Death Falls

As a child, all I did was play soccer. I would go out to the backyard in the afternoon and wouldn’t come in until I could not see the ball anymore. If it was pouring down rain, you could find me in the garage banging the soccer ball against the wall and working on my traps and moves until my parents came home.

Every weekend involved packing up the car and driving to our next destination. We traveled across Washington during the regular season and once summer came we stretched out to Oregon. Summer was tournament season; it was full of multiple games a day, miles and miles of traveling, and many stays at hotels ranging from the good to the bad.

For one tournament, we went to Mt. Hood, Oregon. A poll was sent out to the team to see how many girls and parents would like to take an extra day of traveling to go white water rafting. It was something my team has done before, but this was my first time experiencing it. My dad and I packed an extra day’s worth of clothes and we took off around 7:30am for Oregon.

As my coach said in an email, “because the temperature at the tournament, the girls will need to continue to hydrate, so we probably won’t pass too many rest stops,” and boy was he right.

When it comes to long car trips, my dad and I are experts. Every summer my dad, mom, three brothers, sister, and I would pack into our mini van and drive down to California to visit family. When it came to rest stops, it was a harsh rule. If you wanted to drink the Capri-sun in the cooler, you could have it, but “we’re not stopping this car until we reach our planned rest stop, so you better be able to hold it!”

It’s nothing unusual if you’re used to traveling with a big family. If we stopped every time someone had to go to the bathroom, the seven of us would never even make it out of Washington. After downing as much water and Gatorade as I could on the way to Oregon, I now knew why my mom always made that rest stop rule. What should’ve been a two-hour car ride felt like we could’ve drove to California and back before we made it to White Salmon, Oregon.

As everyone made their way along I-5 South and I-84, we arrived at our meeting destination: the McDonalds at Bingen, Washington. Bingen is a small city on the Washington side of the White Salmon River. We grabbed a bite to eat before heading across the river to our rafting spot. During lunch, some of the girls who went last time were sharing their experiences. By the end of it, we were all excited and ready to head over.

Once we made it to the raft shop, we all got into our rafting group, geared up, and went outside to get our quick rafting instructions. We learned the correct way to paddle, the safety features on the raft, and what kind of waters to prepare for. After we made sure our life vests were nice and snug, we went down to the river, loaded up the rafts, and pushed off the edge, letting the power of the water drag us down the river.

As we drifted, the river invited us to calm waters. That was soon cut short as we went through our first rapid. As we were approaching, we could hear our rafting instructor yelling, “paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” We were just a foot away from the rapid when we could feel our raft getting sucked into it. We were instructed to stop paddling and enjoy the ride. Our raft would roll over the crushing water, as the front of the raft would point up to the sky and slam back down, spraying water all over us.

It was nothing my dad and I weren’t used to. When we traveled to California every summer, we all spent a majority of the time in the ocean boogie boarding, surfing, and body surfing. We’ve all had our fair amounts of major wipeouts.

If it wasn’t my oldest brother wiping out on a huge wave and banging his face on the bottom of the ocean floor, it was one of us crashing into the others on their board because they couldn’t get out of the way quick enough.

And then there’s me who decided to ignore my sister’s advice of sticking with her while a giant wave passes by (rule number one of what not to do). Once I saw how big that wave was going to be, the last thing I wanted to do was stay there and meet that wave in any form. As I made the terrible decision to turn my back to the wave (rule number two of what not to do) and head to shore, I quickly learned that I couldn’t outrun a wave.

I take a quick glance backwards just in time to see my sister and brother peacefully float over the wave as the wave grows twice as big and ready to crash right on top of me. With my eyes growing bigger than the wave, my scream is drowned out by the crashing sound of water.

As I make my mile long journey back to the towels where my mom and her brother are crying from laughing so hard after being washed down the beach, I remember thinking to myself, “this is the worst day ever.”

With 9+ years of experience in the ocean and wipeouts like those, I realized that these rapids were nothing to be afraid of. It was like a ride at the fair. Each rapid is giving its best shot to throw us around and maybe even make us fall out, but the raft was filled with excitement and laughter.

As we continued our journey down the river, we pulled over to the side of the river to a cliff. Our rafting guide explained to all of us that this is a great place to jump off and go for a swim. As we all climbed our way up to the top of the 20 foot cliff, we looked down to the freezing water below us. This was the first time on the trip that I started feeling nervous. I found my dad and asked if he was going to jump off.

“Heck yeah!” he said with excitement, and that settled it. If he was going to jump off, then I am too. As I walked to the edge, I didn’t know what I was more afraid of, how high up we were, or how cold the water was going to be.

Either way, I took a deep breath, made sure my life vest was nice and snug, and made the jump. In two seconds my feet were met with a burst of cold until a millisecond later my whole body was consumed by water. I popped back up, swam as fast as I could to shore, and climbed back into line. What a rush that was!

As everyone made their last few jumps, we all got back into our rafts and continued down the river. We were met with some more rapids, a few small drops, and then we pulled over once more.

“We’re going to stop over here. There’s a waterfall up ahead. If you want to go down it, stay here and we’ll go over the safety instructions. If you don’t, feel free to follow Chris up to the bridge. You can watch the rafts go down from there.”

When our instructor first said this, I immediately knew I didn’t want to go, I just had a bad feeling about it. As my friends and teammates were taking count of who’s going and who’s not, I put myself down as a no.

I had no interest in going, but those who were going begged me to go.

“Please?! It will be so much fun! You’ll regret not going!”

After a few minutes of persuasion, I decided to go. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I asked my dad if he was going with his rafting group and he said yes. He’ll be going a couple rafts after me.

Those who weren’t going headed up to the bridge to watch. Those of us staying went to our rafts and listened to our instructions.

“As we paddle out to the fall, we must do a short burst of speed to help us go over. I will scream ‘GO’ so you know when to paddle and ‘NOW’ when it’s time to get ready to go down. When I say ‘NOW’, I want you to jam your feet into the cushions in front of you, tuck yourself on the ground between the seats, and grab the rope and side with the paddle in the raft.”

Once we practiced it a few times, we felt ready to do the real thing. Our raft was up next. Our instructor got the all-clear sign, I made sure my life vest was snug, and we started our launch. We paddled out, seeing the water pour over the edge and crashing ten feet below. The water starts to get louder and louder, almost roaring as we get closer and closer.

My heart starts racing as our instructor yells, “GO!”

We start paddling as hard as we could.

“This is it,” I think to myself. “No turning back now.”

Before I know it, we reach the edge and we hear one last “NOW!”

Everything is dark.

I feel myself in the water, which is suppose to happen. Except I’m not popping back up. I’m not in the raft anymore. I am underneath the waterfall as gallons and gallons of water is pouring onto of me. I am stuck in the current. I am running out of breath while being spun and thrashed around.

The current spins me up to the top, giving me a quick chance to grab as much air as I can, until I feel it sucking me back under and back into the current. I start to panic, “what do I do?” Suddenly, I feel my life vest start to slip off from the harsh current. As the bottom of the vest is now at my shoulders, I knew if that vest slipped off, I would die.

I stopped fighting the current for a second and used all the strength to shove my vest back down. The sudden movement shot me right out of the current and my whole head was above water for the first time. I could feel myself free from the current and knew this was my chance. I swam as fast and hard as I possibly could, only to be sucked right back under. I swam the wrong way.

As my body is being violently thrown around again, I start to lose air and I can feel my body getting too tired to fight anymore. All I could think about now was how my dad was at the top about to find out that his daughter was gone. I couldn’t do it anymore.

I wanted to keep fighting, to not give up, but every movement was a struggle and hurt my body. I felt my body becoming weaker and weaker. My chest felt like it was about to explode as my lungs were begging for air. As the water started to become brighter around me, I knew it was time to give up and accept what has to happen. I stopped swimming and opened up my body. I relaxed my aching muscles and waited to see what death would feel like.

When you’re stuck in a waterfall, you’re suppose to curl yourself up into a ball and the current will shoot you right out. It was the relaxing part that actually saved my life. Deciding to give up and open my body up like that allowed the current to grab hold and release me out of the falls.

As I was pushed out, I still didn’t fully understand what happened. I was on my back floating until I heard “HEY!” and a rope slapped the water next to me.

“GRAB THE ROPE AND HOLD ON!” screamed the guy standing under the bridge.

Even the small task of swinging my body around and holding onto the rope hurt. Soon enough, I was pulled all the way out of the water and placed onto the rocks. One of the rafting instructors, Johnny, started asking me multiple questions.

“Are you okay?”

“Did you swallow any water?”

“Does anything hurt?”

“Are you coughing?”

“Did you hit your head on anything?”

All I wanted to do was cry, but I couldn’t.

“That was awesome!” I replied in shock.

I lay on the rocks for a few minutes, trying to catch my breath, still not processing what happened. As I slowly gain my strength back, I tell Johnny that I feel better and I’m ready to go up.

“You can go right up these rocks right here, that will put you on the bridge. If you start coughing or your chest still hurts, you need to let us know. You could still suffer from secondary drowning.”

I make my way up the rocks where I’m met by my teammates hugging me and asking me if I’m okay. I try to put on a brave face as I answer with a shaky voice.

“Yeah I’m good!” as I finally manage to get a couple tears out.

Even now it all still feels like a blur. I remember standing on the bridge, watching my dad’s raft getting ready to take on the fall. As they go down and pop up with ease, I meet him down at the rocks. I remember telling him that I almost died as I’m laughing, still not understanding what just happened.

We all make our way back into the rafts as we still have about a mile and a half left. We approach another spot on the river where our instructor explains that the rapid coming up is one that we can “bull ride.”

“Feel free to jump up on the sides and front of the raft, hanging your feet over into the water, and ride the rapid down.”

Still putting on a brave face, I decide to join everyone and place myself on the side. The first small drop was actually enjoyable, until water splashed up on me and I felt myself hyperventilating. I threw myself back into the raft as I tried to laugh off the fear that was instilled in me.

The last half mile was a calm and easy float back to the vans. We dried off as best we could before piling into the van. I remember I wanted to sit next to my dad as we loaded up. The van I’m sure was filled with numerous conversations, but I can’t remember any of it. As we made it back to the main rafting site, we loaded the vans and walked around the area.

There was a photographer who stationed themselves on the rocks by the fall to capture everyone’s pictures, like a roller coaster ride at the fair. We all gathered around the TV that had our pictures rotating on the screen. There’s one photo in there where it’s just the waterfall and a hint of purple beneath the fall.

“What’s that?” I ask her, pointing to the purple.

“That’s one of you guys, the one that fell out…” she said.

“Oh that’s me!” I exclaimed with a smile on my face.

“You’re the waterfall girl?”

The waterfall girl. Back then it was something I took with pride. It was like an accomplishment that I escaped death, still not processing how close and scared I actually was, that I actually am.

After we all got our photos and changed into clean, dry clothes, we all headed to my coach’s brother’s house where we were having a BBQ. Their backyard had a basketball hoop, Ping-Pong table, darts, and more. We all played games and ate our food. I remember how tired my body was. All I wanted to do was sleep and let my muscles recover from the long, harsh day.

The original plan was to have everyone campout at the house before heading to the tournament the next day. As my dad is not a huge fan of camping, he booked himself a hotel room as I was going to stay with my team. A few minutes before he was going to head out, I wanted to go with him. I just wanted to rest and spend time with my dad.

My dad talked to my coach about the new arrangement and my coach agreed that it was a good idea to take me with him.

As I said my goodbyes, we got into the car and headed off. We made it to the hotel down the road and I made a few phone calls to tell my family what happened. I don’t recall much from those calls, but as I said it to one of my listeners, my heart started racing at the details. I was finally able to cry.

I fell asleep early and the next day, I just wanted to play soccer. I couldn’t wait to lace up my cleats and get a soccer ball tapping on my feet. Everything felt right again as I started warm-ups on the pitch. That game was one of my bests. I felt like I had purpose again and I felt alive.

I still never fully processed what happened and what could’ve happened until years later. The next month after the incident, I couldn’t take a shower without freaking out and crying. The idea of water hitting my face left me hyperventilating and scared, especially cold water.

After awhile, I found myself more comfortable with water and playing around in it, whether it was a pool or the ocean. Although, I never kept my head underwater for longer than two seconds. I still went boogie boarding, body surfed, snorkeled, cage dived. I did it all.

When I lived in California, I bought a surfboard and went surfing every week. I had some major wipeouts, but it never stopped me. When I did wipe out, I would freak out and swim up to the surface as fast as possible, then get back on the board.

The only thing I couldn’t do was scuba dive. If it’s in a nine foot, clear swimming pool, I’m perfectly fine. But, my first cold water open dive was a disaster. As I suited up into my wet suit, I felt very stiff and uncomfortable in it. That worried me before I even got in the water. As I plunged 60 feet underwater, the visibility was terrible. If you stuck your hand out in front of you, you wouldn’t be able to see your hand.

When doing an open dive for your training, you have to pass a skills test. One of those tests is locating your lost regulator (the mouth piece that allows you to breath). You remove the regulator, move your arms in a sweeping motion the catch the tube on your arm, and put the regulator back in.

As I removed the regulator, I moved my arms and couldn’t find it. I immediately started panicking as I reached for my instructor’s secondary regulator until he grabbed mine for me. After that, I was done. My chest tightened up and all I could think about was the waterfall. We had four more dives planned that weekend, and I skipped them all. It’s the one thing that I refuse to do and try again.

After a few months went by, I realized I had suffered trauma. It has been hard the last few years, as my anxiety has gotten worse. When having an anxiety attack, a person’s chest becomes tight and you get short of breath. I started having panic attacks almost every day this past year, which would trigger memories from the waterfall.

It took me nine years to fully understand what I went through and how long trauma can stay with you. Only now in 2019 can I get back in touch with those feelings. The panic, the scariness, the defeat, and the overcoming. It’s taught me that I need to listen to my gut feeling and stand up for myself. It taught me how to grow from fear, not letting it take over. But most importantly, it taught me how long the healing process is.

It is important to sit down and look back at some of your worst times. It allows you to see how far you’ve come and how the hard work pays off. I still have some bad days, but I am learning my triggers and how to cope. For me, meditation, walking, and writing help me. Everyone is different, though.

If you’re suffering, I highly suggest sitting down and really analyzing what’s going on. Talk to yourself out loud. Try new methods and see what helps you, because in the end, finding that peace is so important to a happy and healthy mind.

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