Recently I felt a Vulcan Mind Meld when I activated the SOS on my Zoleo, reaching GEOS IERCC through the Iridium Satellite Web at Warp Speed. I have not beamed up myself, but I did experience the quick response of a search and rescue team when they beamed in, so it seemed, right in front of me. I might have given the “Live Long and Prosper!” welcome accompanied by the Vulcan salute, but it was anything but a light moment in real-time. With me not being a Trekkie, I shouldn’t claim this acknowledgment anyway, made their own by geeks and nerds the world over. Though sometimes it is Deuteronomy 5:33 that is given credit for the sentiment behind the Star Trek greeting – “have a good life and live a long time in the land that you are about to possess.” Wherever it comes from, it is my emotion and experience of the particular incident that I’m about to share.
On a day recently, I had it in mind to paddle the river until I passed a particular public park I had marked on the trail map. Some camping was allowed there and it looked like good timing to call it a day. As I approached, the riverbank was thick with green, and no apparent break for a ramp or take-out. I knew it was nearby so I hugged the bank and paddled slowly ahead to avoid missing it. This day’s water had a very quick current which I appreciated throughout the afternoon as it accelerated my stroke. But now, I needed to maneuver my own brake in speed so I could make the turn into the park as soon as it was revealed.
Well, things didn’t go as planned. With the combined swiftness of the current and sudden appearance of the ramp, I would have to rapidly swing out, instantly make a 90-degree turn, and slam onto the gravel ramp to get enough of the bow landbound to prevent the fast current from taking the stern and tugging me backward downriver. In seconds, this all would happen just like this, except when I looked up, plain as day I saw an old man. Someone placed him there, I thought, after he moaned for too many days about wanting to go fishing. This is how I saw it in that split moment. He was ninety years old, for sure no younger, wearing an old tweed ivy cap and a dark blue golf windbreaker that was zipped to the neck on this warm day. Whoever brought him and positioned him there for the afternoon, unfolded a card table chair and placed it smack dab in the center of the gravelly boat ramp. This is where the old man sat with his chin to his chest, sleeping and holding a fish pole. I must have made a noise when I anticipated what was ready to happen because he raised his head and said, “Oh, hi!” as if he hadn’t seen anyone for hours. I covered up my alarm and said, “Hi!” back to him, but quickly yanked my paddle to straighten southbound again as if I had no intentions at all to jam up on this ramp. If I hit this old man, life would never be the same for either of us from that moment.
Losing my campsite was a small price, I thought, as the current continued clipping me along downriver. It was on the early side of four and a good time to practice my locating skills for a random island campsite. The DNR sites that were provided upriver were a welcome relief when things worked out, but now the river was readying for change. Random island and riverbank camping, that was the way it would go from now on.
Some miles passed when I saw a cluster of small islands around a larger one. Their surfaces were green and inviting but I’d have to pull in between the two smaller ones through a trough of fast-moving water as it split from the river and compressed into this narrower channel. I decided to use my planned maneuver left over from the old man situation. I pulled out, yanked in, and my bow slid right up onto the island. It was extremely muddy as if recently flooded, but I walked around it anyway. Too muddy for a tent, I concluded, my ankles sinking down into the smooth and shiny slop. I glanced back at the second island and noticed a tent-sized mound in its center, obviously dry as it rose above flood level. It was fifty feet across the angled channel, but I thought I could do it. First, I planned, then got in my boat, and shouted a prayer over the roaring shrieks of the water, “Jesus, I know you can help me do this!!” I needed to paddle nonstop, very rapidly at a descending 45-degree angle, to successfully cross the channel and still land high on the dry portion. If I didn’t stop even a segment of a second and I kept my eyes on the particular spot, I was sure I could make it.
It started out just as planned. Then I glanced to my right. It was this glance that caused me to pause my strokes as if frozen in motion. All it took was a tick of a second to give the strong downbound current the edge while, until then, it was evenly matched between us with the determined and rapid strokes I pulled from the start. It was this pause that lost it for me. Instead of crossing the channel, the current shoved my boat sideways, like a plow pushing snow, right into the middle of a fallen tree. We got caught inside the center of the branches as the water shoved us forward, then the tree limbs bounced us back like a spring coil. Any way the force took us, we were caught in it, like a dying black fly in a sticky spider web, the long-legged spider on top of us using all eight legs to hold us in place for supper. At this moment, I still thought I could get out of this.
In the space of a blink, my position changed. The kayak was now pressed on top of the water parallel to the tree’s main trunk which bobbled up and down on the water top. From the spider’s grip to this bobbing giant wanting to pin us, it was anyone’s guess how this was going to end. The boat was suctioned to the log and wasn’t letting go for any reason. As the water shoved us hard, I was still thinking I could get out of this, until the boat lifted and tipped on its side by some spiny fingers that curled up from underneath. The last thing I heard was my own voice howling, “Nooooooooo!” then came the underwater silence. While I hung upside down from the cockpit, I saw the underside of the water surface appear like a drawn fine-point outline. The river water was the color of a strong brown tea so I could see through it to the shiny sky above, much thin brown water filling the space between us.
In a fraction of time, I noticed these details and then realized I could not rise from the water. I had placed a small dry bag in my lap which had since filled with water and acted like a cork, pinning me in the cockpit. At the same time, my body was arching up toward air, likely because my flotation device was pulling to raise me to the surface. Again, split seconds passed with this fight-back as my head rose above the waterline enough to take a gasp of air before I sank back down. I clearly reminded myself to suck in an extra-large amount of air because I might never get another chance. I heard the words in my head, “Is this really how I’m going to go now, Lord?” I had dreamed at night of this situation during the winter while working out this trip's hazards. But who would believe this is the one that would actually play itself out so precisely?
As I used up that large-sized gasp of air, I realized I’d been kicking myself loose from the cockpit all along. Suddenly my entire body rose up, my PFD acting as it should, like an air-filled balloon pushing me up against gravity. When I surfaced, I was slammed into the side of my kayak which was still stuck on the bouncing log. There was no time at all to think of my next move. The water had beat me to it. As it rushed against my boat, fast-moving river water shoved me swiftly along the slick hull until I had slipped its entire 15-foot length and was spit into the downstream rush. On my boat, I had a paddle float, a rescue strap, and a bilge pump. Like an old grandma used to say, “fat lotta good that did!” I tumbled like a ping pong ball, gulping and spitting water, as I watched some of my gear shooting through the channel past me. I don’t know what made this next thing happen but it was a saving move. My hand grabbed a clump of grasses at the last curved tip of the island and I hung on to it for, literally, my dear life. My body stopped as if I’d slammed on some brakes and I was breathing in as much air as I could without sucking water along with it.
My orange corklike bag was aimed right at me as the current hurled it toward me, likely on purpose. As it was about to tumble downriver, in an instant, I mentally inventoried the important objects I had placed inside. I lunged out to grab it even though it was fully weighted like a bowling ball because it had filled itself with water. I crawled back up the mud side of the island, still gripping the grass clump and this cannonball-sized bag that had turned against me not once or twice but at least three times. It was I who had placed the bag in the wrong place, this a kayaker’s nightmare, but it seemed to have some hate out for me as the ordeal unfolded.
There I was, hanging off some grass with its roots loose in sucking mud, me panting, and then realizing I needed my phone or I’d be sleeping on this grass tuft all night. The battery pack I’d used to charge my phone was tucked into my PFD and the cord was extended out in the moving water, flailing every which way. I walked my fingers quickly along the cord, hoping the phone was still attached – and there it was just barely plugged into the charger. I dialed 911 and immediately heard the voice, “What is your emergency?” I wanted to tell the entire story in that first second, but no matter what I said, the operator could not hear me with a phone filled with water.
I remembered my Zoleo satellite locater beacon attached to the shoulder of my PFD and there it was when I reached for it, still attached. I opened the lid to the red SOS button and pushed it. Nothing. I quickly turned it over to read the directions and it was then I noticed my glasses were likely downstream. I pushed the SOS again and held it a few seconds, one-two-three, then I heard the emergency sequence beeping and colored lights running around the device in its urgency sequence. Seconds later, I heard the 911 operator talking to GEOS, the team at the global emergency response coordination center that is used for satellite emergency notification devices like my Zoleo device. The SOS signal was transmitted to this worldwide, private-sector, emergency dispatch team who already had my coordinates sent from my device via satellite. Relaying my location to the local response team, reaching my family with notification of the incident, and remaining connected to the comprehensive search-and-rescue teams involved, until I was safe on land, was handled through IERCC (the International Emergency Response Coordination Center) using Iridium, the largest and most technologically advanced satellite network in the world, and the only network that gives coverage over every inch of the planet. The Iridium system of satellites covers from the North to the South Poles and every inch of land, sea, or sky in between. It was within only seconds that the GEOS team was talking to local authorities in Minnesota. The 911 operator could eventually hear me through my water-logged speaker and remained on the line giving instructions to me so the responders could find my location through the thick brush and rushing water.
About 300 yards away from my tuft of grass, from a high riverbank across the channel, I saw four uniformed men descending. Once they reached the waterline, they spotted my blaze orange safety gear, gave signal, then waited in place until the rescue boat arrived. About ninety minutes passed while I clung to the mud bank, but well cared for from afar, located and reassured when I heard the sirens and motor of the water rescue boat. Three water rescuers rounded a third island coming upstream from a downriver boat ramp. It was only minutes before I was safely inside and my boat was pulled out and tied to the stern of the flat bottom rescue vessel. It took about twenty minutes to reach the lower boat ramp where a dozen firefighters, paramedics, and an ambulance awaited. After being checked out, we agreed that I was unharmed and blessed by their competent and immediate action. I expressed my gratitude to all involved, and the sheriff's deputy took me to a nearby hotel where my family picked me up the next day.
The IERCC is staffed with a team of professionals trained in emergency response coordination, with the most comprehensive reach into official Search and Rescue Agencies around the world. The team at the GEOS IERCC does not stop until the rescue mission is completed. This I can vouch for, a system that begins with me activating an SOS button, technology, global personnel, local human rescue teams coordinated by emergency operators, notification of family and friends, technology, and human efforts together.
A few days have passed and I have replaced my lost gear and eyeglasses. I am ready to return to the river and begin near where this incident occurred. Zoleo claims that GEOS has managed over 50,000 incidents that were reported worldwide, with 16,000 emergency responses coordinated, mine now included. I am grateful and amazed that global technology took care of me, local people were coordinated via satellite, care teams were dispersed, and I was rescued unharmed. In past times, perhaps even twenty years ago, there would not have been this type of help, literally at our fingertips, for the average human unless of course, you are a Vulcan. I was not being comical when I spoke like a Trekkie at the beginning. I was aligning our current-day reality with years of what has been called science fiction. There is nothing fiction about it. This is our real life.
(For any interested person, a Zoleo device is about $199 plus a $26 monthly subscription during use. To keep a unique phone, SMS, and email address when turned dormant, the cost is only $4 monthly until you reactivate it for future adventures. This is not a commercial or sponsorship of any sort, but a life saver for those of us, and our loved ones, out here together or alone.)
Let's live long and prosper!