I have no idea how the day started. We we’re at a campsite in upstate Idaho. We had been at Yellowstone National Park for a few days and this was a pitstop on our way back home. I do remember that it was a beautiful sunny day, sometime around August 5th, which was my birthday. I think I was turning 11.
At some point during the course of the day we decided that my Mom and I would get the rubber kayaks that we had, and go down the river that was in the campground we were staying at. We got everything together, including our fishing gear, packed up the vehicle, and my stepdad Mark took us to the campground about 5 miles up the road to put the boat into the river that would eventually lead us back to our campsite. I couldn’t wait.
We got to the spot where we were going to get into the water. I was so excited to catch some fish. Little kid tackle box….check. Pole….check. Stringer….check. Bait….check. Snacks and drinks….check. I am all set. The river was very slow moving and calm. Hardly what anyone would call dangerous. At least that’s what we thought.
We pushed off from shore and started our way down the river. My line was in the water within the first 2 minutes. I held my pole between my legs and kept the paddle in my hand to steer my way down the river. BAMM! I got a hit. I grab the rod, set the hook, and procede to reel in my first trout of the trip. I remember yelling to my Mom, who was about 50 feet from me, that “I got my first fish.” We were off to a great start.
As we meandered down the river, things continued to go good. We had been coasting for about 30 minutes and I had 4 trout on my stringer. At one point, I remember pulling in my line because we saw some fisherman up ahead, wading in the river and fly-fishing. We steered buy them carefully and exchanged some kind words. For the record, I had more fish than they did. 😉
Before I had a chance to recast my line, we noticed that the water was starting to get a little more choppy. My Mom and I had never been further than 50 feet away from each other, so she hollered to me that we need to pull off to the shore. I grabbed my paddle and followed her to the right side of the river. We got to shore, pulled our kayaks up on the land, and decided to walk down river to see if things looked okay. The water was definitely moving a little quicker and a little more choppy than it had been, but all in all it was a pretty clear path down the river, so we decided to continue. I wish we could have seen further.
As a precautionary measure, we decided to use the stringer to attach our 2 boats to each other. It seemed like a good idea. A way to stay close together, in case things got too rough. My Mom told me to just paddle with her until we got back to calmer water. Then we could pull off and detach from each other and go back to enjoying a ride down the river. The parameters were set, and we pushed off.
At first, it all seemed kinda fun. A little speed, a few bumps, going left, going right. To an 11 year old, it felt like I was white water rafting. Awesome, right? Not for long. The speed and bumpyness quickly became a little more than I could handle. In addition, it was becoming increasingly hard to paddle as well as my Mom. Then the stringer broke, and we quickly were separated from each other. Even at 11, my mind was saying, “Oh, shit.” I was on my own.
Initially, being detached from my mother’s boat was making it easier for me to control mine. I was keeping my boat straight and was getting down the river pretty well. I just kept waiting for everything to start calming down so that I could relax a little bit. My Mom was about 30 to 40 feet in front of me and I was just following her lead the best that I could, but as we came around another bend, relaxing became the furthest thing from my mind. We were way beyond “oh shit” here.
The dilemma was a huge tree lying directly across the river. Although the water was about 5 feet deep, the top of the tree must have been resting on something because it was only 50% submerged. One whole side of the tree was almost 2 feet above the water line. The only way past was a space about 8 feet wide, on the far left edge of the river. My Mom was already over that side and I saw her paddle through. Being that I was in the middle, and the water was moving fast, I would not be so lucky.
The nose of my kayake went directly into the tree, and shot straight up into the air. Everything in the boat, including me, fell into the water. As my rod, tackle box, and goodies were floating down the river only 2 things remained. The boat, and me. Unfortunately, I had my upper body draped over the tree, with my legs being pulled through the space under it by the current. All the while, being unable to see because my boat was caught in the current in such a way that it was actually over my head, instead of downstream. I was in trouble.
Somehow, I finally managed to release the boat and get it off of me. As I held the tree I watched the boat go down the river. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had already paddled to shore, about 150 feet away. Before she had time to think, she saw my boat and everything that I had in it, coming down the river without me. She grabbed the kayake quickly, and got it on land and then began running upstream, to where I was.
Meanwhile, all I was doing was holding on to this tree for dear life. I apparently had just enough body above water to keep the current from pulling my legs, and me, under. For a few minutes, I was screaming for help at the top of my lungs. Surely, my Mom can hear me. Better yet, maybe those fisherman we saw could hear me. They couldn’t be that far back, could they?
Then I saw my Mom coming and was so relieved. I thought to myself that she would certainly be able to figure out how to get me off this log. I had a really good grasp on it and felt confident that I could hold on as long as I needed to. My Mom began wading into the water near the end of the tree. Her plan was to get on it, and walk out to where I was and pull me out. It made sense to me, and I knew she could do it. After nearly an hour of trying, it would be painfully obvious she could not. Now I’m beginning to realize that holding on is getting very difficult. This time I actually do have time in my head for an “oh shit.”
My mothers next plan was to go get a kayake and try to come get me in that. She would put in upstream, paddle down, and try and pull me out. So, off she went. As she walked out of sight to retrieve the boat, I was telling myself that this idea was also going to fail. What the hell was I gonna do?
Inevitably, I decided I was going to have to take a risk on my own. The whole time I was holding onto this tree, which had been about 90 minutes so far, I had become aware of the fact that there seemed to be a lot of space around my legs. My thought was that if I just let go, and got pulled under the tree, I would likely just pop back up on the other side. I had a life jacket on, and I knew how to swim, so it appeared to be quite simple. Now, I just needed to do it.
It all happened super fast. I took a deep breath and let go. Just as I had predicted, I went right under the tree and popped right up on the other side. I caught another breath of air and just started swimming my ass off. Going downstream sideways and trying like hell to get to the left side of the river. I was definitely having difficulty swimming, as the water was very cold and having been in it for so long, my body was not reacting as it normally would. Somehow, through it all, I made it to shore. I got out of the water and sat on a rock that was right there. “I can’t believe I made it.”
Within a minute, my Mom comes walking up the shore, dragging a kayake. I can’t really remember if there was a tearful embrace, or just a “holy shit, are you ok?” moment, but we were certainly glad to see each other. After resting for a few minutes and calming down, we decided to leave the boats and walk to find help. Who would have thought that this would be equally as difficult.
We must have walked through the woods for five hours. It had been dark most of the time. We had no flashlight, and if not for a clear night and a bright moon, I don’t know how we would have made any progress. Inevitably, we came across a dirt road. We didn’t know where it lead to, but we decided to follow it in hopes of finding something.
We probably did another 45 minutes of walking before we finally came across a campground. It appeared that most campers were already asleep, but one section had a few lights on, and we could hear voices. I’m not sure what story my mother told these people, but in just a couple of minutes we were getting into some mans pickup truck and heading back to our campsight.
As we arrived back at camp, there were lights everywhere. Police, fire and rescue, and dozens of campers. ALL looking for us. They had literally just decided to call off the search for the night. It was unreal. My step Dad, my Mom and I had a huge hug. The EMT’s checked us out, while the police asked my Mom a bunch of questions. Eventually, everything calmed down and all the flashing light were gone. I think I fell asleep in less than 2 minutes.
We had been dropped off less than 5 miles upstream, at around 5pm. It was now 1:30am. We had been gone for 8 1/2 hours. By the time anyone noticed that we were running late, the ordeal on the tree was likely already over, and we were already lost in the woods. They found our boats, but were thinking they washed ashore, so they had only been searching the water.
In the end, we found out that only one year earlier, a father and son both drowned in a spot only a few hundred yards past the tree. No bullshit. We never saw that far downstream, to know how much worse the river would get. It is likely that if it wasn’t for my inability to avoid that obstacle, my Mom or I, or possibly both of us, would not have survived that day. Thankfully, we did, and the memory of that experience will too. What a way to celebrate your 11th birthday. NOT!!