Life Preserver

Last year I had one of my short stories picked up by my favorite outdoors podcast the Dirtbag Diaries and I feel I’d be remiss were I not to post a link to the episode and the transcript. Originally titled “That one Time I Almost Drowned in the Clear Fork of the Brazos,” the tale comes from an upcoming book that chronicles many of the adventures that I’ve had with Nic: My bff, adventure partner, and long-distance heterosexual life mate.

Listen to the episode here.

Life Preserver

Most of my early adulthood featured a nonstop fight with alcohol, drugs, depression, and self-destruction. When I tried to drink my PTSD away, I got discharged from the Air Force for alcohol treatment failure in 2008. Later that year, my wife at the time received a change in duty assignment, so we moved to Abilene, Texas. There, I tried to stop drinking, quit abusing pills, and started taking small steps towards a healthier way of living. 

But when I sobered up, none of my emotional issues went away. My marriage was still a mess, I was still broke, jobless and directionless, and still struggled with crippling depression. 

I felt ready to die at any time. 

Shortly after arriving in Texas, I became friends with Nic. He grew up riding horseback around the desert of West Texas and became a mentor to me in the outdoors and adventure. 

Nic and I had paddled a couple times together before, but I was still brand new to kayaking. One rainy morning, he and I took off in my wife’s truck, Slayer blasting out of the subwoofers, to paddle a stretch of the Clear Fork of the Brazos. We planned to paddle upstream until we got tired, and then drift in the current back to the truck. That’s how we rolled on most of our kayak adventures because we only ever had one vehicle. 

On our way to put in, we passed a group of fishermen sitting at a picnic table. They cautioned us about how dangerous the river was that day.

“You boys got life vests?” they asked.

“I do, he doesn’t.” Nic said, nodding at me. 

It wasn’t just today that I didn’t carry a life preserver. I never brought one. When I bought my kayak, I named her Jenny Colorado, the Red Jenny. But I neglected to buy a life vest, for two reasons. One, I didn’t have the money, and two, given my emotional state, the idea of preserving my life never really crossed my mind. 

I looked at the anglers and shrugged. Mortified, they urged us to take an extra life vest from their boat. We waved and carried on to the put in. 

We had paddled this stretch of the river once before. It resembled most rivers in this area of Texas: shallow, foul smelling, and pretty boring. But storms had just raked this region for the past few days. And when we showed up that morning, in the pouring rain, we found a much different river. 

What had been a placid waterway now gushed with a force that crested both banks and flooded the surrounding lowlands. From the shore, I watched a whole tree – complete with roots and branches – churn downstream. It fully submerged, then shot up into the air and crashed back into the river, the branches a legion of terrified fingers desperately reaching out for anything to hold. 

Nic and I had to shout to hear one another over the surge of water.  

I decided to go ahead and grab the life vest from the fishermen’s boat. — It was a cheap, $5, blaze orange, gas station special. I jammed my lucky tomahawk, which I bring on all my adventures, under my seat. Then we put the yaks in at a large eddy, muttered some weird nervous shit to one another, and pushed out into the torrent. 

I don’t know how Nic felt, but the second we got out into the river I was sure I was going to die.  

Nic took the lead and with panicked strokes I flailed upstream after him. I dodged boulders, logs, and debris. Whirlpools, sometimes three feet wide at the top, materialized next to my paddle, nearly sucking it from my hands. We paddled from bank to bank, moving diagonally to and from safe spots along the shore. We clung to overhanging branches, exposed roots or secure vines to catch our breath. 

We hadn’t been paddling long, maybe 20 or 30 minutes, when we stopped to discuss how deadly the situation was. We hid from the rain under a bridge and checked in with each other to see if we were still feeling suicidal. We absolutely were, so we pressed on. 

Nic (with the bandana) and I on one of our random kayaking adventures, March 2016.

We crossed from right to left, Nic 20 yards upstream of me. He found a limb to hang on to and I caught up a minute later and clung to the topmost branches of an uprooted tree as the water surged around my boat. Nic looked back and shouted, “You good?” 

 “Yeah,” I replied.  . . . 

But I wasn’t. 

I was soaked, dehydrated, confused. My mind felt sluggish. My boat had taken on a dangerous amount of water, and fear crept into my mind. 

Truth be told, I wanted to go back to the truck. I had just opened my mouth to tell Nic, when the current caught my kayak and pitched it onto the limb I was hanging onto.  It only took me a second to realize… I was stuck. The left side of my kayak jammed into the tree branches; the right side now perpendicular to the river’s overwhelming current. I looked down and watched the chalky orange water reach towards the edge of my cockpit, as if in slow motion.  It hesitated, and in that moment, life seemed to pause. Everything went silent, and I felt perfectly calm as I realized what was about to happen. 

And then, time snapped back. The water cascaded into my boat, and my body lurched sideways as the river dragged my kayak first up into the tree and then underwater. My paddle leapt from my hands in the melee, and everything got very, very loud. I yelled “I’m in!” and jumped into the current as my boat capsized.  

I plunged underwater. I couldn’t tell which way was up. Or how far under the surface I was. The current swept me downstream faster than I had ever moved in my shitty little kayak. I worried about rocks and logs and fishing line. All the things that grab legs or shoelaces and drown stupid Midwesterners in violent West Texas rivers. 

When I resurfaced, Nic yelled at me to grab something. I reached up and clasped an overhanging branch. The current swept my legs out from under me, while the weight of my clothes pulled me back down. The only thing that kept my head above water was that bright orange $5 life preserver. I caught a glimpse of something red streaking down the river: my boat. Go Jenny, go! You badass little thing!

Nic yelled at me, “Can you touch the ground with your feet?”

I yelled back. “No!” 

Nic told me to let go and find a place closer to shore where I could get out of the current. 

But I felt like if I let go, I might die. I clung to the branch for dear life.

Nic yelled again, “Keith!! Just, let, go!”

And I did. 

Water filled my ears, nose, and throat. A few yards downriver, I caught another branch. Above the roar of the water and my pounding heart, I heard Nic yell, “Can you touch bottom?” 

I felt around with my feet, and sure enough, I could touch the ground. 

Using the tree limb, I pulled myself slowly out of the current towards shore. My feet sunk into the clay, and I lost a shoe before I grabbed handfuls of grass and drug myself up onto solid ground. 

When he was sure I was safe, Nic took off after my boat.   

I lay there: heaving, convulsing and terrified. Once I caught my breath, I recovered my shoe* and took off downstream at a dead run. I have no idea why I ran. I think I was so scared, I just had to. I ran even though my lungs and throat burned, even though both sides of my body cramped and screamed for me to rest. I found my paddle close to shore and finally caught up to Nic, who had lashed Jenny to his kayak, and found a place to pull out. Once Nic and the boats were back on shore, I collapsed on the ground. After a moment, I took stock of my possessions and realized that miraculously, my lucky tomahawk never came out. 

We broke into hysterical laughter. I guess we were so scared  laughing was all we could do. It’s strange how we process terror.

I took a few minutes to rest and compose myself. Then, we put in again and tenderly hugged the shoreline until the take-out. When we got back to the dock, I tossed the orange life preserver into the bass boat where we had found it. It floated on the water in the hull, looking inane and meaningless. Soaking wet, Nic and I smoked a few cigarettes, and made our way up the muddy bank back to the truck. When we passed the fishermen, we thanked them, avoiding eye contact. Then we loaded up and drove off, blaring Slayer through open windows as we passed through sleepy Texas towns.

It took me a few years to realize how close I’d come to dying that day. At the time, I didn’t value my life enough to think about the risks that my adventures posed. And I took unhealthy risks like that for years. It’s lucky I’m still alive.

Since that day on the Brazos, my battles with depression, anxiety and PTSD have continued– but I’m finally at a place where I want to live this out. I’ve quit drinking and smoking cigarettes, and practice a lot of self-care. I’ve taken up backpacking and blog about my trips and my climbing adventures. I feel invested in myself these days, and I’m eager to see how my future turns out. I want to stick around to see if I finally get that book written, if I go back to school for another master’s degree, and to see all the places I’ll go as a rock-climbing guide. 

Be it climbing, kayaking, snowboarding, or hiking, adventuring comes with inherent risks. But these days, I’m conscious about the risks I take. Because I’m not ready for any adventure to be my last.

My name is Keith Wagner, and this is my Short.

A huge thank you to Cordelia Zars for her edits and revisions, and bringing this story to life. Thank you, as well, to everyone at the Dirtbag Diaries for amplifying and broadcasting the voices and stories of our communities.

** Author’s note: After official publication, it was brought to my attention that at this point in the story, I did not recover my shoe. Rather, I emerged from the river with only one shoe. The other I took off, abandoned there on the river bank: a single water logged testament. A sacrifice to the gods that nearly took me to them that day, and the ones that wouldn’t let me go.

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