Skip navigation

I am paddling hard for shore through whitewater while simultaneously surveying downstream, and thinking, “Well. It doesn’t look like it gets any better. More rapids. Eternal rapids. (When will this ever end?) So what are my options? Everything is fucked, this whole day has gone to hell, and I need to stop somehow, ASAP, and call someone. And this is probably my best option.”

I push hard for shore, grab onto some bushes sticking out, and manage to catch an eddy with half my boat while the other half gets tugged downstream by the hard current. Brad’s boat, lashed to my own with rope and a hastily-tied, highly-questionable knot, floats past mine in the full current, and as the slack in the line gets eaten up, I take a hard jerk that nearly uproots the plant I’m holding and sends me back into the current. By grabbing a second fistful of bushes, I manage to stay attached to shore, and I step out of my boat to once again stick my body in the cold water. I hardly notice, of course, because the adrenaline is still surging through my whole body, even as it convulses in shivers.

Hacking through tangled masses of thick bushes and vines, all pointed with some kind of rosebush-like thorns, I am oblivious as my fingers and exposed toes (damn you sandals! This is the one time you let me down!?) take poke after poke, and the slivers start mounting. I am furiously fighting to move two giant inflated rafts into a wall of vines that feels more impenetrable than the Berlin wall, but I know I have to get them secured and figure out the next step. Has it been hours I’ve been in “What’s the next step?” mode? 5 minutes?

As my cold fingers fumble to untie the knot, I notice the slack has already begun tangling up everything. I ignore that problem for now, deciding I’m well past the point of “knife the damn rope if it becomes an issue”, and manage to throw Brad’s boat through a hole in the vines. As I fight through the underbrush, I stumble out of the wall of woods into an open orchard. My first lucky break in a while.

What do I do? THINK! I pull out my phone, which has held up perfectly well in the ziplock bag in my life jacket pocket, and dial 9-1-1 for the first time in my life. Then I look at my screen. Zero bars. Great. To my surprise, the call connects anyway, with 5-by-5 audio quality. “9-1-1, where are you located?”

“I don’t know” I stutter, as my teeth begin chattering and the full-body shivers begin in earnest. “On the Wenatchee River, somewhere south of… a dam.”

“Ok, back up. What’s the problem?” the operator calmly asks.

Adrenaline. Shivers. Racing mind, calculating possibilities. And finally, the emotions catch up, and my voice cracks a bit while I say, “I think my friend may be dead.”

———

Forecast: chilly, rainy. Perfect! We’re heading to Alaska in less than 3 months, to catch the tail end of the feasible packrafting season in arguably the most remote national park in the country. I’ve seen a lucky handful of parks in Alaska, though there’s always infinitely more country to explore. But if I know one thing, I know that the summers, the best time of the year to go adventuring, are cold and rainy. (The alternative, any other time of the year, is cold and dark and snowy.) Lucy, Brad, and I are all excited, but we know we’ve got a lot of learning and preparation to do, which is why Brad and I decided to take this precious weekend day to head out to the Wenatchee River for another run in the packrafts.

The idea behind packrafting is that one paddles a small, inflatable raft that is light enough, and can compact down enough, to fit easily inside a backpack. This provides the opportunity to explore remote areas by using waterways when possible, and hiking over land when not. The best of so many worlds! The route we’re planning in Alaska is an isolated section of Gates of the Arctic National Park, the least-visited, and second-largest national park in the United States. Because of the remote nature of the trip, we’d agreed that through planning and practicing skills, we can reduce the risk of anything bad happening.

Having taken my boat on its maiden voyage on the White River two weeks prior, I’d gotten an excellent intro to the enterprise. The day had been warm and sunny; the river was fast and fun; the rapids were class II, which meant the perfect level of excitement for a newbie. A wide grin found itself plastered on my face from the first moment of launch into the water. Rafting on rapids was SO FUN! Like riding a motorcycle on a road, you feel connected to the water, to the environment around you, and lucky to experience the world in a way so few others get to experience.

I dumped once on that trip. A strainer, a tree with branches dangling into the water, snuck up on me and caught me unaware. It was actually the perfectly dangerous type of situation that is always cautioned to be avoided. The tree was perhaps 1.5 feet off the water; the branches completely unavoidable. As I suddenly realized I was in trouble, it was upon me, and I was doused unceremoniously in icy cold, shallow, rocky glacial water. There’s a moment of panic when you find yourself flipped upside down, 180 degrees from your normal alignment in the world, under water, strapped into a raft, floating down a fast-moving river. But you quickly set that panic aside, formulate a plan (GET OUT OF THE RAFT! GET AIR!), and start acting.

In my case, that was the moment I learned it’s not all fun and games. While the warm sunny day, and my sheer dumb luck in avoiding a head injury, helped ease the consequences of the accident, Brad and I held a debrief after our session. I shared that I learned the river is not benign, and that one must constantly be scanning ahead, and paying attention, for trouble-spots. Even on warm sunny days when you feel infallible.

So to move along on our syllabus of learning in preparation for Alaska, we’d chosen a section of the Wenatchee River that had some class III -rated rapids. We got up at 4:15 on a Saturday morning, attached bikes to the car, and drove 2.5 hours to the tiny town of Monitor to drop our bikes off at the take-out. As the temperature stayed chilly, the sky was gray and overcast, but still holding dry. We found a section of fence in a tough-to-see corner of the county park along the river, and locked our bikes to it. My bike had had a flat tire that morning, and so instead of dealing with diagnosis and treatment while the “must-escape-town!” clock was ticking, I threw all the tools I’d need to fix it, along with a tire pump, into the car. As we unloaded the bikes at our take-out, I pumped up the tire. “Seems to be holding air fine?” I thought to myself. I rode around the parking lot, and all seemed well. “Huh.” Just to be safe, though, I climbed a tree, and hid the tire pump 15 feet off the ground in case we got back to the bikes, and the tire was once again deflated. Nobody ever looks up! There could be gold bullion up in them thar leaves, and it’d be safe for a century from all but the raccoons. Excited to get moving, we drove back to our put-in point and got started.

Immediately off the launch, I realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The river was wide but fast-moving, and the rapids were a new level of extreme than what we’d seen on the White River. Perhaps it was just jitters, or the fact that I hadn’t had time to acclimate to the motion of the raft once again, but those rapids were TOUGH, and I came out of the first sequence with my heart pounding. Brad and I reconvened, and agreed that this river was going to be legit. We reiterated to each other what we’d learned on the White River, as well: when trouble sneaks up on a person, there’s no “help” the other person can provide. We’ve each got to deal with our own troubles, so as to be able to maybe help the other person later. But while you’re on the water, moving through rapids, it’s every man for himself.

Brad had found the route weeks ago, and I spent the previous day half-working, and half- studying the plan. I’d plotted out the route on Google Earth, and uploaded it to my watch to be able to track our progress, and navigate optimal side channels. We’d traded texts that Friday afternoon, sharing things we’d noticed about the route. The one thing we’d both kept reading online about the route, over and over, was something about a dam at roughly the midpoint of the river section we were doing. Everyone kept saying “Just avoid the dam and you’ll be fine. There’s a take-out just before; you portage around; it’s maybe 400 feet, and easy-as-pie. But whatever you do, DO NOT GO OVER THE DAM. It may be illegal, and it’s SUPER dangerous.” I meticulously plotted the route to leave water just before the dam, walk over the land, and enter back into the water. “Easy. Done.” I thought, as I clicked “upload” on the GPX file.

———

During a slower section of calmer water, we started to notice what looked like rafts up ahead. I idly wondered if they were always the half-mile ahead of us, and we could only see them during this relatively rare section where the river was straight enough, or if we were catching up to them.

My question was soon answered as we gained ground, and could eventually see 5 or 6 rafts of 10 or 12 people each. “This is what people think of, when they think of rafting” I mused to nobody. There appeared to be a guide in the bow of each floating barge, explaining skills or chatting with the group, and a strong adult paddler in the back. On each side would be 4 or 5 people, variously appearing as either teen-aged kids (mostly boys), or young, fit couples in their 30s and 40s getting outdoors to do something fun for the day.

I hoped I looked cool enough to catch the eye of one of the attractive female raft guides. “Hey, look at that dare-devil, taking on these rapids in his tiny raft. I wonder if he’s single? Maybe I’ll ask him, in front of all these people, while I’m here working, if he wants to grab a drink later at a local watering hole.” I’m not quite sure how I hoped the conversation might go, but suffice it to say, it did not, and I paddled past them in mutually-cordial silent acknowledgment.

After we’d left the river rafts behind for perhaps 30 minutes (but seen several sets of other large, guided rafting groups on the shores, all giving safety talks to their customers), the whitewater started picking back up. Perhaps it was trying to ease us back into the zone, into planning and reacting, but it’s too easy in a stable raft to bounce easily over gentle rapids without batting an eye. Still in “enjoy the ride” mode, I missed the opportunity to get fully prepared for what was about to come, and instead lazily stroked my way through gentle waves while daydreaming about ridiculous scenarios involving rafting guides.

———

We pulled over to an eddy in the river ahead of an intimidating-looking rapids. “That looks… scary.” I said to Brad, gesturing downstream.

“Yah.” He gave a noncommittal shrug, in his usual, understated, reserved way. Brad’s the kind of stoic guy who could get punched in the face, and might, on a bad day, give a single soft grunt expressing mild annoyance or displeasure. “Want me to go first again?”

I didn’t love the dynamic I was cultivating of myself being a follower, incapable of summoning the guts to show Brad and the world how to dominate a rapids. But I also like learning from other peoples’ successes and failures more than my own, and getting to ride on coattails to more likely success. “Oh, if you insist, I suppose go for it.”

“Okey dokey. See you down there then.” And with that he shoved off without a second’s hesitation.

“Damn that guy is fearless” I thought, as I surveyed the rapids ahead once again. They really did look intimidating. I’ve learned through trial and… mostly trial, save for that one unfortunate situation on the White River, that these packrafts are tough SOBs. You go over a big, gnarly-looking wave, and it’s like riding in a tank; they hardly shake. You could keep a topped-off glass of scotch on the bow, and have nary a spill to clean up after most canoe-flipping rapids. But peering downstream, the pace of the river picked up, and there were standing waves bigger than anything I can remember us facing before, stretching across the entire breadth of the river. I learned later that the rapids we were heading into was one of the few named rapids on that section of river, and its name was Satan’s Eyeball. If only I’d known.

I pushed off as Brad began entering the vortex. I was torn between being lily-livered, and happy to stay gently paddling in the safety of my eddy, watching Brad navigate the beast, and not wanting him to get so far away that we’d be separated if anything bad happened. This made no sense based on our previous pact, and what I knew to be true. When you’re battling your own demons on the river, you don’t have room for helping anyone else out. But something about being within seeing- or shouting-distance of Brad’s rock-like gravitas gave me courage, so I chose to try and keep close-ish to him.

As I neared the first beginning waves of the Eyeball, I saw Brad in the thick of it, heading toward a monster wave. In the dispassionate back of my brain, I noted that I did not want to take whatever line he’d taken, that led him to that moment. And in perfect confirmation, as my own raft began bucking, I saw the wave rear him up, saw him hang awkwardly in the air for a moment, and saw it all come crashing down as he was flipped from his raft. “Oh god” I thought, and then I forced myself to focus, because in order to do anything for him later, I had to save myself.

I tried to look ahead and fight for good lines on the river. The problem was the whole damn river was one giant rapids, and there were no good lines. I’d paddle hard for the best-looking of a menu of terrible options, getting doused, and suddenly would look up to see more impossible choices needing to be made.

As I passed Brad’s demise a few feet to my right, I plotted a route between two equally scary-looking waves 50 yards ahead. Achieving my goal of navigating to the chute, I realized it had been a trap, as a giant hole began rapidly approaching dead ahead. It was too late to avoid. Bracing for the worst, unsure quite what would happen, I remembered Brad talking about how holes can take your plank-like raft, and turn it into a V-shape. You drop over a ledge, and there’s water with force falling behind you, and there’s water with force ahead of you flowing “backwards”, creating a vortex of trouble. This vortex was a Goliath, and whether I screamed it out loud, or only in my head, the words “Oh shit!” were lost to all the world but myself and my own reality.

In an instant my raft was tacoed, and then the pressure of the air snapping the rubber back to normalcy caused it to rocket to the side, and send me careening into the icy water. I held onto my paddle, and fought for the surface as I felt the absolute force of infinitely-powerful water toying with my body like a puppet-master. I wasn’t sure how far above the surface might be, but I knew I had to get there. With one arm gripping my paddle above my head, I tried pulling that arm down in order to thrust myself up. But the paddle blades kept catching swirls, and it just kept getting twisted all over the place. Realizing I wasn’t making progress, and needed to be, I resorted to flapping with my free arm while kicking panted legs. The legs didn’t seem like they were producing any force, with big floppy sandals still on my feet catching the water as I tried to propel myself up, and loose fabric covering my legs reducing the power of my kicks. But the arm felt like it was doing something, and so I started flapping in earnest, pointing my toes. Eventually I breached the water, just in time for a big gulp of air before having my face smashed with an oncoming wave.

Time and again I’d get my head above water, take half of a quick breath, and immediately get bulldozed and tossed with swirling water. Sometimes the breaths were more water than air.

As that continued on, my brain started catching up, and I managed to swirl my body around so my feet were facing downstream, and my head leaned back to take full advantage of my newly acquired Personal Flotation Device (PFD). I remember saying to Brad back before put-in, “I’m a huge fan of this new paddle! But I don’t know about this PFD. It just feels… I dunno. I just don’t like it. We’ll see.” Heedless of all the smack I had talked about it, here it was, saving my life.

As the rapids began to ease, I looked around to see where my boat was. It was back behind me, and a bit to the side, but quickly beginning to move up to pass me in the water. I turned my body to swim with all I had to try and catch it. Problem was, as I got alongside it and I thrashed out to try and grab something… there was nothing to grab! It’s a smooth rubber tube, and I hadn’t installed any ropes for grabbing on to. I repeatedly flailed in my attempts to find some way of grabbing on, and as if it were saying “Well this guy’s a loser. Let’s get out of here. ‘Better luck next time sucker!’” it started moving away from me. I realized in an instant that if it got ahead of me, still in fast-moving rapids on a big river, I might never see it again; I imagined floating for days until the river decided to dump me on a bank, by which time I’d be long-since expired from hypothermia. In one last desperate attempt, I sighted on a zipper with a rubber T on it, stretched out my hand, and caught hold.

Imagine bobbing in bottomless cold water, holding a paddle in one hand, an upside down raft in the other, and trying to figure out how to flip the raft over. For argument’s sake, to make it easy, let’s pretend the water is moving quickly (it was), but that it’s also calm and flat (it wasn’t). What do you do?

Try twice or thrice to give a good shove upwards to one side of it, only to see it come crashing back down in the exact same orientation as before? That’s exactly what I did! But now throw in a hefty dose of adrenaline at being twirled like a twig in icy water, and fury at two or three failed attempts to flip your boat, and you’ll find a way to skyrocket it upright.

I think around this time I heard Brad yell from far back behind me, “See if you can grab my boat!” Sure Brad. I’ll get right on that. I turned to see his raft quickly approaching me, and realized this was the “able to help him!” moment I’d been waiting for. But first, I tried to get back in my own raft.

My first attempt was a mockery of effective coordination. I threw my paddle into the footwell of my boat, reached up with both hands, grabbed the sides, and tried to throw my body onboard. The boat tipped toward me as I shoved down, trying to get purchase, and it dumped me back in the water laughingly. I tried a few more times with even less success, and looked over to see Brad’s packraft next to mine.

I considered my situation at this juncture. I could grab his raft with my other hand (maybe), have two rafts between myself, and be floating forever downriver, continuing to get colder and colder and having no control over my destiny. Or I could find a way to GET THE FUCK in my boat! I felt angry at this river. I felt angry at how my agency had been taken away. And I felt that if I didn’t get out of the water and start getting on top of the situation, I might die.

With one final heave, I got my upper torso onto the back of my raft, even as it pitched wildly with my weight. But because I had decided there is no other option, I held on. It was that exact same moment one has at a climbing wall, where one knows what one has to do, one has to use all one’s strength to get to the better hold, and one can either let go and fail, or do something super-human and get beyond the crux through sheer will. I chose option B, and slowly skootched my weight aboard. The raft held, and I was in. I reached over with my paddle, swatted Brad’s raft toward mine, and grabbed some loose tangles of rope that were in my boat tying one of my bags to it. With an extra bit of rope, I tethered Brad’s raft to my own, and was finally able to take stock of the situation. I turned around to look at Brad, who actually looked like he was nearing shore, and I thought I heard him yell “damn!” I turned to look upriver for the first time in forever, and realized with horror… he was saying “dam”. There, maybe 80 feet in front of me, was the drop-off for the dam we’d read about earlier.

I whipped my boat around, and started paddling furiously back upriver. I turned my head to sight on the shore, and realized… I was still slowly moving backwards toward the dam. The river was strong, and picking up steam as it headed over the ledge. It also didn’t help that, as I paddled gustily upriver, I had Brad’s raft tethered to my own, fighting against me, pulling me toward doom. This was going to happen, I realized, whether I liked it or not.

I did not. I reflected on how the internet had said, no matter what, just avoid going over the dam. Dangerous. Problematic. Not the rapids, oh no, let’s not bother mentioning them, but whatever you do, just make sure you don’t try and float over the dam. Well I wasn’t trying. But it was going to happen anyway. As I turned my raft to face the terror head-on, I gave one last thought to Brad, swimming in the river, thinking about how little control a person has to fight the current while floating without a raft and paddle. Then I cleared my mind because we’d agreed, it’s every man for himself, and I can’t help him by worrying about him.

The dam threw me over a ledge/wall of water. In reality, perhaps it’s 3 feet, perhaps it’s 6 feet (I think it was closest to this one), perhaps it’s 6 yards. Whatever the case, I fell down a maelstrom of cascading water, miraculously crashing upright within my raft. But with the churn of the falls right behind me, I started edging backwards toward it.

Have you ever thought deeply about fear? Why is it we fear what we fear? That sensation of being in the back of an open plane, teetering on the edge, about to fall out. Even knowing that you have a beautiful, functional (probably) parachute attached to your back — does that ease the fear of that moment of release? Or an attacker with nightvision goggles and a weapon coming at you in the dark. Or imagine being shipwrecked in open ocean, seeing dorsal fins begin to circle lazily around as you float helplessly, trying not to thrash and willing away attention as the fins relentlessly, languidly, continue tightening the circle’s radius while the sun sets under the horizon. It is these sensations, of empathizing with the moment of death, that helped bring about the need for the phrase “strike fear deep in the heart.”

I have felt fear, but the moment I saw my raft eeking backwards toward that water, the moment I imagined what would happen to me, to my raft, when the edge of that falls caught the back edge of my raft, I can tell you I saw death. With that thought filling my mind, I put my paddle in the water, and paddled to save my life.

Thirty seconds later, I was breathing hard, with a mind racing a mile a minute, pumped with adrenaline, and accelerating away from the falls, alive. However, there was no time to delight in the feeling of having just fought for, and won, my very life. As the water began surging me forward once more, I realized it was too late to pull over. I was already in the opening stretches of another rapids, and there were no eddies to catch, no way to break out of the river.

I battled the river hard, to avoid any more dumps. I kept looking for a way to stop, a place to pull over, and there was nothing. The rapids just kept on going, interminably, and I kept getting further and further from the dam. As I started to think it might never end, a slightly-less-turbulent section in a bend had some vegetation growing out of the bank, slowing the pace of the current. I decided to take the chance on the “bad” in case there was never going to be a time where there’d be life without rapids ever again.

———

After I got off the phone, I hauled the rafts out of the vines, brambles, and trees, to the grass in the orchard. Still wearing my wet shirt, I started jogging to the road. I wasn’t sure what my plan was. I’d told the authorities Brad may be at the dam; or maybe he’s out walking the roads, trying to find me? I’m all but certain he left his phone in my car. Why would he need a phone?

I saw a police SUV humming down the dirt entry road of the orchard, lights flickering, and I started sprinting toward it. It pulled up as I got to it, and I tried to explain and ask in one single breath, everything, all at once. The guy muttered something into his microphone, and then executed his training perfectly, calming me down, and figuring out what was going on. Eventually when it was his turn to talk, after the story was out, and it was time to move on to “what happens now?”, he said to me, “Ok, River Com Dispatch is going to scramble divers now, and we’re getting people to the dam.”

There was a moment as he was saying that, where I started to try and jump in and say something like, “Oh, no, this isn’t… I mean… I don’t want to cause a huge fuss…” Causing a fuss is my nightmare. Having attention paid to me is my nightmare. Creating trouble for other people is the thing I spend ¾ of my waking hours bending over backwards to try and avoid.

And he just gave me a look, and I realized in an instant, Yes, this is exactly where we are at. Brad may be dead, or he may be fighting to live somehow, somewhere, but in either case, the royal We need to all be taking this with paramount seriousness. An ambulance came screaming up the gravel road behind him, and it became clear to me that it was time to get serious.

———

The weirdest part to me was the polarity of the situation. Either Brad was totally fine, and calmly trying to figure out how to get in touch with me, or he was dead. After going over the dam in a raft, and feeling the nearness of death, and the power of that water, I didn’t really believe that any human tumbling over it would survive.

My own never-entirely-tamed fear of water comes from diaper rafting over a rock in a rapids on the Little Colorado river, a side tributary of the Colorado River as it wends its way through the Grand Canyon. Flipping one’s life jacket around, and putting it on like a diaper, you’re able to surf over rocks without tailbone-bruising bumps. Unlike the Colorado River, which is big, dark, dirty, mysterious, and cold, the Little Colorado River I remember as a bright blue, sparkling gem. It was warm; it was delightful for frolicking in; and of course it was safe. Until I slid over the tiniest of ledges, and there was a small turbulence of water crashing down over the rock, and I felt like the hand of God had me pinned underwater. Perhaps a mere 5 seconds, it felt like 5 hours that I was struggling and fighting to reach the surface, desperate for a breath of air that wasn’t mine to have. By random dumb luck, the water eventually grew bored and shook me free of its own volition. I got out of the water that day, very shaken up, and walked back upstream to where the adults were lounging in the sun eating lunch. I think my parents asked me “Are you ok?” and I gave a quiet nod, but never went back in the water the rest of the trip, and very little hence.

———

I walked back with the officer to my raft. Though he offered to have me go to the ambulance, for my teeth were still chattering throughout our conversation, I emphatically disabused him of that notion. I was fine. We needed to be finding Brad. I grabbed a jacket from my bag, and was turning to go with the officer to the dam, as Brad emerged from the woods. “Oh hey!” he said.

To be fair, it was always one of the possibilities in my mind. Brad is… tough. He’s not the kind of person that just goes over a dam and dies. He’s the kind of guy that figures things out. I always thought that maybe he had swum to shore, even when I didn’t really think I could have. He told me to get his boat; I got his boat. He was heading for shore; he got to shore. Maybe he was in command of the situation the whole time, and he was just confused about why I was acting sub-optimally, and going over dams like an idiot.

Regardless, he looked at the officer, and looked at me. He saw I was shaken up. He guessed what was going on immediately. I tried to explain to the officer, “This is him! He’s ok!” Well duh, Chris, he’s standing right there in front of both of us, in full control of his faculties. Instead, I think the officer said something like, “Ok then.”

A little bit later, Brad is shoving off to head on down the river. He’s got his paddle; he’s got his boat. This was the plan all along, right? Get practice on the river, in whitewater?

Somehow in the confusion of hauling the two boats ashore into the woods, my paddle had disappeared. The owner of the orchard, seeing the cop car, had popped out on his porch. In talking with him, he mentioned seeing a red paddle float on down the river a little bit ago, but no person. (He’d also seen a handful of big 12-person rafts full of smiling thrill-seekers floating merrily on along.) So I had lost my paddle, and happily used that as an excuse to call the day short. I gratefully accepted the offer from one of the fire rescue guys who showed up (learned a lot about emergency response systems yesterday; still haven’t figured out why fire people show up to water-related potential disasters, but there this fellow was) to take me back to my car. Though we chatted about all the idiots that do stupid stuff on the river on the way back (like go over the dam), he was gracious in not actively calling me out on my idiocy. Apparently the excitement Brad and I created is nearly a daily occurrence during the peak of the summer, for these emergency rescue guys. He talked about how he’d actually rafted once (on one of the big rafts), and gotten flipped off, and had never gone again.

I got dropped off at my car (the rain started about the time Brad was putting back into the water) and drove down to the unused bikes. My tire was flat again. Still cold and dirty and wet, but happy to be alive, I loaded the bikes and tire pump back into the car. I went to watch for Brad at the take-out, not REALLY worried that anything may have happened to him, but not entirely UNworried. The worst was the dam. The thing we’d both agreed on, was just avoid the dam. Even if he flipped in the river again, and was floating it, at least I’d see him, and he’d just continue floating on. The only thing that could kill him was behind him, right?

Turns out, right. Brad is Brad. He pulled up not 10 minutes after I was settling in to watch for him, and got out looking… mildly bedraggled, but fine. He hadn’t flipped any more times; it was just raining, and he was also ready for the day to be done as well. We deflated his raft, loaded everything in the car, and started the long drive home. Ever the optimizers, we used the time driving to debrief logically and meticulously on all the things we’d learned and how to do better next time.

———

I occasionally oscillate between two thoughts. One is annoyance of having bought a brand new packrafting paddle that I lost on its maiden voyage. One thing I learned? Write your stupid NAME and CONTACT INFO on the paddle! Even if it is found someday (likely), and found by someone with a good heart who wanted to return it to me (50-50; it was a REALLY nice paddle), there’s no way they possibly could. There wasn’t a scrap of identifying info anywhere on it.

But the instant that thought finds itself floating to my mind’s forefront, it is immediately concurrent with a second thought: “You don’t get to have that thought, Chris. You don’t get to be annoyed over STUFF, and the loss thereof. You have your life. And moreover, Brad has his life. Where the hell is your sense of perspective?!”

And I am once again grateful for a near-miss, and I let both thoughts ease away hand-in-hand.

Advertisements

This is a rant about internet. Most likely, your time would be better spent stopping right here; consider fair warning — conveyed. But if you know those old business school / marketing 101 tropes about case studies regarding how you can turn a terrible travesty into a bonefide boon for your company, ala Tylenol, then read on.

So. Tonight, I’m trying to get after some nerdy how-to on sorting photos, and it seems like maybe this 3rd goog result has my perfect answer. It’s a Wired article. I click over, and all’s going well. I’m reading for about TWENTY SECONDS, and suddenly the page completely changes.

initially_cool

It’s true. I’m browsing using Firefox, I run with NoScript, and I manually approve any/all domains that I allow to run scripts. But, the “error” message touches a heartstring. I agree, everyone’s gotta make a buck, so where do I sign up? Let me approve you, Wired, and let you scrape my data and let me read your reporter’s great wisdom.

And then, I hit the NoScript button to see what’s running, in order to allow the page to operate as intended:

awful_wired-com_noscript

And just like that, I immediately take 3 minutes researching where I can give feedback to Wired that they should go burn in hell. They are the worst company this side of Mars, and need to immediately re-evaluate their efficacy to the human race.

Summary: if you’re going to request ad dollars with a cute-sy ad-block -detecting script, make sure it’s a single simple button heart-torn users can easily push; otherwise, you’ve only created an enemy for life.

I face the future. Like shaking off the cobwebs, I re-evaluate this meta-journey I find myself progressing along, and I choose to side-step and jump up.

I write this post after somewhat of a hiatus. What the next several months shall bring, I cannot definitively say, but there are some things I suspect, and some things I know. With perfect ambiguity as to which is which:

1) I want to continue practicing, and getting better at, writing. Here! We! Go!
2) Sometimes I’m a realist, sometime I’m an idealist. The realist in me fears I am like Toby. If you haven’t seen that scene, the transcript doesn’t do it justice. The idealist in me wants to squeeze the lime juice out of life, to slap on a grin as I taste that sour-sweet nectar, and to BELLOW for more!
3) I’m writing this before any concrete plans are made. But there’s a part of me that is scheming great things for this coming year.
4) Reading about others’ great things, I’m reminded that it’s not all roses on the path to appreciating life to the fullest. That there are moments where you wonder WHAT the FUCK!?, where you want to cry uncle, and wish you’d chosen to pursue an easier journey. In perfect clarity and prescience of mind, I choose to turn from that easier path, and am saying ‘yes’ on the day when confronted with The Question.
5) There are many things I want to learn, and many things I know I need to learn. The last several months, I’ve feared I am gravitating toward this ambiguous goal without purpose, like last time, except even moreso. But tonight… I feel I have found clarity of purpose. I know what I want, I can foresee the future, and I can make it so. I am excited.

Not done yet,

-Avatar

Since so many people ask, perhaps one of my biggest take-aways from the whole experience is this lesson: the world is filled with inherantly good people that are willing to help out a stranger or a friend. That’s an incredible thing. It’s contrary to a lot of what I thought I knew. But it was my experience on the trail. The fact is, this thru-hike of the A.T. would not have happened, much less been completed, without an incredible amount of help in various ways from an incredible multitude of sources. To properly recognize all of them, is not only beyond my ability at this point, but nobody would want to read that encyclopedia. Also it’d probably break the Internet with data overload. So if I missed you, no slight is intended. Here are but a few folks, to whom I am completely grateful and forever thankful, in no particular order. Thanks go out to:

  • Mom and Dad, for all of their incredible support, mentally and mailing-supplies -wise. Without their existence and help, this hike literally would not have been possible.
  • My sister Allison, who always gives me encouragement every time I talk to her.
  • My girlfriend Liesl, for everything.
  • Jimmy, for hooking me up with an amazing jacket and being a friend who simply gets me, through all these years.
  • Jacob, Ben, Alex, Alex, Zach, Abby, Baltz, Stu, Josh, Nick, Krasina, and the rest of the crew back at Arcadia Solutions. You guys constantly occupied my thoughts on this trail, and without your well wishes, amazing send-off, encouragement, and support, I would not have gotten out of North Carolina / Tennessee. Special shout-outs go to Baltz, Stu, and Josh, for they were the folks with whom I walked my very first mile of the trail (Katahdin) back almost a year ago; it was this that first got me thinking about doing the whole thing. And to see Ben, Olga, and John as they picked me up at the end of it, climbing Katahdin with me once more, was a special and wonderful moment. Thank you guys.
  • Barb and Bill M, who put me up in their lovely house in Vermont for a night, with a shower, laundry, and an incredible, incredible gourmet vege meal.
  • Terra, Jim, Mica, and Suki Rowe, for the fantastic few days at their lovely home in NY state.
  • Big thanks to the U.S. government who, in their infinite wisdom, provide massive subsidies to corn growers, allowing me to buy copious quantities of hiker-friendly high-fat high-sugar junk food at fantastically cheap prices.
  • Patricia at Cascade Designs in Seattle. This is truly an awesome company that stands behind their gear, and goes the extra mile to help out hikers: kudos to them, and I WILL be buying from them again.
  • Vibram, for the free pair of shoes. They were good while they lasted, and despite the broken toes, I am glad I started my hike in them. I think they played a big role in my lack of foot problems during the later part of the trail.
  • Arcteryx, Patagonia, MSR, and Marmot for making some of my favorite and most valued pieces of gear. Marmot gets a special shout-out for having good customer relations.
  • NPR and the producers and other folks associated with the shows This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me…, The Moth, Science Friday, Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, Marketplace, The Truth, and most of all TBTL. Tens, probably hundreds of enjoyable hours and thought-provoking insight was provided via their collective podcasts, and I appreciated all of it.
  • The great people I met on the trail, who I would endeavor to call friends. Sketch, Rat Bucket, Chia Pet, The Dude, Red Man, Big Dumb Animal, Jonas, Block Head, Switchback, Stinger, Motown, Whitewater, Four Star, Easy, Teton… here’s looking at all of you, kids, and countless more besides.
  • All of the hundreds of people that provide trail magic along the trail, from potable water to hitches into towns. I started to list people out for particularly memorable instances, and just stopped when I realized I could fill pages mentioning all of the times someone went above and beyond and beyond again. You are truly deserving of the title “trail angels”; without you, this trail would be possible, but a whole helluva lot less enjoyable.
  • The ATC, and all of its volunteers who make the trail possible (ridge runners, trail maintainers, etc.). Without you, this trail wouldn’t even exist, and I wouldn’t have had anything to thru-hike in the first place.
  • The SAR teams who are occasionally called into action when people go missing on the trail. It’s not a paid job, it’s all volunteer, and as one who avoided needing your services, but know you would have been there for me had something gone wrong, I appreciate it.

Yes, in some sort of technical sense it was a solo thru-hike. But I am not a rock; I did not do it all alone. To everyone that was a part of it, and helped me along the journey: thank you.

Saturday, August 11th: It was really cold, rainy, and blowing up on the summit when I made it there (as perhaps one can deduce, if one is truly gifted with supreme detective skills, looking at the below picture). All I wanted was to get the picture over with and get outta dodge. So I just walked over, picked the first pose that came to mind, and inwardly cussed at my fellow thru-hiker’s frozen fingers until he snapped the picture. It was too rainy to really try to pull my phone out and review the picture, much less fuss over how crappy it was and ask for another. Thus, I only realized it looks like it could be any random person when I was halfway back down the mountain. Take my word for it, then: it’s me, I was there, and it’s all over now.