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Life and a Canoe

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Coke Newell

You may think me impertinent, but I feel compelled to explain something about the burial of my five-year-old boy last month. It was an extremely difficult moment in my life and one which will, no doubt, push its way back into my conscience for many years to come.

Horrific, yes, but I think it saved his life.

Fortunately, the burial I speak of was only temporary.

We were navigating an aluminum canoe down the Cache la Poudre River in northern Colorado, the same one a discordant and solitary Robert Conrad plies in the opening episode of Centennial. With me were my three boys, ages ten, eight and five, and our guide, an experienced boatman. The Poudre was running high in its banks, swollen and muddy, and moving its seasonal cargo with all the impatience of a new blender.

I was in front, and as we came swiftly into a blind turn in the river I over-reacted with my oar, spinning the craft broadside into the current. Although we struggled to regain control, we pivoted around backwards and slammed into the far bank of the river, where the limbs of a giant willow arched out only a couple of feet above the swirling current. The first branches stole my hat, then raked across us furiously. I fought for a grip and thought of my children as the river rushed in over us, ripping the canoe from under us and pulling us into the depths.

In a moment I bobbed to the surface, where I could hear my eight-year-old screaming for me in terror. I could just see him over the bulk of my life jacket, clinging frantically to the deep ridges of bark on the old willow. His brothers and our guide were not in sight.

My body raced down river and I slammed into another limb, this one half-submerged in the swollen current and forming the epicenter of a large whirlpool. A few feet away on the same limb were my other two boys. The ten-year-old was pulling himself from the current and onto the limb. My littlest boy was struggling to move but I could see the half-submerged canoe had hit him in the back and was pinching him against the tree in the vise of its pressure. He was conscious, but his lips were turning bluish and he was silent, his little fingers gnawing desperately at the dispassionate shroud of the limb.

I had seen something like this before; another time, another river, when the force of the current had wrapped our rubber boat around a rock like the wrapper on a piece of old taffy. It had taken the winches on two trucks to pull the raft free. I lunged for my son and tugged him toward me with one arm. Then the canoe hit me.

I could feel what it was doing to my legs, but I was trapped between the limb and the force on my thighs. I could tell very well by the pressure that if the canoe somehow shifted to a point much lower on my legs, either on its own or by invitation of some careless move of mine, it would snap them like a pair of twigs, likely leaving me unconscious and doubtless drowning me.

As the canoe pressed its way into me, I clung to my boy, snuggling his body to mine. Then I realized that the canoe was clearly lurching toward the bottom. But instead of just slipping down my legs, it was sucking us down with it, inch by slow inch.

I thought of my choices: I could just hang on to my boy and hope someone got to us before the canoe and the river did, or I could try to lean forward, push myself underwater beneath the limb that held us prisoner and hope the undercurrent detached us from the grip of the boat, swept us free...and let us back up without it.

The greater risk seemed to remain where we were, sinking slowly, inevitably, into the deep. I spoke to my little boy, trying to beam a shot of courage into his wild and terrorized eyes, pushed up against the limb with my right hand, and sent us under.

He dug his little fingers into me, stiffened and tried to fight. I kicked boldly at the boat and soon felt it slip away under my legs. Within seconds we bobbed to the surface and began to drift, exhausted, toward the opposite bank. I held my boy to my chest, his cheek next to mine, and stroked his hair.

In the end, I lost only my hat.

There are many lessons that can and have been learned from accidents like this one. A few of them concern boating technique or preparation. But some of them are merely analogies and have little or nothing, really, to do with boating. It's one of those parallels that keeps disturbing my sleep:

Sometimes it takes drastic action to save one of our children from peril, peril that is not always physical in nature. Many are the times when our children's spiritual or emotional lives risk being battered and sucked into the depths of destructive and uncaring currents. Sometimes the threats, like that submerged tree limb, are inconspicuous or deceptive. Likewise, sometimes the counter-measures we take only seem drastic at first.

Only you and I, the parent, can decide which risks are too great, which currents unsafe, which outcomes unwanted. But a choice we must make: this child is my child, not his fourth grade teacher's; your child, not her friends'.

I love this child. Others only expend energy. It may take an act of great will, a decision that runs counter to the popular current - moving, religion, home schooling, killing the TV, whatever - to save your child from the forces that could pull him under and destroy him.

Only you can decide. Only you should decide.

As for me, I saved my little boy once. I will do everything in my power to do the same for him -- and his brothers -- every time.

Copyright by Clayton C. Newell
Reprinted with permission