Stand Up and Die
The River’s Out to Get Me
Story and Photos by John O’Bryan
What Allison said was, “I didn’t ask you to go at first, because I didn’t think you’d be able to do it.”
What I heard was, “You’re too weak and feeble to do anything like float down a river with me, old man.”
“I want to go,” I said, and the click I heard was the sword of Damocles breaking free from its precarious position overhead. Had I really just committed to floating fifty miles of the most remote river in the Lower 48, the Owyhee, with my daughter? Yes, I had.
I was terrified even before I learned that someone had died on the river that spring, even before I envisioned the flotsam and jetsam of a shattered boat held by the pressure of what amounted to two full-grown cows pressing it against a rock wall.
At the moment, all I knew was what Allison had told me, that there are no roads in or out and you must leave nothing but footprints and take out nothing but your bodily fluids. I was worried (and a little grossed out) by this statement, but the event was still months away and a lot could happen between then and now.
A bunch of others would be on this father-daughter trip, for which my daughter was a third-year guide, but clearly I was the one who would die on the river. It would be hard on Allison to have to pull her dad’s lifeless body out of a rapid but I didn’t care. She had asked me to go and it would serve her right for goading me into coming.
My wife drove me to Horseshoe Bend, where she would hand me off to Allison and the trip would begin. On the way, she asked a number of times if I was doing okay.
“Yes, I’m fine.” I stared straight ahead. “Why do you keep asking?”
“Look at me.”
I turned my eyes toward her but not my head. “Okay, I’m looking. I’m fine. Really.” I bared my teeth.
“Then why are there beads of sweat on your upper lip?”
I yawned and, in a manner as carefree as I could muster, dragged my arm across my lip. “By the way,” I said, “did I tell you that I want my ashes sprinkled on the Clearwater?”
“I knew it,” she said. “I knew that’s what you were thinking about. Just stop it right now.”
“Oh, I’m only making conversation. The passwords to the online bank accounts are in the cupboard and make sure to give Christian mybaseballglove.” I raced to finish the sentence as she reached for the knob on the radio to turn up the volume.
“I have to do something to drown you out,” she said, which struck me as an unfortunate turn of phrase. My lip was wet again.
After an uncomfortable first night, I suddenly found myself sitting in a bright red inflatable kayak, wearing a bright yellow helmet and a bright red life vest, and clutching a bright yellow paddle. The vivid colors should have been my first clue that things don’t always go as planned, because if they did, everyone would be dressed in drab outdoorsy fabric and the kayaks would blend into the environment.
I should have realized that it’s hard to differentiate between a rock and a dead body in a rapid unless the body is wrapped in a kind of neon pigmentation. Anyway, I attempted to maintain a cheerful countenance as I floated a little way from the group, trying to get a feel for the kayak under me.
The teen girls all listened intently as Allison talked about boat safety and how to paddle. When the kids paddled off downstream, I put a paddle into the water and pulled. My kayak spun wildly. I plied the other end of the paddle to slow down the spin. It didn’t help. I plunged my paddle into the water on the port side and the craft slowed to a stop.
I centered myself, pointed the bow downstream, dipped a blade into the water, and pulled. The kayak began turning to the right. I quickly jammed the opposite blade into the water and pulled and it spun wildly again.
As I whirled in the water and got farther and farther from the group, Allison approached and said, “Umm, Dad, you’re holding your paddle backwards.”
“ Makes it more streamlined,” I responded.
“Suit yourself.” She paddled off and once I was sure she couldn’t see, I flipped my paddle over and went after her.
For the first few hours we did nothing but paddle in shallow, barely floatable water, which caused our kayaks to come to a skidding halt often enough that my abs cramped in my attempts to free the boat from the resting part of Newton’s laws of motion.
Apparently, one must “oochie-scooch,” which involves thrusting yourself backwards and forwards in an effort to get the rocks to loosen their grip. The ever-helpful river guides shouted this and other hints at me as they encouraged me to soldier on.
“You can rest when you’re dead,” they consoled me. “Only forty-eight more miles to go.”
It turns out that wearing a tightly wrapped and zipped Coast Guard-approved flotation device does nothing to ensure you won’t get your foot wedged between rocks and drown. For the first few hours it was drilled into everyone’s heads what to do if (or when) we fell out of the kayak in the midst of a rapid. The most important thing you can do, they advised, is get into “river position.”
This involves lifting your feet off the river bottom and pointing them downstream while flailing your arms and keeping your eyes open to see what’s ahead. One must never, ever, stand up. The guides said dads always try to stand up and dads die. Even though I obviously was going to die, something in me nevertheless didn’t want to give the river the satisfaction.
A short while later, when we entered our first rapid, I immediately flipped. I came up in what I’d call an acute river position, with my knees up and feet pointing downstream. On the way down, my posterior bounced off every rock, but there was no way I was going to be foot-entrapped.
All the guides yelled at me at once. In the cacophony, I made out, “Let go of the kayak! Get your feet up! River position! Keep your head up! Breathe! Swim! Don’t swim! Feet up! Let go of the paddle! Hang onto the paddle! River position!”
I did all this at once.
Later, Allison told me I had scared her because I came up wide-eyed and gasping. The wide eyes didn’t surprise me, because all the O’Bryans have wide eyes. The gasping was because I was moments from death by drowning.
I dogpaddled to river right (that’s river-guide speak for the side of the river I was always not next to) and dragged the upper half of my body onto a mossy rock. My legs dangled behind me in the diminishing current. My cheek rested against the slime and my eyes slowly focused as every single teenage girl floated through the raging rapid like they were sitting on clouds, riding a spring zephyr.
One of their kayaks scraped over my semi-lifeless body.
“Oops, sorry. He-he.”
Allison swept up to me in her kayak, which obeyed her every wish. She looked a little wide-eyed herself as she asked, “Are you okay?”
“Go on without me,” I managed. “Leave me here to die.”
She patted my back and told me in low tones that if I didn’t get back into the kayak in less than a minute, she really was going to leave me right where I lay. I dragged myself onto my kayak and let Allison pull me along. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I could feel my legs begin to redden and burn—yet another indignity on this first day of the last week of my life. I hadn’t even made it to camp yet. I hadn’t even used the facilities in the woods.
One thing I realized on the first day was that a river produces an exorbitant amount of sand. It’s everywhere, in everything. It finds its way into each crack and crevice. Another thing, it was hot: on one day at camp, it was 117.7 degrees, which I swear felt like 118.
I don’t remember the first night of the trip other than we ate and slept and sand bugs tried to invade every one of my facial orifices. Even though it was smoldering, I chose to keep a buff over my face so they wouldn’t have the joy of a good night’s sleep in one of the crevices. I remember having only one thought, which was that there were six days left and I wouldn’t make it.
On the second day, the first rapid was called Read It and Weep. I approached it with caution, which I learned later is not how you approach a rapid designed to make you cry. It sensed my trepidation, and I heard it giggle just before it lured me into a false sense of security and sucked me into a sinkhole the size of ten commercial washing machines. I nearly drowned again and then wept silently, secure that no one could differentiate between my tears of sorrow and the river’s tears of mirth.
On the second rapid, I flipped again. And on the third rapid—I flipped. I think it’s generally understood that if someone goes down for the third time, they’re not coming back up. But I survived the odds, thanks to my bright red lifejacket.
Here’s a peculiar thing about all this: I am an athletic guy. I played college baseball. I’m a good golfer. I can juggle. I win at pickleball most of the time. I can do a few sleight-of-hand tricks and I think my hand-eye coordination is excellent for a man my age. I even own a drift boat, although that isn’t the same as a kayak. My kayak, engineered to be a boat, was more like an unruly toddler who, no matter how hard I tried to reason with it, would do the exact opposite of what it was told.
I was sure I had gotten a defective one, or even a possessed one, because it was actively trying to kill me. No matter how hard I tried to avoid a big rock downriver in a rapid, using back strokes and front strokes and side strokes and high-siding and panicking, the kayak was attracted to the stone like it was magnetic. A rock meant one of two things: getting stuck or flipping, neither of them a good option.
Thankfully, there is flat calm at the end of every rapid. Of course, at the end of every flat calm there is a rapid. As I floated quietly along, whenever I heard the telltale whisper of an approaching rapid, I would turn my face to the sky and whisper, “Please, no.”
At the second camp, I dragged my dry bag and poop tube (yes, everybody had one that we were required to identify with a name, mine dubbed, “Bad Disneyland,”) up to the place Allison had designated. I collapsed on the ground in a stupor until my wits returned with the realization that gnats were accumulating on the many cuts to my legs. Like a water buffalo too far gone to care, I let them feast. Something may as well benefit from all this.
I looked at my foot and wondered where a good spot would be for a bullet to go through it without causing too much damage. I didn’t bother searching for my revolver because I didn’t have it with me. I hadn’t even brought a knife on this survival trip, and I didn’t think a sharp stick would cause enough damage to get me airlifted out. Anyway, I didn’t have a knife to sharpen a stick.
On the third morning I awoke sore and defeated, but this was the day of the Weeping Wall, where a miracle happened.
The Weeping Wall is a vertical rock face two hundred feet high that is as dry as a bone until it reaches about forty feet from the base of the cliff. There, the water runs out the side of the cliff like so many shower nozzles and it is thick with greenery. It’s an oasis, cold and refreshing.
We filled our water bags, which are called ticks because they look like bloated ticks, and bathed our hot stinking bodies. The water was amazingly clean and revitalizing. Even though it was morning, the air was already turning warm. I leaned into the mossy wall, let the water run over my head, and tried not to think about the day to come.
A glimmer of hope lit. Live in the moment. The kayak doesn’t exist. The river doesn’t exist. Only now exists. I tried to physically relax and not think about anything except the moment, which could last forever if I wanted it to. This didn’t work. When I opened my eyes, the kayak and the river were still there. I sighed, pushed myself out of the water and slipped back down to my rubberized coffin.
When I climbed in, it squeaked at my weight and I felt the now-familiar sore spots as they settled against the hot plastic. I pushed off and spun in an uncontrolled arc into the calm water. Nearby, the teenaged sprites glided and giggled over the water on their plastic clouds.
My kayak bobbed unsteadily, threatening to tip me out—and then something happened. I made a conscious decision. I told myself there would still be fear, maybe even terror at the rapid we were about to enter, but I was going to enjoy it. I was going to lean into the fear. At this, my paralysis suddenly was dispelled.
I pushed by Todd, who stood in the shallows as our gatekeeper at the rapid, which I attacked with a furor yet unknown to me. I hit the primary drop and the first thing that happened was—I flipped. Right over. I came up, but not wide-eyed this time beyond the normal O’Bryan wide eye. Amazingly, I wasn’t afraid. I was exhilarated and not a little mad that I had been dumped out of my coffin.
One of our guides screamed, “You stopped paddling!” and gave me a thumbs up.
I stored away that bit of information, retrieved my kayak, kicked it a few times to teach it a lesson, grabbed my camera, and took pictures of the sprites and their dads as they made their way unscathed through the rapid.
Over the next four days, I went down countless rapids and flipped a total of zero times. Don’t get me wrong: after my revelation at the Weeping Wall, I didn’t become the most graceful kayaker ever. But I was a kayaker. I could actively avoid most rocks and when I didn’t, I learned to use the rock to aid me on my way down the rapid. Maybe I was just becoming better acquainted with the spoiled child that was my kayak or maybe I just got lucky. Or maybe, just maybe, I needed to learn a lesson.
As I mentioned, my mind and body have always been good at doing things like this. Had I been able to approach the challenge with confidence from the first stroke of the paddle, I might have learned a lesson different from and not so impactful as this one had been.
In any case, what had started out as a complete beatdown turned out to be a glorious river trip. From the Weeping Wall onward, each evening I had nothing but personal highs to talk about. I watched the sun rise from a dome called Chalk Basin, caught an inordinate number of smallmouth bass, sat in a hot spring, saw soaring cliffs and deep pools, and throughout the rest of the days, I had the best time with my daughter.
What started out as a bad dream ended up an amazing trip—which I would do again in a heartbeat.
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