Two weekends ago we went up to the mountains, just outside of Dahlonega GA, and floated the Chestatee River using inner tubes, various pool toys and one super-cool inflatable seahorse. We even rigged up an inner tube to carry a cooler of beer and dragged an extra inflatable boat to pick up trash (as well as hold our own).
It was great fun. We found a rope swing where you could climb up about six feet on the bank and swing out over the river and drop into a nice pool that was plenty deep for the landing.
What made the whole thing possible is that my wife’s parents own a cabin in the area, which they are kind enough to let us use.
Since this weekend was my father-in-law’s birthday, we decided to head up and do another river run.
I made it through unscathed and I sat in the lower pool waiting for the others.
In short, things started well.
About a minute later a drowning bumble bee somehow climbed out of the river, onto my tube and then stung my right arm.
For most people that’s a moment of discomfort and no big deal. But I’m lucky, I’m allergic to bees so for me it means a moment of discomfort followed by several days of swelling and aching — as I type this my forearm is about one and half times its normal size. Of course it could be worse, I could be “I have to carry an epi-pen” allergic, which, thankfully, I’m not.
Everyone asked if I was okay or if we should turn around. In hindsight, I should have said no, I wasn’t okay and yes we should turn around — not because of me, just because I know what happened next — but I didn’t, so we continued on. [This would have been a great time for the crazy old man of the river to come out of the woods, point a crooked finger in our direction and prophetically croak, “you’re all doomed.” But as far as I know the Chestatee lacks any such character.]
For about an hour it was the same peaceful float we did two weeks ago, a few rapids, long calm stretches where the river is too deep to touch bottom, just lying back in your tube watching the hardwood’s overhanging branches threading across the gray-blue sky. Or the snarled banks choked with laurel and the occasional honeysuckle, roots protruding out like fingers rubbed raw by the passing water.
It’s one of the finest stretches of river I’ve ever been down.
And then we came to the rope swing.
Everything that follows is essentially my fault.
See, I love to jump off of things. Swinging off of things is even better. And if you can dive… If there’s somewhere to jump, swing or dive, I’m probably going to find it.
Of course it’s not the safest thing in the world to do, nor am I the sharpest tool in the shed, but you already knew that much.
When we went down two weeks ago I spied a rope hanging down from a tree. Naturally, I immediately started paddling for the shore. Now I seriously wish I hadn’t, but I did.
I climbed out of my tube and grabbed the rope and walked up the bank. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t reach the handle someone had kindly attached. However there was a bit of rope extending down from the handle, which some other shorter person had no doubt added.
Normally I would have climbed back down the bank and checked to see how far off the ground the little extension of rope would have put me. But for whatever reason I didn’t, I just grabbed it and jumped.
Just below the embankment where you launched from there were some stratified rocks sticking out of the water — fairly sharp, ridged rocks, the sort of rocks that look to have jutted up straight out of the Mesozoic era.
And I hit them. About a millisecond after I jumped I knew I was doomed and I pulled my legs up to my chest as tight as could and tried to control the crash. I hit the rocks hard, but with my feet (the Choco sandals I bought for my trip around the world are still the best purchase I’ve ever made and they allow me to do things like bounce off rocks without a scratch).
As soon as my feet hit the rocks I twisted my body and pushed off out into the deeper water and managed to avoid more serious injury. However, it wasn’t so much my skills or planning that saved me, really it was just dumb luck.
Undeterred (or stupidly if that syntax works better for you) I climbed back up and was joined by a couple of other people from our river party who wanted to give it a try.
Long story short: it turned out that if you were about six feet tall you could reach the handle, if you were five ten like me and someone else put their weight on the rope to stretch it, you could also reach the handle.
If you were five five like one girl who did it, you could be picked up and then grab the rope handle. The problem is that the person picking you up is on a muddy incline and bit off balance themselves.
Which brings us to today.
My wife’s brother Jeremy and I stopped at the swing and his girlfriend, Tova, wanted to give it a try. I held the rope and Jeremy held her up until she could grab the handle. It worked and she swung out over the river and let go. We all had a turn and then another.
We went up for a third try.
Same routine, I pulled the rope as taut as it would go and Jeremy held her up to grab the handle. We both thought she had it, but as Jeremy was starting to let go she said, “no, wait.”
But it was already too late, he couldn’t have held her if he wanted to. Even if he had been able to they both would have fallen and landed on the roots and rocks below.
Instead, Tova swung out about five feet and then her grip slipped and she fell, hard, face first onto the same rocks I had hit with my feet.
When she first came up out of the water I could already see a blue bruise and blood on her leg. I thought for a moment that it was a broken bone sticking up, ready to break through the skin. I went down to help, but there wasn’t much I could do. I figured having a broken bone sticking up and having someone throw up on you was probably worse than just the bone.
I looked around trying to figure out a way off the river and out of the valley. But there wasn’t one. Even if we had a cellphone, there was no way you could fly a helicopter into the riverbed, it was too narrow and overgrown (I bet Kenso could have done it, but he wasn’t immediately available).
The options were: walk upstream or float down. That really isn’t a hard decision if you spend much time thinking about it.
Thankfully the majority of her fall was broken by the innertubes we had stacked below to try and cover the rocks in case of something like what happened. Unfortunately we missed a spot, the center of tubes, and that’s where her knee hit.
Luckily it turned out out that bloody blue bruise I saw wasn’t a broken bone threatening to poke through the skin. Of course that fact that the bruised, bloody contusion was her kneecap didn’t really make things much better.
After a few minutes of evaluating our options, Tova said she felt okay enough to continue down. We took ice from the cooler and put it on her leg and Jeremy walked the rest of way, guiding Tova in the small inflatable boat, with her leg elevated and the ice-pack resting on her knee.
Eventually we got back to the car and got Tova to a hospital where X-Rays determined that she had fractured her patella (kneecap).
Which means Tova floated for over half hour down a river with no painkillers other than ice, with a fractured kneecap.
You wouldn’t be able to do that. I wouldn’t be able to do that. But Tova is considerably tougher than the rest of us and she did it.
I don’t know what will happen with her knee in the long run, hopefully surgery won’t be necessary. I once did something similar skiing and I know how much joint injuries suck. Her leg is currently in one of those super annoying anti-mobility casts that extends from your mid hip to your ankle, which means you can’t drive or really do much of anything.
If you’d like to send a care package or something of that nature, e-mail me and I’ll give you an address. In the mean time hopefully the pain isn’t too bad.
And I have to say, Tova, I think you’re pretty badass for floating the rest of way down the river with a shattered kneecap and a smile. I would have cried the whole way.