Excerpt begins on p.63.
Before heading back to Canada, we rafted Nepal’s Karnali River.
Neither of us were water experts, so we decided to hire a company. A 20-hour bus ride and two days of trekking later, we arrived at the put-in for the Karnali River. The lead raft guide took one look at the river level and said, “Holy shit, I’ve never seen the water so high. It’s really pushy.”
[pullquote-left] I bit my lip and squeezed him closer to me. My body sagged. We were not safe. I had almost lost him.[/pullquote-left]As the guides worked to prepare the rafts, they noticed we were short one life jacket. The Nepalese fellow who would steer the gear raft drew the short straw, and the rest of the crew wrapped him in a foam sleeping pad and some duct tape, hoping that would keep him afloat if an accident occurred.
The guides piled the gear in the middle of the rafts. Seven clients sank into the sponsons around the edge of each boat, toes hooked under a rope to keep from falling backwards. There was only room for six people, but we crammed in.
We began the trip with three strikes against us: heavy boats, one man without a life jacket and an abnormally high, fast-flowing river. We would be on the river for 10 days and navigate 20 rapids, some as difficult as Class IV plus. The international scale of river difficulty describes Class IV using words such as “dangerous,” “boiling” and “violent.” Ignorance was bliss for me. It didn’t occur to me that an established rafting company recommended by a North American guide would put its clients at risk. At the time, I did not know that liability is less stringent in Nepal than in Canada and that companies do not rely on return clientele.
On the first day, we stopped at the only village we would see for the next several days. The guides bought a live chicken and strapped it face down, clucking, to the front of the gear raft.
The Karnali ripped 20 of us from our rafts that day. Some people floundered in the pumping, grey-brown river for more than three kilometres before a guide caught up to them and pulled them out. The metallic taste of the silt water lingered in my mouth until after dinner.
On our second day on the river, the group crouched around the sandy campsite listening to the lead guide.
“The river is down 1.5 metres this morning, so it won’t be as pushy or as fast. We are going to stay closer together today and be more careful.”
People murmured. We knew what lay ahead: a snaking canyon four kilometres long whose vertical rock walls blocked the sun and strangled the river into frothing whitewater areas called God’s House, Flip ’n’ Strip, and Juicer.
“I know there is talk going around. People are scared about what happened yesterday. But we’ve got everything under control. Today will be better.”
People spoke in hushed voices as we boarded the rafts and pushed off into the current. Downriver we heard what sounded like the roar of a waterfall. Rounding a corner, the water picked up speed. Our raft plunged first into the boiling rapids and a wave higher than the length of our five-metre boat reared up in front of us.
“Paddle!” the guide yelled as we hit a wall of water. The wave pushed our raft vertical to the sky and we stalled. In that second, I saw the cavernous black hole on the backside of the wave. I groped at air with my paddle. And then I plummeted.
Our raft went end over end. All I could see were bubbles and black. When I surfaced and opened my mouth for air, another wave slammed me back under. I thrashed. My life jacket fought against the sucking action of the river and pulled me to the surface in what seemed like slow motion. I remembered the instructions the guides gave us in case we tipped: “Hold on to your paddle. Try to grab hold of the side of the boat and then try to get on top of the boat to help the guide flip it back over.” I grabbed the side of our overturned raft and the guide pulled me on top, along with one other rafter. Water streamed from his face and hair as he shouted, “Reach down and hold onto the cord alongside the boat!” We mimicked his actions and squatted to grab the elastic cord. “Okay, now on the count of three, pull up and lean back hard!” he commanded. We obeyed, and by the time I realized what was going on, it was too late. We catapulted back into the river. I squeezed my paddle and lunged for the side of the raft again. The guide was already inside and hauled me up by the life jacket. Instinctively, I scanned the waves for others who needed rescue. Within five minutes we had the whole team aboard and were plunging our paddles into the water.
A dozen strokes later our guide pushed his whole weight into the rudder and shouted for the people on the left to paddle hard. The raft was too heavy for a last-minute change in direction. The river swept us toward a “hole,” a “keeper,” a whirlpool that sucks things in and swirls them around underwater like a washing machine and spits them out or, sometimes, keeps circulating them.
The hole vacuumed the left side of our raft and dragged me underwater. Kicking with my legs and beating my arms, I surfaced underneath the raft. I gulped some air and forced myself underwater again and groped my way out. I hung on to the cord on the side of the raft and tried to catch my breath as water crashed against my face. There were two people beside me and three across from me. One woman’s face was ashen. “It’s going to be okay!” I yelled at her but she barely nodded.
A wave tore at our cold, tightly curled fingers. I clung to the stretched cord as the water bent me backward, gushed over my closed mouth and eyes and pulled at my hair before releasing me back to the side of the boat. When I opened my eyes, I was the only one left clinging to the raft. I gasped for air through chattering teeth as water bottles, Teva sandals and paddles cruised by. Two rafters marooned on a log mid-river called for help. I surveyed the angry water. One, two, three, four, five overturned rafts. Even the gear boat was stuck on the rocks.
Our guide’s arms cut through the frothy water. He manteled himself onto the raft in one swift motion, told me to look out, righted the raft by himself and climbed back in within seconds. He hauled me in along with four others. We had three paddles for six people. I paddled as hard as I could to shore. Just before we landed, I peppered the guide, “Did you see Jim?”
He looked everywhere but at me and mumbled, “He went in the hole.” My mouth went dry.
As the rest of the boats limped in one by one, I asked if anyone had seen Jim. I craned my neck and saw him slumped in the last raft. Jim’s features were blank, as if he had seen a ghost. I hugged him but his body moved away restlessly, and he muttered something about a warm jacket. I draped my fleece over his shoulders as he sat down and started to whittle a piece of driftwood. I sat beside him.
“Are you okay?” I whispered.
He focused on the piece of wood as he spoke in almost a childlike voice, “Yeah, yeah, um, I went into the hole.”
I leaned closer so that we were touching and asked, “What happened?”
He pushed the knife rhythmically down the driftwood and explained, “At first I tried to fight to the surface but that seemed to plunge me deeper, so I made myself go limp. The river played with me, swirled me around and around for what seemed like at least five minutes. Just when I felt my lungs would burst, that I couldn’t hold on any longer, the river let me go and I floated to the surface.”
Jim turned his head slowly to look into my eyes and shuddered. “It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to dying.” I bit my lip and squeezed him closer to me. My body sagged. We were not safe. I had almost lost him.