I almost died last Saturday on the Colorado River

Monday, September 28, 2009 at 4:42 PM
Black Canyon Colorado River

After a wonderful 5 days at the beach I came home to quickly pack for a canoe/camping trip down the Colorado River's Black Canyon; starting at Hoover Dam and ending about 14 miles down river. As you can read on the sketch journal entry the water was calm and clear.

After a leisurely lunch and a short hike up a side canyon through natural hot springs we got back in our canoes to head for camp. The water level had risen quickly and people who were familiar with the area said it was quite unusual for them to release water from the dam on a Saturday when people were canoeing/kayaking on the river. With a bit of concern we headed down river to meet up with the rest of our group.

Rudy couldn't go on this trip so I partnered up with a sweet young man, "Junior" what at 14 years old was delightful and didn't mind being paired up with the old lady in the group. He didn't have any paddling experience and it was my first time in a canoe but I've had lots of hours in a kayak and have had water safety classes.

As we neared the beach camp we saw lots of people on the beach waiting for us. 3 of our group canoes (mine included) were headed toward shore. But there was an obstacle; the usually serene water was now a swiftly moving river with small rapids. Under most circumstances doable in a kayak but quite difficult in a canoe.

The first canoe to tip held our friends who quickly went under. Junior gave me a look I'll never forget and I told him, "we can't help them, paddle as hard as you can over the rapids!" But it was a lot to ask of him and while I was hoping to "bounce" over the rapids we rapidly took on water. Junior jumped off and swam for a rock, I slid out but the canoe got away from me. I (with my horrible eye sight) could see the blur of people on shore and I yelled, "SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME!" I later learned that people just burst into tear because there was no saving me. I realized it also. I saw Junior reach the rock and a thought, as quick as a camera shutter, I thanked God this boy would survive.

I panicked for a few seconds after that when I realized I was going to die by drowning. So I just became calm and figured this is not how I had planned it. A drybag floated by and I reached for it. I had earlier undone my life vest because it was 'hot'. Now that vest was askew and barely keeping me afloat.

Time somehow stood still and the next thing I knew a face pops out of the water and a man about 28 years old yells, "TAKE MY HAND!" As hard as I tried to reach for it we weren't close enough for contact. I think he must have had rubber arms because the next thing I know he had clutched my hand. He somehow managed to grab ahold of the tow rope of the canoe and used his strength to bring it towards us. We were still going down river quick quickly.

I remembered my water safety skills and heaved myself across on top the submerged canoe and it immediately became balanced and stable. The man was tiring but by now two Australian men had gabbed a boat and were paddling close. They threw him a rope and he secured us while they landed on some rocks along the shore and pulled us in.

As we were being pulled in he kept asking if I was okay. I was now going into shock and trembling. I said I was fine but I think he knew differently. Then I asked his name and he said, "Tony."
"I think you are my guardian angel Tony."
"ah, okay" was his response.
Again he asked if I was still okay to which I said, "yes, but when we are on shore I am going to kiss you and then start crying,"
He smiled.

I was carried off the boat and plopped on a rock and quickly wrapped my arms around him and kissed him and started to cry. I then heard the Australian guys yell to a man on a rock, "they are safe, we've got both of them!" That message was relayed back to the people on shore who were praying and crying.

Our friends whom we'd seen capsize had managed to get out from under the canoe and were rescued by other boaters who brought them to where I was. The third canoe didn't tip but they had gone beyond the beach camp trying to reach me. They were hanging onto the rock face but still in their canoe. They were rescued an hour later by a power raft and some people on Sea-doos. Junior was told to stay put and some guys took a boat out to the rock and rescued him. A fourth boat I learned with 2 of our friends when over near shore and the black lab swam to shore and the ladies along with their canoe were brought on shore.

The couple who were near me and had also been rescued were doing well but being nurses they realized they needed to get me back to camp. They guided me over rocks to reach camp a half hour later. We were all greeted with people crying and hugging us.

Soon I was being assessed and brought dry clothes and a blanket. The shaking was getting better but I was still crying. My friend Karen with whom I went to Guatemala with waited for all my new friends to get in their hugs and then she came and hugged me hard and cried along with me.

Soon everyone was safe, the rangers had been notified that we were out of the water but the helicopter came by to check anyway. My belongings had been retrieved but when the canoes with them were being towed back to shore, they got caught up in the current and were lost again as were all my belongings. I had lost everything but I didn't care because my family wouldn't have to grieve another loss so soon.

Tony's fiancee came to me in tears and hugged me. She said he was her angel too. She later told me they almost didn't come on the trip because now you have to show ID to get on the river and they had left it behind in Las Vegas. They were from Seattle and didn't think they'd need it to party on the river. But the ranger begrudgingly let them join their friends that day. I know that God wanted him there that day for me.

About an hour later people had been bringing me things to use for the night, an extra air mattress, a head light, a blanket and invited to join them for dinner; when we heard cheering on the beach. Everyone ran but Karen said, "don't you go running" and she took off. I walked to see a beautiful power boat towing our 3 lost canoes and all my gear!

My electronics had been in dry bags and appear to be dry. My bedding and clothes also in dry bags were dry. My ipod might be lost due to damage, I lost all my water and food supply and one water shoe. But my watercolor palette and sketchbook, although soaked, survived without smearing the sketches! I don't think I can bring myself to use it again even though it's brand new and it's warped and stained pages will always be a reminder of how I was saved from something so harrowing that it will take time to digest it all.

Yesterday we headed out early while waters were smooth and calm. I tried to keep it together but I was so scarred, I began to cry. Junior and I paddled a bit but I tried quickly and the fear just held me. Karen and "JJ" came by and tied our boat to theirs and we took our time to get to the dock. I arrived with a bit of head exhaustion and was quickly taken care of by the neonatologist on the trip.

We all met up at Southpoint Hotel and Casino just outside of Vegas for a buffet dinner. We were all now eating and laughing, enjoying each other's company. None of us will ever forget how terrifying this experience was; wether you were the one who needed rescuing, the one who watched helplessly while your friends were in peril or the one who risked your life to help another.

My hero is Tony, the Australian guys from San Francisco, my friends from ALSAD, and the boaters who came to help on the river. We gave God thanks that evening for holding us through a trying ordeal. That night I went snuggled down in my tent and had a good bawl. I know it will take some time but I want to get back in the water soon, because despite the scare I had, I love the outdoors and all it's beauty.

I am thankful that although I first panicked, I quickly remained calm which helped save both Tony and I. And although I've always had respect for the water I was foolish not to secure a proper fitting life vest and use it properly. On yesterday's trek down the river, in 103 degree weather, we were all cinched up snug in our life vests.

So, I think God wants me around for a bit longer.

ps: Rudy says he's going on all future trips with me :)





unfinished river sketch

20 comments

  1. Linda Says:

    Marta, no matter how many times I read this story I get the shivers.

  2. Deborah Says:

    Oh Marta, What a scary, scary thing to happen. I am so thankful you are safe. God's blessings to everyone who was involved. You were so excited about this trip when I saw you. I am glad you plan to get back into the water. We can not let the bumps and turns of the road keep us from making the trip of life. Take care my friend, Deborah

  3. Desiree Says:

    Oh my gosh! How horrible! I am so sorry that this happened to you! What an amazingly terrifying story, I don't love rapidly moving water anyway! I am so thankful you are alright, and coming home. No wonder you didn't answer my text message, you were busy surviving! So did they let the water out of the dam? Do you know what caused the rapids?

  4. Robyn Says:

    How terrifying, Marta. I'm not surprised it's taking time to recover. Having to get back into the canoe took real courage. So thankful you are safe.

  5. Sandy Says:

    I am crying ----- I have had a horrible week, but this broke my own petty problems, and brought on tears and I am so so so glad you/all are safe and sound ( and God Bless Rudy too!!)

  6. What an amazing story, Marta. I saw on facebook that you posted about this. Thank goodness it has such a beautiful conclusion, and you are safe. It's incredible that you were able to stay as calm as you did, in the midst of such a traumatic experience. I'm sure having all of this sink in afterwords must be pretty harrowing.

  7. goodness MArta...I'm all shivers here in France! SO GLAD and THANKFUL I can read this piece with you sitting safely there at home now! I'm also thankful for brave people out there.
    bisous
    ronell

  8. Oh Marta, my good friend, once more I repeat something I said to you long ago: you are the bravest woman I've ever heard of! I'm so glad you can tell the whole story as they say... BIG HUGS and take care PLEASE!

  9. Ai Says:

    Marta, God bless you. I am glad there were good people to help you and your self-awareness also helped you too. In Thai we believe that once you had a bad thing happen to you, good things will come your way. I know that you surviving the ordeal has been already a great thing in itself.

  10. Sherry Says:

    This sounds terrifying and I am thankful you came back safe.

    I was washed out of a raft on the Wolf River about then years ago, hit lots of rocks, was bruised, cut and scared senseless, but also came out OK. I didn't lose my paddle, either! I don't do whitewater rafting any more though.

  11. "JeanneG" Says:

    Scary story and so glad you are safe and so were the others. Just think what the 14 year old has to tell his grand kids. I had a motorcycle accident in 1994 and didn't get back "in the saddle". I admire you that you were able but not unhappy that I wasn't.

  12. Wow. I'm feeling that just reading your (beautifully written) account has changed me forever - I cannot begin to imagine the way it has affected you. As Sandy says, all of my problems have magically become small and unimportant compared to what you went through. We sometimes fill our lives with such pettiness, not stopping to think how fragile it is.
    With tears in my eyes I send you love from France. I'm so glad you're still with us, and that there are guys like Tony and the Australians in the world.

  13. Brett Says:

    \Glad you are safe it had me gripped from start to finish.

  14. OMG, Marta. What a terrifying experience. I hope you are taking time to recover and are feeing better.

  15. ujwala Says:

    scary and awful. :( I'm so glad that you made it safely!

  16. Sandy Says:

    Hope you are feeling safe and secure. I miss your cheerful art and wit - Be well and know I am thinking of you.

  17. janabouc Says:

    Phew! What an experience! I'm so glad you had the skills and good fortune and help from above to return you safely (and full of gratitude) to your home and family. I've never experienced anything like that and can't even imagine what it would be like. You did a wonderful job of writing the story. It was a real page turner!

  18. Judybec Says:

    Oh my Marta -- must have been quite an experience. Amazing -- so happy to hear the end of your story..... wishing you warmth and dryness.

  19. Laureline Says:

    Marta, dear, I am late to this story----just read about it on Casey's blog. I am so moved by it and by your wonderful telling of it. You are a brave, lucky, talented woman. Bless you.

  20. Sharon Says:

    How scary,Marta. I'm so glad it ended well.

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