I have shared some wonderful, heartwarming, and special stories in Tribal Tales through my Sustained Momentum blog. The story that I am sharing with you today, however, is not one of those stories. Honestly, it is quite the opposite. White Water Catastrophe is one of the more terrifying days from my life.
Three summers ago, I was online scrolling through my Gmail when I came across a Groupon email message. The deal of the day was a great offer on White Water Rafting. I actually paused for a moment without immediately deleting it like I normally would. As I pondered white water rafting, I thought, “Hey this could be fun!” So, I clicked on the link and bought the package. I could not wait until I got home to tell my family about this trip we would take later that summer. I was not surprised at all to find that the family was totally excited about our upcoming adventure.
The time arrived for our white water adventure. We drove for hours to southeast Tennessee along the Ocoee river. We pulled into the parking area and met our guide at the lodge. We were given life preserver vests, an oar each, and very thorough training. We were instructed to leave all our valuables and anything that we did not want to get wet in our car. After all that, we were finally ready to go.
We got in a bus and they drove us about 15 miles upstream. I was pretty nervous but really excited. I do not think my husband or kids were nervous at all. This was a voyage that they could not wait to get started. Excitement buzzed throughout the bus. The five of us were put with another couple and our guide for the trip down the river. The other couple was pretty young and very nice. He was a firefighter and she was a marathon runner.
At last, we arrived at an area along the side of the highway where boats could launch out onto the river. We disembarked the bus and walked over to where the rafts were waiting. We found our assigned boat and were told to carry it down into the water and over the small dam. The one instruction that we were given during training that kept running through my head was: “Under no circumstances are you to let go of your oar. Hang onto your oar for dear life.”
My first clue that this adventure would be quite a challenge for me was carrying the raft into the water. I did not want to wade into the river. Honestly, I had not really even considered the real possibility of getting wet. I am not a good swimmer and I guess I really believed if we did a good job paddling downstream that we would not get wet. Oh my goodness was I wrong.
So, together, we walked out into the river. My tennis shoes got wet. I was quickly descending in thigh-deep into very cold, fast flowing river water. We struggled to get our raft over the dam, but eventually succeeded. We all climbed aboard.
Our guide was a young 20’s aged girl, who had been nice so far, but immediately she began yelling at us. She became a drill sergeant. We were not paddling fast enough or following directions quickly enough. She screamed at the top of her lungs and was making me very anxious. She yelled, “This is not a leisurely cruise, this is an extreme sport!” The trip so far was not at all what I had anticipated. However, my husband and kids seemed to be having fun so I tried to keep a positive outlook.
White water rafting was hard work. The guide would explain what type of rapids we were going to take next and give us directions on how to best handle the waves and water. My back, neck, and arms were screaming in pain and exhaustion. Our guide then said, “Well we are about a third of the way down the river.” I felt so defeated. I just knew that I would not be able to make it the whole way down.
Our guide then mentioned that at a point about half way through the trip there was a calm area where all the rafts would take a break and rest. Honestly, I was barely holding on to the hope of a rest stop. I kept paddling with all my meager might.
Then it hit. Just as the guide was telling us that we were about to encounter one of the roughest rapids and how to navigate through it, we collided with a massive wave. We were completely airborne. Everyone was screaming. Each person in our raft braced for a jolting landing. And then I saw her, out of the corner of my eye. The young woman who was sitting in the front of the raft literally flew out of the boat. Her firefighter husband reached for her but it was too late. She had plunged into the cold water and went under.
Our guide yelled for all of us to stay in the raft and she jumped into the raging river to rescue the young women. As our guide hurdled out of our boat, we hit a gigantic rock formation in the middle of river. We crashed hard. The front of our raft lodged on the edge of the rocks at nearly a 45 degree angle. This left those of us in the middle and near the back of the raft partially submerged in the icy water. While still inside the boat, I fell backwards. I was now lying on the bottom of the boat. My feet were on a slant above my head and my oar had lodged under one of the rocks and pinned my torso underwater. I totally panicked. I held my breath as long as I could since my head was entirely submerged. I absolutely believed I was going to drown!
The firefighter reached over to take my paddle so that I would no longer be trapped underwater, but all I could think of was that under no circumstance was I to let go of my paddle. So, in my panic, I fought him. My daughter, Sarah, who was sitting behind me, saw that my head was trapped under the water and put her hand under my head and pulled me up enough so that I could inhale and get a fresh breath of air. She saved my life that day.
Once I could breathe, I was able to calm down just a bit and realize that I had to move the oar from under the rocks. I was able to slide it out just enough that my chest was no longer confined underwater. Sarah continued to hold me up, by my life preserver, so I could get air.
Within a few minutes or so, our courageous guide had pulled the young lady from the water and her husband dragged her back into the boat. She was safe. Our extremely capable guide, then dislodged us from the rocks and we were now level again. I was able to sit up for the first time in what seemed like an hour. I was shaking. I was totally drenched and in complete shock. Since we were in such a dangerous area of the rapids, the guide yelled at us to start rowing and we did.
Within a few minutes, we made it to the halfway rest point where we were able to drift along with no rapids or currents for a little while. Some, in our boat, got out and swam, but I stayed frozen in my seat. I could not talk or think or barely function. All I kept thinking was that I was not going to make it the rest of the way. I truly believed it.
Just before we got underway to finish the rest of the trip, I told our guide that I was unable to continue. Her boss happened to be in a raft nearby, so she called him over to us. He questioned me for a minute or so and told me that they could leave me on the side of the road above the cliffs and that someone would be by in an hour or two to get me. At this point, I could not imagine climbing up thirty feet of a sheer cliff alone. He reminded me that if I was not in the boat to row that it would have a negative impact on all the others in our raft. His guilt trip worked. I stayed.
We got started again and I held on for dear life. The second half of the trip was less eventful and I just focused on surviving. I did not say a word for the next twenty minutes. As we neared the dock where we were instructed to get out and carry our rafts up the boat ramp, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. We carried our raft to the vans and prepared to make the ride back to the lodge.
As I stood near the vans, my family left me alone since they knew how upset I was. I just kept replaying in my mind the time that my head was underwater, and my body was pinned under the oar by the rocks. It was a nightmare I would remember forever.
After a few minutes, my daughter walked over to me and asked me if she could give me a hug. I agreed to let her. As soon as her arms were around me, the tears just poured out. I was still in shock, my chest heaving just trying to relax so I could breathe more easily. I’m still soaking wet, and I couldn’t stop crying.
Within fifteen minutes, the bus arrived. We all piled in. I sat there motionless as we made the ten minute trek back to the lodge. I could not believe that I survived this outing.
We got off the bus and I walked directly to the women’s changing room, changed out my wet clothes and got dressed. Then, I immediately went to our car and got in. I sat there alone and waited for my family, since I was too traumatized to move.
After everyone in my family was changed and ready to go, we left and drove back to Gatlinburg to finish the rest of our vacation. The kids and my husband talked non-stop about how much fun they had and what their favorite rapids were and how they wanted to do it again. I said nothing.
When we arrived at the hotel, I went inside and layed down to take a nap. My family was being very patient and not pressing me to talk. I slept for hours. I have no idea what they did during that time.
I woke up hungry for supper, so that was a good sign. My husband took us out to dinner and for the first time since our white water rafting trip; I was able to contribute to the conversation.
On our way home from vacation a few days later, the kids and my husband talked a lot about the next white water rafting trip. But I knew that there would never ever be a next time for me.
(c) 2016 Sustained Momentum Entertainment, LLC and Diane Carter LeJeune. Previously published: October 22, 2013 "Tribal Tales."