One time that I was scheduled to safety boat on a Chattooga section IV trip, I didn't feel so hot. But paddling my kayak down the river and assisting the trip was physically and mentally easier for me than taking a raft full of customers, so I thought I could do it even though I was a little under the weather. I launched at the 76 bridge and escorted the trip through Screaming Left Hand Turn and Woodall Shoals. After Woodall I started feeling worse.
When we got down to Seven Foot Falls I ran the rapid successfully, and was sitting in the eddy as assigned, ready to collect paddled and passengers in the event of a flipped raft. I had already been nauseous, but I began to feel feverish and dizzy. I wasn't able to focus my eyes very well, and my balance was shaky. I began to question my ability to help in an emergency. I thought I could still paddle the river, but I wasn't sure that I could be an effective safety boater. I was more likely to need a rescue than to provide one. When the Trip Leader came down, I let him know how I was feeling. The decision was up to him.
I was given two options, neither of which did I like. One option was to ride in a raft with another guide and crew, and the other option was to hike out. Paddling out and just not working as safety boater was not an option in the eyes of my trip leader. Riding out in a raft is hard and abusive, because the rapids are rough down there, and the crews are poor at keeping their seats. Most injuries occur because someone lands on someone else and hurts them. So that didn't sound so good to me. I chose to hike out.
The hike from Seven Foot is fairly long. The Chattooga is a federally designated Wild and Scenic River with a buffer of wild and roadless space around it. It would have been easy to get out back at Woodall, but I had not been ready yet to admit that I was ill.
I began trudging up the steep wooded slope (river left in the photo above) toward the forest service road that I knew was about 1.5 miles from where I was. I was able walk short distances feeling all right, but then suddenly I would be hit with an attack of nausea. When the nausea hit I would curl on the ground in fetal position and wait for it to pass. I have no idea how long it took for an attack to pass, I only know that while I was down there on the ground, I would pay attention to the convulsions of my gut and to the pain. It hurt but the pain seemed far away. After lying for a while I would gradually regain my clarity and strength. When I felt better, I'd sit up, and look around. If I still felt better, I'd get on my feet again and walk to the next rise of the trail. I kept going on in small increments except when the nausea stopped me. Meanwhile the raft trip was headed downstream, without a safety boater.
I have no idea how long it took me to get to the road. I think it was a long time. I was surprised to find that my mind was alert, high focus in spite of my fever. While I was on the ground I studied the leaves and insects. The ants and spiders were endlessly fascinating and beautiful to me. I felt the sun and breezes on my skin. I watched the shadows of the leaves, and the patterns of the sky. I was calm, quiet, and determined. I didn't really mind being sick, it was just another experience. I knew I would get out, eventually.
And I did. When I got to the dirt USFS road, there was no one there. I was not certain which way I was supposed to walk on the road. I was pretty sure of which way was out, though, so I continued walking as I could, and resting in fetal position when overcome. I was up on the road for at least an hour when the first vehicle came along, a small beater pickup truck.
The driver was a photographer for one of the other rafting companies. He was finished shooting and headed home. I told him what had happened, and he told me what time it was. Late! My river trip should have been back at the outpost for at least two hours, time enough that they could have come to get me. I wondered if they'd had trouble on the river.
Once safely dropped off back at the outpost I went to bed. The other guides that had been on my trip came and found me that evening, apologizing for having forgotten to come get me. They had finished the trip, complete with big rapids and lots of excitement, and when they got back to the outpost they had continued with the usual routine, cleaning lunch pails and putting away equipment as usual. If I had been healthy, like the photographers, I would have beaten the trip back to the outpost, and most likely I was fogotten because the river runners were accustomed to anyone hiking out from that location being home before they were.
If I had not been able to finish the hike to the road, or if I had missed that one vehicle that travelled that road that afternoon, I could have been out there overnight. Eventually someone would have missed me, but at the time, my feelings were hurt. They forgot to come get me. These people who I knew would risk their lives to save me on the river, had been so accustomed to their routine that they had put me right out of their minds.
But the stronger memory and wonder of that experience was discovering that being ill was not so bad. I could lay there and feel my guts twist, my brow sweat, my eyes blur, and still be happy. I watched the insects and smelled the brown earth and I was glad to be alive. I felt connected to everything. I knew I would not die that time. And I was glad to be alone in the forest.