It’s been 5 years since I read what I wrote immediately after our river trauma. Many people have asked if I would reprint our experience. Looking back on what could be categorized as a nightmare, it seems to me surviving this event has taught me foundational lessons in humanity and a gratitude for life I might have otherwise never felt. I am grateful for hard things, they refine us.
Lori Burchinal, Kat Shoemaker, and Joni Crane decided late Friday, June 26th, 2009 to go fishing. They got a late start on what appeared to be a calm evening, put a dory into the Green River at around 5 p.m. at the base of the Flaming Gorge Dam and here’s what happened:
At the Flaming Gorge Lodge, we ran into some people Kat and Lori knew, who wanted to shuttle with us (Chris and Bobby from California). We loaded their 2-man pontoon boat onto our fiberglass dory and shuttled ourselves down to the river.
Fishing that day was fantastic until around 8 p.m. when we were approaching Mother in Law Rapids. A storm came through the canyon without any warning. Thunder roared, lightening flashed, and rain pelted us hard. We all lost our fishing hats that were strapped under our chins when the wind came from behind and swept us sideways in the river. Kat tried to keep control of the dory in the storm. It was like the ocean, and in only seconds the wind and waves blew the dory head-on into the “Can Opener”, a rock that did just that to our boat. Our fiberglass dory is still wrapped around it three days later.
The force of the current shoved us straight up the rock until almost the entire boat was vertical and out of the water and then we tipped sideways to the right. Lori, who had been riding in the front of the boat, was putting a fly on her line when it happened. She grabbed the high side of the dory, but finally had to let go and struggled swimming in the river until she made her way to the remote side of the river. Kat and I were pinned under the boat against the rock with the force of the river keeping us underwater and drowning. It took everything I had to roll to the right, off the edge of the rock to free myself.
I knew I would drown if I fought the current. I could see Lori making her way to the remote side of the river. The water was around 43 degrees according to Daggett County Rescuers. It was so cold that immediately the wind is knocked out of you, and you begin to stiffen up and loose use of your limbs. I remembered learning not to fight the current and to preserve my energy, so I just started to float in the fast current and tried to catch my breath.
That is when I started looking for Kat. About 200 yards away I saw Kat roll around the rock just like I had, but noticed she was not swimming or looking at me while I was yelling for her. She was just floating down the river in a daze. I knew something was wrong with her when I saw she wasn’t trying to help herself. She was in shock, not coherent, her face was white and her lips were blue. I wanted to swim for my life but realized she needed help and I decided to swim to her, but was afraid at first the she was going to pull me under.
I swam to her and turned her around and grabbed the back of her life vest. I told her to float on her back and I would pull her to shore. Then I saw how far away the shore was and was sure I was going to miss it at the rate the current was pulling us downstream. My heart sunk when I realized I could not make the beach fast enough if I was pulling Kat and felt that we would be in the river a long time until we made it to another beach.
At that point I made a decision not to look at the shore while I swam or I felt I would lose hope, I backstroked hard with my right arm and held Kat’s life vest with my left. I prayed out loud that God would move the shore closer to me. Immediately I was overcome by a warm comforting feeling and heard a voice repeat a scripture verse I had learned in my youth, “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” I knew immediately that I was in God’s hands and he would help me. As I swam I had the most bizarre thought… “If God’s going to move the shore closer to me, it would be impolite of me to watch,” so I swam as hard as I could without looking toward the shore. I know it’s weird; I just swam as hard as humanly possible for an old lady of forty-six.
I have no idea how long it took, but I suddenly felt rocks under my feet. I pulled Kat halfway out of the water and then just sat there stunned. Lori and I met up and decided I should stay with Kat and she would run along the bank looking for the guys behind us. I stayed with Kat and made more attempts to pull her out of the water entirely. She couldn’t move and we knew she had hypothermia and was in shock.
Lori couldn’t find the other boat so she came back to help me move Kat to dry ground under a tree, it was raining. When I looked down at Lori’s hand she had a huge fishing hook through her middle finger. We knew Kat was in bad shape and Lori couldn’t help move Kat with a huge hook in her finger, so like the Bering Sea Crab Fisherwoman she is, Lori took her forceps that were still attached to her fishing vest, and after four attempts, was able to yank it out of her own finger. We slowly pulled Kat up rocky slope and completely out of the water.
We were exhausted, wet, hypothermic and trying to think clearly and it was hard to focus. We began peeling off our wet life-jackets and coats, that’s when we saw the pontoon boat. Chris and Bobby floated past the rock, taking in the fact that our dory was smashed around it and we were not in it. We could see them pale and desperately scanning the shorelines looking for us. We began yelling but they couldn’t hear us, we were hoarse. Finally out of desperation Lori did her ear piercing whistle. They heard that and rowed hard against the current to reach our shoreline.
Both of them jumped off and ran over to assess the situation with us. They stayed calm and helped immediately offering us a fleece and a jacket when they saw that Kat was so bad off. Lori and I were adamant that they not take Kat onto the pontoon and float her to Little Hole in a rainstorm. It was still an hour long float and she was already hypothermic. The guys had a lighter, 2 ½ bottles of Gatorade, a cooler with a few pieces of bread and peanut butter, and a first aid kit with an emergency foil blanket.
They collected wood while Lori built a life saving fire. Chris suggested we heat up the Gatorade and then drink it to warm ourselves. They reluctantly left us when we refused to put Kat on the pontoon. We assured them she would be better off if we could warm her while they went for help. The other option was to put her on the pontoon in a storm and have her freeze even more for the hour float to Little Hole and then wait for help.
I could tell they felt terrible leaving us but Lori and I were sure it was the best plan. As soon as they left, we gathered more wood. It was so close to dark that we worried we would not be able to find more in the dark. I told Lori we needed to get our wet clothes off but she didn’t really like that idea. It only took a few minutes of thinking about it before she and I realized we couldn’t help Kat if we both remained hypothermic too.
I took off my soaked Capri’s and immediately started to warm up. This was enough to convince Lori that it wasn’t that terrible of an idea. The second we started to warm up we started thinking better. Kat was in shock, shaking uncontrollably and not able to breathe or get in a comfortable position. Kat had aspirated, (had water in her lungs), we did not know this until we were in the hospital. Lori and I both remembered our Red Cross First Aid Training and turned Kat so her head was on a downhill slope.
We took off her wet shirt and jacket and put on the fleece and hooded rain jacket that the guys had left. We tightened the hood around her face to keep in her body heat. Then we broke out THE FOIL BLANKET, yes that is in bold, because who would have thought that tiny little blanket would save us? But it did. We laid Kat by the fire and rolled her into Recovery Position on her side (I remembered that from CERT training). We tucked in the blanket along her backside and then stood up on either side of her holding up the foil blanket to reflect the fire’s heat onto all three of us. I am totally amazed at how much heat that provided all of us.
For about four hours we prayed together, sang together, and huddled under the foil blanket when it began to rain again. We put our clothes on branches and held them over the fire and would dress in warm clothes as we dried each item. We took shifts keeping Kat’s breathing pattern calm and lied to her. We told her that it was a proven fact that a person couldn’t go into shock if they laughed. Of course this was a lie, but every time she laughed she would exhale and her shaking would subside. So we lied. It worked.
By midnight we had all our clothes dry and Kat was feeling well enough to sit up on the cooler, she had color in her lips finally and was able to drink warmed Gatorade. We made plans on what we would do if we saw a bear and prayed and prayed and prayed. We said Mormon prayers and Catholic prayers for Kat. I think Kat was surprised that Mormon girls knew the Lord’s Prayer. I know that God was with us the whole time. We knew he had sent Chris and Bobby with exactly the things we needed to stay alive. Kat’s dog was with us the whole time too, which was comforting after the sun went down. Occasionally we would hear deep loud noises coming from the boat that was still stuck out on the rock, it was eerie. From time to time it rained and we built the fire bigger so the rain wouldn’t put it out and we all huddled under the foil blanket until the rain stopped.
I think it was about 12:30 when we saw the Gorge walls start lighting up and Daggett County Search and Rescue found us. We heard the water on the river begin to lower at around midnight, so being on the river wasn’t as hazardous. They took care of Kat, put her on oxygen, and it took a while to assess her condition and to get her into the first rescue dory. It had a heater in the floor for Kat. They left and a few minutes later Lori and I left with two other rescuers in a second dory. As we began the hour long ride down the river, the flashlight batteries our rescuers were using to spot the rocks dimmed and it was scary. The other boat was so far ahead they couldn’t give us any light. As Ben Somsen rowed in the black moonless night the guide had to turn off the flashlight to preserve the batteries. They knew the Green so well that they navigated rocks, turns and rapids from sound and memory and I also believe some divine intervention.
I don’t believe many people have ever maneuvered the Green in total blackness with just the stars guiding them. As the flashlights shined on the banks we saw deer and a cougar and many other eyes that we couldn’t identify. The outline of the Gorge with a million stars was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. However, in the middle of all this beauty, I had a sudden moment of clarity when I thought, “What kind of idiot survives a boat crash in broad daylight on a raging river and then gets back into the same kind of boat, on the same river, in the dark? This time we are doing the river by Braille method.”
I was really brave all day until that thought came into my head. That’s when I just started bawling my head off like a big baby. Every time we bumped a little rock, or could hear more rapids, I just wanted to die. It was like being in a nightmare and then realizing it wasn’t a dream, it was all real.
We had warmed up by the fire but when we got to Little Hole an hour later the ambulance had left with Kat. Responders realized Lori & I were both hypothermic and I was in a daze, they summoned the ambulance back and loaded Lori and I in with Kat. Lori is a rock. She is a strong woman and fun to have around in a traumatic situation. Kat had water in her lungs and they said at the point that we started warming her up that her core temperature was probably about 86 or 87 degrees. I can’t remember ever feeling cold out there.
On the way down the mountain the EMT’s placed heat packs under our feet, behind our knees and in our armpits and then wrapped us like mummies. Kat was being cared for on a gurney by an EMT while another held Lori and I in an upright mummified position as we took curve after curve and couldn’t use our hands for balance. Halfway down the mountain our EMT climbed into the cab through the window and traded duties with her husband. We could hear her vomiting at which point we were told that during the hour long drive they had cranked temp in the vehicle somewhere between 90 and 100 degrees. Of course they were car sick. It wasn’t until we got into Vernal that I could feel the heat on my cheek for a nanosecond. I never even noticed the warmth.
We got released at 5 a.m. Saturday morning, after getting shots in the bottom for pain they said we should be expecting soon. I am so glad to be alive! Being all doped up and all and still in shock, Lori, Kat, and I went back up to the Lodge Saturday afternoon for those pork medallions we had been craving all day Friday. We found Zach, Kat’s dog, who had been so protective of us. Bruno from Dutch John Conoco had taken care of him while we were in the hospital. He was sure glad to see Kat! It looked like the whole thing traumatized him too. He fell asleep in the back of my convertible while we ate dinner. During dinner, all of our pain and muscle relaxing shots wore off, and Kat noticed a huge egg on her head which might have explained more of her trauma. We sat with friends and didn’t talk too much, I think we all just needed to hang out, and we still felt like it was a bad dream.
After getting back home that night we received calls asking us to come back in for airway treatments, it seems that all that time by the fire on the mountain also gave us a good dose of smoke inhalation which they wanted to treat quickly.
As for myself, I wasn’t able to really get any sleep until after church on Sunday. Each time I doze off, I feel rain drops hitting my hands. When I talked to Lori about it Monday, she said that she remembers getting under the foil tarp while it was raining and realizing how cold I was. She said I am remembering the rain because it was hitting my hand during the hardest part of the night when all was quiet and we listened to the boat groaning on the rock. I guess your mind remembers what your body wants to forget.
It’s Monday now and Kat and Lori are reliving the whole thing at night and not sleeping well either. I think today it has finally hit us that this was a lot bigger deal than we thought.
For those of you, who think the Green is a mild warm raft ride like it normally is this time of year, consider this: the volume of water they are letting out daily now is higher, the water then has less time to warm. The water they are letting in is from the bottom of the dam and it was 43 degrees on a sunny warm day. Even without a storm and a crash, just falling in the water on a bright sunny day and swimming to shore, you can be hypothermic by the time you hit the beach. Also the water was so cold that the second you hit the water your muscles tighten up and make it hard to swim, and the cold knocks the wind out of you. Take that leisure trip later this summer please, when the water is warmer.
Our advice to all: NEVER go on the Green without a life vest, and ALWAYS have A LIGHTER, A PHONE, AND A FOIL BLANKET in a Ziploc bag attached to you somehow! Be nice to your friends too, you never know how much you may need to rely on them someday.
My most sincere thanks go out to:
Bruno Niccoli, Daggett County Search and Rescue; David Jones EMT, Daggett County Search and Rescue; Ben Somson, Daggett County Search and Rescue; Chris Harvey, Daggett County Search and Rescue; Bill and Patty Schwartz, Ambulance; Phil Lopez, Ambulance; Christy Jones, Ambulance; Rick Ellsworth, Sherriff; Gerad Hayes, State Parks; Jack Lytle, DNR; Travis Hawkins, LEO Forest Service; all the volunteers in Dutch John who showed up to help out of the goodness of their hearts; and staff at Ashley Valley Regional Medical Center.