That Time I Had Hypothermia

On Friday, September 12, I had the privilege of spending my evening listening to Kevin Fedarko discuss his 2013 nonfiction book, The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon.

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The book is out in paperback now. It’s been on by To Be Read list for a year.

The book trailer is really amazing! You can watch it here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story takes place in 1983, and follows three men in a small hand-built wooden boat called a dory, a dory named the Emerald Mile, which they take down the Colorado River during an epically-high amount of water in the Grand Canyon that year.

I attended the book signing and presentation with a bunch of people who showed up for free beer, which I didn’t drink because me and alcohol = no. Especially not beer, which I think smells like pee and the thought of drinking pee grosses me out.

A lot of the people around me were river rats, or people who are obsessed about running rivers in one form or another, whether in dories, kayaks, rafts, inner tubes, or any number of craft designed for floating down rapids.

Here is a picture of the famous Emerald Mile:

Grua in the Emerald Mile

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is a picture of the book’s author, Kevin Fedarko, who is a really amazing guy, and a beautiful writer:

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Kevin Fedarko is a cutie pie and super smart, which made him great fun to listen to. He is also working with a group called American Rivers and another group called Save the Confluence, because there is this complete dillweed developer, whose name I don’t remember, so I will call him Dillweed Developer, and Dillweed Developer is doing terrible things in the Grand Canyon right now. He’s a Wall Street tycoon with lots of money, and he’s been bribing Native American tribal councils to give him permission to fly helicopters (thousands and thousands of helicopters) over reservation land along the Grand Canyon, and build ugly resort-type things in that pristine region as well.

This is one of Dillweed Developer’s creations:

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It’s officially called the Grand Canyon Skywalk, but a lot of river rafters apparently call it “the toilet seat.”

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The toilet seat is not technically built out over the Grand Canyon, but over one of the tributaries that feeds into the Colorado River.

To take a stroll on the Skywalk, you have to remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers, and photography (including selfies) is prohibited.

The whole thing seems so random and bizarre to me, like something Miss Piggy dreamed up in a nightmare to tell Kermit, but apparently 200,000 people are now visiting the Grand Canyon Skywalk each year. I have no desire to put on slippers and walk the toilet seat, but then, I also have no desire to raft down the Grand Canyon, either.

In fact, as I was thinking about this whole presentation later, I found myself reflecting upon the one and only time I have ever been river rafting, and how much I totally hated it and never, ever want to go rafting again.

To use a word like “hate” to describe a recreational activity is so unlike my normal thinking, I need to explain a few things about that experience.

First, it was not my idea to go rafting. Ten years ago, I worked for a summer youth program called Voyager, making the typical $10.00 an hour most unskilled service jobs pay, and after two years with the program, the director decided to have a mandatory “staff bonding day” which would be unpaid — but free to attend — and the director chose the “staff bonding activity” to be a morning spent river rafting together.

We would complete this uber-important staff bonding activity before our summer program began, since we worked 6:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, running programs outdoors with children of all ages, from June 1 through Labor Day.

Therefore, our staff bonding day would take place two weekends before Memorial Day, because that was when the director could get “a really good deal” on the rafting price. Why would the trip be so incredibly cheap? Because in mid-May, it is still freezing flipping cold in Colorado and not an ideal time to go rafting. In fact, on the morning of our staff-bonding activity, it was snowing. Completely overcast, windy, and snowing.

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One woman on our staff was from Armenia, and barely knew how to swim. She was terrified — utterly terrified — to go rafting, but the director assured her she would be wearing a life vest, would not fall out of the boat, and would therefore not drown.

He also made it more than clear that if we chose not to participate, we would lose our jobs, and $10.00 an hour was actually good money in Ridgway and Ouray. Dishwashers, for instance, only made $8.00 an hour. The Armenian woman was terrified, but she arrived at 7:00 a.m. on the Sunday morning of the trip, because that is what people do to keep their jobs.

The river water, of course, was freezing that day. (Hello, it was snowing outside, plus, there was still snow on the ground.) No one on staff owned a wetsuit, except for the director, and we were told we could rent a wetsuit, but they cost like, $40.00 to rent, and that equated to 4 hours of labor (hard labor) in order to “be more comfortable” (as the river guides put it) on a mandatory, unpaid staff bonding day.

The director showed up wearing his wetsuit, but no one on staff, including me, rented a wetsuit for the day. I was already sacrificing hours of my time for this crappy rafting experience, and I sure as hell wasn’t parting with forty precious dollars of my hard-earned money for a wetsuit.

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I’m not a terrible swimmer, I spent a lot of time swimming in rivers as a child, and I was assigned to sit next to the terrified Armenian, once it came time to load up on the water. She spent most of her time on the trip screaming. Some of her screams were from fear, but most of her screams were from the ABSOLUTE HORROR that is river rafting in freezing cold water without wearing a wetsuit.

My husband can’t even listen to me retell this story without blowing a gasket. He hates the fact that I and my fellow staffers wore blue jeans on this rafting trip, when “everyone knows cotton kills.” True, we should have been wearing wool or synthetic material, except none of us owned wool or synthetic pants. But the fact remains, if you know you’re going to be repeatedly doused with freezing cold mountain runoff while it is snowing outside, you should NOT be wearing BLUE JEANS.

We were all wearing blue jeans, nonetheless. There were enough staff members to fill two rafts, and there were six people in mine.

I didn’t scream on the trip. I shivered violently, my teeth chattered so hard I probably chipped bone in several places, and I stoically completed this painful, and completely boring event, which was travelling 10-20 miles down the Uncompahgre River with a screaming Armenian and four other freezing people, forcing myself to smile and act like I was having a great time on our staff-bonding excursion, while being soaked with ice water.

After we reached the take-out (the place where the raft leaves the water), we had to ride back to Ridgway (where we had met up that morning), and then I had to drive home to Ouray.

So I was in my soaked jeans and boots for a good hour or so, on top of the hours spent soaked and freezing outdoors in the river raft.

When I arrived home, I stripped off my wet clothes, discovered my feet and legs were the deathly, frightening white of moderate hypothermia, and I planted myself, covered in blankets, directly in front of the furnace.

Our furnace blew out on the floor, the air hot enough to burn bare skin, but I sat in front of that furnace, with my bare feet pressed against the metal vent, for the next eight hours, shivering and teeth chattering, barely able to think. I didn’t watch movies. I stared at the wall, waiting for the moment when my shivering would end.

Eight hours of shivering later, I pried myself away from the furnace and went to bed. Without being next to the furnace, my shivers were worse, so I didn’t sleep much that night. The cold and the teeth-chattering was too invasive.

Now, you could say I would have been a lot better off forking over the $40.00 for the wetsuit, and you would be correct, except that was a LOT of money to me at the time (and it still is, really) and hypothermia is not a permanent condition. Spending money, however, IS permanent, as the only way to get more money is to spend more hours working for it, and in those days, I had far more important things to spend my money on than avoiding hypothermia. Like Sex and the City DVDs. And Hayao Miyazaki films.

I still own those DVDs. And I’ve never been river rafting again. Not just because I associate river rafting with hypothermia, which is certainly part of the reason. But I honestly just found it boring. So boring. The paddling, the floating, the splashing, the forced “Oh, aren’t we having a grand time!” social interaction that is part of a group activity like that. There was nothing exciting about any of it. I’d rather be hiking with friends, warm and dry, with a tasty meal in my pack, and if I’m alone, carrying a book to read when I find a comfy rock to sit on.

Which all begs the question: what am I doing reading a book about river rafting, if I don’t even like river rafting?

Well, simple: this girl I like loves the book, has repeatedly told me it’s her favorite book of all time, and the writing is solid.

So I will read it.

And I will do my level best not to think about that time I had hypothermia while I’m turning pages.

One thought on “That Time I Had Hypothermia

  1. Wow. Your boss sucked. He could have at least provided people with wool sox and polypropylene pants or SOMETHING. This sounds less like bonding and more like Miserable Forced Traumatic Bonding.

    Also beer doesn’t smell like pee, but it’s gross and my body hates it and it’s nasty.

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