We had a drowning in Torch Lake about 200 yards from our beach. We didn’t witness anything except a gathering of Sheriff’s cars and an ambulance. At this point we don’t know any details except that he was 24 years old, and that his parents received the toughest news possible.
The incident triggered memories of our own drowning experiences, some nightmares, and a recall of some things I wrote years ago:
From fifteen feet above myself unbreathing
there on the dock I evaluate those feet,
mine, splayed on the boards I painted.
The camp nurse bends over me to insert
the hard S-tube down my throat. My cool
eyes consider the restless boat,
the waterskies aligned, the tow-rope
a heap. No waves move onto the shale beach.
A benign Lake Champlain accuses me
under a Vermont sun, and I want to disappoint
all these people by dying out from under them
on such a smiling day.
after my drowning, Jeff chases ducks off
a dock's edge. He sinks beneath the tidal
sheen of Five Mile River. I know he must bob
soon to the surface. I pass my son going up
on my way down.
finds him clinging half swallowed beneath a dock
in the Fox River. At dinner in the cottage
I almost too late hear his cries above the voices
of aunts and cousins. I pull my dripping boy
from the suck of the lazy river.
In a film a child falls from a high window
bounces to his feet, runs off. We can
do that on our good days: drowning
through a late spring afternoon held
to my desk by a student's whine, or
through the bed my wife avoids
like my eyes, or through a drive
to scare the boys with my braking:
to be saved, emerging into changed air
and light, or to drown down through green
water into a deeper world where we breathe
through our wounds and join all the other
drowned children alive at last.
And this I wrote this while traveling with Kim in 2011:
When Kim and I put into the Bow River a few miles upstream from Calgary, I was worried that it was going to be a challenge. The current was very fast, there was a stiff headwind making the paddling difficult, and we could see rough water where there were rocks just under the surface. I am an experienced canoeist, but not in rough rivers. Andrew, whom we had met through on online birding site, did not see a problem, so in we went.
Andrew paddled his kayak beside us, pointing out a few birds and some natural features. He is a delightful young man filled with passion for the outdoors and birding. He has an enormous amount of energy. We did not know how much of that energy he would be called upon to use.
After about an hour of tiring paddling, we approached a large bridge in the city. Andrew, on our right about 20 yards away, called over a warning about some concrete from an old bridge just under the surface. We saw it, but too late. The side of our canoe struck the rock and we immediately capsized into the cold water.
Kim went down. We had life jackets on, but they did not seem to be much help. She may have been under for 10 seconds, but it felt a lot longer to her. I was aware of the coldness of the water, also that it was not ice-cold that I expected from the previous day’s snow in the mountains. We both knew enough to hold onto the canoe, and for some reason we also held onto our paddles. Kim emerged, gasping and coughing. I noticed my sweatshirt floating in the canoe along with some water bottles.
Andrew paddled back and warned us to stay away from the bridge, whose large concrete supports were rushing towards us. We had no way to move ourselves toward them or away from them, and luckily we blasted past them. We were about 40 yards from shore and had no idea how we would possibly get there. I had torn my hamstring in a fall the day before, so I was unable to kick my feet.
Andrew paddled over to the bow of our partially submerged but upright canoe, grabbed a length of yellow nylon rope fastened there, and started paddling mightily toward the shore that seemed very far away. He’s a strong guy and experienced paddler, but he was towing the dead weight of our filled canoe and us, dragging in the water.
We were hanging on, but just barely. Kim was in a near panic as she could feel her strength ebbing fast and was coughing water she had swallowed and inhaled. She could not breathe. I worked my way back to the stern, trying to shove the canoe forward as I moved back, thinking this might move us toward shore. When I reached the stern I realized that was a bad idea, as there was little to hold onto. I pictured myself hurtling down the river away from Kim, Andrew and the canoe. I moved back to a firm grip on the seat.
Kim says she was so exhausted she was about to give up when she felt the rocks beneath her feet. The shore at that point featured large, gray, somewhat squared boulders, and I felt some on the bottom, but we were moving so fast that I could not push off, let alone gain any footing. Touching the rocks gave Kim a sense of hope - a belief that she would somehow make it to shore. To live.
After a short time - and time is impossible to judge in these circumstances - we felt more rocks beneath our feet, then found ourselves standing and lurching forward. Andrew had run his kayak up on the rocks and was hauling our canoe and us in with the rope. We crawled up and collapsed, still holding the paddles.
Kim was ghastly pale and coughing. I was shaking violently from shock and the cold. I moved a few feet onto a rock in the sun and immediately felt better, although the shaking continued. I told Kim to move into the sun.
She managed to remove her life jacket, as did I, and just sat there looking numb.
Andrew pulled the canoe a bit further up on the rocks and gave me the rope to hold so it wouldn’t drift away. He repeatedly told us how amazing we were, how great. We did not feel great or amazing.
He said he was going to paddle downstream to where his van was parked and would be back for us in ten minutes. We nodded, not really caring. We were alive and on shore.
I helped Kim move a few feet into the sun and then spotted a construction worker heading toward us. We had pulled up in a construction zone where the highway was being widened. A low fence separated the highway from a bulldozed new lane near our rocks.
“Kim, look. That guy is coming over to help us.”
“You folks will have to move out of here. This is a restricted area. Didn’t you see the signs?”
We stared at him.
“You will have to move. Just take your canoe and paddle over to the other side.”
“We are not moving,” Kim said.
“Look. You can’t be here without supervision. It’s a safety issue in a construction zone.”
“Then you better get someone to supervise us because we aren’t moving.”
I tried to explain the situation to him - that we capsized, that my wife was in trouble, that our friend would be back in a few minutes to pick us up. He became a little more sympathetic, but not much, pointing to a break in the fence about 100 yards away. “Take your canoe over there so your friend can pick it up.”
Though this was not what I wanted to do at the moment, I was ready to do whatever was necessary to get us out of there, despite Kim’s urgent protests. So I took one end of the canoe as he took the other, and somehow we carried it up forty feet of slippery rocks and then 100 more yards to the break in the fence. This was not what my hamstring needed, but I felt better having done it. I may have been burning off adrenaline.
When the worker walked back with me I asked him one more thing: to go down to the water and get the life jackets and paddles. He did so willingly. He also looked at Kim and asked if he should call 911. She said no. He asked again, saying it’s best to be safe.
Just then Andrew arrived, stepped over the fence, and engaged in an energetic conversation with the guy that I could not hear. He pointed at his van parked across the street and the break in the fence. The guy helped Andrew lift the canoe onto the van and rig a tie-down with the rope. Kim and I wedged ourselves in next to Andrew’s kayak, which filled most of the van’s interior.
At this point I noticed that my sweatshirt was gone, having floated off downstream. My watch was on and still ticking. My wallet was still in my pocket, as were my car keys. I was surprised to note that my hat and sunglasses were still on. It was my Indiana Jones moment.
Once I got into the van I resumed my violent shaking, and Kim was coughing regularly, though I did not know this until she told me later. Andrew was chattering encouraging words about the thrill of adventure and excitement, and how this sort of thing happens occasionally to people he takes out on the water. He phoned a friend who is an E.R. doctor and described what happened. Kim told him to tell her that she had swallowed some water and inhaled some as well, but the doc said that is very unlikely. She suggested driving to the E.R., but Kim said she did not feel like waiting in a plastic chair for four hours.
We stopped briefly at his house to drop off the boats, and then he drove us to our motel a few minutes away, saying he would bring our car along shortly.
I helped Kim down the hall to our room - fortunately on the first floor - but she had to pause to lean against the wall several times. We threw all our wet clothes into the bathtub, Kim got into her pajamas and climbed into bed. I changed into some warm dry clothes and hobbled down to the main desk to get an additional blanket and some towels.
When I got back to the room Kim was still in bed. But she had started to gag and feel nauseous when she lay down flat, so she got up and headed for the bathroom to vomit. It had streaks of blood in it.
Then I had the brilliant idea that what she really needed most of all was a cup of coffee, so I made some using the stuff in the room. She used the cup to warm her hands, and we discussed what to do. We decided to phone Andrew and ask him to ask his doctor friend about the blood. He called back in a few minutes to suggest we call Health Link, a Canadian service where you can get free professional medical advice over the phone. After about a ten-minute hold where I listened to recordings about seat belts and asthma, I got hold of a nurse who asked me a series of questions about Kim’s symptoms. Some I could answer, and some Kim answered on her way to the bathroom to vomit again.
“I suggest you take her immediately to the E.R. Her status is priority. Call 911.”
Instead I called Andrew, figuring that would be quicker, and he met us at the front door in five minutes. I had helped Kim down the hall, dressed in her pajamas and wrapped in a blanket. I was carrying the camera bag she’s been using for a purse on this trip, and I grabbed a few soggy items from my soggy wallet and stuffed them into my pocket.
Kim’s priority status in the E.R. got her into a bed and plugged into monitors while we waited. It took about five hours to have doctors listen to her lungs, get a chest X-ray and an ECG reading. The only surprise was the bill: a total of $741 for all physician and hospital services. The docs held off on some tests they would have given Canadians because they knew our insurance would be unlikely to pay for them. I had to pay before we left, but in my haste I had not grabbed my VISA card, so they agreed to send me the bill to send to Blue Cross. Simple.
While we were waiting for the X-rays, Kim asked me to get out her pad and list the new birds we saw on the river before we capsized. I told her we saw one new one, the Bank Swallow. Two if you include the Angel of Death.
The doctors confirmed what Kim already knew: she has some water in her lungs. They heard some “crackling” when she breathes, which may be the water and may be a sign of another lung problem to check out when we return to Michigan. We were back at the motel by 11:00. We quickly toasted the Fourth of July - using Canadian Club.
That’s it. We’re still alive. We drowned
into a deeper world where we breathe
through our wounds and join all the other
drowned children alive at last.