Wednesday, December 3, 2014

My Broke Back

L1, third from top, crushed into a wedge.
It all started with the world famous Green River Narrows, following the infamous Green Race. The Green Race is the greatest kayak race in the sport. It holds a certain allure that no kayaker can deny.  Personally, I’ve been interested in going over for the race for many years now - not necessarily to race, just to be a part of the event as an observer and get to run the Green River Narrows, one of the most famous stretches of river in the world.  

As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, North Carolina is a long way to go. The logistics of sourcing a kayak, finding a place to stay, and finding paddling partners present some hurdles. For whatever reason, it all came together for me this year; my friend Conor from Oregon was coming back from Spain and planned to be there, another friend, Eric Adsit, had recently moved from Portland was kind enough to lend me a boat, and some other friends that spent a couple summers working at a wilderness lodge very close to me were back at their house (called Girl Island- that’s another story) in Asheville and offered up their couch.  To top it off, I was on my way to Africa to work and had to fly through Atlanta a few days after the race.  In short, I finally had my chance to go run the Green and witness “the greatest show in sports.”

I arrived the Friday before the race and dove into the Halloween festivities. After some good times dressed up and dancing, we woke up in Asheville to several inches of snow on the ground, which caused quite the delay getting ready.  By the time we made it to the take out, the race was soon to start despite having been delayed an hour by the cold conditions.  We made our way up to the put-in and I ran into a friend from Kentucky that I’d met kayaking in Ecuador.  Kayaking is such a small world!  We got a group together and paddled down through the course to Gorilla, making sure to not get in the way of any racers hauling ass.  The river was like nothing I’d ever boated before, really steep and quite manky, and yet somehow all good to go.  We had a blast spectating, there were good lines and bad, and tons of folks that had made the hike in just to watch, have some beers, and maybe grill some hotdogs on an open fire.  

A solid crowd below Gorilla despite the snowy morning (and this isn't even half the folks)!
After all the racers had passed through, Conor gave Gorilla a go and styled while I carried through the portage, leaving the beast for another day.  After some quality slides, a quick portage at Sunshine, and more smiles, we made our way down to the takeout.  Such a great day!  If you haven’t been to the Green Race, it’s worth a trip just to spectate!

The next day, we planned to paddle the Green in the afternoon, only to find that the water would be cut off and we wouldn’t make it in time.  That left Monday as the last potential release for us to get back on the Green.  

When Monday came around, Conor and I were ready, and we got to the river and ran into some of the best boaters hanging around those parts: Clay Lucas, Robbie Gilson, Chris Harjes, and Tommy Penick.  We rallied our way down, really enjoying the some sunshine on the Green, highlighting the beauty of the canyon.  The water felt great as did the crew, and I was feeling pretty solid in the borrowed boat and gear, so when we got down to Gorilla, I felt ready to go for my personal first descent. 
If you aren’t familiar with Gorilla, there are really 3 drops that make up the rapid, Flying Squirrel, a small broken ledge, the Notch, a tight slot that turns almost 90 degrees, then the main event, Gorilla, a 18 foot or so waterfall that lands on a rock slide and shoots down a narrow flume.  There’s a brief pool after the flume, then another big slide, leaving little time for recovery.

Back to the story, we arrived at Gorilla and decided that Robbie would go first, followed by Conor, then Clay, Tommy, and me.  I had planned to run through Flying Squirrel, catch a small eddy immediately below the Notch, then run the main drop from there.  Following behind Clay, I ran the Squirrel and saw that Clay had caught a small eddy on river left and could see that Conor was in the eddy at the Notch.  Clay signaled for me to stop, and I was able to catch an eddy on river right, out of site of anyone but him.  Tommy came through and ran the Notch directly, and ended up also joining Conor in the eddy after the Notch.  At this point, I wasn’t sure if something had gone wrong, or if everyone was just paused.  Clay tried to get Conor and Tommy to clear out of the eddy, and ended up just running the Notch and Gorilla directly.  I then worked my way into the eddy that Clay had been in on river left, right above the Notch, and was trying to signal Conor to clear out when I realized I was drifting into the current.  I tried to back paddle on a shallow shelf and get back in the eddy so that I wouldn’t run into Tommy or Conor if they peeled out, but wasn’t quite able.  I immediately yelled to Conor as loud as I could “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going,”  and entered the Notch a bit off-line.  I still intended to catch the eddy; the Notch on the other hand had different intentions and pushed me left toward Gorilla, putting me on a hard brace.  I was able to recover from the brace and was pushed a little further right than the ideal line. I had seen several boaters get pushed that way and knew that there was a rock shelf about 4 feet down from the main lip.  Having to make a split second decision, I committed to trying to get on the shelf and bounce off of it into the flume.  As soon as I was airborne, I hit the shelf with the front half of my boat, and barrel rolled, landing in a tucked position.  I took a huge hit to my back, with the kayak basically landing on top of me, and still had to deal with the flume and getting back upright.  I was having trouble rolling in the short pool and Robbie was able to give me a hand and get me fully upright before running the next rapid.  

I was able to eddy out in the next rapid and did a quick self-assessment.  No stars, no head pain, no nausea, just a severe pain the middle of my back.  I wiggled my toes and fingers, no shooting pain or numbness, and quickly the crew caught up with me in the eddy.  They asked if I was alright, and I said something along the lines of “I’m alright, just took a huge hit.”  After I ran the next couple rapids and was clearly in a lot of pain, Tommy did another assessment and had me touch my fingers to my thumbs and checked my back for any protrusions.  Everything checked out, and I made the call to continue down the river.  

The next couple of miles of paddling were the most painful experience of my life.  Being a low volume creek (200 cfs or so), its damn near impossible to not hit rocks, and I sure found a lot of them on the paddle out.  Each and every one reminded me that I’d really crashed hard and made me wonder if things weren’t worse than I’d hoped. 

Getting back to the cars, the boys took care of all my gear for me and I tried to find a position that was comfortable.  After a while, and another check, we looked up the nearest urgent care and decided I should get checked out.  We found the urgent care facility in Hendersonville, FastMed, and they were able to do some x-rays and inject some much appreciated narcotics in my butt, all for a very reasonable fee of $132 (my insurance is catastrophic).  The x-ray tech didn’t notice the fracture at first, and I was discharged, only to get a call from the radiologist an hour later to report the fracture- a mild compression fracture on the anterior side of the L1 vertebrae corresponding to a 25% decrease in vertebral height.    

The whole experience was a physical and emotional roller coaster.  The initial pain and disappointment at having botched a line I know I’m perfectly capably of, the relief that I was still able to paddle and would not need to be hiked out on a backboard. Then the pain setting in and deciding to go to Urgent Care, only to be told that I was clear, at which point I about cried in relief.  Then the call from an unknown North Carolina number with the report that I had a stable compression fracture of my L1 vertebrae and would need to see an orthopedic as soon as possible, at which point I about cried again.   Then the relief after talking to my dad, who happens to be an orthopedic, and hearing that I could anticipate a full recovery, followed by the realization that I wouldn’t be back in a kayak for a couple months, and would be missing a Grand Canyon self support for my 30th birthday.  A total roller coaster.

In the end, injuries always suck.  They set you back, they’re painful (the case of a bone fracture like this one, all the normal pain killers slow bone growth, so I didn't use any).  The recovery process is always longer than you want, no matter how healthy you are and how much physical therapy you do. Injuries are part of the game though, and in the end I’m so thankful for the resilience of the human body.  And I’m so stoked to get back on the river soon!

Thanks to Robbie for putting together this video.  He did a great job of portraying how it felt like a normal day on the river until it didn't anymore...

Broken Back - Gorilla - Green River Narrows from Robbie Gilson on Vimeo.


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