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Dear Sirs, I examined the cover of the Mountain Gazette River Issue (#178) with interest. Could the picture be of any of the Old Boatmen I had worked with over the years? Could it be based on Catfish from the Taos Box? Bill from our first Dolores trip? Or maybe Skip from the Animas?
Upon closer examination, I was taken aback. It was certainly not one of my old comrades. The Boatman was using Oar For Sures on a pair of blue plastic oars. Why not give him pins and clips and be done with it?
I have always said, “Real Boatmen use wooden oars.” As for myself: I would never leave shore without my hands wrapped around a shapely piece of ash.
Mr. Fayhee: I read Rob Marin’s story (“River Family,” MG #178) with ever-growing recollections of a river trip fatality while I was a whitewater river guide on the Ottawa River, between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, in Canada. I then got to thinking that every river probably has a similar story to tell, so I submit my tale, and perhaps this will lead to a collection of stories along this theme, although it may be a macabre proposal.
It was in the early ’80s, and I was working my second season as a whitewater river guide for a commercial company on the Ottawa River near Pembroke, Ontario. Death was not a new thing to us on the river; just the previous season, another company lost a customer over the side of a raft in a rapid during the high-water portion of the season. He did not surface for over a month until after the waters subsided. But, in my case, the story Rob Marin told was hauntingly familiar.
We set out for the five-hour trip on a non-descript sunny day with the usual compliment of eight paddle rafts. Each raft was crewed by a dozen or less customers propelling the 22-foot-long Salmon rafts, guides positioned in the back of the raft for steerage with oversized paddles. We headed toward the first of five rapids, McCoy’s Chute. Company policy was to beach half the rafts so the customers could enjoy watching the other half go through, and the landed guides provided lifelines to any paddlers who were ejected from the raft, in conjunction to the rescue kayaker that accompanied each trip. Those who went through first beached their rafts at the bottom and the process repeated. The first rapid was running at about class 4 and was a good jump into the day’s adventure. After successfully negotiating the rapid, the mini-flotilla set off for a 15-to-20 minute paddle to the Lorne rapids.
This rapid consisted of a hydraulic at the top of the run, followed by a series of standing waves and another hydraulic almost 50 yards downstream of the first one. The key to this rapid is to stay river right lest you send the raft to its destruction into the Greyhound Bus Eater, which extends the width of most of the bottom of this rapid, and out of which the customers would not fair too well either. At either end of the Greyhound Bus Eater is a chute. As an added precaution, this rapid was always run with a minimum of two guides, the extra guide being positioned in the front to absolutely ensure the raft stayed river right. It was time for our run, and we were anticipating the lunch stop immediately after the rapid. I wish I could remember the name of the guide who was running with me, but I am glad it was he because I would be calling on his leadership in a few moments. We caromed through he first big wave and executed a textbook run, achieving maximum splash and riding the roller coaster waves down to the safe exodus of the rapid. It was then the lady immediately to my right looked back at me and gave the understatement of the day, alerting me that the man immediately in front of her, and who was leaning back against her, must not be feeling well. By now, we were out of the waves and into the frothy aftermath of the rapid. I called up to the guide in the front to take over steering and to get us ashore. I turned my attention to the middle-aged fellow who was now convulsing. My only previous exposure to this kind of symptom was a friend who was prone to epilepsy. I had by now got the man lying down on the raft tube and was unfastening his May West and asking out in general to the rest of the customers if anyone knew about this man’s medical history. The answer came to my eyes just as a lady’s soft-spoken voice confirmed what I saw. This man, her husband, had had heart surgery within the previous six months, she told us. We were now within earshot of the shore lunch party, which had driven the lunch down to the lunch spot on a very primitive road (I know this, I helped “build” it).
By now, the general manager, who had come in by road for whatever reason, was trying to organize the lunch van to take this cardiac situation to the hospital. I countermanded his instructions and told the other guide to get on the radio to base. That year, there was a new twist for the customers. A freelance helicopter pilot had rented a corner of cornfield near the company offices and would give paying customers an aerial view of the rapids. In exchange for word-of-mouth advertising, he had given a handful of us guides a free ride, which is where I came to understand his skills with his flying machine and how I came up with the next development in this unfolding saga.
As we were performing CPR (two nurses had been identified on the trip), I called to the guide to raise the base on the radio and contact the pilot. As chance would have it, the pilot was in the office having a cup of coffee when the call came in. By now, I was in a pissing match (arguing) with the general manager over how we should best get the victim out to help. The pilot, meanwhile, understanding what I had in mind, had made it to his aircraft and had thrown one door off his bird and was in the air in short order. As I predicted, he came screaming in low and landed his craft on a submerged sand bar in the bay where the lunch spot was. Now with the man with the cardiac problem secured to a backboard, my life jacket under his neck to straighten the airway, we hustled him over to the helicopter where the pilot had just jettisoned the other door. The nurses accompanied the victim as they headed to the local hospital. His wife rode out in the lunch van.
With a diminished and somber crew, the remaining rapids presented an additional challenge in that, if our hearts and shoulders weren’t into the trip, there could well be another fatality. With that announcement, the crew came to life, and we managed the remaining rapids and concluded the trip.
Back at the base, one of the nurses caught up with me and handed me back my puked-on life vest. She recounted the trip to the hospital stating that she only looked out of the window once, and that was enough. I had seen the helicopter depart, but not realized how radical the pilot’s plan was. In order to make distance over altitude, he flew back up the river channel while gaining altitude. The nurse told me that when she looked out forward, as the waves of the rapid broke, the spray was splashing on the windshield of the helicopter. The pilot had called ahead to the hospital and arranged to be met in the parking lot. I am told he came to a sliding stop there and the man with the heart problem was whisked into the hospital. Twenty or so minutes later, he was pronounced dead.
Several weeks later, I received an unexpected letter from his wife. Her husband’s aorta had come away from his heart. The thing that stuck with me from that letter was her assertion that the time it took to get her husband to the hospital was faster than would have happened in the metropolitan city where she lived.
This all happened some 30 years ago, and some of the names and specifics elude me, but the events of this day are etched into my memory for life.
Duck, Fayhee, Duck!
Sir: As a resident of Rabun County GA and a past professional whitewater guide, I find your article (“Deliverance,” Smoke Signals, MG #178) reprehensible. There are not even 17,000 residents of Rabun County, the Chattooga River is not lined with houses or even one house, and I, having lived here nearly 20 years, have never met anyone named Clem. I have worked on many river rescues from deaths due to foot entrapment or body entrapment to lost hikers and or boaters. Most of these people were either attempting wilderness travel via river or on foot without proper skills or with inferior “guides.” Maybe this article is not your fault, but the fault of this Adventure Orgy guy, as you call him. Either way, you have perpetuated the thinking of the less informed in their perception that all Southerners are ignorant, moonshine drinking, possum eating, tobacco chewing and inbred.
In some ways, this myth is perfectly acceptable, because it keeps urban-dwelling adrenaline-seeking pussies like yourself from coming to these sacred mountains of southern Appalachia to get their thrills, then leave their granola wrappers, boutique beer bottles and drive their Subaru back to their favorite Starbucks. While we who live here wait for them to leave so that we can clean up their campsite, rescue the unfortunate and try to enjoy what we can of the natural beauty of this area before we are again over run with the hordes.
Don’t be mistaken — all here, including myself, are still very patriotic and relatively conservative Americans. We will be the last Americans left, I would think. You should consider yourself lucky that I am probably the only Rabun County resident who subscribes to your magazine (although that may change when my renewal comes due), because I can think of a few people — they aren’t named Clem, just simple names like Mike, Gary or William — who would just as well shoot you as look at you based upon your attitude and perception.
Maybe next time you look me up and I will explain and show you these mountains and people in a different light — or if you prefer you just continue with your opinions and then next time you look in a mirror ask yourself who is the ignorant one.
Capt. George W. Custer,
Master & Managing Partner
Charter Yacht Freedom
Fayhee responds: As I made abundantly clear in “Deliverance,” I am not an “adrenaline-seeking” pussy but, rather, and adrenaline-avoiding pussy, that being the nature of pussiness and all.
My Uncle’s Scar
John: Regards “Scar Tissue” (Smoke Signals, Mountain Gazette #179): The wound I got didn’t leave a scar. All it left is a memory of an abrasion, a 3×7-inch raspberry on the inside of my right forearm. It was a mess for a while, it scabbed over and went away. It was the result of the second-to-last time I approached a curve way too fast on my bicycle. The last time I did this, my left knee took the beating. The scab that resulted was large and thick enough to serve as a cast. A shower would soften it up and then whatever angle my knee was in as it dried would determine how I would walk until the next shower. I learned to let it set up with my knee straight. I smarted up after that crash.
The arm abrasion only served as but an introduction to scabs. This wound came during a ride on a day off from a summer job at a camp. The camp was relatively primitive; we cooked over wood fires and lived in tents. Electricity started and ended at the water pump. Clean-up for the 20 of us amounted to standing by the pump, flipping the switch, then waiting three seconds to get hit with 50-degree water shooting from a two-inch pipe. Communication with the outside was via a battery-operated, two-way radio mounted in the dash of a ’50s-era Willys Jeep. The radio was declared off limits, as if all our girlfriends had two-way radios and we would drain the battery talking to them.
My day-off-ride/crash: downhill, way too steep and way too fast, barely into the curve, down into the ditch, up and around the hillside, back into the ditch — all with wheels down — a launch up and out of the ditch and back over the road air-borne, still with wheels down but not exactly centered, contact with the road, a brief, hopeless struggle for control and then the road rushing up to meet my face. I managed to position my right forearm in front of me before I hit and then went sliding along on it, my body rigidly held up at an angle to the road.
Sliding along, watching the road pass by under my arm, it occurred to me that, if I didn’t duck my shoulder and roll, my arm would be ground off. So I ducked and rolled, got tangled up with the bike, tried to steer my slide to the side of the road in case any cars were coming. I got back on and started for home, figuring the time to get back would coincide with the time I had before the pain really set in. It worked out pretty close.
My dad dug the gravel out of my back, bandaged my arm and I was back at camp the next day with an oozing, gummy wound that soaked right through his bandage and any of the others I contrived.
The camp’s flies, which had previously only pestered me at meals, went after that wet bandage relentlessly like it was a piece of raw meat. The familiar buzz of their tiny wings changed into an urgent, high-pitched snarl. While changing bandages, the exposed wound put them in a complete frenzy. They didn’t just try to land on it; they went for it, hit it hard and hung on. Waving them off didn’t work. I had to swipe them off. They had gone Kamikaze, fearless with determination to lay eggs in me.
I’ve had deer flies tangled up in my hair like so many sticky raisins while they bit into my scalp. I’ve been peppered with ticks and coated with mosquitoes. I’ve come out of the water leeched. Lousy experiences that keep occurring, but I’ve learned to accept them by understanding my place in the food chain. Contemplating maggots crawling out of me after being attacked by frantic egg layers, that was too creepy and it stayed with me. The rest of the guys at camp couldn’t let it go either. My nickname became “Wormy”.
Sometime later, I was lazing around with my dad and my uncle, just shooting the breeze. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I decided to bring up the manliest story I had at the time, my most-recent crash, the scab, the flies and all that. While it was a rehash for my dad, my uncle was a new audience.
Lost to me was the fact that I was in the company of two men, both from large families, whose fathers had died while they were kids. They went out to find work during the Depression and followed that up with combat in World War II. I respected them, but to me they were just two harmless old farts and I thought I could impress them with my scab story. I knew my dad as a scale mechanic and my uncle as a city bus driver who walked with a slight limp and who was usually rubbing his thigh. I was a candy-ass and I really didn’t know who they were.
When I began to talk about the aggressive flies and my brush with maggots, my uncle’s expression underwent a subtle change. His lips pursed a little, his chin and eyebrows came up a little, all very slight and simultaneous. Watching his responses, I had the satisfying impression that my story was making an impact on him and I remember the event for that reason.
Only much later, after he was dead, did I realize that what I saw on his face was his reaction to a memory.
I only know bits and pieces of their involvement in the war. The stories came to me from other relatives over a period of years, let slip like secrets accidentally revealed, never to be repeated. Most of what happened to my uncle came to me from widely separated comments from his sister, my mom.
My dad mixed it up with the Japanese in New Guinea in ’42. My uncle was in the D-Day invasion in ’44. My dad came out of it alright and was in for the duration. On the day of the invasion, my uncle had no more than stepped out of his landing craft when the war ended for him.
Something knocked him face down in the sand. He turned his head and saw someone’s foot next to his face. “That’s my foot,” he thought. And it was. Whatever knocked him down had nearly severed his leg at the thigh. His leg, twisted at a crazy angle, brought his foot up next to his head.
At that instant, my uncle became just one in the invasion’s overwhelming flood of wounded whose treatment decisions were governed by pitiless triage. His gaping, complicated wound was treated only for blood loss and given a cursory debridement. The wound was left open, but before the medics moved on, they packed it with maggots. For my uncle and the other untold wounded, the medical corps had brought maggots for the detail work. I was told that my uncle didn’t mind having maggots in his wound so much. The ones that got out and crawled around in his bed were the ones that really bothered him.
Mil-Spec, medical maggots. I’ve tried to think of how maggots could be supplied in a scale to accommodate the number of casualties from an invasion. Were there jars of maggots? Cans of them? In preparation for the invasion, did someone win a government contract to breed pallet loads of maggots?
Through it all, my uncle’s leg was saved. It never was completely right though. He always had that limp, but was lucky enough to get a job where he could remain seated, driving the bus. For the rest of his life, bits of bone kept coming up through the skin of his thigh.
My silly scab story and my uncle’s memory of war. He didn’t say a word, didn’t interrupt me, didn’t say, “Shut up, you inexperienced lightweight and listen to me.” He could have knocked me out of the ring with a few words, but he didn’t. I wish he would have. He was a man with memories of war and he let me go on and on about the bicycle crash that happened to me on a day off from a summer job. I came away thinking that my story was significant enough to take its place among the memorable events in his life.
I never saw my uncle’s scar. While he was alive, I never knew he had it.
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