He trudged out of the water, his shirt soaked and pulled tight around his skin, glasses and hat hanging from head. He towed a pathetic pink raft behind him, completing the look of a man who had been beaten and embarrassed by the elements.
Together, we had lost all cell communication with our editor and families, my car key, our bearings and very nearly, the sun in the sky. The wildlife that had accompanied us down river – a watchful crane and bushy-tailed squirrels – had clocked out, giving way to the ‘skeeters.
Mother Nature, for all her beauty and grace, can be a cruel mother.
In six hours on the Stanislaus River, we had counted 27 rafts that had been claimed by the snarls and snags of this Central Valley tributary. They were wound tight in the brush and roots that lined the slow-moving water. Some collected on the dams that had been formed by fallen trees, drift wood and trash. They belonged to the boneyard now.
In a few moments, once we had two feet on solid ground, we’d concede Nos. 28 and 29 to her shores. She deserved them. The river won.
On Wednesday afternoon, reporter Jason Campbell and I set out to cover the Stanislaus River for a series of stories for today’s paper. I never intended on writing this particular piece. We expected to cover river safety and the fun that could be found along its shores.
Neither of us thought we’d almost become the story. Our assignment quickly devolved into an adventure, forcing us to experience a wide range of human emotion. We were happy, bored, lost and confused, optimistic and refreshed, and ultimately, genuinely concerned for our well-being.
Floating the Stanislaus River has become an annual rite of passage for every Central Valley teen and young adult, each seeking fun in the sun. Revelers use its cool waters for recreation – jumping from its shores, its trees and its train bridges. True to form, we encountered a pack of teenagers huddled around a rope swing. Those that haven’t come for the thrills do as we did. They bring their rafts and their floaties, maybe a few cool refreshments, and let the current take them and their worries away.
Every year, though, the river spits out a cautionary tale or two. This year alone, I’ve written about two such incidents. As I type, a Manteca man remains under close watch with his badly mangled, surgically connected left ankle elevated. Doctors hope he’ll get to keep his foot after suffering a compound fracture during a diving accident on the Stanislaus. Only time will tell.
A few days ago, I shared the story of Eddie Costa, another Manteca man, who was rendered a quadriplegic 30 years ago by a diving accident. In both cases, the water level on the Stanislaus River was lower than either gentleman expected. In both cases, they crashed against the sandbar beneath the surface with enough force to do irreparable harm.
We very nearly became cautionary tale No. 3 on Wednesday.
Ours was a diving accident of a different sort.
Simply, we dove into the assignment without enough preparation. We underestimated the time it would take to float between two map dots separated by no more than three miles. From the access at the end of Jack Tone Road to the parking lot at Caswell Memorial State Park, this float shouldn’t have taken more than three hours. Or so we assumed.
We scouted our entry point and marked our exit. We left one car at Caswell and the other at Jack Tone. We brought life jackets and rafts and two bottles of water. Ripon Consolidated Fire Chief Dennis Bitters would be proud, we boasted as set off with gusto. Campbell wore a hat, sunglasses and a T-shirt. We even double-bagged our phones and keys, you know, just in case.
On the surface, we thought we had covered all our bases.
As wild water so often teaches us, though, “surface” is only the start.
These are lean times for the Stanislaus River. It runs low and slow. For long stretches, we trudged and walked through it, carrying our rafts and other items. When it was deep enough to float, we moved at a snail’s pace, if at all. Swimming helped move us along, but it also sapped us of our strength and energy.
It’s hard to say, but in two hours we moved maybe a mile down river. Maybe. It was around that point that we lost all ability to communicate with the outside world. Campbell’s cell phone died, meaning it was just he and I for the duration of the trip. A couple of survivor men – NOT!
“… And I’m the kind guy that dies from hypothermia,” he said, “on the first night.”
For the next 3.5 hours, we didn’t encounter a single soul and nary an access point. Noises on the horizon turned out to be water pumps, not cars or people, and every thick patch of trees and brush inspired hope. “That’s got to be Caswell,” we’d say. It never was. We left the water twice, climbing up the steep levees hoping to find a road or house, but each trip up was met with disappointment.
We were on this river, for better or for worse.
Along the way, we successfully navigated natural dams, oddly-placed sandbars, spider-webs, and the occasional snag. It was the seemingly benign straightaways that gave us trouble. During one such stretch just before Caswell, I turned to find Campbell in a tizzy, flailing his arms and pouring expletives into the air. “Your key is gone.” Quit it. “Why would I f---ing joke about something like that?” And then I saw the bag floating my way … filled with nothing more than water and air.
Oh well. No time to panic.
We waded through the water into Caswell, scouring the shores for an exit. The sun was setting, disappearing behind the oak trees and walls of ivy. The river was growing dark and cold and now teeming with bugs. I was shirtless and without bug spray, hungry and cold. My fingertips and toes had been turned into prunes, and I worried I might have to turn this raft into a blanket for the night.
Fortunately, we found a clearing with a worn path. Not the exit we marked earlier in the day, but that hope had sailed away, probably with my key. We emerged from the water like a couple of Swamp Things, sand turning our shoes into 10-pound weights.
We walked barefoot and defeated through Caswell, waving at the mosquitoes dancing around us, conjuring short smiles as we recant our series of missteps. We looked not unlike the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We weren’t out of hot water yet – we still needed to fetch a spare key for my car – but we made it.
She can keep the rafts.