Making the headlines

John Craven spends a night out in the bush after a kayak trip goes awry. This article originally appeared in korero, the newsletter of the Ruahine Canoe Club.

There are two types of paddlers. Those that have swum and those that are going to swim.
I'm both of them.

It was not a new experience to explore the contours of the river bed with my nose but it was concerning to find it getting very dark down there. Don't fight it, let the life jacket do its job. Surfacing was a bizarre experience, like pulling down white blinds on a window as I came up through the aerated water.

First breath, not desperate but very welcome.
I'm out of the hole, make a grab for the steep bank, small solid tree, things are looking up. I've never been a fan of long distance swimming. There's a surprise, still got my paddle in my right hand, maybe I have learnt something from watching others. Second breath.

Hit from behind. It's Aaron making a valiant attempt to salvage the boat. I'm thinking too slow, the boat's too quick, and they both disappear over the next drop.

Sitting amongst the ferns now, practice that breathing, well at least I'm on the right side of the river to walk home. Sorry Phil looks like I stuffed up a good trip. It started to dawn on me that this was going to be an interesting afternoon.

Sunday started like most impromptu river trips. Some ringing round, flow phones said everything was pumping, and finally a meeting of some keen, not so keen and those that could be convinced at the Mac's place. A short quick sprint through the gorge was first on the agenda but neither Graeme or myself felt keen on large boils and small boats so with the benefit of a shuttle vehicle we checked out a few streams in flood. The Kahuterawa stream was flowing and we had both been keen to give it a go for a while so when the gorge paddlers returned we had a huge feed of bacon and eggs and six of us headed for the hills.

Thick mist shrouded the tops as we headed up Scotts Road but it wasn't as cold as it looked. Fast flowing grade three-plus was what we were promised, with a few bigger drops we could walk if we wanted to brave the gorse.

Quick change, negotiate a small side creek and we all met up in the first decent-sized eddy in the main river. Phil, Aaron, Fuzzy, Cameron, Graeme, and me JC. We were in for a fast trip and went over the river signals etc for the day. It was good to be on a new river with a group of people who were making a point of keeping an eye on each other. Cut out into the main current and it's time to blow out a few cobwebs. Loosen up baby, you know you want it.

Smoking, this river is moving at pace. Non-stop grade two building with limited eddies. We stopped to scout the first big drop. Graeme and I take to the gorse as we decide that discretion is the better part of valour. More wave trains follow and those signals were starting to get very useful. Duck as you go under the bridge.

Scouting the second drop proved more difficult and as a result all but Fuzzy seal launched into the pool below. Fuzzy's sneaky river scouting technique of crawling along under the scrub until he could get a view of the landing resulted in a sweet line. Graeme was going to pioneer a new upside-down waterfall trick but was not keen to star on "When Stunts Go Bad," nice roll.

About now I commented to Cameron that ten years ago we would have been charging down here with a "follow me you'll be right" attitude but it was cool to see everyone with good gear and a safe team attitude. A fateful comment.

The river started cranking up from here or it could have just my lack of paddle fitness. Continuous grade three wave trains with the odd wildcard thrown in. We regrouped whenever a rare eddy was available.

Five boats in an eddy with space for two. Ever get that feeling you might just be closely related to a popular furry child's pet? Room for six? No way am I going first. Instructions are urgently exchanged as we cling to the bank, "Must stay left at the bottom two drops, a bit sticky, you'll be right." Now where have I heard that before?

I'm second to last out of the eddy (must be pretty pushy for a skinny guy). It's one of those fateful moments, you know it's a cockup but it's a bit late now, time to think of convenient excuses. Too slow on the first drop, flicked out right and backwards over the second drop.

Nearly got away with it but now I'm eye to eye with the hole and the last thing I hear before filling both ears with water is someone yelling "back paddle." Thank you Einstein.

A few rodeo moves (well, I'd like to think so) and I'm rolling up for a spot of side-surfing to find a mistimed but well-meaning Wavesport Y dropping in on top of me. Now I've heard that the time you spend looking at a hole is directly proportional to the time you spend getting worked in a hole. Using that theory, I've never even seen this hole so it should spit me out like a kid with cabbage. Not so.

So you've already heard about the swim, the kind of five seconds of adrenaline-induced clarity that seems like five minutes but never seems that dramatic to the bystanders. I'm sitting in those ferns.

Half-an-hour later I've managed to push my way about three hundred metres through bush down to the next corner where Phil and Graeme said they'd wait for me. In the process I'd crossed a large open slip-face that had me thinking about options. Phil and Graeme were waiting as planned but there was no sign of the others - probably bravely chasing my escaping boat.

The escaping boat could be fifty metres or a kilometre away we had no way of knowing (found later 1.5k's away) so what are the options? Deck-carry out was quickly discounted as the guys had their hands full looking after themselves.

Graeme decided that he would get off the river; it seemed sensible that whatever decision was made, two of us could keep an eye on each other. Safety in numbers and a gesture that I was to be thankful of later on. Walking out was discussed but with the dense bush, poor visibility on the tops, and the approaching darkness (two hours away) it was decided that we would probably be caught out in the dark. The last thing we wanted to have was a ground-based search and rescue started and a large area to cover with our whereabouts unknown.

So we opted to do it by the book. Phil would paddle down to the others and carry on out to tell the Police what had happened and where we could be found and Graeme and I would return upstream to the large slip-face. We figured we would be visible from the air and there was enough space to get a chopper in. All planned, we helped Phil back into his boat and with the dry gear, first aid kit and Moro bars we set off for the heli-pad.

Sitting about fifty metres above the river on the slip-face we had a commanding view of the rain and mist that capped the valley. The dry gear from Graeme's boat (gloves, socks, balaclavas, space blanket) greatly improved the comfort levels and we both had been wearing plenty of gear on the river. Conversation ranged between the merit of our stay-put decision to whether or not being stuck in the bush counted as a sick day or a holiday (my boss had very fixed views on this).

Amazing how the wind sounds like a chopper sometimes but eventually we decided that we were on our own for the night and had better make use of what daylight remained to find a better shelter. Back in the bush we found a likely hole under an overhanging bank and with a suitable harvest of ponga fronds it became home sweet home. When we climbed in it was pitch black.
"What time to you think it is?"
"Maybe eight-thirty."
"What time does it get light?"
"I dunno, six o'clock."
"This was going to be a long night, man are we gonna get shit when we get home."
Graeme was snoring inside fifteen minutes and though I don't want to make a habit of sleeping that close to another man it had to be warmer.

I kept thinking of what gear I could have carried to have made our situation better but of course all my spare gear had gone down the river with my boat, illustrating the importance of carrying some gear on your person. A large plastic bag pushed up behind the footrest of the boats would have meant we would have had at least one durable waterproof sheet between us without affecting the performance of the boat. Most helpful for keeping that damned annoying cold drop from repeatedly landing on my forehead.

All things considered, I think we probably slept better than the people left in town. The rescue mission was underway. The Police had organised a helicopter and the paddlers arranged a backup trip down the river with supplies should the airborne division be thwarted by the weather.

A grey morning arrived sooner than expected and as we discussed our options the sound of the Cavalry jolted us into action. Bolting out onto the slip face the Westpac Trust Rescue Helicopter went over high and fast, a wake up call. Ten minutes later we had been winched aboard and began the sheepish apologies.

Arriving back at the Palmy hospital helipad I think we expected a bit of a drilling but after a short interview with police we were congratulated on being well prepared and having made the right decisions. I think the Police were particularly impressed with the actions of the other paddlers who had organised to be at the get in at first light to come and retrieve us if the chopper option failed. As it turned out when the guys heard that the Police had air lifted us out they did the river again and retrieved all of our gear.

Thanks very much to everyone who helped retrieve us or our gear. It's good to know there are people like fellow paddlers, the Westpac helicopter people and the Police to help you out when things get out of control.

One of my work mates said when I got back to work, "You went looking for adventure and found it." I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find this trip to be a little bit of an adventure but I guess that's part of why we go outdoors.

Remember there are two types of paddlers. Those that have swum and those that are going to swim. I'm both of them, but I think I'm also in fairly prestigious company.

Also, refer to Kayaking trip runs aground (temporary link).