Down we go backward, the entire raft bucking and twisting, the left rear side ( my side) crunching vertically into the hole. Muddy spray washes over us, ripping my breath away. We struggle to stay upright, to keep our paddles out of the hole to prevent our arms being yanked from their sockets by the undertow, to lean in toward the middle of the raft to center our weight.
But for me, ill-prepared and half in the water already, it is no use. The river sandals I borrowed are too loose on my feet and the left one yanks completely free. Nothing now remains to stop that whole leg slipping out from under the seat beside me. I cling precariously to the side, muscles straining, to keep my leg in the boat. The stern of the boat and the rest of my companions are high up above me, huddled like frightened rats on the bucking on the lip of a massive, wicked-looking whirpool.
This stasis endure for several seconds, but it can’t last. The raft isn’t stable enough. It bucks up again, violently. Everyone else manages to cling to their sides. But my side is currently disappearing into the river. My head flies back and straight into the churn.
Now imagine a body bent backward over the side with his head stuck in the whitewater (photo: Wikipedia)
The roaring stops: the world becomes a totality of white and green and muffled sound. I hear my brother to my left, yelling, and feel his grip on my arm and leg. He’s trying to pull my upper body back up and in – something the guide had warned us not to do in a hole this huge, as it would simply cause everyone else to fall in.
With the raft at a 45 degree angle I don’t have the strength to pull my head back up out of the sucking whirpool. And I’m not about to drown here, bent backward over the edge of a raft, one leg straight up, one still stuck uselessly under the seat. That’s just not a dignified way to die.
I also don’t feel like being the cause of everyone else going over into the undertow with me. So I yank my right leg as hard as I can. The sandal rips free. My legs fly up. I somersault backward into the churning hole.
Chaos. Somehow I manage to right myself and thrust my head slightly out of the water, struggle to gasp a few breaths. Immediately I’m sucked downward into the whirpool, outward toward the rock ledge lining the bank of the river – spinning in a pressurized void of green and white. I try to swim against the undertow to no avail. How deep is this hole anyway?
My eyes fly open. The rock ledge. Getting pinned by the current under submerged rock ledges are how people drown, and the ledge is close. In only a few seconds the undertow will drag me under it. And I may not have the breath to fight back.
In a surge of pure adrenaline I heave my feet out from under my body and position them in front of me. I plant them firmly, flat against the edge of the rock wall and push mightily away from the ledge with all my remaining strength.
I shoot out back into the main current, out of the hole. Finally I surface, gasping raggedly, taking in as much spray as oxygen. But I’m not dead.
Safe out of the hole at least, now I just need to survive the remainder of this stretch of Class IV rapids without knocking myself out on a boulder. I struggle to get breath, get turned around with my feet in front of me like the guides have demonstrated so that none of my tender bits are smashed by the rocks and slabs.
My lungs cannot seem to get enough air. Endless moments pass during which I have no idea when I will take my next breath. As soon as I surface, I slide over a rock or plunge down another hole and am pulled down again. I drink a good portion of the previous night’s rainfall.
I could probably tell you to this day, if you served me up a glass of pure Pacuare river water, exactly which rapid it came from within a couple of river miles. (“Ah yes,” I would say, swilling the glass and smacking my lips. “The Mangler rapids. A fine vintage, I would know it anywhere…”)
Things are getting desperate. At the edges of my vision – eyes fixed wildly open in the rushing water, a churn of green and white foam and bubbles – dull black tendrils begin to creep.
I launch my head savagely toward the open air, gasp a long breath. Only now am I aware that my calves and bare feet are absorbing impact after impact from the stones and boulders I’m navigating.
A rock cracks against my tailbone. I careen down a mini-waterfall, my legs jolting as my feet hit the river bottom.
Sort of like me in the rapid, but with more rocks and less drowning. (photo: c. Wayne Hacker, warrenimages.com)
Suddenly, the blessed red safety kayak is there. I feel it gliding smoothly up against my right side. I grasp blindly out for the edge and cling to the front. “Hang on, amigo!”, the kayaker shouts.
As if I would do anything else. Um, no, amigo, that’s ok, I’m really enjoying my blind morning hurtle through this concealed boulder field, thanks anyway.
Rocks and branches fly past as my body is swiftly transported to the far end of the rapids. I’m deposited, dazed and heaving for breath, on a wide sandy shore fringed with reeds and stumpy banana trees. The kayaker sticks a goofy thumbs-up sign toward me, shoots downstream to look for more “swimmers”.
The slopes around Turrialba, Costa Rica (photo: bidstrup.com)
Our SUV has become stuck in mud on a narrow jungle road for the second time this morning.
A few hours before dawn – before we’ve trekked across the mountain village of Turrialba to the office of our rafting outfitter – a brief thunderstorm had sent sheets of heavy rain pouring onto the slopes of the mountains, reducing much of the earth to dribbling brown liquid.
As the guides work to free the back tires, we struggle groggily out of the truck to stretch our legs on a dry part of the road, snacking on Clif Bars and surveying the scene below.
To the south down the road lay the low shacks and bridges of Turrialba. To the west and about a thousand feet straight down from the ridge, the two main rivers tumbling out of Costa Rica’s central mountain ranges – the Rio Pacuare and the Rio Reventazon – crookedly intersect, wriggling like a couple of long lazy earthworms washed out of their burrows.
From these heights the rivers look motionless and two-dimensional as photos, shimmering through a haze of evaporating fog and mist, shot through with mottles of bright sunrise. It’s breathtaking. And slightly intimidating. After all, in a few minutes we are scheduled to be on one of those rivers – the Rio Pacuare, one of the top rafting rivers in the world – and headed into our first major Class IV rapid.
Finally the back tires spin free and we’re on our way again, bumping and roaring up and down steep jungle hills scattered with deciduous and banana and palm and the occasional wild coffee bush.
It doesn’t look like we’ll make our put-in time.
The Rio Pacuare. (photo: livingincostaricatoday.com)
Finally at the put in, we unpack our gear as our main guide, a short and friendly Tico who looks no older than 18, explains the situation.
Normally, he explains, they would do a test-run in calm water so that inexperienced rafters can practice pulling others back into the boat, and the ones being pulled in can get used to being in the water. Also in normal circumstances we’d all practice floating a small section of rapids in only our life jackets.
But it’s late – we’re behind, there are several other groups behind us, so the guide skips all this. Instead they just show us how to stay in the boat (by jamming our river sandals under the seat in the center), tell us to paddle like hell and “avoid the big holes”, and throw us in.
You can probably guess this is a bad idea. With the exception of my then-girlfriend, we’ve all rafted before. But our experience has been limited to predictable rapids in high desert rivers of no more than Class II or at most Class III, with few swells and no huge holes or obstacles in our way. This river….well, let’s just say this river is an entirely different beast. An angry, homicidal beast.
There’s a period of calm as we launch out in the shallows from the pebbled banks. The guide, perched at the rear with the steering paddle, goes over our upcoming route. We’ll be covering 18 miles of the Pacuare, with one break in between for lunch. Safety kayakers will be stationed to the aft and to the rear of us as we go.
This all sounds reasonable, reassuring. Less so when, seconds later, we’re shooting down the river toward our first Class III (made a Class IV by the rainstorm and the rise in river level), and I’m barely able to remain seated atop the side. It feels like I’ll be launched into the river at any moment.
We bang on easily through the first Class III even while straining to discern the guide’s shouted commands from the rear. After catching our breaths, we look around at each other. Jungle birds shriek and chitter above us, invisible in the dense foliage drooping down from the canyon walls.
Is it supposed to feel this precarious? Why can’t I get a solid perch on this side? Should it be necessary to correct my balance every two seconds to stay upright even in calm water? Should I have bought rafting sandals in my own size, rather than borrowing my stepdad’s, which are much too large and already slipping off my feet? Am I just being a paranoid noob?
Then – BAM! A giant wave rears up bronco-like directly in front of us, towering over the stern of the boat, and the time for thinking is over. We plow directly into it.
We are aloft for a split, terrifying second, disconnected from the river, from the raft even – I see the bodies of my companions beginning to float helplessly up from their sides as if gravity had become unbolted – and then we slam back down into the water at an indescribable angle, so violently that the whole front of the raft folds like a check mark. My neck pops and the teeth of my upper jaw crush against my mandible.
The rear of the raft pops out backward as it straightens itself out, flinging the guide’s body aftward. How his back is not broken after this little flight I still don’t know.
This is like us, but with way more time IN the boat (photo: Wikipedia)
We have no time to catch our breaths or even to feel elated. A giant hole looms ahead. I blink, can’t quite believe what the visual information indicates, blink again. The river level drops at least 10 feet in directly in front of us. A long, flat ledge of rock marks the edge of the hole, and we’re only a few seconds away. Too close to do anything but hold on and plunge into it.
All higher thought disappears from my mind. Cold terror consumes me as I paddle. The guide screams behind us, jamming his steering oar as deep behind him as he can without losing grip on it – “Paddle! Paddle! Left side! Left side!”
Abstractly I think – dude, aren’t you the one who is supposed to be calm and keeping us together? He is clearly losing it.
We paddle as instructed. The edge draws nearer like an executioner’s blade. It’s like fighting a bear, pulling against this current. But we slowly coax the raft to our right. We’re clearing it! We’re clearing it! I think wildly.
But relief is short-lived. In our haste, we’ve over-corrected and don’t have time to get straight. The back end sweeps around almost 180 degrees. The stern catches the flat edge of the rock.