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Know the West

A day on the river that ended in a death


I keep thinking about Mary, a woman I never met. I Googled her name
looking for her obituary, but I kept getting the same headlines of the
articles I’ve already read too many times: “Woman dies in Pine Creek
rafting accident.” “Texas woman drowns while rafting the Arkansas

When her obituary is posted, I’m still not appeased. I want to know
what she looked like, beyond the smiling photograph on the funeral
home’s website. I want to know how long she was married to the husband
who lost her so unexpectedly. I want to know what she lived for. I
think I already know what she died for.

I’ve learned what I can from the Internet and from my husband, a
rafting guide. It was just by chance that he wasn't on the trip that
took Mary’s life that day in late July.

He could have been the anguished guide who got tossed out of his raft
at the entrance to the Class V rapid on Colorado’s Arkansas River. The
guide was unable to help his three clients, including Mary, who landed
in the river when the boat hit the next powerful hydraulic.

He could have been the kayaker, known as a “safety kayaker,” who was
positioned below them on the river. The kayaker watched as
two people got sucked into the rapid’s massive hole that can
recirculate swimmers before spitting them out into a half-mile stretch
of heavy whitewater called Triple Drop. He managed to get the tail of
his boat near Mary’s hand just as she lost the ability to grab on.

Or it could have been me –– my husband’s frequent, non-paying client
for the past 12 years –– who died. This awareness was even starker for
my husband, who happened to come upon the scene just as Mary’s husband
learned that, though he survived the rapid, his wife did not.

I’ve been told so much about the last 20 minutes of Mary’s life.  But
I want to know about the rest of it.

I want to know this woman, who chose to vacation in the Arkansas River
Valley, which despite its name is pure Colorado. I want to know the
woman who came to the middle of the state in the middle of summer, to
the center of the universe for outdoor recreationalists, with the
14,000-foot peaks of the Collegiate Range creating a stunning backdrop
to some of the best, most classic whitewater runs in the world.

I want to know the woman who chose to raft this river. Because even
though I’ve been running whitewater for 12 years, I never actually
chose it.  The river was a non-negotiable part of the package I got
when I fell in love with a rafting guide. I’ve done my best to embrace
the situation. I’ve tried anthropomorphizing the river as my man’s
femme fatale mistress.  I’ve tried thinking of the river as spiritual,
an expression of the divine feminine by calling it “Her.” I’ve even
tried to make friends with the river even as I’ve stood shaking in my
neoprene booties, scouting rapids.

I’m not brave.  I run rivers for love, for the beauty and the most
adolescent reason: All our friends are doing it. But five days before
Mary’s accident, when my husband and all our guide friends prepared
for the inaugural training run through the Pine Creek Rapid -- because
it was finally getting close to a commercially runnable level –– I was
happy to forego the neoprene and take a camera instead.

I hunkered down on land opposite that monster of a hole for over two
hours as the river guides scouted it, ran safety lines, and eventually
got three boats and two kayakers through with lots of whoops, relieved
smiles and high-fives. Afterward, there was that sense of exhilaration
everyone seems to feel after an afternoon of not-dying.

Later that week, as my husband and I clung to each other in the
aftermath of the tragedy, we found ourselves asking:  Why would she --
and it’s the river I’m talking about here -- do this? And why exactly
do we keep running a river that has already taken seven lives (in
boating-related accidents) this year?

We came up with the same answer for both questions: The river is wild.
That is why she did this, and it is also why we do this. Mary did it
for her own reasons, ones that I will never know.

So I guess I must rest in the assumption that she was no different
than anyone who is drawn to dangerous adventure in the West. What we
live for and what we risk dying for is often one and the same.

C.C. Havens is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service
High Country News. She blogs about nature from her cabin
in Colorado.