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A Drowning Machine

This blog entry will be a serious discussion about the hazards of kayaking water with natural or man-made drops. If you would prefer not to read about my experience and my thoughts on that experience, now would be the time for you to exit this blog entry because it is not going to be a feel-good discussion and will probably be quite long. At the same time, if you think you can learn something that may make your next paddling trip safer, then please read on. For me, writing about it is part of my "getting over it".

I was caught in a hydraulic, or "drowning machine", on a kayaking trip down Hall's Creek this weekend. It was only due to the quick action by my niece's new husband that I am able to write this blog entry. I want to scare you with this entry, because it is far too easy to underestimate the power of the waters you are paddling. I did.

If you are caught in a hydraulic, the odds are that you are not going to get out of it on your own, and the chances of someone getting you out of it before you drown is slim to none. I consider myself very fortunate that I had someone with me that was willing to risk his own life to pull me out of it. I will speak more to this later.

There are three primary drops on Hall's Creek between Garage Road and the Hall's Creek Canoe Landing at the Black River. The first drop is a low-head dam, while the second and third drops are natural shelf drops. All three are potentially dangerous, but I am going to focus on the third drop since that is where I had my near-drowning experience.

We have waded up to this third drop a number of times. It is close enough to our property that you can wade up to it hauling tubes and then float back down. I think you would all agree that this looks pretty tame.... right?

But let's look at this a little closer.

Disclaimer: I am not a water/hydraulic expert, nor am I an expert kayak-er; but I want to share what I think I know from what I have tried to learn about hydraulics of water at drops. I advise you to take what I say here as a small piece of information but you should do your own research to understand the action of water that you may be paddling.

I also think it is wise to scout a drop before you run it. You may be able to see the water action and make proper decisions to avoid getting into trouble. Or, you may decide to portage the drop altogether. There is no shame in not running a drop that looks hazardous to you. It truly is better to be safe than sorry.

One thing that has been suggested when looking at a drop is whether there is a "smile" or a "frown". The third drop demonstrates both a smile and a frown. This is not to say a smile will not have hydraulic action... heck, a low-head dam is straight across and has hydraulic action. What it might mean, however, that it is less hazardous to take the drop at the smile (blue) portion than it would be to take the drop at the frown (red) portion.

I know from hiking up to this drop that there is a deep pool inside the orange line (picture below). You can wade up towards the drop and feel the sand drop off rapidly, so you know there is a deep hole there but are usually smart enough not to wade into it..... and these pictures are showing low water conditions.

I have taken this drop in my kayak a few times, and I always swamp my kayak when following the yellow arrow. I go over the drop, and the bow of my kayak goes straight down into the hole and water comes rushing in, swamping my kayak. I think I now understand why this occurred. I had always thought that my kayak swamped due to the deep hole only. What I think I now understand is that the hydraulic was attempting to pin the kayak, in near vertical orientation, and then filling it with water as it dropped into the hole. But as the kayak was being pulled downward from the hydraulic action, there was enough buoyancy in the rear sealed chamber to kick the bow of the kayak back to the surface. I was underestimating the power of the water. Obviously a spray skirt would be very beneficial in preventing this from happening, but right now I do not have a spray skirt.

Hall's Creek has been running at near-perfection for the past month. With much rainfall in the area, most paddlers would consider the water level in its prime condition for paddling. I would describe the level of the water to be near the bottom of the lower shelf when looking at the picture above.... so probably two feet higher than what is shown.

I had kayaked in similar water conditions just the week before, and as usual swamped my kayak. But that time I lost stability from a full-of-water kayak after I had gotten past the orange deep water hole and flipped the kayak when it was pivoted back into the current. But I was out of the dangerous area and just had a few bumps and bruises.

Kayaking the same drop this weekend had me thinking I was going to overcome, or "out-smart" this swamping-of-my-kayak thing. I thought that if I hit the drop at a steeper angle, as shown by the yellow arrow below, that I would get through without swamping my kayak. I was wrong, and it was a major mis-calculation.

I try to study different paddles via some dedicated websites that have very good descriptions of the various paddling waters. I also try to study how to safely kayak. I grew up between two creeks in my youth and lived on the water. Fishing, tubing, rafting, wading..... I feel I can read moving water well. I know about hydraulics (but obviously am not as good at reading them as I thought) and think I understand how and why they work.

I also know that experienced paddlers will say that nobody should consider kayaking without a Personal Flotation Device and a helmet; it kind of shows ignorance when you do not wear these. So, I religiously wear my PFD and my helmet when kayaking, and I push others paddling with me to do the same. I can't force those kayaking with me to always wear the PFD or the helmet, but all do on the drops without hesitation. I do not want anybody kayaking these waters to hit their head on a rock or drown... I don't think I could emotionally recover from that happening to someone I know and love. I feel safe with my PFD; I am not concerned about it keeping my head above water should something happen. I have had to rely on my PFD in the past when something unexpected has happened and it has never failed me. However, I have learned that the turbulence of the water produces many air bubbles, and those air bubbles reduce the buoyancy-capability of the PFD.

The diagram below shows the mechanics of a hydraulic following a drop. The height and angle of the drop will obviously affect the mechanics of each hydraulic, but the effect is the same.

There is also some good information on holes, waves and hydraulics here.

As I have stated, I am fortunate to be writing this blog entry. A Higher Power was at work while I was in the washing machine, keeping me alive long enough for someone to help me.

When I took my new line to the drop, I made it over without going bow-down into the hole. However, the back-circulating water immediately pushed me (slammed me?) back into the shelf to the left (river-right to me coming down the drop) of the yellow arrow in the picture above. Water immediately swamped my kayak, and the kayak was literally pulled out from underneath me as it was pulled into the hydraulic just a split second after I came over the shelf. A split second later, I was in it also. They kayak was gone, and I was in the hole.

While the experience is difficult to describe, I was being spun and twisted in different directions. I did not know up from down or left from right; it was total disorientation. I had water in my lungs, but could feel myself churned back to the top of the water at times. I would try to both push out the water in my lungs (I was told this was an awful sound) and take a breath at the same time. Sometimes I would get water out and air in, and sometimes I would get air out and water in. I tried to relax to let my PFD float me out, but I would get sucked right back into the fall and down into the hole. There was no touching bottom; it was a deep hole. A few times I felt the shelf with my hand and tried to push myself out, but I would find myself being sucked back down again.

This was a terrifying experience, but I think it bothers me more that I had family with me on this paddle and they had to watch in horror as this all unfolded.

We all like to think that we would jump into action if faced with a fight or flight situation. We all would like to think that we would do what needed to be done to help someone in crisis. But the fact of the matter is we don't know how we would respond unless presented with such a situation. Some people run towards the danger and some run away from it.

Present on this trip was my wife, my son, my daughter and her fiance, my sister and her husband, their son, their daughter and her new husband. We had ten of us today; my immediate family had done this trip before, but this was the first time for my sister's family.

My niece's husband, Brandon, was the one to get to me first. He stated the only way he was able to see me in the water was because of my blue helmet and I had drifted close enough to the shoreline that he could reach me. Let's do a plug here for why you should wear a helmet: it will keep you from hitting your head and someone might be able to see you because of your helmet. In any case, Brandon was able to get a hold of my PFD with his hands and pull me out of the hydraulic. One second I am caught in something I can't get out of, and then next second I am standing hanging onto Brandon. How much strength did Brandon need to pull my total water-logged weight AND fight the pull of the hydraulic?

This time I spent in the hydraulic felt like three or four minutes, but I am not sure how I would have been able to take enough breaths to last that long. But when Brandon pulled me out, I might have coughed a little bit to push out a bit of water, but I was really in no pain or discomfort; just trying to catch my breath and get to normal breathing. I had not drowned. I had not lost consciousness, although I do believe I was close to it.

So Brandon did not only get there first; he ran barefoot from his kayak up to where I was in trouble. Hall's is very rocky; there are huge boulders, small to mid-sized to very large rocks, and it is difficult to wade, let alone run upstream, against current, and not break an ankle or leg. Or fall and hit your head on a rock (the rocks are very slippery). Or get sucked into the hydraulic while trying to save someone else.

To state that Brandon is my hero is an understatement, and I have a connection with him now that will never go away. I am convinced he saved my life, because there was not much more fight in me and I felt I was not going to come out of this okay. While physically okay after the event, my emotions are a bit raw. It was on display when I was saying goodbye to them the next day. I don't like to show my tears in front of others, but they were on full display the next morning. How do you ever show someone how grateful you are for what they did? Would my daughter be getting married with the sorrow of me not being at her wedding to walk her down the aisle? Would my son, who is my best friend, be okay assuming the leadership role of the family? What about my wife, who is my soul-mate and partner in everything we try to build together? What about my nephews and nieces, who I adore? What about my sister, my brother, my mother? What about my friends? I love, and am loved. I don't want to hurt those close to me.

Brandon saw someone was in trouble, and he acted.

This being said, there were others who jumped into action also. My brother-in-law was also on the move; Brandon just got there first. My wife was trying to get to me with a paddle that I could grab a hold of. Others were too far downstream to be able to help. Another lesson: all members of a paddling party need to stay in close proximity to help those that come after them.

But here is another thing to consider. I had three throw-rope bags with us. I had never told anyone how to use them, nor made much of a mention about them. Could the throw-ropes have gotten me out? Maybe, maybe not. But they were there and nobody thought of them.

After I caught my breath, they helped me empty the water out of my kayak and I was on my way. I got out front, and as I passed our property it kind of hit me. I think I was in shock and then kind of "woke up" when we hit the property and I saw my other brother-in-law swimming with his daughter. I told him I nearly drown, and that was what woke me up. I had nearly drowned five to ten minutes earlier, and I was now instead talking to my brother-in-law. It was too much to handle.....

And then the emotions hit. And they have not gone away yet. I am getting teary-eyed just writing this.

But I will be okay. And I will learn from my mistakes. And I will get better; I have to so my carelessness does not endanger someone else in the future, and I have to to keep others out of those dangerous situations.

A Higher Power kept me with air as I went through the turmoil. God has been with me before, and he was definitely with me during that time. I have no good reason why I sustained air for as long as I did. Whether it was getting the breaths at the right times, or holding my breath for long periods of time, or the aerated water, I have no answer for how I was able to do that without divine intervention. God kept me going long enough for Brandon to save me.

I will stop putting Brandon on a pedestal. I think he is a very humble person and the attention I am giving him would make him very uncomfortable. But I had to tell you about this experience in order to make it a learning event for someone, and writing about it helps me learn also. And, I think Brandon deserves some praise, even if he does not want it.

I am looking to the emotional pain to subside, but I don't want it to ever totally leave. But being an emotional dude for too long serves no purpose. I have to charge forward. We have a plan, and we are moving on the plan. All things happen for a reason, and this is no exception. Maybe I needed to experience this in order to explain it, and maybe that will cause someone to have a second thought and put on that PFD, or put on that helmet, or think about that drop before you take it.

Don't take the water for granted. It is a living, breathing thing that changes from moment to moment. Maybe this just happened to be sure I understand that and don't take it for granted.

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