Three Weeks, Three Deaths
July 18, 2006
Driving into the parking lot, our boats stuffed into the back of the pick-up, our conversation ended abruptly with the sight of flashing lights. A crowd of people huddled leaning over the guard rail stretching as far as they could across the expansive space above the water.
Hastily we grabbed our gear, our eyes shifting, not wanting to partake in the drama below the rail. We only wanted to kayak on the South Yuba on the perfect day – the summer solstice. Perhaps if we were fast, we would also be invisible. Nobody would notice us slipping past as we clambered down the rocks to the river, silent and slippery like the brown fish.
Yet we were stopped at the top. You are our first line of defense, he said. You understand the river much better than we. We can’t get down there fast enough. You go. Find him, he said: Blue shorts; In his forties.
A group of three standing on the put in rock pleaded with us with their eyes. Find him please. He is a good swimmer. He swims every day. In a pool. He doesn’t understand the river. Blue shorts, 40 something became a person.
Jason told them he could be stranded on a rock. He said the water is warm. There is a chance. But it was a lie. Everybody knew it. Nobody wanted to say it. How could you say it to those eyes? I remained silent. Very silent as if I were only a ghost too.
My timing was off. We peered behind rocks. We strained our eyes to see below the surface. I pleaded with the river to not reveal the blue shorts. I missed strokes. I scrambled from low in the eddy to avoid slipping away. There is no use pleading with the river. It does not care. It does not stop or ease for anyone’s worried mind.
The river becomes choked with rocks. It drops. We could not pass. Nor could a body supporting blue shorts. The walk around was a relief. He could not be there. I could breathe again. I could paddle on the summer solstice without fearing finding those blue shorts behind every rock.
Cory passed us. He had been crying. He had been there to hear the man cry out for help.
A red helicopter thumped through the canyon. Its rhythm beating between the canyon walls before we could see it.
We paddled. We swam. We basked in the sun on a rock. The river was vividly alive, as were we.
He had not been found when we returned for the truck. They were packing up the tents from the parking lot. People milled around, hushed and somber.
Mark Ray. A piano teacher from Manchester, England. Days later the newspaper article was pinned to the park bench by the guard rail.
The following day, June 22, was my grandmother’s 82nd birthday. I knew it would be her last. Early that morning I called to wish her a happy birthday but she could not come to the phone.
The same group of three as the day before on the South Yuba hiked down to Euchre’s Bar on the North Fork of the American to paddle for two days in solitude. After passing through the first canyon of mossy dark walls, green water flowing over glowing white granite and waterfalls I began to cry. This trip is for my grandmother, I said. To Grandma.
She died nine days later. I never had the chance to speak to her.
Helen Tartol – Giant Gap, North Fork of the American River: for you always
July 4th I returned from Chicago after my grandmother’s funeral. On the fifth I drove across the Sierra Nevada to meet some friends on the West Walker River. Past Lake Tahoe,a garbled and distressed voice mail from Jess. I called when I reached Nevada. It took her three tries before I could understand her words through her tears. Sam died kayaking in Norway. My body went cold. Silent tears.
As I slid my boat into the cold desert river I knew that it was not for me. After a quarter mile of the eleven mile rapid that constitutes that stretch of river I got out of my boat and walked back to my truck as the others continued.
Two days later we paddled on the South San Joaquin. Its beauty is breathtakingly alive. I was the river. The river was me and all of us - including Mark, Grandma and Sam.