As we floated down the green river on our inner tubes Saturday, basking in the warm sunlight and cheerfully calling out to each other to “Stay in ze middle!!” to avoid hanging branches, I turned to a friend and said, “You know, Semuc Champey yesterday was great, but I think this is really what I’m going to remember from this weekend. This is so much fun!”
I was right. That trip is what I’ll remember. But I wish I were wrong.
The beginning of our river tubing expedition was idyllic. The current kept us moving just quickly enough for our liking, the sun kept us warm, and passing clouds kept us from frying. The water felt cool and refreshing as opposed to icy and chilling. We expertly paddled away from hanging obstacles like fallen trees and trailing branches. We passed over a few baby rapids, yelling “dip!” “Bigger dip!” as we coasted over the waves made by rocks in the river.
And then at some point, the dips and waves started becoming rapids. I think I heard something say something about losing their tube right before I hit the rapid that lost me mine. When I surfaced (after what felt like a long time of swimming in a direction I hoped was “up”) my tube was behind me. Another girl, still in her tube, grabbed mine for me. The current was moving too fast, though, for me to attempt to swim upriver to it, and was too powerful for her to get the inner-tube back to me. And soon enough, I was going over another rapid and concentrating more on keeping my head above water than I was on grabbing a tube.
After a few more dips and tumbles and rapids, I surfaced near a girl who was in one tube and dragging another behind her. I don’t know whether it was my original tube or not, but I latched onto it. As we hit another rapid, she lost her grip on the back tube and we sailed away from each other.
For what felt like I long time, I sailed down river, legs trailing below me, clinging onto the back of the tube, unable even to flip it around me. Eventually I did get the tube centered on my body. I saw Michelle and Hyung sharing a tube briefly, then a wave knocked Hyung away and Michelle was left tube-less near a rock on the shore. I couldn’t stop for her as the current carried me away and around the bend.
The water got a little calmer then, and as it calmed a little more, I started hearing calls of “Stop!! Stop!!” I think that was the first instant I had time for the thought to dawn on me that we’d missed our exit and the rapids weren’t supposed to have been part of our tour. (I think my first thought was that the guides hadn’t bothered to scout the river that day and what had normally been part of the calm float trip had turned into rapids after recent rains or something).
I paddled myself to the shore as the guide shot by me, going after the 3 people from our group who were still ahead of me.
And then I sat there—alone—catching my breath on the edge of my inner-tube.
As I started to wonder what to do next, 4 small Guatemalan children emerged from the forest and cautiously approached me, asking in Spanish what had happened. I tried to explain that our group had gone too far, and that I thought some were downriver and some were upriver from me. The girl, the spokesperson for the group, told me with some concern that my arm was bleeding. I looked down but only saw growing bruises—on the back of my wrist, my knee, the tops of my feet, all up and down both legs—and tiny cuts on my toes. I shrugged it off, wondering if I’d misheard her. (It was hours later that I finally saw the blood on my left elbow and realized what she’d been talking about). The older 2 children motioned that we should go a little upriver along the shore and see if we could find my friends. Still shaky from my run in the river, I followed a little behind. The kids looked around a corner and came back nodding that “everyone” was there. (Later, she asked how many had been in my group, and I told her 18. I could tell by the look on her face that she had not seen “everyone” after all.)
The next problem: we couldn’t stay close to shore because of rocks and rapid waters, so we’d have to go up and around to get to my friends. I asked the girl if there was a path higher up that would get me there. She nodded. “Si, una carretera.” I groaned inwardly. A highway? And me in a bathing suit and with no shoes. Wonderful. But what other choice did I have?
So I followed Carolina (the girl) and her brothers up the muddy path, between small Maya houses, to a hard-packed dirt path. (Carolina’s “carretera”?) If my life were a movie, this would have been the opening scene—me, in a pink and purple bikini, barefoot, inner-tube on my shoulder, escorted by 4 small and skinny children through their village. There’d be a flashback later to explain how I’d gotten there.
Soon enough, we left the dirt track and clambered down the hillside toward the river. There was really not a path through the undergrowth, and the ground was muddy where there were no plants. After I half-slipped once, Carolina made me pass the inner-tube to her oldest brother, then took my hand and wouldn’t let me take a step without her support. What an angel…seriously. I didn’t slip once with her help.
As we came to the bottom of the hill, I was hugely relieved to see Carmen standing there, and then Michelle and Rob as well, and a girl named Annie who we didn’t know but was part of the tubing group. 4 more people from our tour were a bit upriver, but making their way down towards us. But the real problem lay in the middle of the river.
There, on a rocky tree-grown outcrop, 4 people from our group crouched, stranded between rushing waters.
|Our view from the shore of the island. The guy standing in the river|
is a local who jumped in to help get the rope to them.
Locals started coming out of the woodwork then, bringing rope to help, stripping down to their skivvies and jumping into the water to rig up rope to get to our friends. One man—a carpenter—was the first to swim to the middle of the river, bracing himself against a rock and getting a rope to our friends. Of course, we needed more rope in order to reach the shore, and until that came, our heroic carpenter was stuck in the water.
|locals watching from the shore|
It was quite a process to get our friends out, and with no clear leadership, it took a lot longer than it should have. Thankfully, Rob kept a level head and kept most people from doing something stupid. Eventually, reinforcements came from the hostel. And then ziplining gear and life-vests from the hostel arrived, as well as 2 of our friends who hadn’t come on the float trip, and Jordan (who’d been one of the 3 to go even farther downriver, and was thankfully no more battered than the rest of us). Towels and dry blankets and lanterns and water were brought down, and finally we were set to get them out.
|There's a rope set up!|
The guys got one guide-rope strung up from the island to the shore, then attached a 2nd rope to be used to pull people along. Each person on the island donned a life vest (brought over to them with the rope) and using a ziplining harness, was attached to both ropes. The first person pulled himself across the guide-rope, those on shore pulling in the rope, but not really pulling him along. The next person, though, was a girl named Sabrina (not from our group) who broke her collar bone 6 months ago and has no upper body strength anymore. She tried pulling herself across, but the water was too strong. Because she wouldn’t let go of the rope, our guys on shore couldn’t just haul her in, so she spent what seemed like an eternity in the middle of the river, water rushing over her head. Watching was every bit as stressful as my own unprotected ride down the river. But she made it across safely, and Paolo (our friend the medic) took charge of her care, wrapping her in blankets and checking for signs of shock. Next across was Carrie, who followed instructions to NOT hold onto the guide rope and just be pulled across, and emerged on the shore assuring us that she was fine, did not need to be checked over by Paolo, and would be staying to watch and make sure her friends all got safely across. When Hyung was pulled across next, the karabiner attaching him to the guide rope broke, and suddenly he was washed several meters downriver. Thank God for that secondary rope; the guys pulled him in as quickly as possible. Hyung got out of the water spluttering and shaken. But the worst was over, and everyone else got back safely. (We started out with just 4 people in the island, and ended up with 8 as more and more people went over to either bring supplies or try to “help”). At least 3 hours after our trip should have ended, everyone was safe.
|Rob being pulled across (he'd gone over to bring live vests and harnesses)|
We’re still not exactly sure what happened, why no one told us where the “get-off point” of the tubing adventure was, or warned us that if we went too far we’d hit rapids (and eventually, had we gone 1km further, class 6 rapids and a waterfall). What we did hear is that the guide was new to the company. And a lot of excuses as to why the guides weren’t better prepared for an emergency. I am thankful, at the end of the day, for Rob’s leadership skills, the overwhelming generosity of locals who came out to help, for Paolo’s medic training, and for all of my friends who kept a level head. That night at dinner at the hostel, all 11 of us from CAG sat squeezed in at the same picnic table. I think we all just wanted to be close to one another, reassuring ourselves that everyone came out of this okay and things could have turned out a lot worse.