I woke up underwater. Icy cold. Lungs useless. Instinctively, I kicked and flailed. My backpack, clothes, and boots held me down. Why was I having such a hard time getting to the surface? I didn’t know that I had broken a wrist, cracked my skull, and fractured two vertebrae in my neck.
I had been fly-fishing the Pack River in the northern Idaho backcountry with my friend John. The day was warm and sunny; hemlocks with their shaggy boughs arched over the water. Sunlight dappled through the needles, illuminating every rock in the gin-clear water.
We were fishing a pool near a waterfall with a steep drop. I caught one small trout and then leapfrogged rock to rock, climbing upstream. At the crest of the falls, I waded out into the river. The second I stepped with my left foot, I knew I’d made an unfortunate choice. My feet flew out from under me on the slippery granite. Then nothing. I don’t recall being catapulted over the falls, tossed like a rag doll in a washing machine.
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Mar 10, 2021 issue
I had been knocked unconscious.
But at the base of the waterfall, the cold water startled me awake. I crawled out of the river, panicked, panting, grasping at the rocks. My hand reached for my forehead—my glasses were gone. But I could clearly see blood on my palm. I drifted in and out of consciousness, waking again to the sound of roaring water. I was shivering. How long had I lain there?
“Are you hurt?” It was John.
“I don’t know,” I said. I actually hoped I could get back to catching trout.
“We better get you to a hospital. Do you want to wait here while I go get help or try to walk out with me?”
We were in a steep embankment, a good half mile from the road. It would be a while before John returned. I thought about grizzly bears. I feared being left there in the wilderness, alone.
So we bushwhacked out of the canyon. John led the way, pushing away unforgiving branches, fallen limbs, and feral undergrowth. I limped along behind him, a wet T-shirt to my forehead to stem the flow of blood. When we reached the dirt road, I feared I would black out again. John helped me into an ATV. My body relaxed just a little, knowing I was in his capable hands.
Hours later I lay in a hospital bed, my arm in a cast, my head bandaged, and my neck in a brace. I wondered, how did I lose my balance? Did I misjudge the water’s depth or the strength of the current? Hadn’t I remembered I was wading into a river at the crest of a waterfall? What if the water had not awoken me? I could have drowned.
“God drew me out of deep water,” says the psalmist (18:16). “God rescued me.” Like Peter when he began to sink under the waves, I was saved from death—but it was more than that. The Latin word salvus is the basis for both “save” and “salve.” Being saved means being healed, rewoven into relationship with God—it’s more than simply being given more time on this planet. What was I being saved for? What would this experience teach me about what’s next?
I don’t know how Peter experienced life after he was saved. For me it was as if I had been standing apart from nature, in it but not of it; but now, having been taken by its power and tumbled down the frothy white chaos, I was part of creation itself. I realized that I am an animal, vulnerable to nature, gravity, and mortality. The Gospels teach me that such moments are the gateway to embracing our radical dependence upon God.
William Sloane Coffin said, “God provides minimum protection, maximum support.” This is what the Pack River taught me—the river that mauled me, that saved me.