LYONS – “The river is really high Dad and you shouldn’t go kayaking alone,” my daughter informed me Saturday, when I told of my plans for the afternoon of Sunday, June 6. Furthermore, a friend informed me she wouldn’t shuttle me up to the put-in if I was going alone. Some people worry too much. There are always worry warts when you plan an adventure or doing something out of the ordinary. Like when you eat wild mushrooms somebody is always bound to say, “They might be poisonous.”
Anyway, I convinced my friend Ellen, the campground hostess, to drive me and my boat up past Shelly’s Cottages and onto the Longmont Dam Road. The river was really roaring all along the route. Perhaps the biggest since 1995 I thought as Ellen helped me inflate my open cockpit, self-bailing kayak. When I left the house it was warm and so I put a polypro shirt on rather than my wet suit, but now as it had clouded over I was wondering if not bringing the wet suit was a mistake. As I shoved off there was no time for practice maneuvers. Immediately, there were big standing waves and significant drops.
I went racing down the river, proud how I planned my line, kept level through the drops and was not unbalanced by water bouncing off the canyon walls. I went under the bridge by Shelly’s and then under the bridge by the Rock and River Winery. I tried to pull out and visit an art exhibit there, but found no place to get away from the powerful flow. “That’s okay,” I thought, I had done some of the most technically challenging paddling, although I knew there was still plenty more. Not far down from the winery, a tree had fallen creating a river hazard I had to navigate through. Something went wrong. I tipped and fell out.
Inflatable open kayaks aren’t designed for rolls. If the boat tips over, you hold on, flip the boat right side up and climb back in. I did this, but it wasn’t easy. The boat was on top of me for a few seconds and I drank some of the river water. My life jacket was old and its buoyancy was inadequate for the conditions. When I got back in, I had very few seconds to get organized. It wasn’t long enough before I was into a major drop, paddle like crazy and drop again sequence. It felt like I had lost some of my capabilities. I spilled a second time got back in the boat and spilled almost immediately a third time. I tried the risky maneuver of putting my feet down on the river floor in order to try to slow my descent and let my boat catch up to me. If a foot got caught, I would drown. Then my boat came over me and again I was underwater. When I resurfaced I thought, “Give up the boat and concentrate on survival. Get to the side.”
Unfortunately, I got to the wrong side. In order to get to the road I had to cross the river and cross it quickly before any big white water slammed me against rocks. I made it 3/4ths of the way across in text book fashion, floating on my back with feet up, paddling across with my arms furiously. The last quarter was real rough. I was about to hit major rapids, so I rolled over and swam hard for the shore grabbing for branches hoping to pull myself out. My legs hit rocks hard, particularly my right thigh, but I made it. I climbed up to the road and started walking. As the cold water numbness faded, the pain in my right leg increased. I developed a limp; a tourist family noticed and offered me a ride, which I accepted most gratefully. We parted company when I saw the Lyons Fire Department cleaning up after an accident on highway 36 near the Apple Valley Bridge. I informed them it was me who had spilled and there was no need to send out a rescue party. They said they had seen the boat go by. A fellow in a pickup kindly offered to help me retrieve the boat. I was beginning to feel relieved, but then after taking two steps towards his vehicle, my leg failed. In front of the firemen, I went down onto my hands and knees.
The firemen assisted me across the road and I sat down on the back of the fire truck. I was shivering and worried about my leg. A fireman introduced himself as JJ. He was the chief of the Lyons Fire Department I was to later learn.
As he asked me basic identification questions we both noticed I was deteriorating. Not only had my right leg failed, but now my right arm was not functioning. The chief told me to smile. I couldn’t. I felt strangely relaxed, I was ready to fall asleep or fall unconscious.
“Peter! Peter! I need you to stay awake! Stay with me Peter!” I heard him say. Then I felt my helmet being taken off, an oxygen mask go on my face and overheard the Chief say to someone, “This doesn’t look good.”
As the Pridemark Ambulance took me to the hospital, the EMT heated the back of the vehicle and I was able to stop shivering. In the hospital, technicians ran test after test on me. Over time, my core temperature rose to near normal and my limbs began to work again. My mental clarity returned. My daughter Mae and Claire Baumgartner were there.
“I told Dad. I told Dad he shouldn’t go alone. I told him the river was high,” Mae said.
“Next time I’ll listen Mae,” I told her. “The river is high.”
Peter Baumgartner is a former Lyons Town Board Trustee. He served from April 2004 to April 2010. He was term limited so he did not run in the April 2010 election. He has a daughter and lives in Lyons.Back to Top