Camping: it’s not for the faint of heart. The funny thing is, I always figured it would be a bear that posed the greatest danger to my well-being. Turns out it was the (not-so) mighty Wenatchee River that done near did us in.
But as with any story, you gotta save the good stuff for the end. So hold on tight.
It’s been a nice, long weekend. Four days for me and Tara, ’cause we took Thursday and Friday off for a camping trip up north. Like, real far up north. Leavenworth, WA, about a five-hour jaunt from here. Why travel so far to go camping, you may be wondering.
Well, because. When your campsite looks like this:
And is situated yards away from this:
You drive five hours to go camping.
Sure enough, our spot was damn near ideal. Surrounded by dramatic granite cliffs, a few steps from the gently rushing Icicle Creek, Eight Mile Campground was worth the long haul. Our only complaint? Because of the position of the trees, our site was in the sun from about 10 a.m. until the sun dipped behind the mountains to the west, a couple of hours prior to sunset. But we were gone most of the time, so it was pretty much a non-issue.
Oh, we spent our evenings in camp, drinking in the scenery (and the alcohol). We (Tara) cooked steaks and corn on the cob the first night; bratwursts, grilled peppers and onions, and beans the second. We listened to music and watched a (flock? herd? whole bunch of?) brown bats come out at dusk, swooping in over our camp to gobble up meals of their own. When the stars came out they were magnificent; we walked the few steps to our little beach by the creek in the pitch darkness to gaze at them in awe, and were rewarded with several shooting stars streaking across the sky. The weather was warm and dry so there was no need for a rain fly, leaving us able to look up at those same stars through the roof of our tent while listening to the babbling brook when we went to bed.
Friday we went for a 3.5-mile hike along the Icicle Gorge trail, marveling over more stunning scenery. Even here, in the “dry” part of the state, the vistas are remarkable.
We really do.
Luckily, we’d gotten an early start to our hike, setting out at 8:30 a.m. Because it was warming up pretty quickly along the way, already in the low 80s by the time we got back to camp at noon. It was even hotter in town; Eight Mile was a good 6-7 degrees cooler than Leavenworth, which is – coincidence alert! – exactly eight miles from the campground.
In any case, we weren’t concerned about the heat, because we’d (Tara) come up with a great plan.
A nice, relaxing float in an inner tube down the Wenatchee River sounded like an ideal way to spend a hot and sunny summer afternoon in Leavenworth, WA. After our hike, the idea of hitting the water was especially appealing.
Tara had booked a reservation with a tubing company in Leavenworth. We met up at their office/store downtown at 2:00 and boarded a shuttle, which drove us a few miles upriver. Once there, we were handed waiver forms to sign, releasing the company from all liability should anything go wrong. I barely skimmed most of it – does anybody actually read all that legalese? – but there was one sentence that leaped out at me. “I realize that the risk of serious injury or death is significant,” it read, or something along those lines. I chuckled over that.
We’re on inner tubes, I thought. What could possibly go wrong?
We were given very brief instructions that basically consisted of, “Start here, finish there, and when you reach the island in the middle of the river, stay to the left.” They handed us Frisbees to use as makeshift paddles and then set us free. In retrospect, I think they should have taken a few minutes to go over safety rules and given us the opportunity to ask questions. But alas, it was time for them to go pick up the next group of people.
$$$, don’tcha know?
Tara and I had rented a floating cooler because, you know, when you’re lazily floating down the river in the hot sun, what’s better than a cool, refreshing adult beverage? So Tara tethered her tube to the cooler and we hopped in.
Things went very smoothly for about three minutes. And then, all hell broke loose.
An island appeared in the middle of the river. We assumed this was the one they had instructed us to pass on the left. (Turns out it was not, but how were we to know that?) The current was pulling us to the right, so we started paddling like mad, but it looked like we weren’t going to make it. So my dear wife, concerned that we were going to be dragged into some hidden danger lurking on the right side of the island, a logjam maybe, or a Class 5 rapid, decided to get out of her tube in order to give it a good push in the right direction. This turned out to be a huge mistake, because the current was much swifter than anticipated. Her inner tube and cooler shot away from her and were quickly zipping down the river, unattended. I saw her treading water and tried to paddle in her direction, but she yelled at me to “go after the inner tubes!” instead.
Or maybe she just wanted me to save the beer.
So I started paddling like mad, using those gaily-colored Frisbees like they were oars, to reach the wayward inner tubes, racing along 10 feet ahead of me. Meanwhile I’m concerned about my wife, who is in the middle of the river without a tube or life preserver. But I’m rowing like a madman, and a minute later, I see a metal cylinder bobbing along. A-ha! That’s Tara’s Yeti, an insulated beer can holder she recently bought for $20, a can of Bud Light still nestled inside like an aluminum passenger aboard a tiny ship. I stretched out my hand, plucked it from the water, and deposited it into my tube. That little victory felt momentous at the time, as I’d assumed the Yeti was at the bottom of the river by then.
Next up were the inner tubes. After some more desperate paddling, I somehow managed to snag them. So I’m in my tube, hanging on to two others for dear life, and glance over my shoulder. Tara is rapidly receding into the distance. I turn around, and spot an island in the middle of the river. Was this the one we were supposed to skirt to the left of? I had no clue, but it didn’t matter, as the river was taking me in that direction anyway. Too quickly. I realized suddenly that if I had any chance of salvaging this trip and reuniting with Tara, I would have to land on that island. If I overshot it, I’d be swept down the river who knows how far. My paddling was ineffective, so at this point I made my own bad decision and jumped out of the inner tube, reasoning that the water was shallow enough here for me to walk onto the shore, pushing the tubes and cooler. Well, yes, the water was shallow – but the current was swift as hell and the moss-covered rocks on the bottom of the river were so slippery it was impossible to find my footing. I was immediately knocked off my feet and dragged underwater, and thought to myself – in all seriousness – you are about to drown.
My heart pounded furiously even as I shot to the surface. I struggled like mad to avoid being swept away, terrified at the prospect of being pulled under again, and scrambled over those rocks through chest-deep water as if my life depended upon it. Which it sort of did. Amazingly, I found the strength to make it to shore. And breathed a huge sigh of relief while I tried to steady my nerves.
Thank god we’d brought waterproof pouches for our phones. My Fitbit had taken the plunge, but luckily was none the worse for wear. Not that personal electronic devices mattered in the least in that moment. I looked upstream and found Tara, slowly but steadily making her way toward the island. The water in that section was shoulder-deep, but the current was not bad at all.
Until she reached the channel where I’d lost my footing.
She was in earshot then, so I called out to her to stay put. I figured I’d try to paddle upstream against the current and have her hold on, but she figured it would be easier to get over to the island and thus had little choice but to risk it. Naturally, she was swept off her feet at about the same place as me, and took another dunk. The current was pulling her along, she was partly underwater, and I panicked again, watching helplessly as my wife struggled. She was unable to make it to her feet and I thought, for the second time that afternoon, that somebody was about to drown. I lunged forward, reached out my hand…
…and my fingers closed around hers.
Relief, guys. Huge and overpowering. I was able to pull her to shore.
I fucking saved her life.
She might say I’m being overdramatic, but I don’t think I am. People drown all the time. You hear stories on the news every summer. This very easily could have turned disastrous for us. I watched her flailing helplessly as the mighty river pulled her along, and I truly believe with 100% certainty that I saved her life.
Rather than collapsing into my arms and thanking me for staving off the Grim Reaper, my dear wife instead reached into the cooler, grabbed a can of Bud Light, popped it open and started guzzling it.
“You almost drowned, and you’re drinking a beer?!” I asked incredulously.
“I’m thirsty,” she said with a shrug.
And really, that’s why I love her. All the tension dissipated in that instant. After allowing ourselves a few minutes to regain our composure, we set our tubes back into the river (tethering all three together this time) and climbed aboard.
“We don’t get out for anything the rest of the trip,” she said, and I nodded my head in agreement. There are some things you don’t need to be told twice about.
An hour later we reached our departure point, without further incident. And best of all, alive. Once we got over the shock of almost dying, it was actually rather peaceful.
Would I do it again? I suppose so…but you can bet your ass I will never, ever leave the safety of my tube next time.