Monday, January 16, 2012

The Blink of an Eye

Woke up early yesterday morning to the sun shining, birds chirping (well cooing rather because they were pigeons), not a cloud in the sky, and no wind so we thought "Let's go Kayaking!"  Sure it's January but it was beautiful out so why not right?  ...Famous last words.

We loaded up the yaks and gear, grabbed some Subway and a sugar free redbull for me and headed out.  We estimate that we put our boats into the water around 9:45 and we'd left the dogs at home because "We wanted to do some serious rowing" ... thank goodness!  We launched out of Las Vegas Bay on Lake Mead and headed toward Hoover Dam.  Turns out it's a lot farther than you'd think when you're driving it but the water was calm and we were making great time.  By 10:00 a.m. we couldn't even see the marina anymore.

I'm not sure what time it was when the wind started up but we decided that since we're still new to kayaking we should head back and stay close to the car.  We had an experience in our little inflatable boat that we used to have two years ago where we rowed out and couldn't get back because of the current and I had to get out and tow the boat back all along the shoreline.  That was actually a big part of why we sold that boat and bought yaks.  Lighter, easier to maneuver but still ... we're novices and we're not trying to get ourselves killed.  Our original plan was to find a beach and have lunch but there was nothing but cliffs on our side of the lake where we'd rowed to so we decided to row back to the car, have lunch there, and then head out again in the opposite direction.

By the time the wind started it was already too late.  It went from no wind to gales in a single gust.  It took us approximately 20 minutes to get out to where we couldn't see the marina and we spent over an hour with the marina in view trying to get back to it but going virtually nowhere.  Then I glanced behind me and saw that not only had Snackers fallen about 150 yards behind ... but his yak was upside down and I couldn't see him anywhere.  At first I wasn't worried.  We practiced getting back on our yaks in the event of a flip right after we got them so I just watched and waited ... and waited.  Then I started to panic.  I could see his oar floating in one direction and our cooler, which had been on his yak, floating in the other direction and I realized that he and I were in two different currents that were pushing us away from each other.  He was just coming around the corner of a hill where the current was pushing north and I had made it half way along a parallel course to the hill where the current was pushing west ... so we were screwed.  I saw a speed boat going right past Snackers so I thought if I could signal the boat to go help him we'd be fine.  I started screaming and waving my paddle in the air but the boat went right past first Snackers, and then me, without seeing us at all.  So I grabbed the cell phone out of the dry box, sealed it back up, and called 911 because I couldn't see him, I couldn't hear him, and I knew it would take me forever to get to him and that might be too late.  But while I'm on the phone with dispatch Shawn finally starts screaming.

Every horror film you've ever seen where a guy is screaming for help because someone is cutting his legs off or whatever ... is pretty realistic.  It is a completely bone chilling sound, especially when it's coming from someone you love and I STILL couldn't see him and his yak was STILL upside down.  So I remember telling the dispatch "I can't talk he's screaming and I have to row, I have to help him, please send someone to get us" and then I put the phone in my mouth and started to row.  Two strokes later I was in the water.

It's weird because I hadn't even felt remotely unstable prior to flipping.  There hadn't been "almost" moments where I thought I was going to flip but managed to stable it out ... nothing.  I was completely secure and wondering "How in the hell did he flip" one second and the next second I was in the water.  As it turns out Snackers had been able to keep a hold on his yak but couldn't flip it back over to get back in it, but when he saw me go over he abandoned his yak and started swimming as hard as he could toward me.

I was able to flip my yak over but I couldn't get back in it, the water was 54 degrees and I was instantly so cold and numb that I couldn't get my limbs to work properly.  I put the phone back in the dry box while clinging to the yak and the paddle and then started swimming for Snackers, whom I could finally see now.

We were both wearing hoodies under our life jackets and the instant they got wet they got HEAVY!  I could see Snackers' vest was clear up over his head and the only thing keeping it on him was his arms and that scared the hell out of me.  About 10-15 feet away he said he wanted to take his life vest off so that he could take his hoodie off.  I've tried to put a life vest on in deep water before and I KNOW it's almost impossible so I started screaming "NO! LEAVE IT ON AND SWIM!"  I figured, at the very least he needed to get to the yak first so he'd have something to hang on to if he couldn't get his vest back on.

He made it to me and together we started swimming toward the cliffs while clinging to the yak but it didn't take us long to realize we were going in the opposite direction.  Another boat passed and we screamed and screamed and it just kept going.  We realized we were heading kind of in the general direction of this big rock sticking up out of the water so we decided to go with the current, instead of against it, and try to get to the rock.  I couldn't get back in the yak.  I'd already tried but Snackers insisted that I keep trying to get in.  I finally told him it made more sense for him to get in.  He'd been in the water the longest, he was the strongest, and he stood the best change of rowing us both to the rock so he did.  I saw another boat so he got on the yak and tried to signal and it passed.  He checked the cell but it was dead because it had been on when I flipped and it went into the water ... so back to plan A - row for the rock.

I held on to the back of the yak and kicked my legs as hard as I could and Snackers rowed.  He kept trying to talk to me but I had swells over a foot high crashing over my head and the yak paddle was blasting water into my face with every stroke but I didn't want Snackers to know because I didn't want him to stop rowing with everything he had so I just kept my mouth shut, did my best to inhale between waves, and kicked.  I swallowed and inhaled a LOT of water.

The next thing I know I hear him saying that we're going to miss the rock because the current is going to push us right past the tip of it.  I looked around him and realized we needed to turn about 30 degrees to the left so I grabbed the back of the yak and yanked it to the right and screamed "ROW!"  I started to get too cold at that point.  There were these little white streaks of light that were kind of dancing around in my vision and everything behind them looked much darker than it should have - like I was looking through a microscope or something and I kept just telling myself in my head "Don't pass out, be strong.  You can do this.  Keep it together, keep going."

We know that we were in the water for a MINIMUM of 30 minutes based on the time of the call to 911 but we finally made it to the rock.  I climbed around the yak and managed to get up onto the rock but I couldn't feel my legs AT ALL.  They were so dark purple that I was instantly terrified.  I've had frost bite on my toes before and I've never seen my skin that purple, ever.  Snackers kept telling me to keep climbing up higher so that he could get out and I wanted to but I literally couldn't feel my legs so I'd try to pick them up and put them down and I couldn't feel if I was standing on a sharp rock or a flat rock or if the rock was stable or moving.  I knew I was getting cut up on my hands and legs because I could see the scrapes and blood but I couldn't feel them.  We finally managed to both get up on the rock and drag the yak up onto it with us, then we took off our vest and hoodies because they were soaking wet and freezing.  The wind was GUSTING so hard.  I took the oar apart into two pieces and started waving them over my head hoping someone would see them but two more boats went past us and one guy even waved as he drove by.  WTH?!

Then we saw a boat that looked like it was headed for us but it did a big loop first so we weren't totally sure.  Turns out he had seen Snackers's paddle and our cooler floating on the water and he was picking them up - then he saw us on the rock.  He couldn't get us where we were at though because the wake was crashing against the rocks too hard so he told us that we needed to go around to the other side.  We put our vests back on and started to go up and over this rock but I was having such a hard time because my legs were so numb.  I fell into a cactus but it didn't hurt and I knew then that I was in serious trouble ... not only that but I wasn't shivering anymore which is a very bad sign.  I looked at the water and thought 'I can swim better than I can hike these rocks right now' so I jumped back in and started swimming around the rock to the boat while Snackers continued his up-and-over.

The guy on the boat started putting on flippers and I could tell he was thinking he was going to have to jump in and get me but the water felt good and I was cruising (so deceptive, hypothermia).  When I got into the boat I saw our cooler and was like "Dude, no way!".  Turns out our knights in shining armor were the Lake Mead Technical Dive Team so once we were in the boat one of the guys put his flippers and mask on and was able to swim out and retrieve our yak, jackets, and gear.  Funny enough - I had taken our dry box off of the yak and kept it with me when I swam to get into the boat because it had our car keys on it and, at that point, I was prepared to completely abandon both yaks but I wanted my damn car keys! lol

One thing that I remember thinking is that I thought we were being rescued by the Lake Mead park service so I kept wondering why they weren't giving us any first aid.  We were EXTREMELY hypothermic and it was like "get in the boat and sit down" and that was it.  I realized later it's because they were just a random passing group of divers.  They weren't trained or equipped for rescuing idiot novice kayakers stranded on jagged rocks in freezing cold water.

They did, however, save all of our gear.  All of it.  They found Snackers' yak on the opposite side of the lake in a place they called Wreck Row (presumably the name alone should speak to how they knew where to find the yak).  Once we had both yaks in the boat they took us right back to where we parked our car.  Other members of there team were there waiting and helped us off the boat and unload the yaks.  One of them was female and I grabbed her and hugged her and wouldn't let go.  I'm sure she was like "ok lady you're freezing and soaking wet and I'm dry, get off me" but I was just so grateful.  Snackers and I both had individual moments in all of that where we really truly thought we were going to die.  When I was in my yak and hearing him scream I thought he was going to drown right in front of me and there wasn't going to be a damn thing that I could do to help him.  When he was rowing and he heard me coughing and sputtering he thought I was going to drown and he wasn't going to get me to safety in time.  It was horrifying.

We finally started to shiver while in the rescue boat, YAY!, and it was VIOLENT!!!!  My whole body was jumping and I finally started to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from clacking together but I thought they were going to break.  We got to the marina and just left the yaks on the dock.  I always pack a dry bag with spare clothes when we go yaking so we changed into those immediately and then climbed into the car with the heater blasting to get warm.  Our rescuers were just gone in a flash.  They unloaded us and our boats and then POOF.  Probably because they wanted to get out of there before the weather got much worse too and they were parked at a completely different bay so I got the impression that they were in a hurry to unload us and get moving.  They did offer to help us load the yaks on the car but we just wanted to get in the car and sit for a minute so we told them to go ahead and go.

Once I could feel all of the bruises and cuts on my feet we got out and loaded all the gear in/on the car then got back in and booked it home, thankful to be alive.  We both broke down on the way home - me more of course as it sunk in what we had just been through.  It was surreal that one moment we could think we were going to die and the next minute we were in our car headed home.  I'd mentioned to our rescuers that I'd called 911 so they'd called the lake service and let them know they'd picked us up and we were safe so we never saw a single ranger.  We probably should have had professional medical attention but there was nothing.

We got home, unloaded everything and just dumped it in the garage, then together we got straight into the hottest shower that we could stand and we stayed there until the water ran out.  We put on warm, dry clothes, climbed into bed, pulled the blankets over us and just crashed for about two hours before we got up and realized we were hungry.

We'd both eaten 6" breakfast sandwiches from Subway before we went yaking at around 8:30 a.m.  We probably burned several thousand calories from yaking, swimming, treading water, and then shivering (shivering takes a LOT of calories, believe it or not) and we didn't eat anything else until we finally made some ramen noodles at around 6 p.m.  And even then neither of us were hungry but I knew we needed something to hot to help us warm up from the inside so I made us both drink a 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper in warm chicken broth, some MSM to prevent giardia from swallowing/inhaling so much lake water, and then the hot noodles.  We were both coughing up lake water and had it coming out of our noses all night and we're both hoarse this morning from screaming for help.  I'm worried about pneumonia because we both inhaled so much water but my legs are a normal color again (where they're not bruised that is) and we're both doing ok this morning.  We both look like hell though.  We have cuts and bruises all over our hands, legs, feet, arms, and even some on our faces.  We look like we've been in a mild car accident but we're alive.

Even talking about it now it seems like it happened weeks ago instead of just yesterday.  It's strange how being in survival mode makes everything so clear and sharp as it's happening and then it all instantly gets foggy and surreal as soon as the adrenaline levels start to drop.


  1. wow crazy story. so glad your ok. going thru somthing like that makes you appreciate life in a whole new way. i couldnt imagine hearing my better half screaming for help i would be so scared.

  2. The experience confirmed something for me that I kind of already knew about myself. I am shockingly at peace with the knowledge that I will someday die and I cannot control when or how it happens. I wasn't afraid for myself on Sunday and I can be brutally honest in admitting that. I was afraid for Snackers - terrified and freaked out even. But once he was in the kayak and I started thinking that I might well drown before we made it to the rock I was at peace with the idea. I was fighting to live - I'm not suicidal - but I was freakishly calm about it at that point. It certainly made me appreciate Snackers more. Last night as he was chewing his supper with his mouth open and smacking his lips, for the first time ever, I wasn't annoyed by it. It was almost comfortingly normal all of a sudden.

  3. How terrifying!! I cannot even imagine what both of you went through. I'm so glad that both of you are o.k.

  4. Holy Crap!!! What a scary experience! I'm so glad that both of you are o.k. I can't help but think that if you hadn't been on the journey to get fit and healthy the last while things would have turned out very differently.

  5. Bren: You're probably right but it could go two ways. On the one hand had I not been on a journey to get healthy I probably never would have taken up Kayaking in the first place. On the other, had I been in the kind of shape that I was in at this time last year you're absolutely right ... I probably wouldn't have had the strength or energy to fight as hard as I did.

  6. Wow weeee! I am so glad that you and snackers are ok.