Here’s that cliche “we almost died” story

Hi readers,

Thanks for your comments on my first introduction–all were very helpful!

Most of your feedback suggested that I stick with my preferred introduction–starting with the letter to my parents.  But just so you know what your options are, here is the alternative.  My concern with this intro, besides the cliche-ness, is that it’s pretty heavy on the kayak jargon and might not make a ton of sense to non-kayakers (what’s the big deal about getting stuck in a hole)? I’m hoping my book will appeal to paddlers and non-paddlers alike so I don’t want to alienate a large percentage of my audience in the first pages of the book…

Please let me know what you think.

whitewater shot don darcy


Losing  Midge in the Dam Site



I was having a hard time forcing myself to care whether or not Midge made it out of the construction zone alive. What I wanted to do was ditch him, and thus vastly improve my own chances of staying alive. The adrenaline surging through my body told me to get moving—but I was caught between my own instinct to survive and my feelings of responsibility to Midge.  He was completely beat down after so many days of difficult whitewater, not to mention the energy-sapping stress of the last three hours. Still, my patience was drained, and I wasn’t in the mood for compassion.

It was our twentieth consecutive day of kayaking. We were paddling at the bottom of the deepest canyon I had ever been in—far deeper and more impressive than even the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. We were all tired, but Midge especially so. He was both physically and mentally depleted. The stress of just barely making it through one rapid after another, pushing his whitewater skills to their absolute limit, was taking its toll.  Maintaining high levels of adrenaline requires a lot of energy, and with our limited food intake, we didn’t have any energy to spare.

Whatever group cohesion we had rebuilt over the past ten days was unraveling under the tension of paddling through this dangerous section of river.   The power of this steep, thundering Andean river pitted against the desires—and the dynamite—of humans was more frightening than anything I had ever seen. We had only negotiated two and half hours of dynamite stoppage with the Cerro de Aguila hydroelectric dam project manager.  Three hours had already passed, and we had no idea how much further we still had to go before escaping the dangerous construction zone. I was certain they would resume their blasting work any minute. Time, I reasoned, is money—so why wouldn’t they?

We hadn’t spotted a single worker, but we’d witnessed some troubling results of their efforts. The sheer cliff walls and inaccessible river bottom restricted construction activity to between five hundred and two thousand feet above our heads. Blasting activity had sent everything from fine sand to house-sized boulders tumbling down the cliff walls. Some of the debris now cluttered the riverbed, while here and there it had caught on natural benches in the cliff face, resting there so precariously that we felt even a sneeze from down below might set it in motion again.

Our introduction to the dam construction site a few hours earlier had been a cascading rapid where most of the water flowed underneath school bus-sized pieces of the cliff dynamited from high above. On both sides of this unrunnable rapid, tall cliff walls rose straight out of the river—a bad combination for kayakers. Attaining upriver a short distance, we found a small egress in the cliff. It was still more or less a sheer rock face, and we had to use ropes to haul the three heavy kayaks one hundred feet up the wall. There we found a narrow bench where we could perch, put the boats down, and assess the situation.

We walked along the bench to its downstream end where Don found a steep gully leading back down to the river below the rapid. Looking further downstream, we saw more colossal rapids that defied the natural riverbed, these too had obviously been created by the dynamite high above on the cliffs. Downstream, however, the river left cliff wall was slightly less sheer and the rubble from the dynamiting work had created precarious piles of debris that ran from about half way down the cliff all the way down to the water’s edge. The left shore was a scree and slag pile that, while visibly unstable, did offer a place to walk if necessary.

It took us another thirty minutes to lower each kayak down to the water with our ropes, but finally all three of us sat at the river’s edge with our boats and paddles.

Getting around the first rapid had taken us over an hour.  We spent the next two hours running what rapids we could and devising creative ways to walk around those we couldn’t. Paddling up to one horizon line, we discovered the most atrocious rapid any of us had ever seen.  It was a maelstrom of powerful hydraulics all leading into one monstrous river-wide hole with such strong backwash that it was pulling water back into itself from thirty feet downstream. It looked like a low-head dam and we felt certain that no kayaker would ever get out of that hole alive.

There was a portage route on river left, but it required a delicate dash across a loose debris pile. Clambering around on what little shore there was seemed dangerous, yet infinitely safer than kayaking down the rapid. We decided we would go one at a time, but that we needed to move as quickly as possible across the scree slope and get into the pool at the bottom of the rapid—we feared that lingering too long on the unstable slope would cause an avalanche, sweeping us into the rapid we were trying to walk around.

We were all exhausted, but I knew we could not stop moving under any circumstances.  The workers were well within their rights to start up with their dynamite again. Our two and a half hours had come and gone. Besides, since we hadn’t seen any workers yet, I assumed they also hadn’t seen us: they would have no way of knowing we were still in the canyon. While I knew that lighting their fuse would mean our certain death, they might have no idea where we were.

Just as I picked up my kayak to start the portage, I heard Midge’s feeble voice: “I’m knackered, can we please have a snack break?”

“No!” I shouted at him, surprised at the anger I heard in my voice. Calming down a little, I added, “Midge, can’t you make it just a little bit further? We’ve got to get out of here before they start blasting again.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Darcy,” he retorted. “There is no way they will start blasting again with us still down here.”

“They don’t even know we’re here, Midge!”

“Plus, our allotted dynamite-free time frame has come and gone.”

I felt certain that—despite the construction bosses’ claims that it was “mandatory they have no fatalities”—three kayaking tourists were insignificant compared to their $910-million-dollar dam project.

Midge kept mindlessly repeating his belief that there was no way the workers would start blasting with us still in the canyon. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to imagine the possibility of our group getting blown to pieces; I sensed he felt too important to die in such an impersonal manner.  Or maybe he was simply too tired and scared to allow himself to consider this outcome.  His unwillingness to acknowledge the real danger we faced was pushing me to my breaking point.

The reality was it that didn’t matter whether or not the blasting recommenced: there were so many other ways we could die in the construction zone. A big rainstorm might destabilize the slopes; one of us might take a fatal slip or miss an eddy and blunder into an unrunnable rapid. But Midge was too stubborn and too tired to consider this. It was easier for him to just believe he would be okay.

It took every ounce of self-restraint I could muster to refrain from screaming with all my might that Midge was a complete fucking idiot if he really believed the workers would hold off from blasting for as long as it took his pansy ass to get through the construction zone.

We had more pressing issues to deal with than my anger, so I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm down. I looked downriver. We had no choice but to keep moving—and, to my amazement, Midge finally agreed to hold off on his snack break.

We portaged the massive rapid as quickly as we could and got back into our kayaks, trying to stay clear of the potential landslide area. As we paddled downstream, we noticed something peculiar in the river. The object seemed contorted and it disturbed the water in a strange way.  It was clearly not a rock, or any other natural object.  Paddling closer, we realized that it was a dump truck lying on its side in the middle of a huge rapid. We gazed upward, but could see no road: the truck must have fallen more than a thousand feet. As we paddled frantically to avoid being swept by the strong current into the underbelly of the truck, we tried not to think about what had happened to the driver when his vehicle plunged off the cliff.  So much for the mandatory no fatality policy.

We no longer felt like kayakers out having fun. The setting of our adventure had begun to feel more like a war zone, and I had turned all my focus towards survival. Just after the dump truck, I could see a steep horizon line with water spraying up in all directions, signaling that we had yet another massive rapid in front of us. Fortuitously, one of the huge boulders that had been relocated from the tops of the towering cliffs into the river below was creating a large eddy—a calm spot in the river where we could stop—at the top of the rapid.

Don, Midge and I huddled into the eddy and peered downstream.  The rapid was so big and steep that we couldn’t see the bottom of it, and there was now constant rock fall on the right bank that was also obscuring our view. Clearly they weren’t blasting, because we heard no explosions—but something up above, probably a backhoe or other heavy equipment, was shoving rocks and debris off the cliff and straight into the river about half way down the rapid.

I sank to my thighs in dust and gravel as I clawed my way up to the top of the boulder, hoping to get a better vantage point. What I saw was disheartening; the rapid was runnable, but the very first move was a nearly river-wide hydraulic with only a kayak-width tongue between its right edge and the cliff wall. The lead-in to the hole was chaotic, and most of the current pulled strongly towards the hydraulic. A kayaker not actively fighting the force of the current would be swept into the massive hole. The awful hole itself was only the first obstacle in a very long rapid full of hazards. Plus, the only line past the hole forced us to paddle directly under the river-right wall beneath the rock fall. Some of the falling rocks were small enough to appear survivable, but every now and then a boulder came crashing down that was easily big enough to crush a kayaker. The last thing we needed was for another dump truck to come tumbling off the cliff as we paddled past.

I could see one eddy a few hundred yards down from the entrance of the rapid, but I could not make out what was beyond it around the corner. Based on what we had experienced so far in the dam construction zone, we needed to assume that more unrunnable rapids lay ahead.  As tired as Midge was, I didn’t think he would be able to make the powerful move around the hole. I also suspected that if he were to swim in that hole, and if Don and I were unable get him into the eddy at the bottom, he would have a terrible, potentially unsurvivable, ordeal ahead of him.

Starting to look for portage options, I shouted down to Don, “come up here and have a look with me.” There was a group of twenty workers standing on the right bank about sixty feet above us; the first humans we’d seen since entering their work zone. They were impatiently waving us on. We had already taken more than an hour longer than we had anticipated, and the workers were obviously anxious to get back to it. Seeing me looking up at the left bank for a portage option, they started whistling to get my attention. They were indicating that we could come up the right bank to where they were standing—but it was a sheer cliff, and Don and I could see no way to do that.

When we pointed to the left bank, they all emphatically shook their heads in unison— “No!”—and began drawing their fingers across their necks in the universal sign language for death.

After a couple of minutes, Don stated calmly, “We can make that move, Darcy.”

“I know we can,” I replied, “but I don’t think Midge will make it. He’s too tired.”

I continued, “I know the workers don’t like it, but there’s a chance we could portage on the left. It looks sketchy, but if we can get across that loose scree there, one of us could climb up to that flat bench and then rope the boats up.”

“Suicide for all of us, Darcy,” Don insisted. “If, and I really mean if, we make it to your bench, then where will we go? At least we if run this rapid, two-thirds of us are sure to make it—and chances are that Midge will be okay too.”

The rapid didn’t look great, but it did seem to be the safest of our dismal options. We figured that as long as Midge could summon the strength and the skill to make that first move, he would probably be okay. After the hole, we just needed to move into the middle of the river to avoid the rock fall. From there on, the rapid appeared to be big but doable for Midge.

It was just a matter of making that first move.

Another problem was that the eddy we could see at the bottom of the rapid was at the base of another cliff that also did not look climbable. We were taking a huge gamble that we would be able go further downstream after making that eddy. Using our very limited geology skills, we made our best guess that, even if the next rapid turned out to be unrunnable, the character of the cliff wall looked as if it would offer us a place to climb out of the river just out of view. We said that, at any rate, to make ourselves feel better; I’m not sure if either of us actually believed it.

Don looked again at the rapid and at the portage routes and said, “We need to run this. There is no other option.”

It was a risk for all of us, but we couldn’t stand there forever. We had to go.

Don, the strongest paddler of the group, would go first so that he could catch the eddy at the bottom of the rapid, with the hopes of getting a look around the corner to know what we would be dealing with in the case of a rescue. If there was an easy rapid or a big pool around the corner, a rescue would be simple. If it was another rapid like this one, or worse, rescue would be difficult to impossible.

I would lead Midge through the rapid, and if a rescue became necessary, Don and I would do our best to get Midge into that eddy—but we knew we had to consider the option of letting him go if it meant dragging all three of us into an unrunnable rapid down below. It was a conversation I was not comfortable with, and one we did not share with Midge. Don’s and my job for more than a decade had been to keep people safe; we had saved hundreds of boaters as they swam from their kayaks or made other mistakes in the river. Now, in a moment of painful reckoning, we realized we were facing a situation in which we might not be able to help. Things had gotten that dire in the last three and a half hours. We were still working as a team, but there was an underlying knowledge that each of us was, in a very real sense, in it for ourselves.

Don and I climbed back down from the boulder and got into our kayaks.  We explained to Midge that we had to run the rapid.  We told him that we were going to leave our eddy, which was on the left side of the river, and paddle with all the strength that remained in our bodies to the right side of the river where the safe tongue of water bypassed the hole. We emphasized over and over how important it was to paddle at one hundred and ten percent effort to the right side of the river.  “Hit the right cliff wall with your boat,” we told him.

“After you’re safely past the first hole, paddle hard left to get away from the right wall so you don’t get crushed by that rock fall. Then, once you pass the rock fall, bust your ass into a small eddy on river right.”

“Right, left, right. Got it?” 

Midge nodded in understanding.

As per the plan, Don was preparing to launch as I told Midge to watch precisely where he went. Don took a few deep breaths to prepare himself, but just as he was about to pull out of the eddy, Midge stopped him to ask if his GoPro helmet camera was on. Don and I were beyond dismayed by this question. We asked Midge if was sure his head was in this. We implored him to focus, telling him that we needed him to be concentrating on survival, not on our video cameras.

Don peeled out of the eddy and made it to the right side of the river—nodding emphatically when he had made it to the tongue, which would ensure his safe passage past the hole. I asked Midge if he was ready, and then offered one more reminder: “Midge, put your boat on that right wall.”

Nervous—and wanting to focus on my own line rather than worrying solely about Midge—I concentrated on what I needed to do. Then I nodded at Midge and we left the eddy. I fought the current as I crossed from river left to river right. As I’d expected, the current was forceful and kept trying to pull me back to the left. I did not look back until I had cleared the hole; but when I did, my chest tightened.  Midge was above the hole and nowhere near the right wall.  He did make a heroic last minute effort to get right, but it was not enough, and he dropped into the massive hole.