I almost died.
That may or may not be true. What qualifies as “almost”?
I could have died.
Possibly more accurate, but I could have died crossing the hundred-pedestrian crosswalk outside the train station this morning. “Could have” doesn’t quite cover the mind-numbing fear of, “This is it. I’m gonna die.”
My friend from a local university messaged me one day out of the blue: “Wanna go white water rafting with me this weekend?”
Being a total newbie, I didn’t realize you needed a trained professional for this kind of thing, so I imagined a couple of our friends in bikinis and swim trunks splashing around on a wild lazy river. Imagine my surprise when we showed up to a shed full of life jackets, helmets, and release forms.
We met early on a Sunday morning at Kisogawa station, where we were met by our guide, who would drive us the rest of the way to Gifu and Nagara River. It hadn’t rained in a while, and the river was a bit shallower than usual, but it was a beautiful day and the water was the absolute perfect temperature. We were one of the last rafting boats to leave the take-off point, and fishermen were already setting up for a day of fishing. This gave us the perfect audience for our first rapid- which also turned out to be the first time we completely flipped the raft. Fortunately, nothing was hurt but pride. There were a few more accidental individual tumbles into the water throughout the day, but we managed to stay upright for most of the rest of the day.
Our guide taught us to “surf”, where we paddled upstream towards the white water and balanced the raft right on top of the big waves. We also did a bit of cliff-diving, the highest point I’d ever jumped off of. I even learned to kayak (holy arm workout) in one of the long, calm sections of water.
The last rapid, we were told, was the wildest and most dangerous. It was a long, rocky section of where, the place where most accidents happen. And since it was shallower than usual… “Just don’t fall in.” You’d think I’d recognize foreshadowing when I heard it. Our guide told us about a man he’d had to pull out of where he was hanging onto a giant rock, ankle touching knee in an ugly fracture. But that just doesn’t seem real in a story.
Our guide asked me if I wanted to paddle the kayak through the rapid, and because I’m both reckless and dangerously trusting, I said yes. He then suggested that his guide-in-training — not the strongest paddle in the boat — should go with me. I wasn’t as excited about that, as we had yet to kayak together, but the guide told me to hurry and jump in the kayak while it was still close to the raft, and I moved before I’d thought it through.
The raft went first, with the two of us paddling behind. (Really, the guide was paddling and I was sitting behind him with one of those half-paddles those hat actually really sucks for tandem kayaking.) In case you’ve never rafted before, standard procedure is that, when the raft tips up to an uneven tilt, you stay upright by leaning towards the higher side. Turns out, this is not the same in a kayak.
In the very first bump, we were still working on straightening out and hit it at an angle. The kayak tilted, and my guide leaned hard to one side. Trying to be as helpful as possible, I leaned with him. Which was when I realized he wasn’t leaning. He was falling. And the whole kayak was going with him.
We tipped, and I splashed into the rushing water with three separate thoughts screaming for attention in my head. The first was an articulate, HOLY SHIT. The second: Get into safe position, feet up, pointing downstream, please dear god do not skin yourself on the rocks. The third: Get. The fuck. Back in the boat.
We were near the side of the river, several boulders bordering the water. I considered trying to push off them with my legs, but instead foolishly scrambled for purchase along their slippery sides, water slamming me against them. The kayak came hurtling towards me, shoving me under, the dark bottom shutting all light out of my sight. I was slammed against the rocks underwater, hands reaching for anything to hold onto, my mind both fighting for survival and already accepting that I would never resurface.
When I managed to come up for air, I grabbed onto the kayak, trying to flip it right side up while staying in the feet up position, terrified of everything I couldn’t see in the water beneath me. I was either not strong enough or didn’t have the technique to flip the kayak over myself, and the guide was several meters downstream. I could see more rocks ahead, bordering the river as it turned a sharp left. The guide was pushed into the boat, and I lunged for the biggest rock with all that I had in me, clinging to it like the lifesaver that it was. (Or seemed to be. At that point, I was out of the rapids, but my survival-mode brain didn’t allow me to let go of that rock for at least a full minute.)
The main guide had managed to grab the kayak and flip it over, and in the mostly-calm post-rapid water, he paddled over to me, face a mixture of terror and the mask of calm he was trying to show me.
He reached out to me with a hand, but I was hesitant to let go of my new best friend. “Are you okay?” He asked.