a memoir – the day i almost died

Whitewater rafting 1

It’s the closest I’ve ever come to dying.

The setting:  The Kern River of Southern California, Class III/IV whitewater rapids.

I was a teenager in high school, out from Michigan with my younger sister, my dad and his girlfriend, to visit my elder sister and her fiance during spring break.

A typical teenager, I acted all adventurous and daring, but might have held my breath a little during the ‘safety speech.’  And on the river … well … I basically held on for dear life, as we weaved through protruding boulders, the nose of the raft diving down in despair, then lurching up in redemption and me, constantly praying I would stay in the boat.

God chose not to answer that prayer.  Correction: He did answer that prayer, the answer was just “No.”

It happened after I succumbed to a dumb group decision.  There were six of us in the raft, plus a guide, and my younger sister was the only one in the lot with any common sense.  The only one brave enough to get out.

It went something like this:

Guide: “So, who wants to go back and surf that hole?”

My dad: “Who wants to what?”

Guide: “Surf the hole.  Basically, we turn the raft around, paddle like crazy upstream until we hit that hole in the rapids, where it’s swirling downwards into a tight spiral, and if we hit it just right, we’ll sort of float on top of it for a while, without moving anywhere.”

General, wavering nods and shrugged shoulders indicated an almost unanimous consensus.  “No, thanks.  I don’t want to,” my younger sister stated boldly.

“Okay, that’s cool,” said the guide, nonchalantly.  “We’ll just drop you off on the shore over there, and pick you up afterwards.”

We paddled over to a little inlet, my sister jumped out, and the remaining five of us headed for the hole, guide perched on the high tail of the raft.

My dad had been sitting opposite me, and the next thing I remember was seeing his full, six-foot frame lunging over me, hurling me backwards off the raft’s edge into the raging river.

Like an ice cube dropped into a glass of Coke, I was plunged downward before my lifejacket raised me up toward the surface.  But instead of finding oxygen, my head bumped against something hard at the top.

The raft.

I was directly under the raft.

All the safety precautions announced at the beginning of the trip went rushing downstream with the current.

I swam to the left.


I swam to the right.

More raft.

I felt all around in every direction, and couldn’t find an escape route.

With seconds ticking by, no hope could be seen in the blurry nightmare.

Well, this is it, I resigned.  I’ve always wondered how I was going to die, and now I have my answer.

Oddly enough, I felt a strange calmness.  A peace, as if it would be okay if I did die in that moment.  A surety that there was nothing left undone, that I wouldn’t have any outstanding debts or unfulfilled regrets if that were to be my end, this side of the curtain.

With open eyes searching the cloudy aquamarine water, I suddenly felt as if I had taken a deep breath, as if my lungs had been re-filled.  I calculated the bubbles I could afford to exhale, not wanting my fresh reserve to be depleted.

Looking back, it felt like an underwater James Bond scene, with Adele crooning in the background, “This is the end … Hold your breath and count to ten ….”

After contemplating death while fully submerged, my wits came about me, and I realized I had to stop floundering, pick a single direction, and just swim.  I gripped the bottom of the raft, hurled myself to the left, and

found air.

“There you are!!” was the first exclamation in my ear before the guide grabbed the shoulders of my life jacket and flung me into the bottom of the raft.

I lay there, heaving, gasping, convulsing.

Glad to be alive.

My younger sister, the only wise land-stander, was on the shore sobbing, convinced that she would have to tell Mom that I had drowned in the Kern River.

Even the guide was surprised to see me.  He later confessed that he was thisclose to jumping into the rapids to look for me — and apparently guides never do that.

In hindsight, the peace I felt when I was sure I was going to die remains inexplicable.  It had to have been supernatural.  It welled up within me from a wholly different source other than my self, filled my suffocating lungs with new wind, and carried me to the surface.

God could have let me get swept away that day, but

“The Lord is gracious and righteous;
Our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the simplehearted;
When I was in great need, he saved me.

Be at rest once more, O my soul,
For the Lord has been good to you.”

~ Psalm 116:5-7, NIV

Linking up today with a lovely group of (in)Courage writers who are sharing their memoirs over here.

Photo credits: David Berkowitz and Gabriel Amadeus (photos edited)



19 thoughts on “a memoir – the day i almost died

  1. I’m at a loss for words for your adventure into whitewater rafting. Brave? Scary? What were you thinking????? However, the beauty is the peace you found as God surrounded you as you were below the raft contemplating your next life with Him. Visiting you today from (in)couraging writers!

  2. What a scary experience! A defining moment, for sure. I wonder how it impacted the rest of your life? I think of “near misses” in my life that have reminded me how brief our time is here and how things can change in an instant. A powerful reminder! Visiting from (in)courage group!

    Christy @ A Heartening Life

    • Yes, it was definitely a memorable experience, Christy! I sometimes wonder how many ‘near misses’ have occurred without my knowledge .. like, if the Lord has spared me from a car accident because I lost my keys and left the house five minutes later than planned, or something like that. Grateful for a God who is sovereign and in control of every situation, momentous and minute.

  3. Kate, Every whitewater rafting trip I have taken, I have saved at least one person, sometimes more. I can relate to your experience so very easy because you are an excellent wordsmith/story teller. You made me feel like I was under that raft, lungs bursting, searching for a way up.

    My moment came when we kayaked the Top-of-the-Yock, (when it was flooded). We were warned about the un-runnable rapids called “Suckhole”. It was actually illegal to run it. Well wouldn’t you know I had a kayak malfunction and got pulled into “Suckhole”. The last thing I heard was the guide yelling “paddle, you’re gonna die”.

    Well, like you experienced, there was something that came over me, a peaceful feeling, and everything went into slow motion, kinda like at the movies. I made it through the rapids so perfectly, caught an eddie at the bottom, and hung on to a rock. Then I caught the guide’s kayak. He crashed and was all beat up and bleeding when pulled him out.

    I never heard that story from you before. I think we should have a story time evening soon!

    • Wow, Uncle Tom, that sounds terrifying! I remember hearing that you had a traumatic experience in your kayak which led you to hang it up for a very, very long time (if not forever?), but I had never heard the details. So glad you’re okay! And you probably never heard this story from me because we never did tell my mom about it … We figured if she knew, she might not let us go on any more vacations with Dad! 😉 Thanks for reading and sharing.

  4. Uggh, just reading it was stressful and I know you survived because duh, you’re writing it. I love that you’re doing memoir here on Mondays. And I love that you’re tying your stories to reflections on God. He truly is the author of our story and has so much to say through our experiences if we truly look for Him in them. I am also pretty sure rafting is not for me. You’ve talked about something here that a lot of memoir writing deals with. The fragility of life, making sense of near misses, and the gift of another breath. Thanks for doing this exercise with us.

    • So – I have this irrational fear of water so just reading this had the likelihood of stirring up panic and yet – the peace you described was tangible… loved this (which – to be honest – surprised me – only because, you know – white. water. rafting. Are you crazy?) 😉

    • Thank *you,* Alia, for hosting this link-up and for all the tips and encouragements you’ve offered along the way! I’ve gleaned a lot from your wisdom, and so, so, so admire your gift of writing. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment ..

  5. Wow! What an experience you had! I was glued to the post reading to see what happened — when, of course, I KNOW you survived! I felt the tension in the post. Nice job!

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