A lesson in trusting your instinct
During the summer of 1978, I was involved in a tragic incident that has forever changed my perspective on the guiding profession.
The event occurred while I was leading a trip for the American Youth Hostel Network. Our group was based at a campsite close to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, near Bryson City, N.C.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center, rated as “one of the best outfitters on earth” by National Geographic Adventure, is located near the southern drainage of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Raging whitewater rivers abound with the Nantahala at their doorstep, and the Chattooga Occoee, Tuckaseigee and Cheoah rivers all within easy striking range. For five straight days, we were to be immersed in the world of whitewater, enjoying adventures in canoes, kayaks and rafts on a variety of Class III, IV and V rivers.
The program was a whitewater training course that placed a heavy emphasis on river safety, self-rescue, team rescues and very thorough instruction on the ability to read river dynamics, water levels and safety assessment.
Our program began in the water with swim tests, throw-bag practice and rope rescues. It was serious, tough stuff and our group bounded quickly in support of each other.
On day two, the group was paired up for paddling instructions on a fairly easy course set up nearby on the Ocoee, a Class III dam-release river.
A few of the advanced paddlers were given an option of switching to kayaks, and the instructors quickly had us practicing bombproof rolls and wet exits at the base of a large waterfalls.
The next few days were spent on and in the water, as we paddled four very different rivers in just three days.
For the capstone adventure, our instructors planned a rafting trip along the upper reaches of the Chattooga River. It is a dangerously inaccessible journey that includes a nearly continuous series of pool/drop/pool waterfalls that are renowned for their keeper hydraulics.
The Chattooga River is also infamous as the location of the movie “Deliverence,” which was still a fairly recent memory in the late 1970s.
The evening prior to our Chattooga whitewater adventure was spent gathered around a fire at the local campground. One of our guests had brought along his guitar, and as he was warming up, a pleasant young boy walked across the porch of a nearby campsite cabin. He had a banjo in his hand and a big grin on his face as he approached the fire ring.
I’ll never forget the scene, as the two of them chased chords up and down the necks of their respective instruments and sent the opposing notes winging off into the still air of the dark night.
The young fellow with the banjo went by the name of Kevin Tuck. At the time, I just knew he was going to go places with his music.
A quick web search I did recently, revealed that young Mr. Tuck is just a bit older now, and fortunately for his audiences, he is still pulling on the tender strings of an old banjo.
On the morning of our climactic whitewater adventure, there was plenty of nervous laughter, but once we hit the water the serious nature of our undertaking began to sink in.
Several other whitewater adventure companies were on the river that day, as well as a large contingent of open boaters from the Coastal Canoe Club.
Most of the guides were thoroughly acquainted with river etiquette, and it proved to be a very orderly day as a procession of rafters, canoeists and a few safety boaters in kayaks made the journey downriver.
One by one, our rafts shot through the rapids, then popped out to regroup in the large pools below. There was a lot of laughter, a few screams and a fair bit of banter between the guides.
After we had all finally spilled out into a large pool at the very bottom of the gorge, there were war hoops and high-fives passed all around. But we all knew there were more than 2 miles of flatwater waiting ahead.
As our rafts, and the safety boaters began the long journey downstream to the takeout, we passed by a lone kayaker who had eddied out of the flow into the shade of big rock.
His name was Bruno, and he was a safety boater for Southeast Whitewater Expeditions, the group that had preceded our crew down the gorge.
All of our guides knew him, and they exchanged greetings as we passed. They explained that Bruno was a world-class whitewater paddler and a former Olympic competitor, but he was real shy around guests.
Strangely, as we passed by something just seemed odd to me. The lone boatman sat with his hands clasped as if in prayer, with his head laid way back as if staring at the sky, while his bright white boat sparkled on the black waters of the gorge.
And he didn’t really seem to answer back intelligibly when our guides joked with him about not being able to catch up to his rafting crew.
“He’s a world-class paddler,” I muttered to myself as our rafts began to exit the holding pool in procession. “What could possibly happen to him in just 2 miles of flatwater?”
I knew the Coastal Canoe Club paddlers were still on the river. They had been right behind us for most of the journey and were all paddling open canoes. Many of their members were doctors, lawyers and college professors.
Our crew made short work of the return trip downstream to the takeout, and all the while we were joking about hillbillies hiding in the woods.
The first indication of trouble became evident at the takeout, as I watched a few guides struggle to unstrap a canoe from a nearby truck.
It was a frantic scene, as folks from Southeast Whitewater began questioning our guides.
“Did you see Bruno?”
“Was he OK?”
“Did you talk to him?”
Somebody finally produced a knife and the cartop canoe was unleashed. Everybody ran to get it in the water.
As the pair pulled hard on the paddles traveling upstream, there was a look of concern on nearly everyone’s face.
Finally, one of the guides explained.
“Bruno’s diabetic, and we don’t know if he took his shots this morning. His medicine bag is still on the bus and it doesn’t look like it’s been touched.”
Upstream from the takeout, a long string of paddlers were pulling hard for shore. Bruno’s bright white kayak was dragging along behind the procession, and it was empty.
At the sight, several of the very same rough, tough, hard-headed river rats that had just passed him by began to sob.
Apparently, Bruno was already in the early stages of diabetic shock when our group met up with him at the bottom of the gorge. The Coastal Canoe paddlers discovered him in an upside-down kayak shortly after we departed. They had attempted to revive him, unsuccessfully.
It was a tragic lesson, and I still think about Bruno whenever something just doesn’t seem right or is just a bit out of place. Ever since that day, I’ve never been afraid to approach anyone who appears to be in distress, because it never hurts to ask.
All humans retain the capacity to recognize when something is out of sorts, and we usually feel it first in our gut. It comes in the waves of tingling sensations that signal our instinct for survival. Our stomach is second only to the brain in terms of organs with nerve endings.
Unfortunately in modern day society, we often mistake such critical survival messages as mere hunger pains. We need to relearn how to recognize the signals and to trust our gut instincts.
A few years ago while I was on my way to Plattsburgh on a cold winter morning, I pulled into a rest area just north of Vermontville to fill my windshield washer fluid.
On my way out of the lot, there was a state police cruiser parked nearby, and as I passed, I saw a trooper slumped over in the front seat.
With Bruno on my mind, I walked over to his car and tapped on the window. The poor fellow jumped, and with a startled look on his face, he rolled down the window and growled, “What do you want?”
“Nothing, sir,” I replied. “I was just checking to see if you were all right.”
“Of course I am,” he replied, and promptly rolled the window up. As I walked back to my vehicle, I could clearly hear Bruno chuckling from up above. I knew it was the right thing to do, ‘cuz I felt it in my gut.