The final day of the Novice White Water Clinic was here! It was overcast. It was raining. But we didn’t care! The river was up and we were finally getting a chance to put into practice all the things our instructors had taught us on Lake Allatoona the day before!
We were running the Upper Chattahoochee River between GA 115 and Duncan Bridge. There were eight students (Ben, Byron, Gregg, John, Neil, Joe, Ray, and me), two instructors (Doug and Tal), and an assistant (Wendy). The weather sucked, but the water level was good (2.7 I believe, but don’t quote me on that) and the mountain laurel was in full bloom. After practicing eddy turns, peel-outs, and ferries in some Class I water, we headed downstream to more challenging stuff.
The rapids were good! I’d encountered white water like this before, so it didn’t frighten me, but I haven’t done enough to lose my healthy respect for it. What did make me a bit nervous was the white water kayak I was borrowing. I’m used to my Keowee, which is extremely stable. This white water boat felt very unstable, and several times I nearly tipped over when I leaned the wrong way. I really liked the way it handled though!
Like driving the proverbial sports car after learning in a station wagon, I found I could do things with this boat that I would never dream of in the tank-like Keowee. And although a few of my fellow students took some spills, I was still high and dry. Life was good!
How quickly things change! We were nearly through a long set of rapids. I peeled out of an eddy and powered into the current. I swerved to avoid a rock and then turned back. I leaned into the turn. I leaned upstream.
Big mistake! The water grabbed the hull of my kayak and turned me on my side. Not wanting to roll over in this kind of water, I jammed my paddle hard against the stream bed, trying to push myself upright. Second big mistake! My puny arms were no match for the force of the water. I went under. The current swept my kayak downstream with me in it, my upper body twisted way back in a funny angle like a streamer in the wind. There was no way to reach the spray skirt. I kicked viciously at the hull of the boat. The spray skirt popped off the kayak and I wriggled free.
Things were happening very fast. Actually, after eleven years of hang gliding, I’d gotten used to life kicking into overdrive when something goes wrong. My animal survival instincts took over, and I began living for the millisecond. Point your feet downstream. Kick off of that rock. Here comes another wave. Grab some air! Keep your butt up. Protect your spine.
The current was swift and I was covering a lot of ground, but it was a long stretch of rapids and my heart sank when I saw how far I had to go. Fortunately, a couple of my fellow students were quick to come to my rescue. Ben paddled along side of me, and I threw my arms over his boat.
For some reason only my left arm obeyed my command, and my clawed left hand scraped harmlessly off the smooth plastic hull as the current carried me away. Joe was right behind Ben though, and he had a grab loop. Oh what a feeling! The fingers of my left hand curled around the grab loop and Joe quickly paddled us into a shallow pool in front of a large rock island in the middle of the river. The water was blessedly calm, almost stagnant, an amazing contrast to the raging torrent just ten feet away. I struggled to my feet, feeling grateful, pissed, and embarrassed all at the same time.
“Are you okay?” Tal asked.
“I think I frogged my arm,” I replied. My right arm hung uselessly at my side. It felt numb and bruised right where the bicep meets the shoulder, as if someone had punched me there. I could open and close my hand all right, but I couldn’t move my arm at all. It didn’t hurt really, so I wasn’t too concerned, but I sure couldn’t paddle without it, so I figured I better take my jacket off and have a look.
I didn’t like what I saw. There was a divot where my shoulder bone was supposed to be. There were no scrapes or abrasions, but a couple small drops of blood were oozing from the pores of my skin. Tal didn’t like the looks of it either. “We need to get you off the river,” he said. He signaled to Doug, who was waiting for us downstream, by waving his paddle in circles above his head.
As luck would have it, there was a house nearby. Doug went ahead of us and called for an ambulance while Tal and I crossed the current to shore. Although my right arm was useless, I must have had one doozy of an adrenaline rush, because I felt strong and confident, and had little trouble fording the river and making the short walk through a rhododendron thicket to the house, where we were met by two large snarling dogs and a friendly owner. However, the adrenaline quickly subsided when we sat down at a picnic table to wait for the ambulance, and the numbness in my shoulder was replaced by a deep ugly pain that nearly made me vomit. By the time the ambulance got there I could barely stand up.
I won’t bore you with the details of the trip to the Habersham County Medical Center, except to say it was too long and too painful. Believe me, you don’t want this to happen to you! But let’s face it. Tipping over in a kayak does occasionally happen. Dislocated shoulder injuries while kayaking also happen. With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that everyone try this one thing, which is the only addition I would make to Doug and Tal’s Novice White Water Course (which by the way I highly recommend):
1) In calm shallow water, with a friend standing next to you, get in your kayak, and stuff your right arm inside your PFD so you can’t use it.
2) Roll over, and try to do a wet exit using only your left hand.
You may be unpleasantly surprised. If you can’t get out of your state-of-the-art, form-fitting, low volume white water kayak with one arm in a swimming pool, you can bet it won’t happen on the river! Sure, those kayaks look cool, and they are cool, but what are you going to do if you roll over in some rapids and dislocate your shoulder? Drown? How cool is that?
by Joe Henz
May 25, 1997