Drowning in the Desert

We were living in Phoenix, Arizona at the time.  My grandmother and aunt were out visiting from Savannah.

Mama and Tricia’s visits were always an excuse to go someplace interesting.  We’d covered the Grand Canyon, Montezuma’s Castle, Old Tucson and various other sites during their previous cross country vacations.

Now, let me state here that our family is prone to adventures.  Adventures being a relative term for getting caught in unusual predicaments. So when we had a trip planned to go tubing down the Salt River in the month of May, it was pretty much a done deal that something was going to happen.

In May, the mountain snow is still melting and pouring into the river, raising the water levels and increasing the current strength.  But what’s a little extra water, eh?

We were my grandmother, aunt, mom, older brother & his then wife, older sister, younger brother and me.  A stalwart band of eight ranging in age from 61 to 9 and ready to conquer the river.

We tied a series of inner tubes together in a circle with a free floating one in the middle, holding our cooler.  The cooler was of the type that are hard to find now a days.  It had a removable top and a dimpled aluminum handle.  It was the perfect size to shove in the inner tube.  It held our drinks, the camera and my grandmother’s asthma medication.

It really was a beautiful day.  The sky was brilliant blue, the air was clear, the scenery was breathtaking even for an exited eleven year old.  We saw wild horses grazing on the banks between old, gnarled mesquite trees.  Kodak moments abounded.

I remember the water being slightly chilly in the beginning, snow run-off remember?  There were spots where we had to get out and push ourselves off the shoals because the water was too shallow to float us down river.

We hit a few, very small rapids, just enough to invigorate us and give us something to brag about later. But nothing to really build any anxiety.

On a couple of occasions the current would direct us toward the face of the mountains.  Those who were on the rock side would simply turn around, stick out their feet and push off sending us back out to the center of the river and happily on our way.  So much for the powerful currents.

We heard the roar before we ever came around the bend.

We expected to see another set of the rapids we had laughingly tripped across earlier, but instead we were confronted with a swirling, churning eddy drawing us to the mountain face.  The roar of the water filled our ears.

The whirlpool had been formed by the incredible undercurrent meeting the mountain face and a huge outcropping of the old mesquite trees.  As before those facing the rocks steadied themselves to push off.

Each of us has their own story as to what happened after we hit the mountain.

My sister and sister-in-law were hurled standing into the trees.  They said they never touched the water except for where it lapped up between the low growing branches that brushed the river.

My mother, younger brother, aunt and grandmother, who by the way couldn’t swim, were knocked out of their inner tubes and around the mass of main tree roots and branches and were able to guide themselves into the shore line or grab another to help pull them in.

My older brother and I were flipped into the roots of the mesquite trees. He was caught by the ankle in the tangled mess.  I was caught in the undercurrent desperately trying to hold on to the roots, but was torn away by the force of the water.

I was shot out into the middle of the river, alone.

My glasses were gone. I had slices across my fingers and palms where I had tried to grab the roots and my throat was already getting raw. Apparently when I’m in a panic, I scream, “Mommy!”  Nice to know.

Incredibly, there were patches in the river where I could touch the rocky bottom.  My family on the shore line having heard my frantic cries directed me to drag my feet.  I slowed some, but lost my shoes.  I was a strong swimmer but not strong enough to counteract the current.

The original flotilla of inner tubes was still hanging in the eddy, caught right where we hit, however the free floating one containing the cooler was thrown clear at some point.  This is why I remember the cooler in such detail, it became my life saver.  I grabbed it as it floated by minus the top and contents.

Meanwhile, my older brother was disentangling himself from the underwater roots.  He had to remove his shoes in order to loosen his ankles and reach the top of the water.

When he came up, my mother began shouting, “Get Carol! Get Carol!” and pointing to me in the river.  No one had any idea of what he had just been through.

My brother was my hero once again that day.  He swam out to me and was able to bully through the current to get us to shore.  Some strangers who were on the banks of the river helped haul us in.

Everyone was safe.

After it was all said and done, each story came out.

There was the horse head that my sister-in-law pulled up thinking it was one of us stuck in the trees.

There was my grandmother determined to get to the surface and as she said “float all the way down the river if she had to.”  She was a champion floater.

There was my younger brother who said that when he opened his eyes it looked like a toilet flushing all around him – guess who was the nine year old.

There was my older brother, who said that he was not going to let that tree hold him down to drown, especially since he had the car keys in his pocket! We appreciated that.

Then there was that moment standing on the embankment when we all gathered together to physically reassure ourselves that we were okay. As we looked out on to the river, the lid to the cooler popped up from under the water.  It had been trapped for the entire time.

I don’t think most of us really appreciated how frightening the whole thing was until years went by and the stories were told and retold. One of those laugh until you cry then take a breath and say, “wow” in a hushed tone things.

Last year all of us were on a river again.  This time in August and we were in north Georgia. We were minus a couple of our original party, my grandmother who passed away in 1989 and the long ago sister-in-law, but we had gained a wonderful new set of adventurers: both of my brothers’ wives, their daughters, my sister’s husband, my partner and son.

It really was a beautiful day.  The sky was brilliant blue, the air was clear, the scenery was lovely for a slightly more jaded 49 year old. We saw tourists from around the world in brightly coloured inner tubes.  Photograph ops were all around.

The most dramatic thing that happened was getting stuck on a rock outcropping because the water level was so low on the drought beleaguered Chattahoochee.  The only roar heard was that of children’s laughter.

An unusual predicament indeed.