considerably more inviting waters for our aquatic escapades. We strung up two ropes across its banks, separated by about fifty yards or so; our hope was that anyone knocked off his feet and carried downstream would be able to use the ropes to arrest his otherwise swift passage to a watery death. We stayed above the first rope; we had two shots at being rescued.

Those ropes saved my life. On the first afternoon, rather foolishly, long after my mates had gone left the tributary and climbed back up the rocky flight of steps to our kitchen for a cup of tea, I stayed on, swimming and wading, reluctant to leave its cool waters for the all-enveloping muggy heat that awaited me once I stepped out from them.

And then, suddenly, I was tumbling. I was knocked off my feet and carried downstream in a flash. As I frantically tried to regain my balance to stop being washed out to the frighteningly visible Teesta, I stuck my hand up, and miraculously grabbed the second of the two lifelines.

The tributary’s current was fast, and my body was now strung out, my legs ahead of me, with my arm hanging on to the rope for dear life. I could not stand up; I could not pull myself back up over the rope to get my head and torso out of the water. I felt water flowing over my head and down again. I could raise my head if I tried and when I did so, I would catch a glimpse again of the Teesta’s brown, furious, roiling waters. They might have been a hundred yards away but they felt frighteningly proximal. I might have shouted a couple of times but to no avail. No one was around; I was alone. If I was washed out to the Teesta, it would be a while before my absence would be noted; I doubted my body would ever be found.

I don’t know how long I stayed in that position; it could not have been too long for I surely would have been exhausted and let go. But somehow, I rolled over and pulled hard on the rope to become upright. Incredibly enough, I found a foothold nearby from which I pushed off into slightly calmer waters, from where I made for shore.

Exhausted and beat up, I walked quietly back up for my tea. No one asked me where I had been; I hadn’t been away that long.

It had felt like a lifetime though.

Whitewater Rafting on the Cheat River: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

In May 1990, (more precisely, during the Memorial Day weekend) I went whitewater rafting on the Cheat River in West Virginia. A fellow graduate student talked me into joining a group expedition that went every Memorial Day; it was run by a husband and wife pair and was described in suspiciously glowing terms. I had never whitewater rafted before; indeed, I had never set foot in a raft before. Sporting an attitude that has gotten me into trouble more than once–incorrigible curiosity–I decided to play along. I do not know why I thought this might be a good idea: I am a decent swimmer but not an excellent one; I am terrified of drowning; and did I mention I had never rafted before? More to the point, the Cheat features Grade IV and Grade V rapids. More on that below.

As we drove down to West Virginia from New Jersey, we encountered much rain along the way, and indeed, it was still raining when we pulled into camp early in the morning of our intended river run–after a long, tiring drive through the night. A quick breakfast later, we were river-bound, heading for outfitting and orientation.

My first look at the river was enough to induce a symphonic response from my now chattering knees: it was in flood (six feet over), a brown, roiling mass of water, churning and frothing through its broad channel, idly tossing about the odd tree-trunk and swirling over what appeared to be barely visible rocks. We were going to stick a flimsy raft on that matchstick production factory? Why wasn’t this illegal? I approached our river-running guide with some trepidation and asked him if we would be rafting with the river in such spate. My guide nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, yeah, its goin’ to be a wild ride out theah.’ (He might have preceded this statement with a Clay Davis-esque ‘sheeeeit’ but my memory fails me now.)

That piece of reassurance provided, I changed and got into the raft.  I was a coward all right, but I was even more scared about backing out in company. Our rafting got off to a decent start; the first two rapids were a bit wild, but not too bad. We then encountered the aptly name ‘Decision’ rapids where the weak-willed are given another chance to back out. I declined withdrawal. I was still too scared to back out.

Soon thereafter, I received my first dunking in the river. Our raft hit a rock, flipping me neatly into the water; on cue, I swam madly for the shore, and somehow made it. Others had received a quick wash too, so at least I wasn’t alone in being subjected to this indignity. Our raft, miraculously, was not lost to the river, so sadly, we couldn’t call an end to the madness.

Things got worse from that point on. The rapids grew into monstrous proportions; the river was in flood and every one of its wild sections, was, er, wilder. I navigated each one with my stomach churning, an acute mix of nausea and trepidation, all the while wondering why grown men and women with flourishing lives potentially ahead of them would ever subject themselves to such batterings.

Then, another rock. Our raft rode up on it, tilted, and slid back. As it did so, I fell into the river, and this time, terrifyingly, I felt myself washed away, and for one gut-churning moment of sheer terror, I felt like I was in a washing machine hitting the business end of a spin cycle. Suddenly, my head popped out of the water, and I found an oar stuck in my face by my river-guide, urging me to pull myself aboard. Somehow, I did so. One of our riders had been left stranded on the rock; amazingly, after we got to shore and threw her a lifeline, she pulled herself through the raging river to the shore.

I thought we were done. Surely, after that disaster, the sane thing to do was to pack up, and head for the nearest West Virginian moonshine distillery? But no. A genuine monster, a grade V rapid, awaited. It required some ten minutes of onshore planning and strategizing before we attempted it. Once again, I considered handing in my oars and hiking to the waiting bus, and yet again, I declined.

I’m glad I have forgotten most of the details of how we made it through that watery beast. I remember walls of white water below me, on top of me, and on the sides; I remember brown water; I remember screams and I remember arms and legs that felt as if they were on fire as I dug deep and hard in order to extricate ourselves from what felt like one endless whirlpool after another. I remember too, somehow, the awestruck faces of onlookers watching from the road nearby.

Then somehow, just like that, we were through. We were still scudding along on a frothing river, but the worst was over. I lay back, my palms and wrists aching from the tight grip I had exerted on my oar. I could have wept when I heard the magic words, ‘Time for lunch!’ A post-lunch short ride on the Cheat still had to be carried out but it felt like a breeze after what we had handled before.

That evening, I swapped stories about my ride and my dunkings with my camp mates, and made light of the flip, the toss, the spin cycle. Unfortunately, someone also recounted a ghastly story of a young rafter who had drowned in the Cheat, stuck to a rock as the river pinned him there, its relentless weight preventing him from breaking free and raising his head out of the water.

The weekend over, I drove back home, glad that I had ‘done the Cheat’, glad that I hadn’t backed out of the ride, but entirely unsure that I would ever want to go whitewater rafting again. Six years later, I rafted again, on the Ganges, just  upstream from Rishikesh, and finalized my decision: I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I wasn’t a natural in the water; my amniotic fluid days were too far gone. (Something I would realize years again later, when I went scuba diving, and had to bail out.)

To all the rafters and river-runners out there: respect. I don’t know how y’all do it.