I’m not kidding. On August 31, I came pretty close to shuffling off to Buffalo. They say close only counts in horseshoes, but weeks later I still think about it at night. I still look at the clothes I was wearing that day and imagine them as the clothes of a dead man. It’s the only time in my life where I really thought it was over.
The long version: Near the end of the float, my brother Ed and I encountered a bit of rough water. As a result of some miscommunication on the paddling, the canoe turned sideways in some standing waves and swamped. At the moment, I wasn’t that worried about it. I’ve tipped over canoes quite a few times, and the worst that happened was that my wallet got wet.
But the Yellowstone was running pretty high and fast for the end of August. The water was a lot colder than you’d think. We grabbed the boat and started kicking for shore, but the current was as strong as a freight train under full throttle. We got nowhere but quite a ways downstream, where a big triangular rock caught the canoe amidships. We clung to the boat for a minute, horizontal in the current, and decided it was time to abandon ship. Ed struck out for nearer bank. I grabbed the lifejacket I should have been wearing and tried to do the same.Ed’s a stronger swimmer than I am. You have no idea how much it pains me to admit that. In most places the water was only chest high and I made the mistake of trying to stand. The river was having none of it. It turned me every which way but loose. At some point, I became aware that my head was spending more time underwater than above. I was hitting submerged rocks and taking on water. By the time the gravity of the situation became clear, I was out of air and out of energy. The river bank was no closer.
I wasn’t afraid of death, exactly. I was just greatly disappointed that this was the moment, and profoundly embarrassed that this was the means. In some corner of my mind, I had already begun to compose the three-paragraph news brief that would appear the next day in the Billings Gazette. The one with the tiny headline “Florida man drowns” and the last line “He was not wearing a lifejacket.” In Montana in summertime, there is no more banal way to die, unless it’s falling asleep at the wheel and veering into an oncoming Frito-Lay truck.
Fear of embarrassment: It’s probably kept me from many rich life experiences, so I suppose it’s only fair that it kept me alive for awhile longer. I couldn’t die this way; it was too cliched. Also, Ed would be pretty bummed out to have lost a brother on a routine float trip. The next time I surfaced I rolled on my back and forced my leaden legs to move. I tried to kick toward shore, which was rushing by as far away and as fast as ever. Downstream, a tangle of dead cottonwoods jutted out into the river. If I lasted that long, I figured that’s where the river would finish the job.
A couple of guys were running along the bank. They could see I was failing and shouted advice. I followed some of it. I couldn’t breathe, but I moved my arms in a pathetic pantomime of a back-stroke. I kicked harder, fully aware that it was the very last chance to do so. Then somehow I was free of the worst of the current. The guys on shore waded out and hauled me in like a dying carp.
I don’t remember what they said. I lay spreadeagled on the rocky shore trying to breathe and coughing up river water. I couldn’t sit up. I couldn’t move. I watched the high cumulus clouds drift by under a severe blue Montana sky. Ed ran up and asked if I was OK; he was none the worse for the wear. Thank God for that. I could say only one word between gasps. It was the F-word.
You come that close to dying, it should yield an epiphany of some sort. You should resolve to be a better person, to treasure each day as though it were your last, at the very least to get in better shape for the next time you attempt to cheat death. I had none of that. I went through a few days of gloom and the odd sense that I really had died, or would soon.
Gradually the shadow lifted, though. If an epiphany came I suppose it’s just this: If you want to make a statement or a difference in life, now would be a good time to start. Because death sneaks up on all of us, and is generally uninterested in eloquent goodbyes. Also, if you want to take a canoe down the Yellowstone, you should go ahead on put on the damned life jacket.A postscript: Ed and I were both carrying digital cameras when we took our dip in the Yellowstone. Somehow mine, a little Olympus PL1, stayed with me. I got it home and removed the battery and the card and the lens and let it sit on the counter for a few days. It was ruined, of course, but I figured I’d use it as a paperweight or something, a little memento of the day.
Then, just to see what would happen, I put it all together again and turned it on. It worked. It still works. Every photo I took on the river was still there. This is a camera that is not billed as waterproof, or water resistant or even capable of standing up to a high wind. And yet somehow it survived maybe 20 minutes of full immersion, strapped to my body while I tumbled downstream. I think I should write Olympus a gushing letter. But I don’t think they’d believe me.