Close Calls

I’ve had two near death experiences. Both in cold water. I didn’t see the light, but rather read my obituaries through cloud breaks, while floating high above the earth.

“Lifeguard Drowns Wedged Under Log Jam in Elwha River” was the first.  The morning of that occurrence I was supposed to be on a guided sea kayak tour with the fire fighter boyfriend I was seeing at the time; however, thanks to raw sewage drifting in the Straight of Juan De Fuca from Victoria, BC, and his broad shoulders, which caused him to tip over in his boat frequently, I instead found myself trapped upside down in a whitewater kayak (envisioning this news headline on the cover of the Peninsula Daily News as it lay between two yellow coffee mugs on a circular wooden table in a stranger’s kitchen), with its keel bobbing up against waterlogged deciduous trees, stuck in a bend of the river.

The water was cold, silty green and clear. I could see white bubbles swirling around thin branches, and I heard the rushing water even when the guide banged on the boat above me. His weight on the dead tree submerging the kayak even deeper into the river. Each thought that passed through my mind, and action I attempted to carry out, seemed slow and deliberate. I knew the steps for removing a sprayskirt and exiting a capsized kayak, but I had never executed a wet-exit out of necessity or in practice. The sprayskirt was neoprene and tight fitting around the cockpit. A trained kayaker, free of obstructions in open water would have been able to roll themselves upright. I found the rand (cord around edge of spray skirt) and followed it with my hands to the loop at the front of the cockpit. I started to pull the loop down toward my chest. The spraydeck didn’t budge. I remembered hearing that sometimes the loop needed to be first pulled forward toward the boat’s bow, then toward the bottom of the body of water. Still the sprayskirt did not move. At this point, I ditched my paddle and continued pulling for what seemed like minutes. Soon blackness appeared around the edges of my peripheral vision. I gave up.

It was then that I saw this stranger’s kitchen table with the newspaper. I thought about the irony of my situation for again what seemed like half a minute, before remembering another tip I had heard regarding wet exits from a sprayskirt. Sometimes it may be necessary to “use your knees” as the loop is pulled forward and down simultaneously. Despite the blackness and feeling of light headedness, I had one more surge of energy I used to try and free myself again. This time, the sprayskirt released and I floated in my lifejacket out of the cockpit, surfacing next to the pale, big-eyed guide, who was perched on the tree, failing in his attempts to roll the kayak right-side up against the current.

The following days, I felt strange and unsure of my existence. I frequently pinched myself during mundane routines as if feeling that sensation would be proof that I was awake and still present, rather than dead and dreaming that I was among the living. At times I felt like one Rijl passed on, not surviving the experience, and this was another stronger Rijl who got to continue experiencing life. I wondered which one was the original. These thoughts eventually diminished, and I took kayaking safety classes. These classes shaped me into an expert capsized kayak-escape-artist, and superb whitewater swimmer. I also took a job as a safety kayaker for a whitewater tour company on the Sol Duc River (the most exciting job ever!).

My second near death experience occurred in December, 2017. This was my first winter of open water swimming. I occasionally swam with a group of “Yetis” whose goal was to swim skins (no wetsuit) a minimum of three times a month outdoors in nature. I met two other swimmers in Milwaukie, Oregon at a boat ramp on the Willamette in the early afternoon. It was cloudy and the weather was in the low forties. One of the swimmers used a meat thermometer and determined the water was approximately 44 degrees Fahrenheit. We agreed we wanted to be in the water for about ten minutes given this was about to be our coldest swim of the year and our lives. One of the swimmers decided we should swim together out and around a large orange cone-shaped buoy. We estimated it would be about 300 meters to the buoy (600 meters round trip). We were semi-prepared with two supporters on shore with hot drinks and our warm clothes (no boat). We also swam with orange tow floats so we would be visible from the beach. We stuck our feet in, waded out to our knees, dove in headfirst from the shore, and started swimming freestyle to the buoy. I immediately struggled with my breathing. Typically I breathe bilaterally, but this time I was gasping and had to breathe every stroke on my right side. I pushed my speed despite the cold water shock, and what felt like minimal oxygen to keep up with the other swimmers. We made it to the buoy in approximately six minutes and decided to head back. My speed dropped as soon as I circled the buoy. I didn’t feel like I had enough air. The other two in their white and pink caps edged ahead of me and I didn’t have the drive anymore to push myself to keep up. I took a few breaststroke pulls and tried to make out the shore supporters on the boat ramp through my fogged up goggles. My body felt heavy and I started thinking about how dumb an idea this swim was. As before in the kayak on the Elwha river, I eventually felt like I was looking down from the clouds at my situation. The shore support had no way to help me, the other swimmers distance from me was increasing. This time I saw my obituary several pages back in the Oregonian. Earlier in the day there had been an inaugural Amtrak commuter run from Seattle to Portland that had crashed on Interstate-5, killing some of the passengers. This was the cover story in the paper I pictured, and the open water swimmer drowning in the Willamette was not big enough news to compete with that story. This relieved me somewhat, my thoughts slowed down, and I came up with the idea to flip over onto my back. I started sprinting backstroke. I couldn’t see where I was going, but I hoped that I didn’t circle back out to the center of the river. I tried to glance back about every 20 strokes to make sure I was making progress. I made it back to the boat ramp 11 minutes after diving in. My speech was slurred from the cold, but I was able to dress myself and pace a bit before the shivers started.

I learned from this experience that I can’t dive into cold water and immediately start swimming freestyle. I have a routine now where I wade in gradually to my chest or neck before floating my feet off the ground and swimming head-high breaststroke. Once my limbs are numb and I feel like my breathing is relaxed, I dip my head in and start swimming freestyle.

Last Saturday (the day I started writing this post) I went for a swim at Hagg lake. The weather was mostly cloudy and again the temperature was in the low 40s. My friend Maryl came for support (she is training to crew for me on the North Channel and Bainbridge swims). The water was dark and the surface was smooth and still like glass with chunks of wood debris (I made note to avoid). We discussed my plan, which was to swim for about 25 minutes back and forth along the beach about 100 yards out (there were families fishing on the beach I also wanted to avoid). I waded in slowly as per my now established routine, checked the pool thermometer that I swim with (42 degrees), and yelled back, “maybe just 20 minutes today.” Twenty minutes later I still felt comfortable although I couldn’t feel my toes, and I had a slight “claw” on my right side. I swam back out toward the center of the lake one more time thinking I would aim for a 30 minute swim. On my return to Maryl and the planned exit point, I started to feel slightly dizzy while swimming and looking forward. Doubt crept into my head and soon I felt like I wasn’t progressing toward the beach. I was about 75 yards out and knew no one on shore could swim out to me to help. I rolled onto my back and started sprinting toward the shore. I hit the sandy bottom hard with my right hand when I got to the beach. Maryl was ready with my towel and hat. As we walked toward the car, she asked if I had felt the current from the stream emptying into the river as I finished my swim (no I didn’t, but then it became clear why I felt like I wasn’t moving). Once on the beach, I felt great and again was able to dress myself independently before shivering and chattering uncontrollably. Twenty six minutes in 42 degree water! A new personal record!

I’m pretty sure this last swim wasn’t another near death experience as I didn’t read my obituary in a newspaper or online. Reflecting back on this swim, I know I need to eat more before getting into cold water (I hadn’t had anything but a mocha prior to the swim, and I had done a Barre3 class earlier in the morning) and I should stay a bit closer to shore when there is no kayak support present.

My goal during the swim was to write a post detailing my experience swimming in low 40 degree water, but my thoughts were elsewhere since the brief panic attack at the end of the swim triggered frightening memories. I’ll try to be safer and keep my thoughts in the present moment next time!

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