Being
caught in this “keeper” was quite a helpless experience.
There was nothing to swim with or against. Every so often, I would
touch a rock on the bottom and could use it to push off (if I were
quick) and that would let me get a breath. It also threw me into the
“surfing wave” — I think. I actually started to see
stars and began to wonder how long this could go on. During the
fracas, I wondered if any one knew of my plight, or was everyone
merrily paddling on down stream.

At
one moment a very dangerous thought entered my mind and that was,
what’s the use, you aren’t going to make it. My mental defense
system wouldn’t tolerate that kind of nonsense and I went back to
trying to figure out how to get out of the mess. Once it was
established that I was in real trouble, there was great clarity of
thought, i.e., get to the edge of the hole, try rolling into a ball,
dive to the bottom. I even wondered if getting out of a PFD would
help.

Getting
to the edge of the hole seemed like a good idea, but being
disoriented and the river having control of my physical position, I’m
not sure I knew where the edge of the hole was located. Attempts to
roll into a ball were kind of gutsy. Going into the fetal position
lets the river spin you around, and I never did get a lock on my
legs. Sometimes during this ordeal I’m not even sure if I knew where
my legs were located.

At
one point near the end of the ordeal, I saw Vladimir’s turquoise
kayak heading my way, YEA! The river actually let me become part way
stable for a few moments and I could see Vladimir working his way to
me. My mind was shouting, “Come on, come on,” but I’m not
really sure I uttered a word. I was about six inches from being able
to grab Vladimir’s bow loop when the river spun me around for another
trip of sorts. BUT, AT LEAST SOMEONE WAS THERE.

After
being rotated around a time or two, I came back to the surface and
saw Vladimir on his side but in his boat. He told me later that he
had gotten trashed while reaching for my PFD. I guess he had gotten
hold of me and had pulled me in closer to his boat. Again, I can
hardly believe how clear thinking my mind was. As I was making
“contact” with Vladimir/Vladimir’s boat, the thought of
using his boat as a sea anchor was there, and I was hoping Vladimir
could stay in his boat with the spray skirt popped while it filled up
and pulled both of us out of the mess.

Of
all things, I also became concerned about Vladimir’s safety and knew
that I could use my buoyancy to help keep his head up — maybe even
roll him back. Finally, the hole let go and Vladimir, his boat and I
were in the calmer waters. Warren Devine came by and somehow I got
hold of his stern and he dragged me to shore. Warren indicated that
the other boaters had Vladimir.

It
has been a long long time since I have been that badly spent. I was
essentially worthless at helping Warren help me. Once over to the
side, it took awhile to gain enough strength to be functional.
Warren stayed with me. I could see that Vladimir was alright, and
Greg and Bob brought the ducky upstream to me. Then the real
decision needed to be made — was I in good enough shape, physically
and mentally to go on?

After
some serious thought, I felt I could handle the trip, at least to
Jett, where the intensity picks up. As it ended up, I made the rest
of the trip to Lilly and had a great time. However, the first hour
back on the river was a bit tenuous while I regained more strength
and composure. After all, this was happy class II water salted with
a little class III further on downstream. No sweat, no threat! Yeah,
sure!!

I’m
sure that this escapade is one of those that can and probably will be
discussed around many a “camp fire”, and I am sure that it
can entice a lot of “Monday morning quarterbacking”, and
perhaps even some meaningful discussion. For instance, I would
venture to say that none of the boaters in this group had ever seen a
hybrid ducky do segmented 360s plus some swanky surfing. Just think
what it could do in the hands of a real gymnast. Similarly, I do not
believe that anyone in this group had ever seen a body recirculate in
a keeper hole — at least not to this extent.

Therefore,
I presume that none of the boaters in this group had ever seen a
rescue quite like this one. I personally have known of two other
instances where a kayak either had or should have been the implement
of rescue. None of the boaters in this group was aware that at these
levels, there is a potentially lethal keeper hole on the second rapid
downstream of the Barnett Bridge put-in on Clear Creek of the
Obed/Emory system.

Warren
Devine observed that at lower water levels, the rocks would force you
to run it from river left, and at higher water levels, it might not
be so “grabby”. None-the-less, at around 4 feet on the
Jett gauge (about 5000 cfs at Oakdale), a potentially lethal keeper
does exist.

There
are many positive things that have come out of this event. First, it
reinforced that there are risks involved with kayaking, and the best
defense for survival is to know the water and to paddle within skill
and climatic conditions. Had any of us known there was a keeper hole,
none of us would have been eager to take it on.

As
mentioned at the beginning of this treatise, all the boaters had the
skill levels to handle this run, PLUS they all had plenty of sense
and river wisdom. We were not an accident waiting to happen. We all
had the best of equipment and knew how to use it. We all had quality
PFDs in good condition, helmets, and clothing to take on the chilly
water temperatures. There were plenty of throw bags, carabiners, and
other rescue/survival equipment.

During
my little fracas, I understand that rescue people were getting out of
their boats with throw ropes, etc. One of the boaters wondered if I
could have seen his throw rope if it had gotten to me. I think I
could, because in the foam and fury I could see the yellow stripe on
Vladimir’s wet suit. I do know that my thinking was clear enough
that if I had made contact with a rope, I could have used it to
advantage. Bear in mind, even though I had been rescued before the
ropes had gotten set up, I was still conscious, and if kayak rescue
efforts had failed, a rope would truly have been a God send.

When
on an outing such as this, I always believe that the last boat down
should really be the last two boats down — just in case something
should happen to the last boat, whether it is a designated sweep boat
or not. On the river, I have always believed that I am my brother’s
keeper. If someone is having difficulty on the river, then help out
if you can.

You
may only supply a pair of gloves or a paddling jacket, or help a
pinned raft or boat when the people are attempting to come down with
hypothermia or something more foolish. You might only share your
beverage or some of those extra hydrocarbons from your lunch dry bag
for those who left theirs at the take-out, etc. You may only wait a
few moments for someone to dump a boat or “walk in the woods”.
You might be the one that makes another person’s river experience
just a little more pleasant. You might be instrumental in saving a
life.

I
never intended to be my brother’s “keeper” on this trip,
but I am grateful and thankful that the boating community at large,
and our group in particular, indeed demonstrated once again that they
were truly “their brother’s keeper.”


by
Ron Cook


From the newsletter of the East Tennessee Canoe Club of Knoxville
Reprinted in The Eddy Line, October 1996