Our life jackets saved us

Our life jackets saved us

‘Just like that, we were forced upon the cottonwood and into the water. Our canoe was flipped, with my end towed under the big tree.’

VERNON — I'm super fussy about wearing Coast Guard–approved personal flotation devices when I'm aboard any type of boat. Today, while paddling on the Connecticut River, we lost my husband Wayne's phone, our water bottle, a towel, and our canoe; but our life jackets may have saved our lives.

We started out later than planned - one day later, to be exact. Wayne, always the heavy lifter, put our red Old Town Penobscot canoe on the car while I loaded the paddles and jackets. When we arrived at the Vernon Dam, a canoe and a boat were already in the water.

Wayne might say that I am paranoid about entering the water for such activities, but I think of it as being prepared. I worked as a Red Cross–certified water safety instructor for seven years.

I had previously loaned my jacket, and I complained that I couldn't get it readjusted. Wayne, knowing that I wasn't going anywhere without a perfect fit, patiently helped me to refit it.

I always tie a whistle to my jacket strap and mentioned to Wayne, “Wouldn't it be great if they had a waterproof phone pocket on life jackets?”

* * *

The island in the river across from the Cold Brook is in bloom with colors of purple, lavender, red, and white. I was already planning my blog post, and this was my first picture. The river seemed calm with only a slight current, which made taking pictures of wispy goose feathers floating on top of the water a bit challenging.

The river is clear with long, green weeds growing on the bottom that are interspersed with the gravel and submerged trees. The banks are a mix of sandy beach and large outcroppings of smooth rock. Near the beginning of Stebbins Road, there is a river overlook where a cable ride to the other side used to be. I snapped a picture of a survey pin (?) installed in the rock.

We came across a camp of several tents with children and adults as they were just getting off of their boat. I asked if I could include them in my blog, and they happily agreed.

Wayne, who always paddles from the back, gave me updates as to where he thought we were on the river. We passed a beautiful waterfall, and he believed we were behind the post office.

We were taking our time, but mindful that strong storms were predicted for the afternoon.

“Can you go towards that cottonwood so I can take a picture with the mountain behind?” I asked, more focused on getting a great picture than the changing river current as we neared the tree.

Wayne was the only one paddling when he alerted me that the current was taking the canoe. I stuffed the phone between my jacket and my shirt and attempted to help us break clear of the growing current.

It was too late.

* * *

Just like that, we were forced upon the cottonwood and into the water. Our canoe was flipped, with my end towed under the big tree.

When I came up, I saw that Wayne and I were both fighting to not go with it. My jacket kept me upright and I was bracing myself against the current on a log. The log wasn't fixed, and the current was pushing it up against the tree.

I believe that the canoe getting hung up, and the fact that I was wearing my jacket, are the reasons that I was kept from being dragged under the tree. I could reach a tangle of branches beneath my feet and searched for more stable ground.

Wayne was closer to shore, but he was also chest deep and fighting a significantly stronger undertow. He was holding onto the end of the canoe, which was pitched up closer to the surface of the water.

We were in trouble, coping with our sudden baptism, assessing the danger, and trying to determine if the canoe could be salvaged.

* * *

At one point, Wayne was pulled back under while trying to upright the canoe. When he came up, his glasses were falling off of his face, and I yelled for him to bite them! It's odd what you say and do during a crisis, and for some reason I thought that it was a good time to tell him I had lost the phone. Wayne wasn't too happy about that development.

We fought and fought for all we were worth to free the canoe. At times we thought we were making progress, but the ribs of the boat broke free. In one last-ditch effort, we found the handle at the bow and pulled as hard as we could, only to have the entire boat, though now upright, pinned under the tree.

We were both exhausted, and I told Wayne to leave the canoe, that we needed to try to get ourselves to safety. We could see a path on the opposite bank, so we began to work our way toward that landmark.

The more we progressed toward the middle of the river and away from the tree, the shallower and calmer the water became.

We were able to walk most of the distance, we swam in a few spots, and we found that the path was a steep deer trail. After we managed to navigate the bank, we found ourselves in a large field with weeds that were over our heads.

Each of us carried our paddles. You see, during the struggle, both Wayne and I had thought to retrieve our paddles and place them in the tree for safekeeping. Having my paddle while trying to get away from the current was a huge help, as I used it like a hiking pole by sticking it into the river bottom.

* * *

At the opposite side of the field, we reached a farm road, and we walked on it right up to Beth Eriksson's front yard. Beth was standing there holding a box of something from her garden looking calm as a cucumber, completely refreshed, with impeccable hair and a big smile on her face. I looked like a drowned rat covered in river muck and farm weeds.

I waved my paddle in the air to gain her attention. I love Beth - there is no other way to put it. Without hesitation, she offered up the pristine back seat of her car, saying that it happens a lot. She put down a blanket, and we climbed in (paddles, jackets, glasses, ball caps, mud, and all).

Beth, with her COVID-19 mask on, drove us back to the dam. Wayne discovered that he still had his sunglasses in his pocket and by some miracle we both had our car keys. (If I forgot to say thank you before you pulled away, Beth - thank you for your amazing calm demeanor and generosity.)

So here I am two hours later writing my blog from the comfort of our office chair. Wayne has a nasty scratch and bruise under his arm and one on top of his shoulder.

He is on his way to Tractor Supply to find a come-along because being a Navy Veteran (a submariner, ironically) he refuses to leave his boat in the river.

I'll leave the logistics up to him. I'm not going back today. My ribs are sore.

And my life jacket is still wet.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates