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  • Gregory Zeigler

My Harrowing Experience in the Beautiful (and Sometimes Scary as Hell) Outdoors - By Gregory Zeigler

I had many harrowing experiences as a National Outdoor Leadership participant and course leader. I still get a crick in my neck remembering the summer day and night in the Wind River Range in Western, Wyoming we evacuated a student with a broken leg. She was strapped to an improvised litter and we had to carry her many miles down rocky trials to a trailhead where she was finally met by a school vehicle. Mary made a full recovery but I’m certain she will never forget that ride.

Carrying Mary took all day and caused a sore back, but the crick in the neck was the result of sleeping with a small boulder for a pillow that night. We were not able to make it back to basecamp and were forced to bivouac on the cold ground with nothing but our extra layers and daypacks for warmth.

However, my most harrowing experience in the outdoors was when I was part of a group of high school students led by two instructors. We were kayaking through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River in the summer of 1963 (prior to the building of Glen Canyon Dam).

We put in on the Green River several miles above the confluence with the Colorado. The first few days were easy flat-water paddles through stunning red rock formations and around lazy meanders in the river. We occasionally ran a riffle but never a rapid. Then we passed the confluence and were in serious water. You might say I immediately felt like I was in over my head.

In the very first rapid, I dumped and got trapped in a hole between my boat and that of a fellow paddler. I was under for what felt like several lifetimes. When I finally popped up gasping for breath I was pretty certain I had almost drowned. My friends caught my kayak downstream. I swam to an eddy, dragged myself out, and sat dejected and scared on the rocky shore.

Walter, the trip leader, walked upstream and sat with me. I told him I was not going on. He gently pointed out the impracticality of such a statement while sitting in the bottom of a sheer-walled canyon in the middle of the desert.

Five days of successfully running rapids later in typical teenage fashion, my confidence had rebounded. To express my joy I started paddling through a riffle backwards. I got sideways on a rock and watched in horror as my boat filled, cracked in half and the bow washed down stream and sank.

I swam, waded and scrambled to that night’s camp. I remember my instructors looking really concerned. We had one day of emergency rations and under the best of circumstances were three days and two nights of hard paddling from the takeout. It was anybody’s guess how long that would take with me struggling along without a boat. The adults obviously had no clue how they were going to get us all out. We had not seen another soul all week.

Then two men floated up in a two-man raft hauling a one-man full of water logged gear. We learned they just gotten out of the Army and had decided to have an adventure together. They had lost one paddle (replaced by a driftwood board), their glasses were covered with mud and they told of various mishaps including several scorpion stings. The instructors negotiated placing me in the bottom of their boat and we shoved off, my friends waving and trying to smile on the shore.

I remember distinctly every time we approached a rapid we would swing around and go through backward because the boat full of soaked gear was so heavy the current caught it and pushed it ahead. We spent two cold wet nights alone grinding sandy food for sustenance. Our group was behind us and my friends later reported finding signs of my passing such as floating oranges and water bottles that had washed out of our little craft.

They expected to find me as a floater at any moment. But as is evidenced by this writing, I survived.

And yes, I learned a valuable lesson from this harrowing experience.

Sometimes in life the only way out is through.*

*I captured this experience as fiction in my first novel, The Straw That Broke.

What was your scariest outdoor experience? Tell us about it in a comment below.

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