Monday, July 6, 2009

My father and sister took the green fiberglass canoe; Porter, Nico and I the battered aluminum one.  The plan was to paddle and float 18 miles down the Delaware River from Buckingham access to Calicoon – or failing that, to quit at Hankins after 12 miles.  It was a gorgeous day and the river was high.  It was the day after the 4th of July, but the river was running like it was early May.  A bald eagle flew low up along the river as we unloaded the canoes.  It was a misleadingly happy omen for a trip that was going to end in disaster.

The river wends among steep forested ridges.  Cedar waxwings flitted across from both shores.  Kingbirds and cliff swallows swept in after the flies and gnats.  Kingfishers clattered along in the treetops.  A young black bear casually watched us approach before lumbering off into the goldenrod and knotweed.  More eagles cruised above our heads along the river.  Greenly iridescent tree swallows and their gray, clumsy offspring skimmed the rippling river.  A hanging stream poured over the side of a ridge top and cascaded noisily down the gray cliff faces.

We picnicked upon some riverside rocks, and the boys climbed among the roots of pine trees exposed by erosion.

Normally, canoeing the river in July you have to be careful to avoid the rocks, but on this day we struck right for the roughest water because the current would carry us smoothly over rocks to the rapids beyond.  Porter grew more comfortable in the front, paddling and napping.  Nico watched mergansers and eagles and geese with my old Minolta binoculars.

It was the rapids just up from Hankins that did us in, though.  The deeper, right side of the river showed whitewater that was visible from two hundred yards, but we’d begun to take the river lightly.  The three adults didn’t even fasten on their life vests, a stupidity that could have cost a life or two.  The boys and I were a hundred feet behind Dad and Chris.  I watched as they plunged into one of the great pothole rapids and were completely upended, pitching sideways into the foam.  By the time I could see that there were two of them still clinging, sputtering to their capsized craft, Porter was yelling from the bow to stay to the right, and I had to focus on getting ourselves through the crashing water.  They were ahead, riding the rapids as best they could feet first, each with one hand on the canoe and the other still clutching their paddles.  In a long stretch of rapids, we caught up to them and they grabbed the gunwale of our canoe. 

I tried maneuvering us over to the shoreline, but with Chris and the upended canoe on my left side I couldn’t get any purchase with my stroke.  I yelled at them to let go of the green canoe, because I could feel the strength of the pull it exerted on us.  Chris did, but Dad either wouldn’t or couldn’t let it go.  He’d untangled is foot from where it had been trapped under the seat, but he was sinking in his jeans and heavy boots.  Then the swamped canoe was pulled back into the whitewater with Dad along with it.  As his grip broke on our craft our bow ground upon a large rock and our stern was whipped around into the full current.  

Now going swiftly backwards through the rapids I had lost sight of Dad, but saw the green canoe ahead of us.  Gunwales-first, it struck a rock and broke upon it, folding like cardboard with a tearing, crunching creak.  Our own canoe struck as well and was wrenched broadside.  As the canoe tipped I yelled at the boys, “We’re going into the water!”  I was spilled out into the chest deep water expecting the canoe to pivot and take us all with it, but we’d struck dead center and the current pinned it fast – pressing me against it as well.  Nico yelled, “The food bag!” as it was taken away.  Porter clung for a moment, but was swept under the submerged bow.  He bobbed up below in the rapids.   (He told me later, “I felt panic for a second.  But then I thought I’d better not.”) Then Nico was clinging to the uppermost gunwale and looking at me questioningly.  I told him to hang on tight.  Porter had a lifejacket, looked unharmed and could take care of himself.  I could see Dad making his way to shore in the large eddy that formed beyond these last rocks.  Chris had made it to shore upstream.

I told Nico to work his way over to me.  I thought that if I moved the canoe would shift.   He did, but stopped to say his leg was tangled with the stuff still tied in the struts.  And I had time to feel fear for the first time amid the chaos.  I told him to take his time and get untangled and he calmly did.  The canoe buckled, but the keel held creaking against the torrent.  My lifejacket for some reason was still there at hand and I buckled it on.  Dad and Porter both made it to shore.  Porter had even rescued the food bag.  Chris worked her way down to us.  There was only a 15-foot channel between us and the shore, but too much of the current shot through it.  

Despite having lost her shoes, Chris bravely launched across and got to the eddy that the stranded canoes were forming alongside our boulder.  She strapped on the last two flotation devices and Nico worked his way back along to her.  Finally he began to cry.  The two of them let the current take them away, bobbing like corks. (He said later to Chris, “You know I didn’t cry because I was sad.  I was crying from terror.”) 

Another pair of canoeist rode the rapids, choosing the shallower left side, but were swamped as well.  Laughing in relief, the two men swam off after their capsized canoe out in the calmer currents below.

When I moved, I found that I needn’t have worried about the canoe pivoting off the rock.  It was pinned in place by thousands of pounds of force.  I heaved at it as best I could, but failed to budge it.  Kayakers and canoeists from Hankin’s campground had taken notice and come up the shore to help out.  3 men actually launched themselves through the channel to help me shift the craft off the rock.  One was nearly swept away, but I managed to catch his arm and pull him in.  It took the four of us about ten minutes of struggle to get it free. 

We finally walked the canoes down to where the others were waiting.  Nico was shivering. Dad was standing feeling nearly drowned and deathly serious.  Porter was shirtless and hatless and apparently unfazed, though he said he wasn’t going to do any more river canoeing.  The green canoe was torn stem to stern.  The metal canoe was buckled but useable. Both Nico and I laughed to find our hats still on our heads after all that. 

Later, when we’d made our ways back to the cottage, Nico took stock.  “I was the only one who didn’t lose anything.  Porter lost his gloves, Chris lost her shoes, Grandpa lost his glasses, Daddy lost his binoculars.  But I did get one thing,” he added.  “Hypothermia.”