When I think about people who flirt with death, athletes of extreme sports come to mind. Ask any free-solo rock climber or whitewater kayaker why they love what they do, and you’ll likely get an answer not about a deep respect for the natural elements but the exhilaration of conquering dangerous feats without a safety net. Last summer, Alex Honnold ascended the 3,000-ft granite face of El Capitan using just his hands, feet, and a bag of chalk. Any slip-up would’ve resulted in certain death, and yet he told incredulous reporters that doing so “felt fucking awesome!”
It takes an extremely cavalier attitude towards death to live life like that. Or perhaps, an even more extreme level of confidence. Either way, living bravely is a gamble, and we all do it every day, albeit to different extents. Even driving to work is a relatively safe bet, but a gamble nonetheless.
Personally, I am nowhere near the level of waterfall-kayaker Tyler Bradt, or Olympic ski-flyer Stefan Kraft, nor do I wish to be. But I like to think I understand the impulse, at least. Anyone who spends their free time testing their tenacity against the elements does. Climbing a 14,000-ft peak is objectively exhausting, cold, and miserable, but knowing that you’ve done that is extremely satisfying. So is backpacking in subzero temperatures, or scrambling up jagged cliffs in a heavy downpour, or navigating a cedar-strip canoe down the most dangerous river in Michigan.
My mother feared for my life on a couple hikes in Arizona, wherein lies the perfect spot for a spunky fifth grader to dangle his legs over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Taryn fears for both our lives every time we get in the car. And there’s been a handful of winter canoe trips on which I didn’t exactly fear for my life, but I certainly didn’t like our icy predicament.
Thankfully, I’ve only had one legitimate near-death experience.
In the summer of 2014, I almost drowned in the Grand River. That summer, a friend of mine rediscovered the joys of kayaking, and I knew a thing or two about rivers in the area, and so Mia and I went together several times. On what ended up being our last trip together, I suggested we paddle the downtown stretch of the Grand. I’d done it dozens of times before; the frequent access points made it a convenient route for those short on time, the novelty of urban paddling was added excitement, and the series of low-head dams made for fun little “whups” in an otherwise flat river.
The river was quite low, which generally means calmer water, but I failed to take into account that the drop-off after each dam would now be much higher, instead of the usual inches. Average river depth was still about mid-thigh, but behind each cofferdam lied a gouged-out trench of turbulent water, well over six feet deep, swirling backward in big circles like a liquid steamroller. Just about everything that got sucked into that vortex was going to stay there a long time.
Of course, we didn’t know any of that until it was too late. Both our kayaks tipped at the same time, and within seconds we felt the malevolent backwards pull of the current. I got nervous when I couldn’t feel the bottom, and more nervous when I tried to swim downstream, away from the frothing dam, and could not. I abandoned my waterlogged kayak and tried once more to swim out, this time with big, powerful, even strokes. It was time to get serious. But I was still getting slowly sucked backward. I glanced sidelong at Mia, who was struggling similarly a few yards away. She shot me a look of fear, kind of a “What do we do now?” expression. This was my thing; I was supposed to be the expert here.
Thankfully, the spectacle had caught the attention of onlookers on Bridge Street, and our failure to swim to safety was beginning to draw a crowd. It was Hail Mary time. I did something I’d never done before: I started screaming for help.
It felt weird. Like a government official declaring an official state of emergency, it snapped any remaining thoughts of triviality. This would not be chalked up as a typical paddling quandary. We were officially recognizing that this was a crisis, and we might, you know, die.
Crises are weird. Car crashes can happen in the blink of an eye, and other times you have all the time in the world to analyze what is happening. I can’t say for sure how long this entire ordeal lasted, but it happened in stages, and each stage seemed to last an eternity. While the current continued to suck us backwards, I remember calculating the time it would take for rescue to arrive. Best case scenario involved an extremely efficient phone call to 911, a speedy drive from the nearest fire station, and a well-aimed toss with a life preserver. How long would that take, five minutes? I don’t think I can swim this fast for five more minutes.
I remember breaking down survival into a series of goals, and having to settle for smaller and smaller goals as each failed:
1. Swim out of the current. This was not working; with each passing second I was dragged closer toward the foaming roar behind me. My awareness of Mia diminished to zero as I tried to focus on keeping myself alive. After struggling frantically against the current, I had been completely reeled in. Water pounded me from above, shoving me under with crippling force.
2. Keep your head above water. I touched the bottom of the river, sprang up, and was able to catch a big gulp of air before getting shoved back under by the immense pressure. If I fought as hard as I could, exerting every muscle to its limit, I could sort of stay near the surface and take periodic breaths of air. One of our kayaks jostled its way over to me, spinning like a barrel in the froth, and in my underwater blindness I remember taking hold of it and shoving it down to propel myself upward. But after a couple thrusts, I became exhausted and started to sink.
3. Swim to the surface. I landed on the bottom again, and sprang up toward the surface once more, this time with much less vigor, and I was nowhere near the surface after that propulsion. I felt like I had sprinted a mile; my legs and arms were just done. The surface was just too far away.
4. Keep holding your breath. Totally fatigued, I crawled along the bottom of the river, the weight of the torrent pinning me down like sandbags. I may not have been able to penetrate the surface, but plenty of scary thoughts did. This is it, I thought with somber disbelief. This is how I die… I have a strangely vivid recollection of the instant my cross necklace—an expensive gift from Taryn that I never ever took off—was ripped clean off my neck and floated away into the murky void. Funny that among my thoughts of peril and death, the chagrin of losing that keepsake made me incredibly sad.
I was unconscious for a while. A guy in Ah-Nab-Awen Park later told me that he’d seen my body floating face-down in the river for a ways. Besides a bizarre, lucid dream in which I was telling my friends about “that time I almost drowned in the Grand River,” my next memory is from at least a few minutes later. I just remember opening my eyes and staring at surface water flowing downstream. Sirens were wailing, people were screaming and shouting from all directions, and the sun was impossibly bright. I was trembling on my hands and knees, puking into the river, and feeling a massive headache begin to form.
I looked up. I was underneath Bridge Street, a hundred yards or so downstream. Almost comically, one of the kayaks was floating nearby, bobbing up and down between some river boulders. And then the haunting realization that this was all real, that this was still happening, roared back. I wasn’t talking with friends about some event in the past. It was happening right now.
I looked upstream and immediately thought of Mia. The other kayak was still spinning madly in the froth of the dam upstream, and Mia was nowhere to be found. The hammer in my head slid down to my stomach and sat like lead. The picture was all coming together; the sirens, the screaming, the crawling around on the bottom of the river, not quite getting that last desperate breath of air… I remember shouting her name, and bursting into tears, and exclaiming “Oh my god” over and over again.
I thought she was dead.
My head’s never been in a darker place. I started thinking about how this was all my idea, my plan, my fault. I had chosen this spot, and I had insisted it was safe. Now I was wondering what on earth I would tell her family and friends.
A fireman repelling from Bridge Street brought the good news. I’m sure he saw me wallowing in frantic hysterics, because the first thing he said was, “She’s safe, she’s safe! She’s on shore right now; she’s fine!”
The fallout was almost as traumatic as the near-drowning. Mia and I were still twiddling our thumbs on Emergency Room gurneys when the first news segments were aired. Contrary to the reports, we did not paddle over the Sixth Street Dam, we had not been drinking, and we did have PDFs with us. But a grungy bystander in the park told a more colorful story than ours, and so all the channels ran his fifteen minutes of fame instead. The firemen told us they usually include alcohol in these reports, even if there is no evidence of such, just to serve as a reminder of its dangers. Thankfully, hardly anyone I know watches the news anymore, so most of my peers were able to hear it from me first. I missed work the next day, and somehow the message my coworkers received was simply that I “fell out of a kayak and couldn’t come into work,” much to their irritation. The ambulance bill was hefty, but in the heat of the moment I had been way too shaken to refuse the two-minute ride to the hospital.
But the main thing, of course, is that we both made it out alive. I can’t say exactly how I got out from under the pounding pressure of that dam. As a man of logic, I think the water on the bottom of the river was flowing outward, while the water on top gets sucked back. Once I lost consciousness and stopped fighting the current, it simply pushed me out. As a man of faith, I think God had something to do with it too.
As for Mia, turns out she was simply a stronger and smarter swimmer than I. She was able to swim parallel to the current long enough to find a riptide-like exit. From there, she made her way out to the Bridge Street pillars, where the firemen helped her ashore.
It took a while to get back on the water after that day. I don’t go anywhere without a life jacket anymore, even on creeks and ponds. The sermon I heard this morning talked about fear in the context of Jesus calming the sea. “The sea doesn’t care,” was a common phrase. It’s a wild, powerful force that commands fear and respect, and it acts completely independently of humanity’s feelings toward it. If that wasn’t instilled in me before that day, it sure is now. I like to think I’m a wiser outdoorsman these days, though it’s unfortunate that it took a near-drowning to really take safety seriously.
Getting outside is a great way to experience God’s majesty, but testing yourself outside is a great way to experience God’s control—that would probably be my answer should I ever take up free-solo climbing. And while I don’t advocate putting yourself in harm’s way for the sake of a reality check, I think recognizing nature’s power is a good manifestation of one aspect of our Creator.
As C.S. Lewis implied in the Chronicles of Narnia, God is far from safe. But he is good. And after my incident, I guess you could say the same about kayaking.