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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

A Narrows Escape

Hubris, Nemesis, and the Kindness of Strangers

By Farwell Forrest

CAUTION This isn't fiction—I wish it were!—but that doesn't mean you can use it as a river guide. The Gorge is for experts only, and strong parties of experts, at that, with plenty of local knowledge. Nemesis isn't fussy, and she's got all the time in the world. 'Nuff said.

April 24, 2001

It's a scene right out of Deliverance. On the right, a rock wall rises three hundred feet above the water. Arborvitae—the "tree of life," or northern white-cedar—clings to every ledge and cranny. A pool spreads out ahead. Beyond the pool, the confined valley reverberates with the roar of falling water. On shore, the ground trembles. A thin, perpetual mist hangs in the air above the river.

This is the sight greeting paddlers as they approach the Narrows in the Hudson River Gorge. Though rafters are shuttled through the Gorge in the tens of thousands every year, it's no place for a novice in either canoe or kayak. In the Narrows, the Hudson drops seventy feet to the mile. The average drop over the entire five and one-half mile run from Blue Ledge Pool to the Boreas River junction is thirty-five feet to the mile. When the North Creek gauge reads over 5.0 feet, it's Class III-IV all the way, and the Narrows are a solid Class IV. Expert water.

But we weren't worried. It was early May. When we stopped on the drive up, the gauge had read only four feet. Piece of cake. Better yet, the day was warm and sunny. And even though it was our first time down through the Gorge, we knew we were in great form. We'd been paddling constantly since the first weekend in March, chasing the runoff north with the spring. All this practice had paid off. The weekend before, a kayaker had joined us in an eddy on the moving pool that breaks up Spruce Mountain Rapids, the three-quarter-mile-long Class III+ staircase further down the Hudson, just above Riparius. She'd looked our Tripper over from stem to stern, smiled, and then paid us her highest compliment: "I didn't know anyone could do the stuff you guys do in a big canoe like that."

We smiled back. We both hoped our blushes conveyed modest acknowledgement of an undeserved compliment, of course, but in truth each of us was busting with a pride that bordered on arrogance. We were good. Damn good! And we knew it.

The Greeks had a word for this sort of make-my-day attitude: hubris. It's not a good thing. When a Greek hero starts feeling cocky, when he starts thumbing his nose at the gods and daring them to do their worst, you know that he's in for a bad time.

We should have paid more attention to the Greeks.

But we weren't thinking about hubris that day in May. Not at all. On the run down to the Hudson from the put-in on the Indian River, we'd had a blast. Not everyone was having such a good time, though. When the father-and-son team in our group wiped out in the bony Class III rapid at Indian Head, they decided to pack it in then and there. We made sympathetic noises, to be sure, but we were secretly glad. We were real river rats, after all. We were doing the Gorge, weren't we? We didn't want any weak links in the chain—no lame ducks and no sore losers. Good riddance to them.

They left. We went on. We still weren't alone. We'd started out with three boats: Tamia and I in our Tripper, Charlie and Jim in Charlie's battered Blue Hole, and the dad-and-lad duo in a 17-foot shoe-keel Grumman. After father and son decided to walk out, Jim offered to solo their Grumman down to North River. Not surprisingly, they agreed. It saved them the sweaty carry out along the Gooley Club road. So we continued on downriver with all three boats.

Except for having to eddy out a couple of times to let raft-loads of "tourists" go by, the run from the Indian River to Blue Ledge Pool was everything we hoped it would be. We waved at the rafters. They waved back. We felt smug. They were only passengers, after all. We were the Real Thing. Hot stuff.

Cedar Ledges. Elephant Rock. Duck Pond Flats. The landmarks drifted by, and the river continued to be kind to us. There were a few surprises, however. The Class II-III ledges of Blue Ledge Rapids seemed a little heavier than we'd expected. Still, we weren't worried, and our confidence got another boost when Jim dumped going over the last drop, just above the Pool. Not us, though. We went over the ledge clean—not even a cup of water in the boat. As we helped Jim gather up his floating gear, it was all we could do not to break into shouts of triumph.

And then we were there. The Narrows lay before us. As we drifted down the pool, I turned to Charlie. He was the Old Hand in our little group. "Should we scout?" I asked.

"No need," he replied. "Just follow me."

He pulled ahead. We backwatered. A minute later, Charlie paused at the lip of the drop and then disappeared from sight, like a merganser diving on a fish. The roar of the river was louder now. I turned around and winked at Tamia. "Here we go!" I shouted. The sun was high in the sky. We were both hot. I noticed that Tamia had opened the zip on her life-jacket, and I wondered if I wouldn't be more comfortable if I did the same. There wasn't time, though. We were closing on the drop. I took a last look back to see if Jim was behind us. He was. I lined up on the point where Charlie had disappeared

Hubris. Arrogant pride. The Greeks didn't have much use for it. In fact, they had a sort of goddess-enforcer to hand out hard knocks to any heroes who paid too much attention to their own press releases. The goddess's name was Nemesis, and she took her job seriously.

Nemesis was watching us that day on the Hudson.

What I saw as we went over the drop was like nothing I'd ever seen before: a diagonal curl that extended half-way across the river. We plunged right into it. I backpaddled, hoping to give the bow time to rise. It didn't work. The curl filled us in an instant. I tried to brace, to keep us upright, but I couldn't get a purchase. We wallowed, our float bags straining at their lashings. Then I saw a second diagonal curl, just ahead. This one was even bigger than the first. It stood the seventeen-foot-long Tripper on its end and thrust it skyward. As I fell out of the boat I saw the bow towering above me, blocking out the sun. I thought of the Azores whalers and the name they gave the huge tail flukes of the whales they hunted and killed, flukes that could easily break a boat—or a man— in two. They called these flukes the "Hand of God." That day in the Hudson River Gorge, I saw the Hand of God in the air above me. Then I went under.

In seconds, I was in a shore eddy. Seconds later, and I was climbing over the boulders that lined the river bank. I wasn't alone. A dozen boaters were scattered along the shore. Some had throw bags.

I didn't stop to wonder where they'd come from. I wanted to find Tamia. I turned back toward the water. The big Tripper was spinning round and round in the keeper below the second ledge. There was no sign of Tamia anywhere. I ran downriver, screaming her name. The roar of the water drowned out my cries. The shoreline was nothing but cobbles and boulders, some as large as a car. I stumbled, fell, got up, ran on. I stumbled again, got up again. I kept screaming Tamia's name.

Then one of the boaters who were lined up along the shore turned to me. In my panic, I'd forgotten all about them. She was relaxed and reassuring. She grabbed my shoulder. She shouted, "It's OK. We've got her," and then she pointed downstream.

I turned in the direction she was pointing, and I saw Tamia clambering over the rocks toward me. A few minutes later and we were hugging. Then we trudged upstream to see what we could do about our boat. We were in luck. A kayaker had gotten a line out to it, and somebody else had pulled it into the same eddy that I'd ended up in just after we'd dumped. We bailed the boat dry in grateful silence. Then we found Charlie and Jim. They'd both made it though the big, diagonal curlers without mishap—paddling solo in tandem canoes, they were running a lot lighter than we were. Soon we were all back on the river.

The rest of the run down to North River was lovely, but we didn't take much notice of the scenery. We were exhausted, and we had nearly ten miles of Class III-IV water ahead of us. Worst of all, though, we'd met Nemesis, and our hubris—our arrogant pride—had leaked away like air from a punctured balloon. I remember very little about the rest of that day, I'm afraid, though I do recall seeing water pouring over the top of the cottage-sized boulder in mid-channel at Harris Rift. Right then I knew that the river was running a lot higher than the gauge reading had suggested.

At long last, we reached North River. An hour later, we were on the road. Tamia did most of the talking during the drive home. That was when I learned that the canoe had come down on top of her, trapping her underneath. Even after she'd struggled free of the boat, her partially unzipped life-jacket had floated uselessly above her submerged head. As she was flushed over one ledge after another, she'd had to struggle just to get her nose above water. To make matters worse, she wasn't wearing a wetsuit top. Her wetsuit pants kept her legs floating high and dry. So far, so good. But they also forced her head deeper. Not so good.

I also learned how much we both owed to the kayaker who'd tossed her a line and then towed her out of the river, just when her strength was beginning to fail. That kayaker was a stranger to us both, yet he'd saved Tamia's life. There was no doubt on that score. "One more minute," she told me, "and I'd have drowned. It was that close."

I believed her. And it was a bitter draft to swallow. Tamia owed her life to the kindness of a stranger. I was grateful to him, of course—very grateful indeed—but I was also angry with myself. Extremely angry. Gratitude and anger. It's not a happy combination. Even twenty years later the anger hasn't altogether left me. No surprise there. It's Nemesis' way of driving her lessons home.

And what lessons did she teach us that day in the Gorge? Simple ones, really, but mighty important, nonetheless. Always scout unfamiliar drops. Don't depend solely on the assurances of "experts." After all, it's your life on the line. And don't rely on gauge readings on dam-controlled rivers. The rafts that passed us early in the day were riding a release from the Lake Abanakee dam. The gauge downriver at North Creek may have read four feet when we stopped to look, but the river we were paddling an hour later had a lot more water in it than that. The Narrows drove this point home.

Don't think you can rely on the kindness of strangers, either. Yes, we were lucky. Very lucky. But you might not be. Have a rescue plan in place whenever you run dangerous rapids. Post spotters along the shore at difficult drops, and keep a pickup boat or two in the water at all times. If your party isn't large enough or experienced enough to implement such a plan, come back on another day, with a stronger party.

Dress for the occasion, too. Keep your life-jacket zipped up and cinched down, even on hot days. And don't wear only the bottom half of a wetsuit. Yes, it's a good idea to keep your feet high when you're "swimming" in rapids, but not at the expense of your head. We all find it hard to breathe through our toes.

And what about Nemesis herself? She embodies the most important lesson of all, even though it's probably the hardest one to heed, particularly for very young (or very fit) paddlers. Stay humble. Remember that Nemesis is always waiting. However good you are, never allow your confidence to swell into arrogance. That's asking for trouble—the kind of trouble no one needs. Not all of Nemesis' victims are as fortunate as we were. We had a Narrows escape. Some folks aren't so lucky. It's not a chance worth taking.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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