Jody Zirelli: Life jacket lesson
Summer fun in the High Sierra draws both the experienced and the amateur outdoors persons, but caution cannot be emphasized enough for the importance of wearing a life jacket when going into the lakes or rivers. Each year, tragically even the hardiest can succumb because of cold water, shock and hypothermia. Even though I swim an hour a day in Donner Lake from June to September, I always know to wear my NRS life jacket whether I am kayaking or swimming. Nonetheless, last year I nearly had a disastrous ending when I tried to kayak in the Truckee River.
It was August and I thought I could easily navigate the Truckee River in my inflatable Hobie kayak. A lady friend of mine wanted to go with me, and she was planning to float in her grandkids’ rubber inflatable tire. We debarked from where the bicycle bridge meets the Legacy Trail east of town. We had roped our floats together, but very quickly we encountered trouble.
Instead of me leading and her following, we kept getting turned around and I was behind her and going backwards. We quickly agreed to remove the ties so we could float separately. All was good until we came to our first rapid or two. After my friend slammed into some large boulders, she realized the rubber tube was not ideal for protecting the bones of a senior citizen. To her credit, she decided to get out of the river before hurting herself any further.
So now I was floating alone without a partner. And the adventure really started. I hit every huge boulder there was no matter how hard I tried to paddle and go around. I had removed the rudder and fin propellers that normally make the Hobie navigational on lake water. If these devices had been left secured, they would have hung too low under my boat and I would have gotten stuck on the rock bottom.
I believe I had only gone two tenths of a mile before I hit the “mother” rock dead center. I had T-boned into the rock straight on. In a millisecond, my boat was taking on water from the rear. I watched helplessly as all the things I had not secured and bungee-corded were leaving the boat. I felt my paddle go out of my left hand. I reached to my left over my boat as far as I could in the rushing water but knew it was gone. Because I had literally rammed into this huge rock, the way it was taking in water from the back, the boat turned sideways to my right, upside down. Like in slow motion, I felt the sickening emotions — “Here we go” and “I’m screwed.”
I was completely in the river being pulled away from my kayak. Desperation hit me of wanting to keep ahold of my boat but being pulled quickly away by the current. I felt so helpless. I saw my kayak was stuck parallel to the boulder, caught in a whirlpool.
There was no buddy to call for help. There was no one nearby to see me struggling. It was solely up to me not to panic. The current sent me swiftly down the river, pushing me at least three or four times completely under water. I knew it was extremely important to keep paddling with my hands and feet to avoid slamming into any rocks. And even though I was wearing a life jacket, I was still being forced under the water. All I know is I was so grateful I had put my life jacket on for this escapade at the very beginning.
As soon as I could, I swam diagonally to the shore where I could climb out. This was not easy as the current was taking me downstream. I was drenched and I had no cell phone, no car keys, no towels — nothing.
Everything had been put in dry bags but they had fallen out of the boat. I climbed up an embankment. When I got to the top, I saw the Legacy Trail. There I asked people walking by if they had seen my friend and described the clothing she was wearing. I asked a young man on a bicycle going in the direction of my friend to look for her and tell her to come back to my location. This young fellow was super! He immediately asked me if I was OK. As asked, he went on his short mission, and my friend returned.
In our planning, with one person leaving her car at the end of our floating expedition, and leaving my car at the beginning, we needed car keys. However, the keys had been placed in our dry bags which were now floating down the Truckee River.
So here is the lessons learned from my adventure. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to wear a life jacket in the river or on the lake no matter what. It may be 90 degrees here, but the water is 50 to 60 degrees. People die because they fall in the cold water and their muscles lock up and they go into shock. It is the most common cause of death in lakes and rivers. Another girlfriend experienced this years ago, when she deliberately jumped off her boat into Lake Tahoe thinking she was going to cool off with a quick swim. Luckily she had on her life jacket. She told me afterwards that she would have drowned otherwise.
Secondly, even though we had been cautious putting our valuables in dry bags for safety, we failed to secure these items to the kayak. Fortunately, a fisherman plucked our bags out of the river downstream as we were walking on the trail. And I remembered I had put a spare car key in my vest.
It doesn’t hurt to put your name and contact information to call in case of an emergency in or on your life jacket.
Finally, the good ending to my story is that we survived the ordeal. Several hours later, we found good Samaritans pulling my kayak out of the water where I had overturned originally. I lost one of my hearing aids, a towel, a sun shirt, and my paddle, but this was nothing compared to our lives. So please heed my lesson, be safe on the water, and wear your life jacket.
Jody Zirelli is retiree since 2005 from the Bay Area and a Tahoe Donner resident since 1988
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