Almost drowning

They used to tell us in nonfiction workshops to write 'as if your parents were dead.'

This is very difficult advice for all but the totally detached. However, at least in terms of entertainment value, it is those very things that our parents would cringe to see in print- poor decisions, repeated mistakes, mating habits- that are worth writing about at all. And to approach that material with allowing it to shrink from shame, or guilt, or dread of the 7am what the hell were you referring to in that one paragraph? phone call is a valuable skill.  But for the sake of the parents, with their weak hearts and the staggering ability of their imagination to conjure unlimited scenarios wherein their children take on the world and lose, some stories are truly better left untold.

Here is one of those stories.

This is my account of nearly drowning on the San Pedro river in Northern Chile.

February 2nd, 2009,  the middle of the Chilean Summer. I'm traveling with the kayak school from Pucon to the Rio Fuy in Choschuenco. On Route, we stop to run the Rio San Pedro. I am a very new kayaker, but have been on a crash course ever since landing in Chile three weeks earlier. I survived the waterfall laced Palguin creek run, and barreled down the big water of the Upper Trancura with only a skirt implosion and an easy swim. The intense fear I once had for white water is gradually shedding.

It rained heavily that morning as we packed up, but we drove out of it and into blue skies and a perfect day for paddling.

We've been told that the San Pedro is the easiest river we're going to run the entire semester.  The water is a bright, exquisitely clear turquoise, nearly the same warm temperature as the air. As we glide along the miles of calm water and splashy waves, the round stones and mottled sand of the river bottom are perfectly visible. We flip over on purpose and hang upside down, eyes open, taking photos underwater:

The Rio San Pedro from below. Photo by Palmer Miller
The river is over twelve miles long and slated to be dammed in the coming months. On some stretches, the current moves very quickly but the surface of the water remains smooth. The sensation is as close to flying as I'll ever get. The river branches apart and comes together again, branches apart and comes together. Little waterfalls splash down from the surrounding cliffs and send swarms of bubbles jetting to the surface.

There are two are major rapids on the San Pedro, class 4 big water and very pushy. They come one right after the other as the river narrows into a tighter channel, bends to the left against a sharp rock wall, and the water crushes into massive, chaotic wave trains. Emery and I both tense up as we approach the first of the two. 'Where do I go? Where do I go?' we ask David. Siren song of the worried kayaker.

David just laughs and teases us. This is what he did before the intimidating but harmless drops on the Palguin.'Just point to the left, there's nothing to worry about.' We bounce into the rapid.  It's big and crashing, with waves so steep they throw your bow completely vertical into the air. After powering through without even a flip, we end up in a small stretch of flat, fast moving water.  I'm exhilarated and careless, my heart pounding but no longer in fear. I want more of those huge waves. This river is deep water with no rocks,  nothing to get stuck under, pinned against. I go into the second rapid without asking any questions, without any beta, without following anyone's line. My last thought is to turn and reassure Emery, who is still gripped.

I paddle ahead and get immediately flipped. The water is so warm and clear, I can barely tell when I'm up and when I'm under. It feels strange to be submerged and moving so fast. I roll up wobbly and get punched back down on the opposite side, up and over, over over.  I can catch maybe a fragment of breath every time I come up. I realize that I'm getting totally slayed, but I'm fairly nonchalant about it. I'm not going to swim. I know I can barrel-roll the whole thing like this because the rapid flattens out into a pool at the end and there are no rocks to worry about.

I talk to myself as I'm up and under, up and under: hold on girl, tuck forward, snap up, breathe, steady. I'm smiling a little under water, knowing how the kids will tease me about running such a long rapid on my head.

I'm finally able to roll up and steady myself long enough to take a quick look around.  I'm in the middle of the rapid, on the right side. Things are flying by too fast and explosive and confusing to think. I see one of my students, Nelson, paddling past me on my left. Nelson, my AP student, who is always showing up late to class, he's the only one in the class, and he's always asking me to brush his hair. I look at him for one second and he twists his face into this horrible expression and shouts NO! NO! NO!

This is when everything shifts. I can hear him above the roar of the water. NO! NO! NO! I don't even need to look to know that I'm going somewhere very bad. I turn my head to the right and the world slows down just a bit. I see that I am heading full speed into a wall of hard volcanic rock. There's no time to change direction. I slam against it, taking the entire force with my face and the outside of my right shoulder. In an instant I'm flipped upside down.

Underneath the water I'm pinned and perfectly still. The force of the current is pushing the back of my boat against the wall at a 90 degree angle to the river bottom. There's a loud bubbling like the sound of a fish tank at night, much more peaceful and deep than the smashing of waves above. I let go of my paddle and it flies away.  I grasp my skirt and pull it with a concerted effort, somersault out of the boat and my face emerges onto surface. I gasp at the air and for moment I think, I'm safe now. And then I look around.

This particular spot on the river creates a rare feature known as a death eddy.  The eddy is like a pocket on the side of the river surrounded by steep, sharp walls. The entrance back to the main current is as narrow as a double doorway. The turbulent water moving inside the eddy collides with the downstream current to create a barrier so strong it's impossible to swim across. If you tried, it would suck you down into a whirlpool and push you back into the eddy. The downstream side of the eddy is backed up by a an undercut rock wall. If you're not rescued and pulled out with a rope, you will eventually be swept underneath the rock and stuck.

I am not aware of the undercut yet. I'm not aware of anything because I can't figure out where I am. And I;m curious about it but strangely calm. The water is white foam, slashing and spinning. The powerful recirculation slams me against the upstream wall like a rag doll, then under, down,  up, and back into the wall. I'm on spin cycle. My PFD is built with padding to protect my organs but, arms out and flailing, I take the blows with my face, hands and bare legs. Each time I get pulled under I'm feel terribly confused- I keep thinking, I'm wearing a PFD, how am I not floating? Did it stop working?  I want Tino.  My brain starts this mantra where is tino where is tino where is tino, round and round like a nursery rhyme.

Tino is the coach. Like me he's from New England, and he's only 20 years old. He went to New River Academy for his last year of high school and never left.  I've really liked Tino since I met him, but especially so ever since he pulled me out of the Trancura. It was my first swim of the season, on a tricky but pretty harmless rapid. We'd scouted and Tino stood on the bank setting safely. I flipped in a hole, my paddle was ripped out of my hands and I pulled my skirt. The instant my head resurfaced in the nearby eddy, Tino had his hands on me and was pulling me onto the bank. It's easy go get attached to the someone after they care for you when your sick or pull you out of a spot where you're scared. I feel the same way about Dave.

But right now on this river, neither of them are with me.  I am struck with the staggering loneliness of being in a place where literally no one can help me. Tino is well behind me with a group of  students, surfing every play wave they find, the group I was paddling with are all down river.  But Nelson- Nelson! A current of hope cuts through through my tumbling, fragmented thoughts. Nelson saw what happened, he knows where I am.  But for him or Dave to rescue me, they'd have to finish the rapid, eddy out, he'd have to explain what happened, and then they'd have to hike out of the river and come look for me. It wasn't going to happen in time.

I decide I will climb out, which is just absurd. I give it a go anyway.  I grab at a piece of the rock and try to drag myself out. The piece of rock comes off in my hand.  You have got to be kidding me is exactly what I think.  with a note of detachment, as if I was watching this from the bank, as if this was all some huge joke. This is so bad! You have to be kidding me this is so bad.

Just then I feel something bump against me and I throw my arms around it, thinking it's someone come to rescue me. It's my boat, which has only now become unpinned and resurfaced. It is bright red amongst the swirling white and the front is scratched deeply and dented from the collision with the wall. I put my arms around it and try and rest my cheek on the bow.

With my arms hugging the plastic, I notice that there is red water leaking from my hand. It takes half a second to realize there is blood in the water and it is my blood. This is so much more violent than I thought drowning would be. By all accounts drowning is a peaceful way to go,  not that anyone who is alive to tell about it should be considered a credible source. But at the very least,  I always thought it would be quick.  Now I'm stuck here, pulling in little bits of air, circling the drain but not being held down long enough to actually die.  I don't feel any panic, just a dull curiosity as to what will happen next.

 And then I am then pulled under and shot deep, ripped away from my boat, and sucked against the downstream wall of the eddy.  My eyes are open and I can see a dark green tunnel as the light blinks away,  my hair floating in front of my face as fine as spiderwebs. I put my hands out and feel rock on all sides of me. I've finally been pulled into the undercut.

Very quickly, a voice from the deepest recesses of my brain takes control. It begins firing out instructions, urgently but calmly.

You are going to lose consciousness. You have one hour to stay alive after you lose consciousness. You will stay alive during that hour. Nelson knows where to find your body. You will remain alive and they will resuscitate you.

I feel an extreme fondness for Nelson. The loneliness of that dark tunnel is cut by his knowing where I've gone.

I am almost out of breath. Half a lungful of air lasts only a short time when you're struggling. It's different than when you're in the bathtub, and you slip under the water and see how long you can count.  Behind my closed eyes I black spots appear, like pockmarks burnt into old film strips. From the moment you become a kayaker you dread this moment. But a little part of you  is also very curious. I wonder if my lungs will implode, and whether that will feel like two balloons bursting. And then what?

I decide I'd rather not wait any longer. If I suck water into my lungs I can aspirate, which might hurt less. I guess the fear of pain lasts to the lasts second. I open my mouth and draw in a throatful of water. I feel very subdued about it. In a few seconds I'll be gone and my rescue will be someone else's problem.

Two seconds later, my head breaks through the surface of the water, face tipped forward like an infant at birth.  By some wild luck, this undercut had an opening at the other side, and I have been sucked completely through.

The rest of the rapid crashes around me and then it's over.  I am pulling myself out on an island in the middle of the river. The kids are clustered there in the eddy, and David is standing above me. He's collected my boat, paddle, and all my gear that floated down before me. Everyone starts talking at once. Only Nelson and Dave are quiet. Dave is helping me up on shore. He's staring into my eyes. He instructs, gently, 'just look at my face. Sit down. Keep looking at me.'

I feel slow and cold. The whole time I was stuck, my heart rate didn't even raise above its normal rythm. I'm alive but yet I feel so defeated for some reason. Palmer, one of my favorites, shrieks and points to my hand. The rest of the kids say 'Palmer! Don't yell! Don't upset her!'

 'Oh sorry.' She says. 'I didn't mean to. Sorry sorry. It's just- your hand.'

My hand is split on the backside and it's bleeding. Then she shrieks again, her hands over her mouth, and makes these wide 'I'm Sorry!' eyes. Now she gestures towards my leg. My leg is cut from halfway up the calf to the back of my knee. It is split right through the center of my Vermont tattoo and watery blood is going everywhere.  I look at it mutely. Like it's someone else's leg. I certainly don't feel any pain.

The kids are rattling off the stories of their own worst swims. I imagine their words all floating up from their mouths as long strings of capitol letters. This is how teenagers try and soothe you. They sound like geese. I want silence. I turn my head to the opposite side of the river, support my body with my arms and gag up water. I start to cry silently. The terrible loneliness I felt in the cave clings to me. David makes me focus on his face. It makes it a little better because I'm always trying to impress him and I like that he's so focused on me right now.

I cannot sit on the island forever. There are still a few wretched miles left of the river and I have to get back into my banged up boat and finish it.  I keep spitting water and crying without making noise. Then I turn my head to the side and hyperventilate. Aah ha aaah ha aah. The rest of the rapids makes me feel a little angry but mostly that weird, sad, defeated feeling prevails. I feel like I am nothing.

By the time we're all gathered back at the van, trying down boats and pulling off dry tops, some of the kids are talking about what happened. Some of them aren't interested at all.  'But youre still here!' says one of them, brandishing a camera. 'Let's document that!' They take this picture:

We arrive that night in Choscuenco on the Rio Fuy. Our little hotel has a tin roof and even though I expect to have nightmares, I don't. The next day after classes we are going to run a 25 foot waterfall on the upper section. I don't really care to go. I walk downstairs with an armful of text books to do my lesson plans while everyone is gone. Then Matias, the Argentinian physics teacher who is the hairiest man I've ever seen takes me aside in the afternoon after classes. He grabs my elbow.

'You must get back in the horse, Melina,' he says.

'No,' I tell him. 'I'm not boating today.'

'Hey-hey- you are being a pussy. I know you swam. You must get back in the horse.'  Matias is not a normal person. Only a few days before the San Pedro, Tracy had lost hold of her boat on the steep hike out of the Palguin.  The boat bounced down the train and ricocheted over a 50 foot waterfall into a canyon of. Without a word, Matias grabbed a paddle and made a running leap over the cliff. He chased after the boat in the water,  and paddled it out (it was much too small for him) through a set of serious rapids which hardly anyone runs. We picked him up in the van a few miles down the road. Since then the kids revered Matias like some sort of God, although they still hated his classes.

I know I do not need to listen to Matias. But I find myself feeling surprisingly neutral about paddling. I haven't let go of the shock yet.  I run the waterfall that afternoon and it is really easy.
Palmer and I at the bottom of the drop
 Later that night, I inspect my bare legs on my narrow bed in the rickety wooden hotel. I am surprised that the bruises haven't shown up. And then the next morning, they do. A deep, speckled blue and purple over my shoulders and arms and a bluish black stain on my legs, the long gash yellow and red and glossy, like tropical fruit.

Later on that day, our 2nd day in Choshuenco, we're running the middle Fuy and I don't want to go. None of the kids will leave me alone. They all cheer for me to come with them. They think they're being really nice by encouraging me. I run out of the hotel and across the town to hide from the kids. Since nobody knows where I am, the van leaves for the river without me. I slink back to the empty hotel feeling relief.

I write my friend Will an email about what happened. He's the first person I tell about the swim and for a while, the only one. Will is far away in cold, Snowy North carolina where he goes to school, but I think about him all the time. Constantly. I tell him what happened and how bad I feel about it. How I was totally fine the day after but the shock has worn off and now I feel like some sort of criminal. Selfish and shameful and scared for the rest of the trip and the countless rivers ahead, rivers that will be much more difficult. Unconcerned with punctuation and constantly tripping on the foreign keyboard, I banged out incomplete thoughts:

okay i know how dramatic that sounds, all of it. but it was so terrifying. it was such a nightmare. i know it turned out okay. I know that but....what the hell....i feel so selfish. this sport. i have such a good time but what do a lifetime´s worth of experiences on the  river matter to my mom if i hadn´t come out of the cave. they would mean nothing and i cannot wrap my mind around that. i know it turned out fine and that bad swims happen. i8 just wish i didn´t know what it was like. okay gotta go. love you.


Looking back now, I might label that whole incident as foreshadowing.  Because after that, everything went nuts.

In Print!

Click here to view this photo book larger

I abuse my photos. I print them out and stuff them in albums, and then come back two days later to pry them out for use in some sort of crafty thing. But the crafts never- ever- get completed, and the photos are never seen again. So I decided to make a book out of my Chile photos from the past year, and have them professionally printed. Shutterfly was having a 50% off sale on their hardcover, 12" by 12" photo books, so for four spastic days I did nothing but re-touch photos and arrange pages on Photoshop. I hit 'order' at midnight, about 4 minutes before the offer was up. And then, the waiting commenced.

Well, it finally arrived at the post office! I ripped it out of the cardboard and paged through the whole thing: it was glossy, pristine, and perfect. For a whole 20 minutes. As I was bringing it in from the car, the two corgis attacked each other in the yard. Hitting them with the chuck-it stick was not effective, so I had to put the book down in the grass and pull them apart with my hands, which was sort of terrifying. When I picked up the book again, the cover was stained with dog blood and had a few deep scratches in it. Sadly, I'm not lying.

The book has 50 pages, each one 100% photo- there is not one bit of white. I included lines from Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet I taught in my World Literature class- and one Avett brother lyric at the end. There are no other words besides those.

And, why yes, it is called "Chile: The Wild Coast". I may have only ever had one idea- but hey, at least I'm consistent. Enjoy!

(My favorite part, the back cover:)

The sudden disappearance of the Seven Teacups

Right around two years ago in an Omaha zoo, a shark was born via immaculate conception. A baby shark had been born of a virgin! It came as quite a surprise to the zoo keepers, as Mama shark had been resoundingly celibate- she hadn't even been dating. There had been no shark companions of the male sort in the tank in recent memory.

The Zoo keepers called in a bevy of biologist who proclaimed the baby, if not a miracle per se, at least the product of an extremely rare occurrence and worthy of much observation and research. And then, in front of their eyes, the infant shark was stung by a sting ray and killed. Gone. Born of virgin and dead from a sting ray barb in a number of hours.

When I heard about this via an obscure news podcast, I immediately thought of a man named David Bosworth. David was my favorite professor in college- he was casual, he came to class in flannel, he was brilliant and also brilliantly mustached. But above all, David really liked me. He also really liked my writing, which did not help my popularity in Intermediate Short Story Writing 304. Students in creative writing programs are not famous for liking each other. And this particular class, to their credit, had the guts to really show it.

David introduced me to the idea of extended analogies-small stories and occurrences that can be related to life in a much broader sense. 'If you keep your eyes open,' he told us, leaning far back in his chair, 'you will find extended analogies everywhere. Pay attention to them.' On the last day of class, he handed out a photocopied news paper clipping. The story was of a man who filmed skydivers for a living. He would leap out of the plane with a video camera to record their terror and thrill. But this one time he had leaped without his parachute; he had simply forgotten it. And you can imagine what became of him. An extended analogy of literary ambition David had scrawled on the top of the page.

And so when I heard about the short lived second coming of a shark, I immediately recognized an extended analogy of life. The miraculous and the useless swimming side by side in the same tank. Killer!
This morning, an extended analogy that I was in no way emotionally equipped for fell out of the computer screen and into my lap. The earthquake that struck Chile on February 27th rattled the very foundation of the country. Houses collapsed sideways and enormous parades of boulders were unleashed from mountain sides. It did the same inside of me; it reconfigured my heart and my head as if they were flimsy wooden structures. I began to miss Chile in that searing, sucker punch to the gut kind of way. I miss the rivers, the students, the other teachers, our unusual and voracious lifestyle, the amiable, tenuous, incredibly intricate life we had constructed together.

Then today, I reached for my computer and read that the Siete Tazas are gone.

The Sieta Tazas (Spanish for Seven Teacups) were a string of perfect waterfalls on the Rio Claro, a dazzling necklace draped into a deep canyon of black volcanic rock, exceptionally clear and bubbling. For the country of Chile it was a source of pride and income as a profitable national park. For kayakers, it was heaven on earth, and so remote that only a precious few have made it there.

I spent a few weeks on the Rio Claro last fall with New River Academy, sailing off curling lips and passing dizzying days deep in the canyon, staring up at the sky. It was vivid, pristine, and very cold. We slept by the river in a wooden cabin without electricity, we ate well and drank hot chocolate boiled in huge tin kettles.

One day we got stuck inside of the canyon. Jammed together in a tiny eddy and faced with an unrunnable rapid, we realized we would have to climb out from within the deep vertical walls. We bit into roots, swallowed dirt and scraped for footholds against the cliff. The self rescue took hours, and that night we fell headfirst into our beds, fully aware of our lungs expanding in and out. Despite exhaustion I lay awake all night, feeling claustrophobic in the total dark, heart still crashing against my chest wall. The air tasted very thick. It would have been a gorgeous place to die, but it was an even more beautiful place to be living.

When the earthquake struck, it opened up a fissure in the earth that swallowed up the water that fed the Siete Tazas. Literally overnight, the river disappeared. The Siete Tazas is now a dry, black, empty vein split through the earth. The school is scattered throughout Chile, I am separate and far away, and that wild place we loved so much is now vacant, gone, abandoned.

Ever since that last year in college, I have searched for extended analogies the way I look for neglected quarters on the sidewalk. I find them sometimes in newspapers, or come across them on the radio or inside stories told by friends. They are a way of feeling that your isolated experience is part of something collective and universal. They are like little wiggling arrows on a big road map. And when insurance denies you and rows of zeros blink like eyeballs from your bank statement, you are alone and far away from your friends, you sleep late and lose little pieces of your mind over breakfast, any glimmer of direction is encouraging.

Usually I find them to be pretty amusing. Like the guy falling and the shark snared in his own tank- both bitingly ironic, and irony is funny. But when the earth opens up and swallows one of its most exquisite creations, it's not exactly funny. It is bizarre. And in terms of the analogies that could be drawn, it's potentially explosive, too dismal, with too much of an element of serious melodrama. I don't even want to touch it.

So I've decided I have to think about this the way an impartial scientist would. It is a matter of geology: tectonic, random, and definitely sad. But in terms of metaphors and figurative language, I think this time I will excuse myself from the table.

Earthquake in Chile

This morning, February 27 an 8.8 earthquake struck Chile. For comparrison, Haiti was a 7.5. Both New River Academy and World Class Kayak Academy are in Chile. World Class was already at the Futa, far South of the epicenter of Concepcion, Chile's 2nd largest city. But my kids were in transit and we did not know exactly where they were.

It was an agonizing day of frantic communication and studying maps, until one girl was able to text her father- they were on the Ferry already heading towards the Futa. They were all safe.

David Hughes is still missing. He is the director of the program but this semester he has not been traveling with them. Collectively, the families of the students/staff and I have called the Red Cross, American Embassy in Chile and our Congressmen.....

I created a Disaster profile for David with his description, and where I think he might be. Google has an amazing "I'm Looking for someone: Chile earthquake" thing online. I last heard from him the night before the quake and he was in San Alfonso del Maipo, which is about an hour away from Santiago. I hear from another parent that he was planning on being in Santiago today.

Santiago was hit severely, a 7 on the richter scale. But I know that internet is working at least in some places in the city. I do not understand why he has not contacted any of us. I am filled with nightmares after creating his profile and scrolling through all the " I have reason to believe this person is mising/ I have reason to believe this person is dead/ I have spoken to this person since the earthquake."

The families and Kara and I have all been talking and we think that he is probably unable to get to internet, or busy helping other people. But either way I am too panicked to sleep. I'm just writing this to calm myself down. David when you read this and laugh at me for being dramatic, please send us a message that you're alright.

Here are some photos from the BBC website.

Click here to support Disaster Relief

The last hoorah

I'm outside the city of Pucon, Chile, on my hands and knees on the dirt on the side of the road, fingernails digging into the dirt, throwing up. The tension in my skull is momentarily relieved. I can open my eyes without the evening sun gouging them. When I climb back into the car, Matt, Dave and Andy are silent. Someone rolls down their window.

I don't mind vomiting from a migraine. Besides providing a slight- albeit temporary- relief, I find it proves a certain point that is difficult to otherwise get across: just how cruel the pain inside your head really is. You can be curled up in fetal position on the couch, a sweatshirt tied around your eyes, hands clenching and unclenching in some sort of primal pain response. You can be crying, silently, and breathing in quick labored breath, or sitting in a cold shower with the lights off and your clothes on and still you get the same response: Headache? Do you want an Advil?

There you are, brain swelling until it bursts over and over, and someone offers you a pharmaceutical normally taken for muscle aches. It's is ludicrous. If you could, you would remove the sweatshirt and tell the person politely just how misguided they are. If you could, you'd ask them to go get you a hack saw so you could cut open the roof of your skull, give yourself a skylight into the brain, to relieve the pressure. You really would. But you can't talk, and you can't move.

But when you throw up, it's a new ball game. Your migraine thrusts itself rudely into the lives of others, comes out in the open. It's especially poignant when you are sharing a confined space with other people, such as a car, especially when you are driving back to another small cabin with a shared bathroom. Especially when your having to pull over and double over on the side of the road is making them late for something. Suddenly, they have to deal with your headache in a very real way. It's sort of satisfying.

Back at the our cabin, the 9 kids running around with sticks and a BB gun shooting at dogs, I walk with a scarf tied around my eyes to my bed, hands out in front of me, feeling along the walls. The kids want me to come play with them. I tell them no, as usual, that I'm not feeling well. As usual.

The modicum of relief allowed to me at the sacrifice of my dinner is gone. My head is filled with metal butterflies beating their barbed wings, banging around my skull looking for the way out. I can't help but buzz with bad metaphors. This thing in my head wants to be named, wants to be recognized. Just as I think the butterflies cannot beat their wings any faster, they open terrible mouths and sink their rows of shark teeth into my brain.

The butterflies are sharp and vicious- the stabbing, the fine bladed knife etching a story into my gray matter one letter at a time. But there is also another kind of pain, the dull, pulsing pressure. Picture a ball, the size of a baseball or a fist, rolling around the base of my skull. I tilt my head to the right, just the slightest bit to reposition on the pillow, and ball of pain rolls to the right, bangs to a stop. I turn my head to the left, it rolls heavy to the other side.

A parade of images is marching through my head. The dog I saw on the sidewalk today, blood seeping from a hole in its head. The dog wasn't exactly dead yet. It made the flies happy. There is sand in the sheets and the hot water is broken. Yesterday Andy washed his clothes with a stick in a bucket, later on I stood shivering in the same bucket throwing teacups of cold water over my hair. I think of stupid, irrelevant things. The bones in the chicken we were served at the Achibueno, the way I picked around them, the ligaments that we pulled out of our teeth. The time we ran out of gas on the highway and Dave, Andy and Matt ate from a bag of leftover turkey and bread, grease everywhere, using the hood of the car as a picnic blanket. I had lay in the grassy ditch near the highway, hungry, a headache swirling behind my eyes. I began to think, I'm losing my edge for this lifestyle.

The bloody crusade in my brain continues and I'm helpless. Tino opens the door a crack to check on me but I whimper for him to shut it, the slice of light seeping in unbearable. He goes away. I kept thinking about the girls, how they stayed home from the river one day to bake with me and I was late, I had forgotten all about it even though I had promised them. I think about the way my heart scurried like an animal in my chest the time I was stuck in an eddy about a huge, unrunable rapid in a canyon, how I spit with fear and cried.

I try to take control over my thoughts. I count the days until I go home- 7 days? 8? If I have to lie here in my bed until then, I will. I think about my home, clean sheets, evening light on snow. Everything clean, cold.

When it's dark enough, I take a sleeping pill. I wilt into a strange sleep. The headache lasts for three more days. On the final day, we throw a birthday party for Clay. We're at a hotel in Villarica, playing croquet and making ice cream. It's a lawn party. There is wine barrell hot tub, still cool, the water heated by a wood stove. I curl up in it, lay motionless under the water for three straight hours. By this time the water has warmed sufficiently. The kids join me and we're all having a good time.

By this time, of course, I've come to a realization. For a year I have been travelling with the school throughout Chile, Canada, the Southwestern USA. I'm so good at my job. I've been so happy. But I'm not up for it anymore. I don't feel good, ever. Something must be wrong with me, and I have to go home.

My Vegetables

I've discovered my superpower, and it's got nothing to do with kayaking. I seem to have the ability to break down the distance people cloak themselves in to mask their self consciousness, and allow them to just relax and enjoy themselves. And this case, pretend to be a vegetable soup.

After 12 months of traveling with New River Academy, I hereby present my greatest accomplishment. One of the boys in here even refuses to smile for photographs, but here he is, under my influence, pretending to be a root vegetable.

This is no joke. This truly is what I am most proud of in all the world.

Live to Wimp Again

(C) Matt Hill
It is raining and cold. A cloud of mist accompanies every word I speak. I bought a thick wool scarf in town, threaded with iridescent silver, and I wrap it around my shoulders as if it were a luxurious fur. The students sit in a ring around the tremendous fire in the Quincho and play Hearts and Uno. When it rains, the rivers rise into giants, and we draw inwards.Except between the hours of 3:00pm-7:00pm, approximately. That is when we seal ourselves into creek boats the bright, speckled, tangerine and lime colors of jelly bellies, and we go and play with the giants. They toss us with their powerful arms, or we slide down their throats into their canyon stomachs: David Hughes runs Gargantua del Diablo, "the Throat of the Devil" on the Rio Claro (C) Matt Smink

Los Nevados is a full on class 5 committed canyon run that is pumping right now and we're not doing it. But we are running the entrance rapid, a 100 foot slide that is frequently featured in paddling magazines because of it's sheer size and mediagenicy. A 100 foot bumpy slide like a wild toboggan ride, mostly clean, that you can hike up and run again and again, with no worry of the dangerous canyon that follows. Incredible.

So I power up the camera and push the delicate lenses into their foam bedding in the Pelican Box. I pull on fleece pants and contemplate the upcoming trauma of pulling on a broken dry top, already soaking from three days hanging from an Ash tree in the rain. Then I spy Matt and Andy slithering from their room to the couch in their sleeping bags. The door opens and David steps inside, hair plastered to his forehead from the downpour. He says something about maybe taking the day off from the river. And then the bomb drops: Andy's got Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince on his is Ipod.

A few minutes later, Tino comes out of his room suited up in a dry suit, looking like a power ranger. "You guys ready to go?!" He's all motivated and then he sees us lying on the couch in different positions of comfort. He stops in his tracks. "WHAT?" I decide to slink off to the kitchen to avoid this confrontation. Tino is the coach. He has to go kayaking every day, no matter how freezing and miserable it is. The rest of us are not the coach. We don't have to do anything. "YOU ASSHOLES!"

I wait till Tino is out the door before returning to the living room with my hot chocolate. Unfortunately, he is not yet out of hearing range when I jump on the couch and say "Alright Andy, Harry Potter me!" The door yanks opened. Tino sticks his helmet-head inside and says in barely a whisper, "Did you just say...Harry Potter?" We look at him. The guilt in the room could crush us all.

"...and the Half Blood Prince." I reply.

Matt, David, Andy and I remain dormant for the rest of the afternoon, half asleep in our goose-down sleeves watching magical movies, rain drumming the tin roof. A few kilometers away at the entrance to Los Nevados, the slide is running record high. The kids zip down with madcap lines. Eric hits the rooster tail, does a mid-air cartwheel and crash lands on his head. The video camera collects rain under the lenses and is rendered useless. Taylor's elbow knocks against the rock wall and fills with fluid.

In life, there are some times when you have to push yourself. Then there are those times when you have earned your rest. (Unless you're Tino: no rest for the weary. Good on ya, buddy.) Learning that balance, the perfect ratio of sleep to waking, whitewater to greenwater, is the key to life. My cousins taught me early on their NOLS course motto: Live to Wimp Again. Some advice you just have to take to heart.

Marathon on the Achibueno

(C) Matt Smink
The water of the Rio Achibueno is the cool, minted blue of Crest toothpaste, and cold as a recently melted glacier ought to be. My dry top, my armored shield against the ice, is recently broken from the rescue in the Rio Claro canyon. I add two layers of fleece on top of my union suit, pull on the useless dry top, cinch down the many straps of my PFD and hope for the best. With my boat hoisted on my shoulder I head down to the river, seal myself in, mess with all the outfitting, and push off into the river.(C) Matt Smink

The rapids begin. And they do not stop for another nine miles. It is the longest, busiest, most continuous river I have ever paddled my way down. It is studded with granite boulders varying in size from Dinosaur eggs to hippos to sports utility vehicles; the river weaves through them like a tongue flicking between ginormous gap teeth. I am very lucky, as Tino is my personal escort for the run. Together with Zoe, we catch every micro eddy, navigating our way through the maelstrom with precise paddle placement with Tino literally shouting at us directions for which blade to use and where.Around halfway through, I notice a tangible difference. Something has shifted in my brain. I look a the river with a certain logic; I know where I want to go, how to fly through slots and doge the hole at the end with a late boof stroke, how to hang on and surf out when I get worked, how to cruise into the eddy with a powerful stroke and correct angle. I'm no longer a pinball at the mercy of the torrent and granite. Tino keeps watching my lines and throwing his fist into the air. He's proud of me.
....And then I swim. Three times. I haven't swam on a river in 6 months, not since I went right instead of left on Middle Keeney's on the Lower New. I haven't swam yet in Chile this time around. I haven't swam three times in one run since the Green, my true first river run ever. Why, then, is this happening? And after my epiphany of true understanding and Liquid Logic? The culprit is my lack of hand roll. On each swim my paddle, my mechanism for rolling and control, is ripped out of my grasp. The first time is stupid. The second time, two hours later, is more forgivable. The rapid is bony and steep, I thunk directly over a pour over, and although the the hole kindly ejects my boat and I, it keeps my paddle as a souvenir. I am in calm water by the time I pull my skirt and flounder to surface, gasping.And the third time? By now the sky is dimming and the temperature has dropped. With the busted neck gasket on my dry top, I am shivering and soaked. I'm following Tino like a dog, cursing every inch of water as I pull through it. This river was supposed to be 6 miles but it turns out to be 9 miles. It's been hours and the rapids have not relented. I face them now not with fear but with irritation and anger. When I flip over on a terrible line through a long class 4, my knuckles grind over the granite, my hands jam under rocks and pop out violently as the current rips me along. I grit my teeth and hold on as my head cracks against the rocks. Finally my paddle gets caught and I pull my skirt. When I emerge, I grab onto Matt's stern and he drags me through the remainder of the rapid. Up ahead, Tino is doing the same for Zoe, who has a big gash over her eye. Tino is looking behind him as he paddles and I see him mutter 'oh, no...' I turn around to see Tracy going through the same rapid, the same terrible line. She must have been following us. She's on her head as well, the bright blue underside of her boat banging comically like a duck in trouble. But she manages to hold on and right herself. Later on, her neck will swell and tighten from the beating, and she won't get on the Achibueno again.

When I shore up on the rocks, my hands are bleeding and my right hand is completely numb. I put it in my mouth and bite down as hard as a demonstration for Tino. He looks tired. I wonder how much longer till the take out, and how I can paddle without a right hand. Without a choice in the matter, I fumble my way back in the boat and with my left hand, curl the fingers of my right hand around my paddle. Each bend in the river uncurls to reveal more white, spitting water, and no bridge.

By the time we do reach the take-out, the feeling has returned to my whole hand with the exception of my little finger. The whole crew is has fallen into an exhausted silence. I strip away the layers of wet fleece and neoprene and pull on dry cotton. I call the act of taking off wet paddling gear and shivering into civilian clothes "The process of becoming Human." It's a joyful but often arduous process, and I'm not fully human again until I'm under a blanket with something to eat and a book, fully dried and guaranteed safe.

One of my students and I climb into the back of a truck and bump along the 10 km home. We stop every now and then to explore the river bank and search for an earlier take out. We are met with no luck, and we never run the beautiful, diamond clear, marathon lower Achibueno again.

Sleeping with the enemy

One of my former students, Keegan, is here in Pucon for creeking season. He showed up at the staff cabin last night with a bag of Starbucks coffee. I took it from him in the same manner as one would remove an infant from a stranger, gently but urgently. I then whisked it into my room, crawled into my sleeping bag, and held it close to me.

A strange thing to do, yes. But in the zipped up den of my sleeping bag, the smell of coffee was so strong my olfactory system went wild and prodded awake my memories of college. I closed my eyes and thought about Zoka, on the corner of 56th and Meridian in Greenlake. This was the warm, aromatic, see-and-be-seen coffee shop where I spent the majority of my seven years in the city of emeralds. In the winter I would step in from the rain and disapear into the steam of an Americano, absorbed in essays, text books and meticulous notes. The clean, bright lines of a highlighter against a black and white page used to send shivers of delight down my spine. In the summer it was iced lattes and liquid ink from fountain pens, sitting outside in the cherry blossom breeze. I would wear a white shirt and the short, layered skirts that everyone wore for two short seasons when I was a junior. There is nothing special about this particular set of memories, nothing that sets it apart from the experience of anyone else who went to college in a nice city and had endless hours available to sit in a favorite spot and read text books.

But last night, curled like animal around a bag of coffee grounds, those memories seemed so alive and strange, the paradox of something being so bright in my mind yet so far away in reality.
I am the lucky one with a charmed life, but for the past few days my world has been colored by exhaustion, the turning of my own health and the ubiquitous fear of drowning. I stare into space more often than I have before. I fear the upcoming confluence of my life on Chilean rivers with my other life at home; at the same time I can't stop dreaming of it.

So last night I curled up in my filthy sleeping bag in my filthy skin, covered in bruises, one long scar running up my right leg and a tarantula bite on my ankle. I sleep wearing my fleece paddling gear, the only decently clean clothes I own. I breathed in coffee and hovered between the clean bright world in my past and the one I'm living now.

In the morning Tino and I made the coffee. It tasted like dirt. In taste, coffee never lives up to the promise made by its aroma. But this was particularly terrible. Maybe the lack of filter, the well-water, or the fact that I can't make coffee and never have been able to. But Tino and I sat there and drank it all and listened to the rain as it kept coming down. I thought to myself, I can't leave this. I thought to myself, I wonder where my raincoat is. I wonder what I'm teaching today in AP. I wonder if my gear will dry over the stove in time for this afternoon. I can't leave this.

Alive at the Achibueno

I have approximately three minutes for internet here, just time enough to post a few photos of the Rio Achibueno and life therein. Still to come: story of the longest, rockiest river in history, where it rained goats, where I swam more than once, where the tarantulas lumbered where my ultimate dream of reading for three days straight by a fireplace and reading was finally fulfilled.

Seltzer Boating :: Chilean Creeking

Matt Smink on the first drop of the Siete Tazas

I find myself in the city of Talca, in Central Chile, with only one night in a bright and loud hotel to record the past week of creeking excursions on the Rio Claro. I will keep the descriptions minimal, not only because of my dirth of time but because I am really proud of these photos- definitely the best I've ever taken.It's incredible how many faces and expressions that water can adopt. The Maipo was sultry and fast and wide, the color of darkened leather. The Maipo's salted waves turned from glassy green to aqua to navy, mirroring the weather.
But paddling on the the Rio Claro was like pushing your boat through pools and chutes full of seltzer water. The water sparkled, bubbled and glinted as if the creek were gem-lined. The waterfalls were glossy and smooth at the entrance, and then they carreened forward as if some really big person filled their mouth with a ton of water, cheeks distended, and then spit it out with all his of force.Eric Bartl dropping in

The first day was an expedition through the middle canyon, a section known as the Entres Saltos. While hiking and scouting that morning, we had spotted five smaller clean waterfalls we were eater to run. We put in directly under the bridge near our camp site and stated paddling down. It was a canyon, but for the most part you could scramble out on river right and walk. The canyon was laced with class 5 rapids that were mandatory walks for anyone with a brain. The rest of the rapids were fun, tight lines full of boofs that all ended in the most beautiful, safe pools. There were a few swims- none from me- and the rescues were pretty simple (alright, most of them were. One girl swam right above a little drop that I wouldn't have wanted to swim over, but they got her right back in her boat.)Italic
Haakon Samuelson setting up to plug the 6th drop

We ended up taking out before we reached the five drops we had been aiming for. A tricky double drop and waning sunlight stood in our way. It didn't bother me- I'm always the happiest one to reach the take out, even after such a blissful day of clear water creeking. That night I drank hot chocolate and read my book and fell asleep in my tent. And I woke up the next day ready to paddle the seven teacups.Zoe Ross in the seltzer. You can see her boat underwater in this photo

The seven teacups (siete tazas) is a run of seven beautiful waterfalls ranging in height from 3 feet to 2o, running through the black basalt chamber of the Rio Claro canyon. Once you drop in, the only way out is to run it. The walls curve out and then in, as if you were in the bottom of a light bulb. And speaking of common household imagery, it's as cold as a fridge in there.
Zoe Ross commits to the right side
We flew like a flock of angels down the falls, paddles and faces pressed up against sterns. The hole at the bottom of the slide tried to digest me but I survival surfed the out of it. I went over-vertical (aka ass over teakettle) off the the 17 footer. On the 20 footer I was so mesmirized by the fast approaching foam that I didn't tuck in time and Bam! Next thing I know my head sprang back and I bubbled around a while beneath the curtain before catching my roll. Tino said I looked as stiff as a toy soldier.

Halfway through the run....Experimenting with shutter speed

But whatever! I ran the Siete Tazas, and despite those small confessions I ran them pretty well, with no swims and limited misery!
Eric Bartl about to go deep on the 6th drop

The next day, we divided into two groups to run the sieta tazas again. While group number two set up to take photos and document every drop, group number one dropped into the river at a new, higher put in. I was in group one, and I sailed off the first clean drop at the new put in and followed gamely along behind the other technicolored ducklings. But we never made it to the siete tazas, and the photographers were waiting all day for a string of little bright boats that never came. It's a story for another day, but it's one HELL of a story. Melina Coogan dropping in to the disasterous upper "put in." Photo by Matt Smink

Finally, all the photos on this post (and on this blog, generally) are mine. (With the exception of the one above.) The final day at the Rio Claro, I shot from the wooden vantage points on the edge of the canyon to get these shots. Which means, of course, there aren't many of me. But I ran this shit! Alex Anderson on one of the middle drops


In the course of my life, I have not often had the opportunity to give flowers to random boys. But I always thought that if I wanted to, I would be successful.

Turns out that's not true. In an effort to learn Spanish, my school took to the streets of Pichilemu and embarked in a hilarious scavenger hunt. I was teamed up with the other staff. One of the challenges was to hand a flower off to stranger. And although Tino really, really wanted to do it...c'mon. That would have been way too easy for him:Things like this are significantly more difficulto for me: note: this is not my hand.

When I saw these two Mormon missionaries coming my way, I knew my moment had arrived. Thinking that they would not only be polite and english speaking, but delighted to receive a little bouquet from a Rubia, I ran up to the boys and asked in Spanish if one of them would like a beautiful flower.

Turns out....he didn't:

This is not like when me and Tyler Bradt gave a pair of missionaries in Salt Lake City a vivid and detailed description of the type of activities Mormons frown upon as an example of why we did not choose ourselves to follow their religion. (For the record, they asked for it, they were harrassing us.) This time, I really just wanted to give the nice American boys a flower so my team could score 20 points and move on to ordering Churros. Wow, was I rejected! Missionary karma?

Piles of glass and light

The waves today were huge piles of glass. The day was bright and clear, but cold, with a hard wind whipping up whitecaps and blowing the sand in curtains across the beach.

I geared up, hiked my boat out to the far end of the beach near the point break, and pushed my way into the surf. The water was choppy and bottle green. The wind blew a hard mist off the waves, sending a hail of stinging droplets fiercely into my face. The waves were piles of shattered glass and the wind was blowing tiny splinters off into the sky, sending a spray of rainbow into the air.

I cannot even describe what it's like to be battling your way through the waves, passing through the slender opening in the gloss and foam, heading farther out towards the horizon where the big waves shudder and bend. The waves were big today, and tubing. I managed to stay out of the crush of the pile, the force of which is easily enough to blow you out of your kayak and leave you out at sea with the sharks, with your paddle and kayak and own meager self to look out for.

I am getting better. Today I caught the green of the wave, the smooth underside that glints like jelly in the sun. I rode it until it dissolved into fat marbles of water and air and became a gigantic aerated pile. I bounced and carved on this pile all the way in to shore, until the wave finally bubbled to nothing on the sand with a defeated hiss.

More than once after being picked up by one gigantic aqua curler, I shot towards shore at full speed and was delivered sometime later onto the beach. I was thrust up on the sand and left there like a piece of mail, sending a flock of tourists running. There's nothing like being far out to sea and riding one single wave all the way in. It feels like the planet's wildest public transportation system.

Riding out waves and bouncing on foam piles out there in the sun glints, cold gale, shark fins and rainbow sprays was some of the most fun I've ever had.