Rounding the bend floating on large tractor tire innertubes the three teenagers panicked when they saw the logjam ahead. The current was swift and fallen trees and debris were compressed and stacked two or three feet above the creek. Water was surging violently through gaps in the temporary wooden dam. They were being dragged straight toward the barrier and the only option was to jump from the tubes, and try to get to shore before getting pressed against the jam or possibly getting sucked beneath.
This was the second challenging event of what was supposed to be a leisurely afternoon floating down Cottonwood Creek. The early spring runoff had done some damage along the shoreline of this normally passive creek, uprooting trees and cutting away the river banks, but the water flow from melting snows in the nearby mountains was just beginning to subside.
Having been raised in New Zealand and now trying to adjust to life in the United States as a 15 year old, I was more than pleased when two of my neighbors, Melanie and Shelley, approached me about going tubing on a nearby river. I had just moved into the neighborhood and for some reason no one else was able to go with us, and I was not unhappy about the odds. Melanie had access to some large tractor tire tubes and once fully inflated, the three of us began the trek along our street, up a nearby hill, and over the ridge into a small river gully. Clad in shorts, t-shirts, and flip flop sandals we talked and laughed together as we contemplated an afternoon of fun in the sun. We negotiated our way down a trail passing through a thicket of Cottonwood trees, willows, and native brush, lifting our tubes carefully to avoid puncture. The waterway was cold but the large tubes kept us predominantly above the water as we began our float downstream. Paddling with our hands we managed to stay mostly centered and to avoid overhanging branches and debris that sometimes cluttered the edges of the creek. Normally just a few feet in depth the waterway had pockets of deeper pools, behind large boulders, and where swift currents had cutaway the banks.
We'd negotiated several bends in the creek when we spotted a whirlpool that had formed against a far edge. The eerie sucking and slurping sound of the vortex was reason enough to paddle hard left to remain in the main current, but Melanie was unable to change her course and was being pulled directly toward the whirlpool. Her tractor tube was actually just a bit larger than the circumference of the main spiral, but the buffeting rotation knocked her from her tube and Shelley and I both watched in horror as her torso, head, and lastly her right hand disappeared as it spun rapidly down and out of site. While Shelley was in the main current and already rounding the next bend, I was still in a position to move to shore just past the whirlpool. Optimistically we hoped that Melanie would be forced out of the spiral and show up momentarily downstream, but that didn't happen. Scanning for a tree branch I scrambled onto the bank and moved quickly to a spot where I could somehow reach into the vortex. With no long sticks in sight I positioned my body with my upper torso over the water and reached my right arm down into the spout. Melanie's hand spun past my reaching fingers. I reached deeper and caught her hand firmly and felt her gripping back, and leveraged the weight of my body so that I wouldn't be pulled in. It seemed like too much time had passed, and that Melanie would certainly be completely out of breath, but somehow our joint efforts maneuvered her first sideways out of the rotating waters and then upward to the surface. She gasped and sobbed at the same time as she inhaled her first new breaths of oxygen, and then clung to roots on the edge of the creek bank. Shelley had managed to get to shore downstream and now came running up to help Melanie climb from the chilly water.
We sat quietly together as Melanie tried to compose her emotions from what was certainly a near-death experience. Finally she said, "I was just spinning, and there was no way out or up." Shelley suggested that the river may still be dangerous further down, and that we should probably go home. We talked for a while, first reliving the details of the event, and then moved on to trivial conversation. The more we talked the more we convinced ourselves that it was a freak incident and that we'd likely be safe going on. Well, maybe it was me trying to convince Melanie and Shelley to continue. That was the likely scenario. I can't say where the turning point came but somehow we were soon back in the stream and floating through small rapids, and lazily soaking up the sun on smooth sections. Sun glinted on the rippling surface of the creek, dragonflies zigzagged around us, and birds flitted around the trees and brush. Did I mention that we were all about 15 years of age. Decisions like this should probably have waited for future maturity.
It seems that we floated safely for another 20 minutes before we rounded the bend where the aforementioned log jam rose to thwart our progress. I called out to the girls "let's get to shore," and they needed no further encouragement. Melanie seemed to have herculean strength generated by the fear of her earlier ordeal and I saw her leave her tube, and exit the main current to a safe, more shallow spot, where the water was churning around her legs but she could reach out to us. Shelley jumped from her tube trying to drag it with her, and despite her efforts, the traction of the current against the large surfaces just pulled her closer to the logjam. I unsuccessfullyly tried chucking my tube toward shore and then focused on getting near Shelley. By now her tube was being suctioned against and partially under the debris, and Shelley and I stood bracing our feet on the river bottom, with our hands pressing against the largest fallen trees. Water surged all around us, and I took a firm grip with my right hand around Shelley's left upper arm, surmising that somehow we could climb onto the pile of debris. All of a sudden Shelley was gone. She simply was sucked under a large tree trunk and disappeared from sight. I could see over the logjam enough to discern that a large field of floodwater debris covered the creek's surface for 60 or more feet down-stream, and I was certain that Shelley was jammed against a sieve of natural rubble, with no escape.
For a moment I stood at Shelley's front door, and carefully explained to her mother how she had died. It was agonizing. My mind carried me to my house where I began explaining to my mother why Shelley didn't come home, and how I was the one who had encouraged that we continue floating the creek, even after Melanie's near calamity. Next I was reliving all of the things that I regretted in my life, along with numerous other key events, that somehow seemed relevant to my deliberation on whether to go under the logs to find Shelley. It wasn't what I wanted to do, but I knew I couldn't face two mothers with news of Shelley's death. I agonized over this decision for what seemed to be 10 or more minutes. Later I asked Melanie how long I stood at the logs before going under, and she said "about one second." How a mind can process everything I considered, in one second, is beyond comprehension.
I anticipated getting pressed hard against an underwater pile of debris but the waterway was initially clear between the riverbed and the logs at the surface. The current was strong and I feared that at any millisecond I would certainly get stuck, but I scanned the dark waters around me looking for any sign of Shelley. There was none. I allowed the current to pull me approximately 15 feet downstream before I paused, and pressed my feet into the riverbottom and my back against the floating debris in an effort to push through. It wouldn't budge. I scanned left and right and could barely see images where small streams of light pierced the blackness. As I continued further, the combination of the cold water, fear, and uncertainty, were causing me to consume any remaining oxygen. I stopped a second time, braced my body in opposition to the current, and again forced my shoulders against the debris. It budged and then broke around me as my body pushed through. I gasped for air as I glanced anxiously in all directions. Melanie was on shore to my right with a look of concerned surprise on her face. I could see Shelley's head further downstream, half above the surface, her head slightly tilted to enable her to breathe, and one hand grasping some trailing branches of the surface rubble. Forcing my entire body upward I was able to walk momentarily on the interwoven conglomerate until, near Shelley's position, it began to weaken beneath my weight. I slid back into the water and reached for Shelley's hand. She was shivering, and emotionally distraught, as we both stumbled over river rock toward shore.
There was no long discussion. We sat in a sunny space by some cottonwoods to lose the chill, and gather our wits. Melanie was the only person still with a tube, the others were punctured and gone. Finally we began walking upstream, dodging brush and picking our way along game trails, till we spotted the hillside exit point that led back to our neighborhood. Melanie and Shelley were not happy with me, and I'm sure I was worried about the tongue lashing I would receive from three mothers, but at least we were all headed home, alive.
Photographs: Several of these photos are a composite of multiple images blended together to represent this location and these events, for which there were no actual photographs taken.