It was a beautiful day for a paddle. We were on the Pine River, in the northern portion of Lower Michigan (some call it "the finger area," if you are looking at the palm of your right hand as your map). Our paddle club is from the Kalamazoo / Grand Rapids area of Michigan, and we travel north quite often for the day and weekend paddles. This particular day, the Pine was up a little. Already known to be a somewhat technical River for kayakers and canoeists, the added flow just made the Pine that much more fun. Of course, it had also made it more dangerous.
We made our spotting run to the take-out to drop off as many vehicles as possible, then headed back to the launch site, trying to get a look at the river as many times as possible. We did our regular safety briefing, discussed the conditions of the river, and then launched about twenty boats. That afternoon, our group was a mixture of veterans and Newbies. The paddlers that knew the river would keep an eye on the ones who didn't. The key word was "swimmer," to be yelled up and down the river if anyone was to flip or roll over. Those nearby the Swimmer would assist in the rescue, and those downstream would pull to the side and watch for any gear that might be floating downstream.
It wasn't long into the trip that we had our first of what was to be four Swimmers. One of the Newbies side-slipped into a pile of debris and rolled over. She escaped the boat and floated to shore. A team of four retrieved her boat and gear and sent her back on her way. Shortly afterward came the second, no debris pile involved; he just flipped over while watching the salmon swimming beneath his boat. He was able to collect his gear as he floated to a sandbar. The third episode was a repeat of the first, though this time she was able to self-rescue to shore, losing only her water bottle.
The fourth Swimmer is the one that this story is all about. The previous three "floated" to safety in their PFD's (life jackets), this one was not so fortunate. The fourth swimmer was my wife, and she was – thankfully - wearing her PFD. She is not only a seasoned and regular paddler but also a co-organizer for our kayaking club, along with myself. Traditionally we are the sweepers on our paddles, the ones at the back of the group who make sure that no paddler is left behind. This position inherently leaves you with minimal help if you are the one who needs rescue.
Due to the swift current, we were more floating than paddling that day, keeping the last couple of stragglers just ahead of us. I turned my boat around so I could face my wife while we talked. She was messing with her water bottle to get a drink when she pointed over my shoulder and warned me of an approaching tree in the river (a "strainer") and commented that I needed to turn my boat around. I did so, and with a couple of quick strokes, I was back in the middle of the river and away from the tree. In total, it was about three seconds from the time my boat was straight to the moment I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing. I spun around to the other side and only saw a long slim wedge of orange in the strainer: my wife's kayak. Caught in the current, she had flipped her boat into the strainer. I yelled "Swimmer, Swimmer," as loudly as I could, but as the sweepers, there was no one behind us to come to our rescue; we were on our own.
I quickly turned my boat around and headed for an eddy at the edge of the river. Suddenly, the water erupted between myself and the strainer, and there she was, on my side of the strainer, popping up like a big, red bobber. She pulled herself onto the bank and instinctively started looking for her boat and gear. Once I tied up, I ran back to her to make sure she was okay. With that established, we then started working to free the boat. The couple ahead of us had heard the yell and came back upstream to help, collecting what gear they saw floating along the way. In all, the incident itself only took about 10 seconds. The rescue of the boat and gear took about 20 minutes, and then we were back on our way.
Once her nerves had calmed, she started talking about what had happened. She openly thanked God for her safety and went on to tell me more details about how the current grabbed the boat and held her in. Wondering how she escaped, I jokingly asked, "Did you see the light?" She replied, "Yes, I looked into the water and saw the sun shining under the tree, and thought if the light could go under the tree, so could I. So I let go." Had she not been wearing her PFD, she would not have popped up like a bobber and may have very well stayed under the water too long and been snagged by the next strainer.
After the strainer incident, we pushed into a stretch of rapids, the last stretch before the take-out. Half way through the rapids my wife's paddle broke in half. Weakened from the force of the current in the strainer earlier the paddle finally failed. Suddenly struck with the realization she had a paddle in each hand, she quickly thought to stow one half in the boat and paddled the kayak like a canoe with the other. Kayaks are not designed to paddle with a single blade paddle. The last half of the Rapids was tricky with the half paddle, but we had a good laugh as we floated through the pool and the end.
The drive home that day was mostly quiet while deep in thought about what had happened. It was a beautiful day. We both had become complacent and were not paying attention to the river as we should have. The tree didn't sneak up on us. We just assumed we would be okay. These are lessons we have lived to learn from, so we can pass along the advice to others. The bottom line: always pay attention to your surroundings, wear your PDF, and a spare paddle is most valuable when you least plan to need it. Paddle safe!