AFTER YEARS OF TAKING FAST WATER FOR GRANTED, I learned to fear the ironic power of river rapids early last spring. The red inflatable kayak I was paddling caught a sharp rock at the top of a sizable and noisy chute coursing through the middle of an Oregon stretch of the Owyhee River, and began to sink.
In an instant I was sucked under the rock and shot over the waterfall, well beneath the surface. The shock of being pulled so quickly under the water precluded taking a decent breath, so by the time I felt the bottom of the Owyhee beneath my feet, I was already hurting for air. I looked around and realized that I was actually standing on the bottom of the river, surrounded by a surreal volume of luminous and silvery fat bubbles. I looked up to see the surface and the churning whitewater five feet above my head. I was being pummeled by a variety of powerful hits from each side and felt a consistent downward pressure on my helmet. Though I was wearing a life preserver and trying to swim, I realized that I was not rising to the surface.
Everything about the experience was dreamlike. The situation conjured no panic, and even the realization that the air-fat kayak was also being held down beside me, even the strange recall of interviews with people who'd come back from near-drowning episodes to report that the experience was not unlike going to sleep, caused a sensation beyond an abiding wonderment. I just stood there, thinking that here, beneath a river in Oregon most people had never heard of, a hundred miles from anything much more than a few earmarked steers—surrounded by the irony of gigantic white balls full of air—I would die.
I was egested from the hole as powerfully as I'd been swallowed. I bounced off six or seven rocks as I rode the rapids on my back, and I began to hear calls of concern from the others. I eventually found a conical rock I could hug downriver, and I remember thinking that no matter what, I would never let it go.
After I was helped onto the bank, I tried to imagine getting back into the red kayak. The thought sent a reverberating sensation that rattled the backs of my shaking legs. I'd once considered river whitewater no more treacherous than a roller coaster—but that had all changed now: I was afraid.