The Oxbow Incident

There is a possible world very close to ours, differing ever so slightly, in which I drowned yesterday on the Oxbow river in Portland, OR.  Here’s what happened.

I was with my friends Margaret and Hector–we had been rafting together before, and were actually lamenting how calm the river seemed.  This would make it difficult to travel the 10 miles between our start- and end-points before dark.  But we set out anyway, and were glad we did: the current was stronger than we had reckoned and was moving us down river at a fairly good pace.

We had only been on the water for a half-hour when we came to a fork in the river and decided to pass on the right, as it seemed to provide wider berth.  Unfortunately it was not wide enough.  Due to some questionable steering we had veered too far right and were now moving with much too much speed toward a massive, downed tree trunk jutting out from the river’s shore.  The trunk was probably two or three feet above the surface of the water, just about directly in line with the skulls of three adults in a raft.  Once we realized that collision was unavoidable, we tried to protect ourselves as best we could and made contact.

The raft flipped and we were capsized.  As I found out later, Hector held on to the raft and let it drag him down river a ways before he struck something and had to let go.  Margaret managed the situation best: she was wearing a life jacket, and so she never went under during the time it took for the current to slingshot her ahead and deposit her on the riverbank.  I made what in retrospect was a nearly fatal mistake.

I grabbed hold of a strong limb attached to the tree trunk that had tipped us.  This put me in a very precarious position.  As I soon realized, the current was far too strong for me to make any headway against it, and the trunk was too high for me to pull myself out of the water.  I was afraid to take my only real option–letting go–because several feet ahead of me there were jagged branches and some large rocks poking through the surface of the water.  I knew that as soon as I let go of the limb I would be shot into that mess, and imagined myself striking my head against the rocks or getting tied up in the branches.

While running through these scenarios in my mind I noticed my strength beginning to flag.  It was taking a great deal of energy to maintain my grip on the tree limb and keep my torso above water.  My arms were beginning to feel like concrete and I felt as if my legs might be ripped from my body and swept downriver (as my shorts were).  It’s about this time that panic began to set in.  I had no clear idea how I was going to get out of this.  I had no idea where Margaret and Hector were.  I didn’t want to let go but knew that it would not be long before my strength gave out.

I spent nearly every bit of strength I had clinging futilely to that limb, so when I finally did let go I struggled to keep my head above the water.  My body was heavy, inanimate, and pulling me down.  My head went under, came up, and then almost immediately back under.   I could see Margaret on the side of the river waving frantically at me.  When I broke the surface a second time I gasped for breath but it felt like nothing was coming in.  I felt pressure in my chest.  The growing panic gave way to an almost neutral attitude of surprise:  “Wow,” I thought.  “I’m going to die out here today.  This is how I die.  I drown in a river in Oregon.”

I don’t know how, but I was pushed toward a shallower part of the river, near the bank.  This slowed me down, enough to use a rock formation ahead as a means of stopping without injury.  I could hear Margaret screaming at me to get out of the water and could see her moving down the riverbank towards me.  Her movement was slow and treacherous; it was a steep embankment with nothing resembling a shoreline.  I couldn’t move-or at least, I didn’t want to move.  The weight of the rock against me was too comforting.  This was the most terrifying experience of my life.


After locating Hector, who might have been worse off than me–he was vomiting and couldn’t sit upright–we lay against some rocks on the riverbank while Margaret screamed for help.  Eventually a young man appeared and said he would notify the park rangers that we needed rescue and an ambulance.  Some time later–it seemed like six hours, but it was actually more like one and a half hour–a river rescue unit appeared and took us downriver to a waiting ambulance.  By this point I had finally begun to feel like I could breathe again, and felt pretty sure that I would be ok, and that the breathing difficulties I had had earlier had more to do with exhaustion and fear than with anything more serious like water in my lungs.  Hector, too, was coming around.  Like me, he seemed more shaken up at this point than sick.  When we reached shore we were given a medical examination in the back of the ambulance.  Hector and I felt significantly better, and so we decided not to go to the hospital.

Crazy day.

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2 Responses to The Oxbow Incident

  1. Josh Brown says:

    Wow… Sounds scary. I have to admit when I read the first line of your post I thought you were going to propose a thought experiment. Glad you’re safe.

  2. Nates says:

    Wow, that is crazy. Glad everyone’s OK.

    It’s also a well-told story too. (Although I would have started it with: “The river was angry that day my friends.”)

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