I have paddled, skied, fly-fished, cliff jumped, traveled, white dolphined and adventured with Todd, Joe and John for over twenty-five years. Our passion for the outdoors and hanging out has not wavered despite the onward march of kids, slower metabolisms, and jobs that are not ‘river guiding.’ While we all once dreamed of remaining river guides our entire lives, Todd became an Orthopedic Surgeon, John an ER Doctor and Joe, a writer for Outside Magazine. I have never been more thankful that I was the only one who remained as an outfitter after our latest venture.
This past week we rallied for a day of rafting and kayaking the class IV-V Scott River in Northern California. We were technically ‘training’ for a raft race at the end of the month. Sixteen years ago we were on the USA whitewater rafting team and thought we might be able to relive past glory. Our wives had given us the day, so we were planning on doing two laps, one rafting and one kayaking, down the eight-mile stretch of river.
After launching the raft, it became immediately apparent that our same Sotar raft we used in the USA Rafting Championships, was not holding air the same way. We were also just plain rusty. But, as we felt like we were in our twenties again, we kept racing down the class IV rapids.
About 30 minutes in, we arrived at one of the bigger drops on the run. ‘Straight shot’ requires lining up between two massive boulders and dropping down a ten foot ramp of water into a giant hole. Well, we flipped in said giant hole. In a typical pool drop rapid, we would have gathered ourselves and wounded pride in the pool below, however this rapid is a bit different. After the big drop, the river remains shallow and fast. If a person is in the boat, it is not noticeable, but as the boat slowly flipped, I found myself unable to protect myself from this shallow shelf. In my numerous swims over three decades of whitewater, I can count the number of times I have hit a rock hard on one hand, so it was incredibly shocking to slam my upper thigh into a rock so hard it stopped all of my momentum.
Initially I thought I simply had a horrific ‘dead leg’. I came up near the raft and was able to grab the sideline. As I tried to swim the raft to the side before the next rapid, I quickly realized I couldn’t swim at all with my legs. I yelled to our friend Cole (Cole was along kayaking and was key late addition to my dream crew) that I was hurt and I needed an assist. I grabbed the back of his kayak and he towed me straight to the nearest eddy, where Todd was already waiting. John followed us swimming the raft into the eddy as well.
As I gripped the rocks on the side of the river the pain started to increase and I simply could not get that leg to move to climb out of the river. The ‘real’ pain had not started, presumably because my body weight was still completely in the river. Todd and John flipped the raft back and proceeded to gently pull me into the raft to get me out of the forty-degree water and assess my situation. This is when the full reality and pain of a fractured femur set in. I could do nothing but primordially scream as my leg slinked over the side of the raft in an angle that was not straight. Apparently femur fractures are one of the most painful injuries a person can sustain and I’m not sure I could stay conscious through anything worse.
This is where the dream crew kicked in. Todd immediately yelled to Joe on the other side of the river to hike up to the road, get to a phone and call 911. Joe marked our spot with paddles on the road, flagged down a vehicle and got the EMS notified within 10 minutes.
Todd and John set to work about stabilizing my leg in the floor of the raft with throw bags and lifejackets and rigging a traction splint out of a paddle and several NRS straps. This relieved some pain, however I could feel every vibration of the boat as if Sasquatch himself was jumping on my leg.
As we were on the opposite side of the river, the next goal was to get me across the river for when EMS arrived. While the EMS team that showed up was outstanding, I trusted my team to ferry me across more than anyone. The ferry went off without incident and by the time we got across the California Highway Patrol was already on scene.
Fort Jones Volunteer fire showed up next and began rigging a low angle rope system to extract me up the 100ft + bank. I’m not making this up, but the first firefighter to respond to me was a lady I later found out was the 8th place women Olympia physique competition.
EMS was not allowed to give me any serious pain medications without approval from a doctor at the hospital, which would require getting into cell range (30 minutes away). Dream crewmember John just so happened to know the ambulance crew from visits to his ER and was able to sign off on the morphine. This allowed the pain level to drop a little from Sasquatch levels.
After getting up the hill and enduring a heinous ride on a mountain road we arrived at the Yreka ER where John works. After some x-rays, the break was deemed complicated enough to send me up to Medford Oregon for Surgery. This happens to be where dream crewmember Todd works and I gladly gave him my blessing to do my surgery. Two hours and some titanium later, Todd informed me all went well. My best friends had just taken care of me in the ER and performed surgery on me.
What makes a crew great, however, goes beyond the objective skills of the collective group. Shared experience is the ‘it’ factor for any team. It allowed our crew to work seamlessly and have no pride wrapped up in decisions. It allowed the trust to paddle me across the river above another class IV and cut me open to install hardware on the operating table. Perhaps most importantly, shared experience allows the joy that comes with being in the wilderness with a group of people you want to be there with. I can’t wait to get off the couch and get back out there with these guys.