Big, cold-hearted river

The author and Cal, just after the rescue

In July and August the eight-mile stretch of the Methow River is picture postcard perfect. Its course from Mazama to Winthrop drops gently and steadily so that the water moves at a friendly summertime rate. It snakes eastward, green and blue where the channel is, bubbly in the shallows, rock and sandbars exposed prettily on the outside curves. Silvery driftwood casually falls across it, randomly piled up as if for a game of pick-up-sticks for giants.

In June, with warm weather causing the heavy melt of the snow accumulated in the mountains over winter months, the river is something else again. It’s deceptive, because the surface of the river is more uniform, the rapids having been washed out by the terrific increase in volume. On its 50-mile journey south it will typically dump 2,000 cubic feet of water every second during July and August into the Columbia River. In June it’s more like 3,500 cubic feet every second.

What was most surprising was how quickly what had been a walk in the park could turn into something else — something deadly. We take risks all the time, right? Crossing a trafficky street is dangerous, but only if you don’t open your eyes and watch the traffic and know that cars can kill. And if there is no traffic, it’s not dangerous. So it was in a relaxed mood of leisure and calm that Karol and I and Cal, my aging golden retriever, walked along a trail that soon came to the Methow River.

The Methow valley is Washington state’s approximation of Sun Valley, Idaho. It’s the summering place of affluent urbanites who want to build a vacation or retirement home a few hours east and north of Seattle. In winter the place hosts the best Nordic skiing in the state. This June day it was sunny and warm. The afternoon light had darkened to orange. Shadows lengthened among the Ponderosa pine. We approached the river, which pulls along at 10-12 miles per hour. It never occurred to me that it could be dangerous.

As we approached to within a few yards of the river bank, I became anxious because I realized two things at once. The first was that I could not see the dog. The second was that I had not really realized the power of the river at this moment compared to the summertime Methow I had experienced many times over the years. Then my visits had been in July and August, a month after the tons of melting snow that has accumulated in the mountains have melted and run off. In August with a staff you can wade across the Methow. But not in early June.

I ran to the river’s edge and saw what I dreaded to see — an overhanging embankment on an outside curve of the river, swift, deep green-blue river flowing fast. And then I saw Cal. He had jumped in, wanting to cool off and had not given a thought to getting out. He was downstream, close to the bank, patiently paddling upstream but steadily losing ground to the strong pull of the current. Only his head was above water, his body being weighted down by the pounds of water trapped in his long hair. What happened next happened fast. I instantly knew both that he would lose to the river and that I could do nothing for him where I was. There was no way that he could crawl out. I plunged into the shrubbery downstream and fought my way to a point on the bank below him. For a few seconds he did not appear.

Then he was there, up water of me. Knowing that I had only this one chance to save him I jumped into the river and immediately found myself in frigid water up to my armpits. To grab the dog I had to move off my unstable footing and float. Now we were both in the current being swept swiftly downstream. I got my hand on flesh and fur and pulled toward shore. This created a bow wave on Cal’s head and drove water up his nose. He shook me off. So we floated downriver for several yards. That’s when I realized that I could drown. The current was pulling me out toward the center the river. I started to swim hard in a ferry angle to the bank. I didn’t know where Cal was. I grabbed for a handhold and pulled grass. I grabbed for another and got stickers. It too pulled away.

I realized that I was involved with forces I had never experienced before. My waterlogged clothes were like a sail in the water. There was no way either I or the dog — aged, beloved, sodden, and dragged down with soaked hair — were going to have any control over the forces acting on us. It wasn’t personal. It was just nature doing its thing. We could die.

The fear of imminent death is a great motivator. I pulled hard for the bank a few feet away. Miraculously, where I fetched up was an eddy, a small patch of still water smaller than a card table top. By some other miracle Cal, who was upriver and close to the bank, hove into view. I grabbed him by the scruff, held on hard, and pulled him into the eddy. So there we were, both of us head above still water but plenty worried. I pulled the grass and brushy stuff away and got a solid handhold on an anchored branch. Then I yelled “Help!” for the first time in my life.

Like a genie Karol appeared. I told her to jump in. Amazingly she did. I thought we would have one chance to heave this sodden dog up onto dry land. I did not have the strength to try it again. With Karol managing his rear end and me hefting the front end, we did it, just barely. Then I clambered out. and reached back to give Karol a hand and a pull.

Crises over. Cal shook himself and wagged his tail. I took a full minute of deep fast breathing to recover.

So what is the learning here? Surely I was stupid not to know that the river at this time of the year was dangerous and inviting to the dog — a dog-logical place to cool off on a hot day. I realized that we were very lucky to have fetched up at an eddy in the river. There was no way either of us could have climbed out, since we were being relentlessly pulled downstream by the current. I was lucky in having Karol, a strong woman, willing to jump in and help. I could not have gotten the dog up and out by myself.

And we were lucky not to have floated down on what river kayakers call a sweeper, a sweeper being a coniferous tree on the river bank that has fallen into the river. They look innocent enough but they are almost perfect drowning machines. The strong current pulls you under the horizontal trunk. The underwater limbs keep you there as you die.

That night I went to sleep thinking about what I would do differently knowing the condition of the river. Put the dog on a leash, stupid. But when I woke in the morning I knew that whatever the river conditions, I would have jumped in in an attempt to save a creature as dear to me as any child of mine.

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