IHTM: I Almost Died on a Kayaking Trip

"I thought you were dead,” my guide said. “I thought we were going home with one less kayaker.”
Publish date:
May 18, 2014
death, kayaking, river, trip

As a fit 38-year-old single woman from Manhattan, I was too tall and old to be a damsel. But feeling vulnerable from a breakup, I wanted to meet a manly-man type who could coax me back into an active life.

So I joined an outdoor club, where I developed a friendship with Dorothy, a fearless rock-climbing chick, who raved about the kayak trips advertised on the group's Facebook page. I googled the guide, a lifeguard and professor who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. In pictures, he wore a grin surrounded by blondish stubble as he jumped off waterfalls.

When I first met him on a trip, I noticed the toddler-sized dent in his SUV. Stocky and in the bloom of his thirties, he greeted me with a hearty handshake. He joked about run-ins with the police, who followed his exploits on social media.

As a lonely person with a job at a senior center, I was drawn to combustible people who made me feel alive -- separate from my solid Indiana parents who had been married 40 years and drove a Buick to church. I signed up for a second trip near Cold Water, New York, and arrived late. My guide -- the guide -- took me anyway. "Have you been in a kayak before?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said trying to smile. "With you a few weeks ago."

He didn't remember. I hopped into a yellow kayak and caught up to Dorothy. She noted a stormy sky. We could have ended the trip, but my guide continued around Constitution Island, which was no longer really an island. Because the railroad filled in the eastern waterway, we were at a dead end. He instructed us to lift our kayaks out of the Hudson and carry them across active tracks into the marsh. A northbound train stopped to avoid collision. I was stunned. The train moved on.

My guide put my craft in the water and assisted someone else. In the marsh, I tried to steer, but a current pulled me against the train trestle, a bridge that supported two sets of tracks over the marsh and river.

“Are you alright?” my guide asked.

“I think so,” I said. I grabbed the bridge with my hands, but the force sent me lifejacket-deep in the cold. It was high tide. Marsh water rushed toward the Hudson, threatening to carry me with it.

“I’m in,” I said. I grabbed the rim of the bridge as the kayak whisked away below. My legs piked forward toward the river. My left sandal fell off. I feared I would get sucked under the trestle where there was no space to lift my head. Hanging from the bridge, I looked up to my guide who had docked his boat and run to the trestle to rescue me.

His face reminded me of my brother's -- we were a family, a team. He lay on his belly, unable to reach me. "What if I let go?" I said. "I can swim."

"There's a fence on the other side of the bridge," he told me. "You'll get smashed against it. There's a concrete support in the middle. If you can inch to your left on your forearms, you can get on it, and we can pull you."

I began to move. Pebbles entered my mouth. My left hand slid on algae. My bare foot touched a rock that rolled away. Two guys stood on the concrete column and reached for my arm. One grabbed my wrist and pulled until I was safe on the bridge.

"I thought you were dead,” my guide said. “I saw you go toward the bridge, and I saw all the scenarios, and none of them were good. I thought we were going home with one less kayaker.”

My hand was bleeding. I couldn't feel it. While the guys tried to free the boat, I watched the empty tracks. Then I saw the trees change, leaves blowing in sequence, and heard the engine. "Train!" I yelled.

A woman from the group put me in her kayak while she walked back. I wanted to be on land, but she reminded me I only had one shoe. We arrived at our destination after dark. I hugged my guide in the parking lot, feeling like my legs were disconnected from my body. "Thank you so much," I said. "You saved me." Our moment on the bridge felt intimate to me, but my guide backed away.

“That was the closest one yet. I really need to get insurance," he said, to my astonishment.

Dorothy offered to drive me halfway home, but I didn't know if I trusted her anymore. See, though she hadn't exactly directed our trip, she was a leader in the club. Without any complaints, she let us go over the bridge into high tide, before a storm. Alone, I took a seat on the Metro North back to Manhattan.

"Ticket," the conductor said. "I had a bad time on the Hudson," I told him, showing my damp pass.

“That was you?” he asked. “You were with that group! You’re lucky the driver of this train put the brakes on. We hit a girl there last week. From what the girl was wearing, it looked like she was a kayaker.”

“I was underneath the bridge,” I said.

“Choose how you want to die," he told me. "Above or below." (I.e., did I want to die above the bridge by getting hit by a train, or below the bridge by drowning?)

The conductor continued down the aisle. He took my stomach with him. At home, I thanked my guide in an email. I was relieved to be alive, but Dorothy tagged me in a pre-accident Facebook photo that made me feel sick: “Ann had a rough night."

The next morning, I expected my guide to refund my rental fee. I wanted his apology. When I didn't get one, I checked his LinkedIn profile. Somehow my brain had danced over the fact that my guide was a lawyer and elected official seeking re-election. He was no hero. He was tidy, not admitting his wrongs in email, which could hold him legally responsible for negligence.

Two days after the accident, fury sunk in. I reported my guide to a local police sergeant. Like the Hudson, I realized I flowed both ways. I could hug my guide like he was Tarzan, but I also turned him in. The sergeant left unreturned messages on my guide's voicemail, warnings to stay off train property. Dorothy continued to Facebook me. "You're too sensitive," she wrote in a note that got me shaking in anger. I broke ties with her too.

Now a year later, I rarely think of the details. Yet when a mentor, my former karate coach, pressed me to make a financial investment, I smelled danger. "Do you want to be someone who plays it safe?" she asked.

"I want to be someone who doesn't hang off bridges," I told her. We embraced and said goodbye.