Drop Off

May 14, 2008
By Harper Makowsky, New York, NY

The water slashed across my face. The howling wind echoed the thrashing river. Behind me, the guide and seven others were shoved to both side of the raft, gripping their paddles, and soaking wet. Our guide, a woman who had too many piercings, was the only one still paddling. As I was the only one out of all my friends who had gone rafting before, I was put in the front of the boat. This meant I had to keep the rhythm, paddle hardest and getting the wettest. I began paddling, the others following, down the river.
The mountains and green forests that surrounded us began to haze. A misty fog engulfed the river. The current quickened. The raft picked up speed. My guide yelled, “Everyone ready, Timberfalls coming up!” Timberfalls. Big rapid. Class 4. Hardest we’d face.
I looked ahead and saw what I thought was the end of the river. I dug my feet into the raft. We began paddling. At our furious pace, we approached the drop much faster than expected. The raft began to rock. I gripped my paddle. My knuckles turned white. I leaned forward.
We went over. Everyone in the raft stopped paddling. I braced for impact. We hit the bottom of the fall and were doused with water. I was thrown back, onto my friend. She shoved me forward. I dug my feet back in. We went into the next big drop. My hands lost feeling. I tried to see but the water thrashed against the boat and my eyes. A wall of water rose in front of the raft. The wave came crashing down. I was thrown over the river and onto the bank, knees first.
Pain seared through my legs. I gripped that rock and I forced myself to look up. I saw my raft and friends being carried away. I tried to get a better grip on the rock, but my left hand was useless. I looked down. I was still holding my paddle.
“Swim back into the middle of the river!” my guide’s yelled. I hesitated, and then I kicked off with full force, back into the river. I swam diagonally down the river, trying to keep an eye on the raft. I passed through a rapid. My legs were shoved under me, dragging me down. Keep your feet up a voice in my head yelled. I brought my feet back up. I tried to swim on my back. I was blinded by waves, choked by the water. I flipped onto my stomach. I realized my only option was to swim headfirst into the rapids.
I began down the river and was pulled under. Water propelled into my mouth. I tried to re-emerge as a wave came crashing down on my head. The water heaved and I resurfaced. I spun around ferociously, looking around. I choked as I saw my raft.
Try to make a connection with someone in the boat’s ‘t-grip,’ make a connection with the paddles, and you can be pulled in, the instructor in my head said again. I decided to obey. I struggled against the water, closer to my raft. I shoved my oar over my head; my guide’s outstretched ‘t-grip’ near mine. We tried. We missed. I was being pulled under again. I pushed forward against the water. I pushed my oar up again. We tried. We connected. I tightly griped my paddle as my guide began to pull me in. She used the two paddles like a rope. The water slapped against the oars, as she pulled and got close enough to grab my paddle. I was getting closer to the raft. My hands slipped off and I fell. I was too far away for her to grab me.

My body went limp, but my brain told me to swim. I got farther away from my raft as I was pulled into another rapid. I could feel my body being compressed by the water. It was suffocating me. “I’m going to die” I thought, “This is how it ends.” My feet scraped the bottom. The world around me swirled. My brain began to fog. I tried to move up, but the water pushed me down into its dense world. I wasn’t going to let it beat me. Using all I had, I pushed off the bottom and resurfaced. Then I began to swim. I gained on my raft. Closer and closer. I ignored the gaping holes of the rapids. Ignored the rocks in the water. Ignored my lack of air. And swam. I slapped the side of the raft and felt two hands grab my life vest. My guide began to pull me over the ledge, face up. Face down, that voice in my head cried, people bend at the waist, they don’t bend backward. The water slapped against my legs and the rocks in the river scraped at my feet.
My guide pulled me to the back corner to the raft. No burst of energy, no adrenaline, just my limp body glad to rest. I sat up and spat out some water into the river. My hands were shaking. I tried to regain breath. I was calming, but felt a pain in my leg. I looked down and saw what was formerly my knee. Now, it was a hole, covered in bright red blood. A scolding heat filled my leg; it throbbed, feeling as though a knife had impaled it. I clutched my knee and leaned my head against the raft. My eyes clenched together, trying to keep myself from crying. “At least it isn’t any worse.” I said to myself, but as I did, I felt hot tears rolling down my face. My stomach sank, my body began to shake, and I heaved for air and could hear nothing but the pulse that was burning in my ears. I took a deep breath and cringed, looking out of the raft. I saw the trees that we were passing and flowing ripples of the water. My pulse slowed, and my breathing regulated. I turned back to everyone in my raft. They were all still paddling, all looking like anchovies shoved to the sides, clutching their oars. The raft shook back and forth, but I stayed curled at the bottom clutching my leg.
When we passed Timberfalls, my guide made me put my leg out so the blood could flow into the river. I watched as the stream of red mixed in with the clear water, quickly disappearing into its waves. She eventually told me wrapped it in three bandages; I got up and stumbled back to my position at the head of the boat. I grabbed my oar and faced forward. “Start paddling!” the guide yelled. I began a furious pace for the rest to follow, moving faster into the next drop. I was ready. We went over. I braced myself for impact.

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