I must love danger. I'm trying to come to grips with that. You know that William Nealy cartoon showing the different reactions of the boaters looking at a hairy rapid? I seem to have metamorphosed somewhere in the past year from the character looking panicked to the one with the big grin (but maybe my shoulders are a bit more tense). It kinda worries me. I thoroughly enjoyed being trapped on the Guad with that select group of stranded boaters. I'm not proud of that statement but neither am I ashamed. I'm just confused by it all. I've been in a few other hairy situations stepping up to Class III/IV this past year but this one certainly encompassed the greatest magnitude and involved the most people and also the most ultimate destruction. Here's the story from my viewpoint.
Saturday, October 17, 1998
4:00am I wake up to rain and let it lull me back to sleep.
7:00am Get up, make coffee, check weather and head down to New Braunfels.
9:00am Mark Poindexter's call time for the clinic.
9:30am I show up late driving in from Denis Kervella's place in North Austin, getting a bit confused trying to find my way to I-35 (doh!) then having to go slower than usual due to the rain. I find Mark's truck at the Huaco Camp Ground but no clinic.
9:45am I drive around confused. The SWR class is breaking camp. I run into one of the students from Oklahoma, Katie Meier (we know each other from a prior SWR class) who says she saw Mark earlier, trolling the campground for students but no idea where he is now. She's packing up to leave. She says maybe she's a woosie for not paddling, but safety first. Famous last words! Never mind the cancelled class, she's gonna get a serious SWR lesson from the river today. Same for Casey Hackathorn, a new boater and environmental engineer who signed up for the SWR class. Same for me. I get on my mobile phone and call Denis. He's headed down to boat the San Marcos. I leave frantic messages on mobile and home phones. "Denis. Forget San Marcos. The Guad is rocking! Either come here or head for Barton Creek!"
10:00am I resign myself to waiting by Mark's truck. I figure they must've headed into dry & warm for the intro lecture, maybe at a local restaurant. I've heard similar before in his OC slalom class. I want to use the time to finish my journal notes about my recent trip shredding the Upper Yough & Upper Gauley with Jeff Peters. It's still raining. The river's rising. Tatjana Terauds comes by looking for Mark. Since the SWR class is cancelled, her boyfriend Todd is headed down to join her. They've paddled the Guad at this level before and are looking forward to doing so again today. She has their two kayaks on her rack - a Response and an Outburst, both with the same b&w Dagger swirl. She's pumped & looking for Mark to join them. She thinks maybe he's at the church camp pavilion. I go check. The folks at the church camp know him but don't think he's there. I go back to my post by his car.
10:20am Still raining. I watch cars leaving the campground and the SWR class. I look at the rising river. I'm starting to worry. I decide maybe it's time to drive out while I can and time to look for Mark some more.
10:25am I run into my friend Tom Jenkins, one of the SWR instructors, stepping from his van. They've cancelled the SWR class. The San Marcos is flooding. He's walking down to look at Huaco Falls and I tag along. No Falls. No huge boulders. Completely washed out. One big hole on river right and looks like that's gonna wash out soon as well. He says he's sticking around a bit longer. Not all the SWR students are out. I go off on my futile quest to find Mark. We figure the river's at about 4000cfs (Tom's estimate). I'm asking myself if I'm over-reacting about Mark's car. Ha!
10:35am I reach the campground entrance. Tatjana is there waiting for Todd to come in his truck so she can get her Subaru out. She's still pumped. I express concern about Mark's truck. She says she'll go check the church camp again. I opt to drive to a phone to call Carolyn Albritton to see if she knows anything. My mobile is having problems. I figure I'll use the phone at the Texaco station up the road.
10:40am I pull up behind Katie and a line of cars, all stopped because you can't get there from here. The road dips down into a lake. On the other side more confused drivers, perhaps trying to get home. We circle back and park in front of a church. I finally get through to Carolyn on the mobile and tell her my concerns for Mark's truck. She says the back won't lock and there are surely keys inside. Katie and I decide to go see if we can drive it out. I ask if I can leave my car and ride with her since she's in an SUV with good clearance and I'm afraid my Nissan will stall out in the water we're gonna have to drive through. Think there was a clue there? If so it got lost in the forward momentum of my quest to save the truck. I snuggle in beside Katie's shiny well-cared-for dogs. Beautiful creatures. They're nervous. They have a sixth sense we don't share. I call Denis again. "Turn back. Turn back!" I shout. "Don't come down here. Don't go to the San Marcos. They're evacuating people. Go check out Barton Creek!"
10:45am Driving back we pass Tom Jenkins and wave for him to stop. He's driving out to safety. We tell him we're going back for Mark's truck . He thinks it's already too late, the water's lapping tires. We won't be able to drive it out. We tell him about the keys and that we left Tatjana down there still looking for Mark. We think if we can just pull it up to the fence line maybe it'll be o.k. and we press on. I think Tom expressed concern about the spring water flooding the road but we were undaunted. He looks after us and makes a quick decision. We've told him he can't drive out. One of his students is down there, and his friends. He knows better than we do how much the river has risen but he's not the kind of instructor who lets a student go back and doesn't follow. Hell, he's not the kind of guy who leaves damsels soon-to-be-in-distress unprotected. He turns around and follows us. I lead them both into disaster.
10:50am We pull up on River Road just above Mark's truck. Tatjana has found him in a cabin at the church camp (go figure!) and returned with Julie and Dana (his slalom students) to try to save his truck. They're knee deep in water and pushing the truck. They've tied it off to a tree. Also tied off Casey's Toyota 4 Runner, a red Dancer on its racks. (Casey & Bill Whittaker are off looking for a locksmith as Casey didn't bring a spare key and has done you-know-what. They're up there looking at that lake on River Road and wishing they'd smashed the window out with a rock instead.) Mark's truck is water-logged and won't start or something. I jump out of the passenger seat without hesitation, climb through the barbed wire fence and join the effort. The river has risen to 20,000cfs (Mark's retrospect estimate). The restrooms are creating an eddy so while the current we're in is strong it's deceptively calm. Tom gets out a rope and throws it to Mark who ties it to the truck. The other end is tied to Katie's 4-wheel drive. She hits the gas. We push. It's still not really working fast enough. The water has already risen up to our waists. Casey's truck is starting to float and strain at the rope which anchors it to the tree. Dana worries if the knots she tied are strong enough. (Likely the river pulled it down tree and all if her knots did hold!)
10:55am Four or five big guys come walking down the River Road. I cry "We're saved" and encourage them to join our struggle. Four sirens beckon to them. They look at us confusedly for a minute, turn their backs and leave. Man! We're pissed! We grumble unkind words at their lack of chivalry leaving four petite women waist deep in water. (Later we have to admit maybe they were simply being sane. Perhaps they'd heard the Mariner's tale.) We keep pushing. The rising water aids our cause, floating the truck towards higher ground. What's wrong with this picture?
11:00am The rope snaps where it's tied to Mark's truck and flies back towards Tom & Katie. Mark has repeatedly warned us away from it and I am grateful. I'd just untied the anchor rope to shift it to a higher tree. Julie and I quickly tie it off again. Mark is shouting for people to move their vehicles to higher ground and for us to get out of the water before the barbed wire fence is completely submerged and no longer safely negotiable. Tatjana cries out to save the boats. She climbs onto the truck and starts untying them. We're chest deep in water now. Julie takes a stance at the barbed wire fence while Dana rushes back to help Katie move vehicles. We feed boats up to Tom. One by one we negotiate the barbed wire fence. I use the last boat to hold the top wire above water. Tom has recovered the rope and makes a perfect throw to Mark & Tatjana. Mark gets his last fair damsel out and swims/ferries out himself. The river has risen so quickly that the fence is completely under. They have to go over it. No one gets more than a mild prick from the barbed wire somehow. River guardian angels? I still don't quite know how we did it. Hope everyone's current on those tetanus shots!
11:05am Tom gives us the grim news. The spring that normally flows down in a sweet playful waterfall into Huaco Falls is now a gush of water washing out our one escape route. He's been watching it rise during our struggle. Perhaps he sensed as he crossed it that none of our vehicles were going back that day. Within moments of our arrival he's known it for a fact and faced the task at hand. We pull the vehicles up as high as we can and lash down the rescued boats to free rack space on Dana's vehicle. Mark frets over three glass race boats stashed at Slumber Falls -- his, Joel's and Chris Burt's. We watch Casey's white Nissan (?) and red Dancer disappear under the angry brown torrent and eye the bathroom roof as a possible refuge (though we'd have to paddle to it). Mark's truck is floating and yanking at its mooring. His sister's warning not to get her videocamera wet flashes across his mind. I wonder if the Pelican box saved it, and if so for whom? Dana pulls her 1995 Chevy Silverado with extended cab up to the highest ground she can find. She's got a Piroettesque on top, paddles, 10-disc CD player and other gear inside. Julie follows in her Subuaru Legacy, her Outburst on top, paddle & gear inside. Tom's precious '87 Dodge 150 van is somewhere in there -- custom finish, coddled baby, expected to last another decade -- it holds his videocamera, TV, VCR, camping & paddling gear (including 6 or 7 paddles) and a custom Gortex sleeping bag made especially for him. All the tools of his trade. And of course there's Tatjana's car with matching boats, plus Katie's anxious dogs peering from the window of her 4x4. We have 3 mobile phones and we're all calling 911 and Tatjana's Todd. Someone gets through. Everyone starts outfitting in warmer paddling gear, pfds and helmets. I have nothing with me. Gear comes from all directions until I'm neoprened and fully garbed. We take a deep breath and start to think about self rescue.
11:10am I look around. A white mustang's car alarm is going off. Great! We're stranded with those guys who wouldn't help us! They have a Bronco and another car as well. We women snub them. They're not boaters. We can't include them in any plans to paddle out. And that's right where we're headed. We make the same decision in relation to them that they made in relation to us earlier. Each group stays tightly knit and separate. 11:15am Tom & Mark anxiously confer, trying to second guess the paddling skills of those they've not boated with before. Katie is frantic with worry for her dogs. I put my arms around her and assure her that deep inside I know it's not my day to die. We're gonna be o.k. She insists she won't leave without her dogs. I tell her I'll talk to Tom about taking them out in the canoes. I assure her that I'm not as comfortable in a kayak and would prefer to paddle out in his Bell Wildfire anyway. Tom agrees to this plan.
11:15am We start taking boats down. Mark is most comfortable in an rpm and takes Julie's (rescued from its precarious resting spot under a tree in the campground). He wants to scout the spring we'll have to ferry. Swift current and a forest of trees below. The Guad is roaring by at about 50,000cfs now (Mark's estimate). Our island is shrinking fast. Vehicles are pulled more tightly together and those with rope tie theirs off to trees. Katie is afraid the dogs won't stay with Tom & I in the open boats. I suggest I come sit with the dogs so they can get used to me. Maybe it will help. We spend a few moments in her cab out of the rain. Mark paddles out of sight around the bend. We feel stalled. I want to go ahead and try it before it gets any worse. Mark comes back to report it's pretty swift. I'd guess a class 3 ferry with ugly consequence. We aren't sure if everyone can handle it. We don't doubt anyone, we just don't know their skill levels. Tom & Katie have their boats down when suddenly someone spots the rescue raft motoring with paddle support towards us. We're relieved we won't have to make that decision.
11:20am The rescuers disembark and begin to assess. We understand their procedure. We don't volunteer information. We wait for them to ask. We confirm that all members of our group are accounted for. We are very formal about this act. We confirm that no one is injured. No one is trapped in a vehicle. They want to know where the 20 people trapped in their vehicles are. We say no one is trapped. They want to know where the school bus is. We assure them there is no school bus. They repeatedly strongly advise us not to paddle out. I am holding Tom's Ovation while he's getting out paddles. The leader walks up to me and says in ominous tone, "Young lady, tell me you're not going to paddle that out." I start to hedge. I tell him it's not my boat. Then I instinctively give in and assure him I'm not going to paddle out. I really want to paddle out for the sheer goddamn glory of it. But I sense that if I press the issue they won't let the guys paddle boats out either. Better to get two boats out than none. I'm also not sure they'll take the dogs but I know Tom will. I hand the boat off to Tom and go to reassure Katie. She's busy taking down her boat.
11:25am The rescue crew reconfirm all our data and their leader walks past us to look at the Guadalupe and the general store. They want to make sure there's no one else trapped behind us. The non-boaters assure them we're the last out. The leader calls us to meet at the raft for his pronouncement. He tells us that he does not consider this a rescue situation. For some reason this amuses the boaters and angers the non-boaters. One guy says, "You mean you've come all the way out here to rescue us and now you're not going to?!?" We boaters are confident they'll change their minds if they spend a few more minutes here. The river will convince them with no help from us. Not one of us argues the point. Of course, we're in a better position having boats. They move off down the road to make sure there really isn't a bus with 20 entrapped people. We wait. The car alarm keeps going off. I wish the darn thing would go ahead and float away.
11:30am The river rages all around us at 70,000cfs (again, Mark's estimate). Suddenly the leader decides this IS in fact a rescue situation. Our confidence in him is confirmed. We are comforted that it took them longer to figure it out than it took us. He somehow spares us having to brutally question our decisions. This man is very organized. He wants to know who the strong swimmers are. He wants to once again strongly advise Mark & Tom not go paddle out. We understand he has to do this. We know he's going to let them. The non-boaters insist the women go first. We are chagrinned, having judged them so quickly and so harshly. Katie asserts she won't leave without her dogs. To our surprise and great relief the rescue team is willing to take them out. Two women are hustled into the raft, no one wanting to go first and leave the others. Mark paddles alongside providing safety.
11:40am I go on the second trip. I haven't lined up with the strong swimmers because I've only tested myself in short bursts like on the Ocoee. This swim looks like a long way and I'm not in a mood to be cocky. I stand safe on the opposite shore regretting that they hadn't let me paddle out. I've seen the current and I'm confident I could have done it. Suddenly here come Tom & Mark. Midway across the swiftest current Tom loses his ferry angle and peels out towards the forest down below. I take a deep breath and start whooping and hollering encouragement. "Come on Tom! You can do it! WhoooooooHooooo!" I exude total confidence in him. Just another class exercise. I will not allow the life or death of it to get the upper hand. The look on Mark's white face defies description. He could only later feebly express it as "Oh shitt I'm gonna have to go in there after him! I don't want to be in those trees!" Tom pulls off two quick cross forwards and a pry, pulling out just in time. I'm still cheering mightily. Tom paddles proudly into shore. The raft brings another load of people. I tear my eyes from all the out buildings, duckies and tubes I'm watching flash down the river, look around and spot Casey & Bill Whittaker. I join them. I'm pretty sure I saw Casey's white Toyota with red-boat garnish wash by but I don't want to say so. I spot Tatjana safely encircled in her worried boyfriend's arms. He doesn't give a damn about the boats or car just then. Eddy, the owner of the campground is there. A kindly man, he keeps expressing surprise, totally bemused to see that road under water for the first time in his memory. The rescue support crew concur that they totally did not expect this. "A 50% chance of scattered thunderstorms," one said, "We were completely unprepared for this!" The last trip is made, two non-boaters plus Katie and her dogs firmly amidships. We run into the water and grab the dogs' collars and help her get them out. Someone asks her how high the water's gotten. She reports that the mustang is starting to float and the water is halfway up Tom's tires. We quite correctly assume the worst.
11:50am A kind man in yellow rain slicker invites us back to the Church Camp. The non-boaters impose upon a rescue vehicle for a ride to the New Braunfels shelter. We boaters wisely follow our good Samaritan. We arrive to laughing kids playing touch football in the rain, their parents staying dry inside and playing dominoes. A totally separate world from the one we just left. A cobbler just coming out of the oven amidst exclaimed admiration. The only common thread seems to be the wet. We're rewarded for our trek with a mobile phone that works (none of ours seem able to get out), honey baked ham, hot coffee and warmth -- both temperature and spirit. I watch people thaw and smile again. I admire the gentle relief of Todd's firm arm ensconced about his darling Tatjana. He's never for a moment questioned her decision to risk the car & boats. I wait my anxious turn and finally get my friend Denis on the phone. He's gotten my earlier messages and has hooked up with another boater to go hit Barton Creek. This scares me. I call for someone to come advise him. Todd takes the phone and starts describing the run. He stresses that Denis should be sure of his skills and the skills of the other boater. I don't have any doubt about Denis' skills but I've just seen a river rise from 20,000 to 50,000cfs in about 15 minutes and then again to over 70,000. I don't want him on Barton Creek. I have a bad bad feeling. I beg Todd to tell him it's a class V run because I know Denis, as the father of two small girls, has resigned himself to only running class IV. Denis decides he'll just go have a look. I ring off and try Carolyn but can't get through. I opt for food and coffee. I want to check my car. Julie wants to walk off her nervous energy. She joins me. It's a trend. Folks are ready to go. We're uncomfortable imposing further and ill content with inactivity.
12:30pm??? Tatjana, Todd & Katie take off together while Bill loads up Julie's rpm and Tom's Ovatoin. The rest of us stick together. We collect my car and try another route out but are turned back. We end up at the New Braunfels shelter. Tom immediately pitches in helping make coffee. Bill Whitaker and I, the only ones who still have our cars & gear, pass out dry clothes and socks. Mark can't stop shaking though he insists he's warm. Bill keeps trying to get him to put on a shirt until I point out how doing so would deprive we women of the pleasure of his pecs. I'm disappointed when he finally gives in and puts one on. Probably got self conscious, do you think? I start jotting down notes, names, property left behind, flow estimates from Mark. We eat again. I steal bites of pecan & pumpkin pie from Tom and Bill, and haul in the remaining contents of my cooler and my junk food. I have beer but no one seems to want it. Me either. Nothing cold sounds good.
2:30pm??? We decide we can leave the shelter. Bill has heard the road is opening up. We head to the Texaco after which we'd lusted for so long. Other boaters are pulled up eating out of the back of their trucks. We reconnoiter. We buy more munchies. People hit the phones. Dana finally gets through to her husband. She's been leaving messages for him all day. She learns that her sister-in-law's 2-story house has floated down the river and now it's lapping at her own doorstep as her husband watches in helpless dismay. She can't convince him to leave. She hangs up the phone. She's crying. I'm on the next phone calling one of the Dallas SWR instructors and trying to fill her in over the static. Julie has been standing by Dana trying to comfort her throughout the phone call. Now she has to let her go. Dana walks away, her back tense and shaking. Suddenly she curses and knocks aside a trash barrell, walking fast. I disengage from my unfinished call. I go after her. Always the gentleman, Tom Jenkins is righting the barrell and putting back the trash. Mark has reached Dana in a flash. I think we were all concerned she'd walk into the traffic. He holds her in his arms and lets her cry it out. I wait at a distance till he walks her back and put my arm around her. There is no comfort that can be given. There is only loss stacked on loss stacked on a river of anxiety inside.
4:30pm We continue to struggle to escape New Braunfels. We drive halfway over bridges only to be stopped by water and amazing floating gardens of debris. Finally we wind our slow way out. Fate hooks us up with Ben Kvanli and Michelle. Together we negotiate the barricades that screen off Dana's neighborhood from trespass and troop down to her house. The water has receded from the yard. Her husband stands shell shocked with grief, staring at an empty lot across the street. I dare not ask if that's where his sister used to live. A fire truck lingers and a rescue craft probes the encircling water. I fish out Dana's pfd and boating gear from the community stash of sodden clothes. I let everyone keep the socks I've distributed but reclaim my precious Patagonia tights and shirt.
6:30pm Bill Whitaker is willing to take Mark and his remaining crew back to the Church camp. They want to be near their missing boats and cars. After struggling so hard to get out I'm unwilling to return. I head for Austin and Denis. It takes me until almost 10pm. I drag poor Denis back out into the rain for Margaritas. I have no clear remembrance of our conversation that night except we plan to boat Barton Creek the next day (but that's another danger story). While Denis and I were risking life and limb on the narrow creek @ 1900cfs next day, Mark & company were surveying damage, Bill & Julia were taking documentary pictures (see web address below), and the National Guard was moving into New Braunfels and are currently blocking river access. Tetanus shots are highly recommended for anyone planning to help with clean-up.
Now, there may be some folks in dry chairs ensconced at bright computer screens who might, as I was told in comfort, SWR arm-chair quarterback and 20-20 hindsight our actions, criticizing those of us who went back into danger to help in loyalty and friendship towards a fellow boater. They may be right, especially since it resulted in the loss of more property. Certainly I admire the SWR instructors for getting themselves and their students out in the nick of time. We were maybe half an hour behind them. But, as Neil Harrison and Marybeth Kvanli both told me, "unless one was there in person, no one has the right to criticize anyone for actions taken." For myself, I have no doubt we made the right decision. I don't want to boat with anyone who could have seen Mark, Tatiana, Julie & Dana struggling against all odds to save that truck and not joined in. There was a beauty of spirit shining on that muddy river the likes of which I'd not seen before. I was very impressed with the level heads & the rapid decision-making abilities of everyone involved. Even those who were freaked were performing each needful task without hesitation. We put on vests, warm paddling clothes & helmets and left them on until we were completely out. The amazing thing was all the smiles you saw around the tables at the Church Camp & the Shelter. Our boaters bonded into a tight team, faced adversity and danger with stamina, loss and discomfort with wry amusement. Those who lost possessions received so much back in heightened self-confidence and the knowledge that they could overcome. It may not seem like a fair exchange at first, but with what fear can we now face our daily business lives after surviving the Guad at over 78,000+cfs (the last reported level before the gages washed out and stopped reporting data [Editors Note: The flood has been reported to have reached 90,000 cfs - the highest on record])? What is there we can doubt within ourselves? We've been tested and every single one of those people shone like brilliant gold. I know. I saw them. It was an honor to be a member of that group.
Bill Whitaker's Initial Flood Report (posted that evening @ 11:30pm):
Chris Burt: I was able to get a hold of Mark on Saturday night, and at the time he thought he had lost all of his boats but my race c-1 was OK. He said I should come down to help find gear and flip over his truck.. I arrived around 05:30 and we started checking out the damage. Mark's truck is totaled, and a girl named Julie from Houston who was taking the clinic, couldn't find her car. The damage was awesome!! We actually found all but 1 of Mark's boats and a Mitchell kayak paddle. His c-1 was in a big cypress tree about 30 feet, yes I said thirty!, above the water! It looked just fine cradled in the huge cypress, but the fate of his race kayak was not so good. We ran the river and found it just above slant wrapped around one of the many trees! Oh, and Julie's car, well as the river started to drop the rear wheels broke the surface just above slumber falls on the river left side of the dam. I don't have a clue how it will be removed. Anyway I took lots of pic's and hope to have them on my new web site soon!
Neil Harrison: There are pictures posted at the Bayou City Whitewater Club Site at: http://www.bcwc.net The pictures we have thus far were taken by Julie Funderburk, one of the paddlers in Mark Poindexter's class that Teresa wrote about, and myself. There are more to come from Julie and from John Olden, another paddler from the BCWC who was with me on Sunday morning. John's pictures of Gruene should be pretty intense as there wasn't much left standing at Gruene except a few trees. The devastation is breathtaking. We're very lucky that NO paddlers were among the fatalities the 15 or so fatalities attributed to this disaster so far.
Tre Notes: Carolyn Albritton extracted Mark's boat intact from the cypress tree, lodged 30 feet up! Yes, she had a rope around her waist. Chris has taken Mark & truck back to Arlington for reclamation work. Tom Jenkins has gotten his van to start and is headed back home to his understanding wife and dog. All the contents of the van were damaged. Katie's 4x4 is totaled by the insurance company. She's shopping replacements but won't be able to afford another 4x4. Casey is totally calm. His truck is totaled, his boat is MIA, but hey! He got his wallet back! I haven't heard from Dana. Tatjana & Todd ran the Guad in their matching boats @ about 1800cfs and checked out all the damage. The Subaru is, of course, gebroken, but she has a spare she's using and is cool...way cool.