The Accident – Part 2 of 3

Finally, I was out of the river and safe.  But I was so cold.  I was shaking all over.  I didn’t know much about hypothermia but I knew enough to know I was a candidate.

I took off my cowboy boots, poured out the water, and put them back on.  I used the lead line on the bow of our canoe to pull it to the bank.  And then I tried to figure out what to do next, quickly.

I didn’t know where my boating partner, Kerry Sipe, was or if he was alive.  When I yelled for him he didn’t answer.  After our canoe overturned in the Neuse River on a beautiful, cold, December night he had been carried downstream by the current.

I didn’t know where I was, either.

On the day we turned over the river was higher — and faster.

But I knew I couldn’t be too far from the U.S. 64 Bridge over the Neuse, where we had originally planned to end our trip.

I considered hiking through the woods, staying as close as I could to the river so I wouldn’t get lost.  But I decided the canoe would be the quickest way to find Kerry.  Or, if I couldn’t find him, to go for help.  Either way, I had to get going, I had to get out of there. I had to get warm.

I dumped the water out of the canoe and got back in.  I didn’t have a paddle. I had let go of my paddle when the canoe overturned so I paddled with my hands, maneuvering the canoe into the middle of the river, into the current.

I don’t know how far I floated down the Neuse, quite a ways, around several bends, before I heard him: Kerry Sipe was singing.

He was sitting at the edge of what looked like a small island, maybe it was just a clump of trees, in the middle of the river.   He still had the life jacket he had risked his life to save and, oh, so much better, he had his paddle.

Kerry had been in the water a lot longer than I had and he was not well. He handed the paddle to me, got in the canoe, and we lit out for the bridge at U.S. 64, for home, as fast as we could go.

And then we heard them — rapids, big ones!  I didn’t even know the Neuse had rapids.  They couldn’t be that big, not like the rapids Kerry and I had run on the Chattooga River down in South Carolina.  But they were loud.  And getting louder.

Maybe I had hypothermia, maybe we both did. Hypothermia distorts your hearing, maybe that was the problem.  Kerry and I had paddled a river with real rapids so we decided to go for it, to take a chance.

Continued tomorrow.

The Accident – Part 1 of 3

Kerry Sipe, a friend and newspaper colleague stood up in our canoe to pee and asked:  “Does this make you nervous?”

I said it did and then, just like that, the canoe turned over, dumping us into the Neuse River.   The water was cold — it was December –and neither of us was wearing a life jacket.

It was also nighttime and Kerry and I were alone.

Kerry Sipe,
Kerry Sipe, about 1972

This was supposed to have been a pleasant, Sunday afternoon stroll, so to speak, down the Neuse, from U.S. 1 to U.S. 64 near Raleigh, N.C.  But we had underestimated the distance and how long it would take.  The sun had gone down but the moon was full.  It was a beautiful night.

The canoe didn’t sink and both of us grabbed hold. His camera and my glasses had gone to the bottom of the river and I didn’t want to lose the canoe too.  It was borrowed.

Pat Stith, mid-1970s
Pat Stith, mid-1970s

I had brought a life jacket but Kerry hadn’t and I didn’t consider it sporting to put on my life jacket on when he didn’t have one.  So I had laid it in the canoe between us and now my life jacket was floating away.

I asked Kerry to grab it.

He let go of the canoe, swam three or four strokes, grabbed it, clutched it to his chest, and was swept away, caught in the current.  I clung to the slowly drifting canoe. We yelled back and forth for a few minutes as the distance between us grew. And then he went around a bend in the river and disappeared.  After that I could only hear the river.

I was a good swimmer.  But I was wearing cowboy boots and winter clothing, including a jacket, and I decided not to risk trying to swim for the nearest bank.  I figured I could hang on to the canoe for as long as I had to, in spite of the cold.

It had been raining a lot and the Neuse was out of its banks in places.  Here and there, the bank had given way and a tree had fallen into the water. Sooner or later the canoe had to drift into a downed tree and I’d be able to climb up through the branches.

And that’s what happened.  I climbed through the top of a tree, to the bottom, to the bank of the river.

I was safe, at last.  But where was Kerry?

Continued tomorrow.