Trusting your gut: the rest of the story

A few weeks ago in this column, I recounted the story of a tragic accident that had occurred on the Chatooga River in North Carolina. The incident has always weighed heavy on my mind, and it has affected many of the decisions I have made during my career as a professional guide.

I had avoided writing the story for many years until finally, in the belief that the tale may actually serve to save someone else from a similar fate, I decided to record the tale.

The incident occurred during the summer of 1978, while I was leading paddling trips for the American Youth Hostel Network on the wild rivers of North Carolina. A key feature of the whitewater training program I was involved in dealt with leadership and judgment. We discussed a variety of scenarios, and often considered the difficult decision-making process of knowing when to bail out, and cancel a trip due to dangerous water conditions, or poorly trained paddlers.

But nothing in our training program dealt with an innate survival skill that resides deep within all humans. It is a gut reaction that we all possess. However, it is one that most rarely have the opportunity to utilize. And while most people have heard the expression, “trust your gut,” there are very few who have learned to recognize and act on this natural alarm.

Unfortunately, by the time I had learned to react to it, I was too late.

I described the scene in a previous column, “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. … Most of the guides were thoroughly acquainted with river etiquette, and it proved to be a very orderly day as … 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 … and at the very bottom of the gorge, there were war hoops and high-fives passed all around.

“As we began the long journey downstream to the takeout, we passed a lone kayaker who had eddied out into the shade of big rock. His name was Bruno, and he was a safety boater … a world-class whitewater paddler and a former Olympic competitor … but as we passed by something just seemed odd to me.”

To this day, I regret that I failed to realize what my gut was telling me.

Within minutes of our passing, Bruno had drowned, and the incident has long since stuck with me. Like a festering wound, I have long sought a method to help heal the sore. I have always wondered who he really was, and what had actually happened to him.

Fortunately, in this age of instant communications and worldwide distribution, the solution found me. It came in the form of an email:

SUBJECT: Re: I was on the river the day Bruno died

Dear Mr. Hackett,

My wife, Amy, forwarded your story to me and I thought I would fill in a few gaps as I was a guide for Southeastern Expeditions on the day that Bruno died on the Chattooga River.

Bruno was our ‘safety boat’ that day, and it was customary for the safety boater to stay behind below Sock-Em-Dog Rapid after the trip had passed Shoulder Bone Rapid and hang out and then catch up with the raft trip on the lake. Almost every safety boater would do this and not just Bruno.

Bruno typically would pull over and ‘check the gauge’ as we used to say after the rafts had moved on to the lake. No one noticed anything was awry until we got to the takeout and Bruno did not show up as we were loading the rafts onto the truck.

When Bruno did not show up at the take out of Section IV, we sent the customers out with the van and we paddled back up the lake in a raft and eventually found Bruno floating upside down still in his kayak. He had no signs of life.

My assumption at the time was that he had gone into insulin shock (severe hypoglycemia due to use of insulin and not enough sugar in the blood) and became unconscious while paddling across the lake. In the ER, I have seen this hundreds of times. People often become confused and disoriented due to hypoglycemia and then do not take in sugar before passing out. Bruno always carried candy in his kayak, and we found candy in his boat the day that he died.

Bruno was one of my closest friends at the time, and essentially taught me to kayak and led me down section IV in a kayak for the first time. He was legendary on the Chattooga, lived there year round at the Long Creek Inn that Jon described and was loved by everyone.

After the incident, I learned he had switched from beef/pork insulin to Humalin (human insulin) which is inherently more potent than the insulin he previously used.

He may not have adjusted his dose accordingly. This may be an explanation for what happened, but ultimately, no one can know for sure as he was by himself at the time. There was no autopsy. I hope that helps a bit. You described him perfectly.

Best wishes,

Dr. Eric

The episode has since become a key element of lectures I provide for aspiring guides.

As wilderness educators, we tend to rely heavily on a system of proper preparation and planning to help prevent accidents. Most programs stress a proactive approach, and it is sensible to have a safety network.

However, due to our long-established reliance on a step-by-step series of proactive steps, leaders often fail to understand when conditions require a more immediate reactive response.

Because outdoor leaders are trained to abide by a linear set of actions and reactions, they often fail to respond to the instinctive reactions their bodies use to alert them to dangers. It is logical to hesitate to respond to an illogical alarm.

In my lectures, I label this natural hesitation, the Bruno Effect. On that fateful day on the river, my gut told me something was terribly wrong. However, I was too inexperienced to recognize what caused the alarm. I simply couldn’t read the signs.

As a result, I stuck with the pre-planned, step-by-step response to danger. Our safety protocol had been well established, and an orderly sense of order trumped any type of reaction to the unrealized perception of danger.

I had hesitated to act because we were required to follow the pre-trip plan, which required that we had to stick together. I knew there was danger, I sensed it. However, I didn’t know how to react, or even how to define the danger I would be reacting to.

Since that day, whenever my scalp tingles or the hair raises on my arms, I know enough to look around, and to be alert. It is still a difficult sensation to define, and equally difficult to describe, but when it happens I know enough to pay attention.

With students, I stress the importance of paying attention to their surroundings when they sense something is going on. Watch to see if the birds are agitated or the squirrels are scurrying or if the frogs go silent in the bog.

I teach them to trust their instincts, and learn to recognize instinctive behavior in other creatures. In the wild, animals have a much greater sense of their surroundings than humans do. Animals sense danger at a distance, and know to react accordingly.

I believe humans retain similar capabilities, but for many it is now a strange sense that they’ve forgotten how to recognize.

Over the years, former students have described how a “weird, intestinal alarm” prevented them from being harmed by a variety unseen dangers. They’ve claimed, “I don’t know what stopped me just then, I guess it was just a gut reaction!”

“No,” I tell them as I point to the heavens, “it was the Bruno Effect.”