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Three Stories of Personal Trauma I've Rarely Shared: Whitewater Accident



I've been thinking a great deal about trauma lately. I'm not completely sure why, but the topic has been invading my thoughts for weeks. As I've read and thought more and more about it, I've started to recall several traumatic stories from my life...events that changed me in both positive and negative ways forever. Over a three-week period, I want to share these stories with my readers in the hope that something I write will help them deal with their own traumas. Keep in mind, these are stories I have rarely told anyone.


Story number three involves a whitewater rafting trip I took down the Gauley River in 2012. Two friends and I decided to brave the Gauley during the Army Corps of Engineers' annual controlled release from the Summersville Dam. One of these friends was an experienced Gauley whitewater guide. The other friend had been on several previous whitewater trips, and I, too, had negotiated some Class 3 rapids in the past. So, we felt fairly confident as we slid our shredder raft into the waters of the Upper Gauley.


The trip started out uneventful. The first sets of rapids were relatively tame--a few bumps and troughs but nothing dangerous or adrenaline-producing. However, as the day wore on, this started to change. Indeed, as we moved further and further down the Upper Gauley, the rapids became decidedly more treacherous. And being a tall, somewhat thin-framed man, I found it exceedingly difficult to maintain stability while perched atop the raft. Every wave we hit threatened to launch me into the hungry viscera of the river. With both hands occupied by paddling, I instinctively wedged my left foot beneath one of the inflatable seats in front of me. This gave me just enough leverage to resist both the vertical and lateral forces working to send me overboard. But this solution would be short-lived.


As we approached Pillow Rocks, one of the largest set of Class 5 rapids on the Gauley River, a feeling of dread came over me. Off the nose of our boat, only a hundred or so yards ahead, I could see 10-foot waves cresting in a chaotic melee of water. There appeared to be no safe passage through this portion of the restless river, even though I knew hundreds of rafters had already gone before us that day. My friend--the guide--confidently assured us that a paddling line to the left side of the river was our best and safest course, so we dug in with our paddles and obediently followed his direction.


The first wave or two didn't present much of a challenge, but once we were in the turbulent midst of Pillow Rocks, I had to muster all my physical strength and coordination into not only paddling but also into resisting my ejection from the raft. But inevitability soon outpaced personal effort, and without any warning whatsoever, I found myself being hurled over the left side of the boat along an unrecoverable trajectory. To my surprise, however, I did not immediately enter the water. Instead, with my torso partially in the water and my thighs resting atop the port chafe pad, my body began bouncing up and down violently. And that's when I realized that my foot was still wedged under the seat, thus tethering me to the raft. I probably bounced two or three times before I felt a snap in my left leg, which was followed by the rotation and release of my left foot. My entire body then left the boat, and I succumbed to what I thought was going to be a riverine version of Davey's Locker.


Fortunately, during the time of my fettered bouncing, I had maintained the wherewithal to grasp the perimeter line. Thus, I was able to stay with the boat and keep my head above water, and within a few seconds, we were through Pillow Rocks. My friends promptly hauled me back into the raft, and then we found a large, mid-channel rock upon which to dock and assess the injury to my leg. After determining that my left leg was indeed broken, the three of us were forced to make the difficult decision to split up temporarily. Because the raft required two people to pilot it, my two friends continued to the take-out point on the Gauley while I hobbled (alone) up a long, steep, and narrow mountain trail--equipped only with a makeshift crutch--en route to a National Forest Service ranger station that topped one of the ridges adjacent to the river valley. The plan was for my friends to retrieve the take-out vehicle and then pick me up at the ranger station. The trip took me a few hours to complete, as I could only move a few yards at a time before having to take a break to adjust my crutch, regain balance, or alleviate pain. Fortunately, when I arrived at the mountaintop station, I found two rangers who quickly administered first aid and waited with me until my two friends arrived in our take-out vehicle. We then drove three hours to an emergency room, where doctors determined that I had suffered a complex spiral fracture that required semi-immediate (i.e., with a few days) fixation surgery. To this day, I have four screws and a plate in my left leg to remind me of my harrowing experience.


I won't wax hyperbolic and claim that my life flashed before my eyes that day or that the event precipitated some sort of philosophical revelation. Nevertheless, vivid memory of the trauma and my frequent recall of it certainly serve as effective commentary on human fragility and the rapidity with which something fun can turn devastating. As much as I want to believe I am indestructible, the Gauley incident reminds me that my life is but a vapor and I but an enfeebled sot in the presence of God's almighty creation. Although I would obviously rather not have shallow-subcutaneous, titanium "hardware" in my left leg, such a "thorn in my side" serves as a tangible (and--when I rake it across a chair leg or bang it with the car door--painful) reminder of just who I am and who I am not in the light of the Almighty. Indeed, it continually provides this ol' chap something he sorely needs, namely, a dose of humility.

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