The Shortest Swim Ever

Posted April 19, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth

This last Saturday, Randy and Scott Armstrong organized a fun guides trip down the North Fork of the American River. The point was mainly to have a good time, but also to see what the river behaved like at around 4500 cfs. (A pretty high flow for the North Fork.) Kevin Elardi and I were paddling for Scott in the lead boat, and Brian Coleman guided the second boat with Hunter, Lindsey and Dan paddling. Before putting on the water, Scott informed Kevin and I that we were picked for the lead boat because he figured we were the most capable swimmers in the group. (Very comforting.)

The first big rapid on the run is called Chamberlain Falls. We pulled over on river left to take a look, and Scott gave us the following explanation: “If we run here, we’ll go over the drop with a right to left angle. You don’t want to swim in that left-hand eddy because you’ll stay there for awhile. If you swim on the right side, you’ll go deep under water for some time, but you should conserve your energy because when you pop up you’ll have to swim hard for the side of the river to stop yourself before the next big rapid.”

Neither option (re-circulating on the left or going deep on the right) sounded very enticing to me. And so I thought to myself, “I’ll just stay in the boat.” Simple enough, right? I mean, c’mon….it’s been a while since I’ve fallen out of a raft, excluding, of course, those times that the raft fell over too. (Not much you can do in those situations.)

The plan was for our boat to run first, with Brian’s crew waiting on shore with throwbags for safety and to decide whether or not they wanted to portage. As Kevin walked by me on the way back to our boat he said, “You ready little Guinea Pig?”

A minute later we were pulling out into the current. As soon as we started dropping into the falls I realized we were just a tiny bit too far right. I tried my hardest to keep that left angle, but the corkscrew wave at the bottom had already grabbed hold of the front of our boat. As the tube underneath me started getting sucked in to the eddy waters, I realized “I’m about to go in.”

My clairvoyant abilities didn’t fail me. A second later I was surrounded by swirling whitewater. I thought “Here we go” and mentally prepared myself for a long time spent under water and a small pep talk that I would, eventually, get air again. But then I felt something totally unexpected: the wall! Recognizing a good opportunity, I immediately reached up and searched for a hand grab. My face was still underwater, but I found a sweet spot, gripped hard, and started pulling myself up and out of the water. It took a few tries, but eventually I climbed (or somewhat beached) myself on the rock shelf above the rapid. I had literally traveled about three feet from the place at which I fell out.

To top it off, Kevin popped up about a foot to the left of me, and climbed right out of the water as well. It was amazing! We stood looking at the swirling eddy beneath us in disbelief at our good luck, feeling as though we’d somehow cheated the rapid out of having its fun with us. It was as if the river had had enough of us, deposited us on shore, and just moved on along.

Looking downstream we saw that Scott had pulled the boat over a few hundred yards away on the other side of the river. Here comes the ironic part: he was motioning for both Kevin and I to join him on the other side of the river. What does that mean? Well, it means that after Kevin and I went through a small few moments of elation at having just had the shortest, easiest swims of our lives, we realized we were going to have to jump right back into the water. The river apparently wasn’t about to get rid of us that easily!

Our purposeful swim back to the boat was longer than our accidental dunk. (In all honesty, though, it was actually kind of fun to dive into current when I felt more in control of the situation.)

The rest of the day went smoothly, and Kevin and I managed to keep our butts glued to those tubes the whole way down. I wondered, though, if Scott had second thoughts about choosing his crew based on swimming ability. Perhaps it’s better to have people that don’t fall out in the first place?


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