River Running

By Marlene S Molinoff

7.1 T-smallhe raft went down in a deep eddy on the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument more than twenty years ago. We were all sucked through a sudden gash in the floor, tumbling into the dark broth. I can still remember being surprised when I bobbed to the surface in my life jacket after what seemed like an eternity of roiling blackness, then Tim’s hands on me, lifting me up onto the rock with tremendous force as he slipped back into the foam.

I sat there, dazed and freezing cold, aware only of the swirling blackness beneath me, the crashing sounds of the falling river, and the cries of people all around me. Suddenly, I saw my father fly down, legs flailing, arms pumping the air, from a higher rock.

The thud of his landing broke the spell. He wrapped his arms around me, coaxed me over to the far side of the rock abutting the whirlpool, and plunged, with me still shaking, into the rollicking surf around it for the wild ride to the stillness that lay below the falls.

As we floated there in calm water, boats surrounded us from all sides, strong arms pulled me aboard one of them, and we were soon on the rocky shore, watching as other boats rescued the remaining crew, the river spitting them out one at a time. All of them, except for Tim.

* * *

I was a terrified eleven-year-old boy when Tim put me on that rock and went back down for the last time. He was the captain of our boat, a strong man of about fifty, big and powerful, and the most capable rafter among us. I’ve been told that’s why my father had decided to put me on his raft, rather than taking me aboard the Metzler, the much smaller yellow inflatable he and my mother had dubbed the “Rubber Ducky” and gotten a special permit for, for the trip. Theirs rode much higher in the water but ran the risk of being more easily flipped.

Earlier, we’d paddled over to shore and scouted the rapid field from above. I was scared when I heard Tim say it was a Class IV, and we should pay it appropriate respect. I already knew about danger. Knew it and feared it. And this time I was old enough to know I shouldn’t be there. I just didn’t know how to tell them.

There was a quick huddle, and the group decided my parents should run it first, their small raft being the most vulnerable. As it happened, their boat’s size and shape made it the easiest to maneuver through the tight twists and turns of the white-water surge. They were already in the calm water below, waiting, when we entered the field.

As my dad told the story many times when we still talked about that day, he and my mom waited maybe twenty minutes before they sensed something was wrong, paddled ashore, and began climbing the steep rocky cliff back up to us. My dad, far in the lead, arrived at the top, as the empty raft lay snagged on the rocks, its bottom torn through and its contents strewn in the white water, to see a small huddled figure in the eye of the furor below. My mother got there just in time to scream out my name—“David! My God! Save him!”—and witness my dad’s death-defying and impossible leap from the cliff to the midstream rock against which the water swirled to form its vortex.

* * *

It’s strange. Even now, after all these years, I can picture Tim’s sure command as we entered the field. I can hear him coaching the mostly female crew throughout the ordeal. “Paddle hard left. Hard right. Dig in. For Christ’s sake, dig in!”

I think I was the first to be sucked through the floor of the boat. But I immediately felt larger bodies all around me, pressing me downward, deeper and deeper into the dark water. Somehow, I was tumbled free of the falling bodies. Suddenly, I had the sense that I was being borne upward toward the glaring light.

As my body broke the surface of the water, I lay backward onto my life vest, gasping for air, aware that I was circling the drain, knowing that I would soon be pulled downward again.

And then, out of the black hole, those arms rose upward. I saw his face below the surface, his eyes open, even as his hands closed on my hips and thrust me onto the rock.

* * *

A few years after the accident, when Colorado seemed light-years behind, I tried to make sense of what happened that day in a high school essay that asked me to describe an experience that made me think about life. I wrote out every detail exactly as I remembered it, but when I got to the part where I was supposed to describe what I thought about it, I was stumped. There was no way I could get meaning out of any of it.

In fact, I wasn’t even sure of the last part of what had happened. In my mind’s eye, when I saw my father flying impossibly through the air and heard the thump, was I already on the rock or still in the whirlpool? Was it his strong arms that lifted me onto the rock from above or Tim’s from below as I had remembered it?

Whatever the truth was, it lay in some profound, unfathomable pact. At first, I thought it was between them—Tim and my father. There was an unspoken agreement in their final nod before the falls that Tim would do whatever it took to keep me safe. Yet when I thought more about what it was like swirling there in that icy pool, I remembered it was my father I was counting on to save me. I didn’t feel it was at all impossible that he would fly in to rescue me. There was something unspoken between us too.

But in my essay, I made a choice. I wrote about the deep meaning of friendship and the sacrifice Tim had made in rescuing me that day. Both my parents read my essay. My dad didn’t say a word about it, though his eyes followed me closely all that night. My mom said, “I remember it differently. But you were the one in the water.” We never talked about it again.

* * *

Now, after all these years, I’m still haunted by that vortex and its pull. I lived it again today, in the park, when my son Mark chased his ball down the long hill out of sight. I knew there was a running stream down there, not too deep, but deep enough. And my heart was in my throat as I watched him rush toward it. He’s almost six. Doesn’t swim very well yet. And there were rocks. As I raced after him, I flashed back on that other time, and I knew at that moment what they must have known about the danger. Today, just like that day, there were people all around, some of them my friends, and they probably would have saved him if he’d fallen in. But I’d never take that chance with my child.

* * *

It happened our second day on the river. We’d camped the night before across from a canyon wall, danced in the firelight, and toasted marshmallows. Tim’s kids were there too, much older than I was, in their late teens and early twenties, but they were girls, and they’d been bigger sissies that afternoon in the fastest, swiftest water.

I thought I remembered that I didn’t mind when Dad and Tim decided I would ride those rapids in the bigger boat with Tim and his crew, but now I’m not so sure. There’s something that tells me I wanted to be with them—my mom and dad; that that was the right place for me to be if things went wrong. Or maybe I didn’t think at all, accepting their decision like most kids that age would do.

* * *

It’s just that now, now that I have a son of my own, I’ve come to wonder whether I should have been there at all. I’d never tell them, but I’ve remade the choices so many times—the choices my dad made, my mom, Tim’s choice, and my own in choosing him as my hero.

I’ve come to understand that even if it was my dad who pulled me up onto that rock and plunged with me into the icy surf, towing me through the crashing white water to safety, I still felt a kind of betrayal in being there in the first place. And, at the same time, I felt a kind of redemption. I understood then, as I do now, that I survived at grave cost.

I still struggle to make meaning out of it. I know there’s something in it about the brotherhood of men and boys and how boys learn to be men. There’s even something about the complicity of mothers to let it happen. But there’s also something about keeping your children safe, making the right choices, responsibility, and the possibility or impossibility of forgiveness. I can’t be sure which.

I know I’m an overprotective father. People tell me all the time. But my boys are so innocent, and I want to keep them safe as long as I can. Kids rely on their parents for that without knowing why.

Of course I know too it was my dad who saved me and not Tim. Tim was already stuck there under all the debris, deep within the hole, probably already struggling to get out of his life vest as we’d rehearsed, so that he could dive deep and swim his way out from under the pull of the whirlpool. I know that now. I think I always did. I also know that I was really frightened when they left me in that raft with Tim. A child is alone without his parents, even if he’s not with strangers.

* * *

Years ago I found out that Tim was the first person to drown while running the Yampa River in fifteen or more years. So I asked my dad how dangerous it was that day. He said, “All river running’s dangerous. That’s why you prepare for it. We were an experienced group, and we knew about the high water. Many of us had run the exact stretch of river before, and we were excited by the tough rapids. Not scared. Excited. We knew what we were doing.”

Nowadays, guidebooks warn that due to the intensity of the white water, the trip we took is best reserved for people with previous river running experience. Which we had. I know that. But they also warn that while eight-year-old children are generally allowed to participate, during high water, like the water that day, age restrictions may apply. Back then, it was wide open. You had to decide things on your own.


Marlene S Molinoff completed her BA at Barnard College and received her MA and PhD in English literature from Tufts University and George Washington University, respectively. She has studied with Rick Hillis, John Dalton, Andrew Porter, and Amber Dermont, and has attended the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival and Rittenhouse Writers Group. She is a former university literature teacher and marketing strategist. An avid traveler, she has trekked to Everest Base Camp, dived with sharks, and photographed animals in Kenya and the Galapagos. Many of her stories are about the countless transitions made in life, either by will or by chance.

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