I was up for a fun weekend of boating - did the Forks at 1100 cfs Saturday, with a lot of playing. On Saturday, some of our same group went to run the Lower Kern from Miracle to Democrat - the standard summer class IV run for Southern Californians. Our group consisted of myself (Rocky Contos), Preston Holmes, Steve Takata, John Brown, and Dave Flowers (aka "Weed"). We started off about 9:15 am - I was playing a lot, videoing a little bit. The water was medium/high - about 2400 cfs (rafters were saying it was 2800 cfs). We came upon Royal Flush, the one class V/VI on the run and a sure portage for 99% of people coming upon it. Here we had lunch.
I was always planning on running the Flush that day. I had run it about 8 times previously, mostly at flows of 1000-1400 cfs, but once at 2500 cfs. See my previous post for a description of a run at 2500 cfs. This time I recalled how I didn't particularly enjoy running the last drop on the right. It does look particularly nasty. I decided to try a new route - very different from what I'd ever done before. The plan was to aim left going down the first long sliding drop, catch an eddy in the middle of the river, then slowly move down into the current and stay on the left through the main hole (pretty much skirting it) and right of the undercuts/whirling eddies. I wasn't feeling very good about this route, as I knew I probably would miss the middle eddy initially as the current was too fast to nose into it. I thought if I missed it, I could just straighten out and still be far enough left to complete the plan. I took off.
Right from the start I was off route. The current was indeed way too swift to catch that middle eddy, and I was swept downstrem SIDEWAYS toward the fearsome hole. Luckily, when I reached it, I was on the left, as intended, but still kind of sideways (boat aimed left). As I hit the wave there on a hard right brace, I easily straightened out and went right on through like a knife through pie. I thought I was out of the dangers then. As I came out of that main drop though, some of the confused water moved further left into a whirling eddy. At lower flows one can see an undercut wall there. The water was high now and it was not at all obvious - just looks like a strong eddy. My boat moved slowly toward the wall that divides the current from the back-eddy, and I was turned sideways (facing the left) approaching the wall. My boat was pushed into the wall, and as this happened I reached up with my right arm to try and push away from it, which didn't work at all. I flipped to my left (upstream). It is impossible to roll in a situation like this. Underwater, I could feel the water moving down underneath the wall and hoped the boat would flush under and out. But after maybe 5 seconds I realized this was not happening at all, so I exited.
Down I went somewhere (probably to the next little whirling alcove with an undercut in it just below), then up a bit. I thought I would just be flushed out of the rapid quickly. During another 20 seconds of waiting I realized I was not moving at all. The confused water currents were pushing me against a rock wall. I couldn't see anything but dark shadowy brown. Pushing myself away from the wall did nothing. I don't know if I vigorously tried swimming down, but I figured my pfd was keeping me up in a pocket where I wouldn't flush away from. I frantically started removing the Stohquist Blaster pfd I was wearing, which took about 5 seconds to get off (it only comes off over one's head). Luckily, a few of the tightening straps were broken, so I only had to loosen the main belt on it. Off it went and I let go. Within several seconds I felt myself moving with the current again, then banging around on the final drops of the rapid (hitting my head in the process, though not very hard). I was only hoping I would come up for a breath of air, which took quite a long time. It felt like I would blackout shortly. My head popped up about 30-40 yds downstream of the rapid. By this time (I was probably underwater 60-90 seconds), being oxygen deprived, I had almost no strength.
Without a pfd, as I floated down through the class I-II below, I would be under water 80-90% of the time, coming up for gulps of air every now and then. I was attempting to swim to the right bank, unsuccessfully. Each tiny wave I came upon would suck me down. The underwater eddy currents were strong. I was still way short of breath. The most relaxing thing I did was to back float a few times, but this never lasted more than a few seconds before I was sucked under again by a small wave or hole. After swimming about 1/4-1/3 mile, Weed caught up with me and towed me over to the left shore, where I crawled up and layed like a dead lizard on the warm rock. I had no water in my lungs, but was exhausted (extremely!!), slightly dizzy with a mild headache, and strangely, quite thirsty. I rested at least 30 minutes while Preston managed to rodeo my boat over to me. My paddle was not found, and a teva was missing from my boat. I slowly recovered back to normal.
Using John Brown's spare paddle, I made it down to Delonegha Hot Springs and soaked a short while, then paddled down to Democrat. I thank all the guys I was with for helping me out. It was a traumatic experience - my closest encounter with death. Never before had I come close to drowning like this. All my previous mishaps on the river were either bad swims, entrapments, or pinnings. I'm curious how many others (if any) have had to remove a pfd to get out of a sticky situation in a river.
The accompanying video clip shows me coming out of the hole and slowly moving up on the undercut, then flipping there. The boat moves back further into the "cave" for about 15 seconds, then flushes under and into the next small alcove below (this not shown). During this incident none of our group was in the water, but as soon as they realized I was in trouble, Weed, Preston, and John got in. Because I wasn't feeling very good about the run beforehand, I should have asked one of them to wait below the drop. I ended up losing a teva and my paddle.
The paddle was recovered either that day or the following and held by Mike Lekas (for beer ransom!), who gave me a call. The teva remains missing (a black Terradactly size 10.5 with blud/reddish outline). There's not really anything else the others could have done for me, as the spot where I was trapped was inaccessible from river right (and probably river left as well).