Being Positive While Swimming into Certain Death
by Jonathan Angstadt
The black silhouette of a paddle floated by. It was soon followed by the cherry red hull of an overturned kayak. I suddenly felt sick as I started to realize what had just happened. At the horizon line, I saw him for a second, his arms windmilling in four strong strokes toward shore, before he realized his futility and rolled onto his back, into certain death.
My bones bounced wildly around as I sat in the passenger seat of Josh’s van, his new roaring air filter situated directly below. He revved the engine into fourth gear as we rolled onto the straightaway in front of the small country airport just outside of town. Low gray clouds hid the sun, a slight wind chilling the otherwise warm air. « Attitude is everything » Josh said, after hearing the latest in my occasion turmoil with my Chilean girlfriend. « I have seen people worry themselves literally sick. » He continued, staring ahead toward the next curve. « Yeah » I said, » It is pretty hard to lose an argument when you are saying that you want to be positive and work towards a solution. If I wasn’t one hundred percent positive I would make a line kayaking, well then, I would be for sure dead by now. If you have motivation, and you work towards what you really want, you can have it. It doesn’t matter what obstacles you encounter, your motivation and attitude will prevail. »
« That is exactly right » Josh agreed, « Be positive and you will see the results. »
We swung right onto the small gravel road that lead to the soaked, wooden, faded, buildings of the Pucon Kayak Hostel. Aniol’s beaten white Redbull emblazoned Nissan truck sat readily in front of the office, a couple half dressed kayakers milling about nearby. Josh pulled in, and I jumped out, « Going out or just coming back? » I asked, figuring out the plan of action for the afternoon, my time limited by my night job. « Going » came the reply of Willy, the wild haired, bearded, winter caretaker of the hostel. Josh and I speedily changed into our gear, and loaded our boats onto the back of the truck. Marshall, the new General Manager of Pucon Kayak Hostel, also came along. We crammed ourselves into the back of the truck, Marshall, Josh, Willy, and I becoming very close very quickly, while Aniol and our driver for the day Daniel, sat up front shooting the shit. Ten minutes later we arrived at the put in for the Upper Trancura. Normally the Upper Trancura is an easy class four river, but because of the spring rain raising the already high water, the difficulty was noticeably increased.
I walked my boat down to the beach and crammed myself inside, the banana shaped and colored plastic hull of my Chilean made kayak. I scooted towards the gray green surging water and floated away. The others came soon after me, rushing to get in and get wet. We splashed our way through the first few rapids, the lines familiar, the moves easy. In less than twenty minutes we were nearing the almost mandatory portage of the large boiling retentive waterfall, Mariman. A few months earlier in August when Willy and I found ourselves running the Upper Trancura at flood stage, we would take a moment to admire the power that is Mariman. Halfway through the portage around, we would ditch our kayaks and sit in the rain, watching the millions of liters of water cascading fifteen high volume feet into a eighteen wheeler sized hole. There was clearly no chance of surviving such a monster. « You would be so dead, if you kayaked that » I remember saying, imagining the horror in my mind. « You would be so dead. »
I paddled toward the eddy on river left, an easy to catch no consequence eddy. Sure the walk was longer, and it sucked to get out, but at least there was no chance I would be anywhere near the power of Mariman. Aniol sped passed me as I moved left. He was headed for a small boof in the center which would make his portage a bit shorter, but the consequence of blowing this move would be swimming the basically unrunnable Mariman. As I grabbed the rocky shore and started to get out, I saw Josh turn and follow Aniol. I looked back at Marshal who was close behind me. « Fuck that shit » I said. He nodded and moved toward the eddy. Willy moved to follow Josh and Aniol.
Aniol disappeared over the horizon, followed quickly by Josh. I was out of my boat and struggling to shoulder the leaky leaden boat, when I heard a scream. It wasn’t the kind of whoop you would hear after a good line. It was the very surprised worried scream of someone who was about to witness a heinous act of torture. I moved quickly down the small trail to portage Mariman and leads toward another serious rapid at this level fittingly named the « Last Laugh. »
I could now see the black silhouette of a paddle floating by. It was soon followed by the cherry red hull of an overturned kayak. I felt the sickening feeling in my chest usually caused by utter helplessness. At the horizon line, I saw him for a second, his arms windmilling in four strong strokes toward shore, before, he realized his futility and rolled onto his back, and into certain death.
Somehow he had messed up the boof and ended up in a small yet powerful hydraulic. A veteran river guide on the Upper Trancura Josh knew what lay below. After a brief yet chaotic battle he swam. Aniol, sped after him. I ran down the trail through the thick bamboo cutting right at a small turn off to see if he had been able to get out after Mariman. I stared at the boiling, exploding, power of the large hole at the base of the waterfall that is Mariman. I looked for an arm, leg, or helmet. Some sort of sign that he was still in there. Nothing. I continued down the path, passing the other explosive rapid, the « Last Laugh » with no intention of running it now. I looked at the bottom the this rapid as well.
I ran back upstream and bumped into Marshal and Willy. « Is he still up there? » I asked.
« No » they said. My blood pumped and I ran back toward my kayak. There was only one thought in my head, « I will be the one who has to tell his longtime girlfriend of three years that he is dead. » It seemed almost certain now. No one could survive swimming a portage then a kilometer of hard class five whitewater in the dead of spring.
I pushed thoughts of death to the back of my brain felt felt a cold calm overcome me. I jammed myself into my kayak and exploded out into the current. After the next curve I saw Aniol, holding someone.
I raced towards them, hoping that the body he was holding was still breathing. His eyes struck me before anything else. There was primal fear inside them. A humbled nature. They were defeated and broken, yet still alive. « You ok? » I asked. The blue pale ghostly face of Josh turned toward me and said in through convulsing shivers, »I am ok. »
Marshal and Willy came soon after me.
Somehow Josh has surfaced on the river left side of the river and was able to grab onto a branch and pull himself out of the water until Aniol arrived a few minutes after. We made a quick plan to get Josh to river right, where there was a trail to the road. Aniol connected himself to Willy and had Josh climb on the back of his kayak, then together they ferried Josh across the river. Marshal and I headed to the opposite shore first to act as onshore safety in case they were not able to catch the eddy on the opposite side. After a few tense moments Josh was safely on the right side of the river. Marshal, Willy, and Aniol left to get the car. I opted to help get Josh get to the road. As soon as they left Josh turned and hugged me. He broke down into tears of relief. « I thought I was going to die » he said through weak tired sobs. « I thought you were too » I replied, « but I am so happy you didn’t. »
The walk through the woods toward the road was slow, I kept a hand on his life jacket, not trusting his tired delusional state. He wafted in and out of his own mind. You could see him struggling to think straight, struggling to stay « here. » What he said as we walked, I found to be the same thoughts I was thinking. His words will forever be cemented into my brain. His words will be forever left in the cold damp woods which encroached the small trail to safety on all sides. « At one point I was crucified on a rock underneath the water. I could not move » Josh said, « I was plastered on the rock and all I could think about was how I wanted to live. I wanted to see my girlfriend again. I stayed calm and wiggled. The current caught me once again and I was carried away. I just wanted to live. »
I did not care that he swam. I did not care he had chosen to make a somewhat sketchy boof rather than make the normal portage. I did not care about anything that had just happened. I was just so very happy to see him still alive. To hear his shaken voice. To know that my friend would still be here. And that rather than never be able to forget who Josh was, I could continue to enjoy the very positive, inspiring, role model of a man, who is the only person I know who could survive such a swim, Josh.
by Jonathan Angstadt