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August 29, 2013


The Incident At Sidney

To put it simply, three of us underestimated the power of the Susquehanna River and we paid the consequences.

Five of us, each in our personal boats, were paddling down the Susquehanna at a bend in the river at Sidney, southwest of Oneonta. Steve was way out front in the lead, almost out of sight. Kathy was behind him. I was in the rear, Lynne was in front of me, and Mari a ways in front of Lynne in the middle of the line. It was about 11 AM, Saturday.

Lynne and I came around a bend and saw that Mari had run into a strainer, which is a big upended tree with big roots sitting in the water. Mari was inexperienced with the kayak, this being her first time out. She'd been doing pretty good after three hours of paddling and was learning fast, but she had a tendency to lose control of her boat and run sideways into trees and sideways across rapids. So neither Lynne nor I thought anything of her predicament, hung up in the tree. We didn't realize that she was in serious trouble and the strainer at the riverbend was a very dangerous trap.

The Strainer Seen From Shore The Following Tuesday
The Strainer Seen From Shore The Following Tuesday

But we both should have realized. Mari was standing mostly out of the water clutching the tree roots, and somehow her boat had lifted out of the water caught upended tangled at an angle in the roots. That should have told us something, but like I said we were not alert for danger.

So Lynne headed for the strainer to help Mari. About thirty feet from the strainer the current grabbed her canoe and pulled her directly at the strainer. Fast. Her canoe whipped sideways, dumped her into the water and the boat slammed up against the strainer, sideways to the river. I heard a loud smack as it hit. The boat was stuck against the strainer by the force of the current.

Lynne disappeared under the water. Her head came up and went down again. Then her head came up again on the other side of a big branch. And she let loose a blood curdling scream of terror. Then she went under again and came up screaming some more yelling Help.

I should have stopped to think but instead I headed straight towards Lynne. So because I have a lack of brains, and I guess because I figured Mr. Macho here could show these dumb girls how to handle the river, I went directly into the maelstrom. At about 30 feet I lost control of my boat, it turned sideways, it dumped me into the water (the first time it has ever spilled me!) and the boat slammed sideways into Lynne's boat with a bang, crushing it against the strainer.

I was under water. I learned a long time ago that when I'm underwater like that the best thing to do is to stop struggling. Relax. So quickly I bobbed to the surface on the outside of the strainer, upstream, and the next moment the current slammed me against the bottom of my boat.

At this point I should mention that we were both wearing our life vests, which guaranteed that we both surfaced. I always wear my life vest when I get in my boat. But when we started this trip, the Susquehanna was so shallow and calm that I briefly considered not bothering with the vest, but then though better of it and put it on.

The Front Porch Where We Dried Off And Recovered
The Front Porch Where We Dried Off And Recovered

So now my body was pinned against the two boats which were pinned against the strainer and Lynne was in front of me clutching the branch on the other side, water up to her neck. Now I did what I should have done in the first place, stop a moment and think about what to do next. I was stuck but my situation was stable, and once Lynne could see that I was in front of her she started moaning instead of screaming, which was a good sign. She wasn't hurt, and I'm glad she stopped screaming. She was loud.

So I was able to turn around and grab my paddle before it floated off, and I tossed it toward the shore, which was a steep bank. That's when it occurred to me to shift myself along the branch toward the shore, because the shallower the water the less force that I had to contend with. When the water was below my hips I found that I could maneuver against the current without hanging on to the branch.

I took hold of my paddle and pointed one end toward Lynne. I told her to grab it. She tentatively held the very end with her fingers of one hand. I told her to lean against the branch and grab the entire blade of the paddle with both hands. She did so, and while holding my paddle she worked her way along the branch, and in a moment she was safe.

While this was going, out of the corner of my eye I saw Mari jump into the river and swim downstream. I also saw Kathy in her kayak battling the current coming upstream toward us. From what she told me later, she had deliberately paddled past the strainer so that she could approach the strainer from downstream. I appears that she knew what would happen if she approached it from upstream. I’m glad someone in this crew was smart. Steve in his kayak was way downstream out of my sight, but had been paddling upstream toward the action. He turned out to be in a very important position.

With Lynne safe I went back to our boats, moving along the branch. I don't think the strongest man in the world could have pulled those boats away from the strainer, the force of the current was that tremendous. So I worked to push the boats sideways along the branch, to let the current do my pulling for me. Eventually I succeeded, but as I shoved my kayak Lynne's beautiful beloved carbon fiber Adirondack guide canoe caved in and crunched, making horrible noises. I announced to her that her boat was toast. But I got the boats free and they floated away. My hope was that Kathy and Steve would catch them because I sure couldn't.

Lynne and I were on the shore. She crawled on her hands and knees up the bank while I helped push her from behind and encouraged her. I carried my paddle. While climbing I looked back at the river, and was astonished to see that Kathy had climbed up on the strainer and I watched her throw Mari's kayak into the water with a splash.

So before I had managed to push Lynne up to the top of the bank to safe ground, a pair of volunteer search and rescue guys started coming down the bank to meet us! It seems that as soon as Lynne screamed, the folks who lived across the street up above had called the authorities and they were there like a shot. It turned out that we were in downtown Sidney, and the folks on the other side of the street, when they heard Lynne scream, knew exactly what was happening without looking. "This part of the river right here is bad, we get one or two of these every year." So the folks who lived up there were accustomed to rescuing idiots like us.

I should mention that I'd lost my glasses in the water so I couldn't see a damn thing. I'd also lost my camera, which is too bad because I'd taken a lot of nice pictures. And Lynne lost her paddle. (Mari lost her shoe.) Kathy did indeed catch the boats and lots of other stuff floating away, and one more very important thing. It seems that Lynne had the petitions that she was carrying in the canoe with her. Just lying in the boat, because she wanted to be authentic. (When she told me she'd done that I was ready to kill her. After rescuing her.)

Steve, who was a ways downstream, spotted the petitions floating in the middle of the river. He paddled out onto the middle of the river and managed to rescue them. Fortunately the petitions themselves only sustained minor damage. If not for Steve’s alert actions the entire enterprise would have failed.

Stan Knapp, Former Sidney Police Chief Called For Rescue When He Heard The Wife Scream.  Yes, His T-Shirt Reads, "I'm Not A GYNECOLOGIST But I'll Be Glad To Take A Look."
Stan Knapp, Former Sidney Police Chief Called For Rescue When He Heard The Wife Scream. Yes, His T-Shirt Reads, "I'm Not A GYNECOLOGIST But I'll Be Glad To Take A Look."

The folks across the street who had called in the rescue invited us up on their porch to sit and recover. As I started to stagger up the stairs of the porch, dripping wet and half blind, a hand holding a glass of ice tea appeared in front of my face. "Would you like something to drink?" asked the young lady. Why yes, thank you. These folks, to whom we are very grateful, had clearly done this plenty of times before.

Once Lynne was safely sitting on their front porch I went back down the bank a little ways downstream from the dangerous strainer, and there was Kathy standing on a sandy spit with the boats. I figured we had to move the boats, so I went back up the bank to retrieve my paddle. But when I arrived on top, right in front of me was a Town of Sidney police sergeant in plainclothes, he told me to not go back down to the river. He told me that in a cop voice. I obeyed and went back to the porch with my paddle to wait.

So while we waited on the porch not knowing what was going on, it seems that the police sergeant went down to the water and found Kathy retrieving our stuff. The cop ordered her out of the water. Kathy said no, and continued retrieving. When she finally got out of the water she and the cop started mouthing off at each other and the cop arrested her for disobeying an order. The cop was being unreasonable, but Kathy apparently had no intention of being polite. So she was hauled off to the police station, which was conveniently nearby. In fact we could see the top of the police station building from where we were waiting.

This is all second hand, at the time Lynne and I had no idea what was up. Meanwhile every volunteer and paid public safety individual in Sidney showed up to survey the scene of The Incident. Besides the police and the rescue guys, we had EMTs, an ambulance, a fire truck, and eventually every single pickup truck outfitted with emergency lights drove past the house as we sat there. Our wonderful hosts identified each driver as he drove by, "There goes so and so" and "I think he's second assistant chief now," like that.

Our Other Rescuer, Kathy Knapp
Our Other Rescuer, Kathy Knapp

Other than bruises and egos no of us had sustained fresh injuries, so the two EMTs looked kind of crestfallen. So when Lynne said to them, "Can you look at the blister on my foot?" they happily swung into action and bandaged up her foot so that she looked like one of the walking war wounded. She also got them to look at the bug bites on her arm. No charge, thank you taxpayers of Sidney.

Steve finally showed up to tell us what happened to Kathy, and he went off to the police station. I figured two lawyers could deal with the situation. So one of our hosts, a fellow named Joel, offered to drive us back to our vehicles. You see, there was no reason why we couldn't continue on to our destination downriver, but we were down to four boats for five people. But Mari, with one shoe, had had enough fun for one day. She and I rode in Joel's van back to our cars where we had launched earlier at 7AM. Mari left in her car, and I fetched our car back to the scene of The Incident. Thank you very much Joel.

We all got back in the boats and continued to Afton, arriving about 3:30 where one of our cars was parked. Lynne used the kayak that Mari had been using, We'd gone about 25 miles. Unfortunately, Lynne was finished walking. She was supposed to be having a day of rest paddling down the river, but sitting in the boats had only irritated her blood blister. And she lost her voice from all that screaming. Plus she was clearly exhausted. So for the last 25 miles of her journey to Binghamton she was forced to find a substitute walker to carry the petitions, Jack Gilroy, whom she followed in the support car. As of today (Monday) she still hasn't completely recovered her voice. And we're not sure if she needs a wheelchair for the Tuesday march and press conference. But otherwise she sounds fine and enthusiastic.

And BTW, Lynne's canoe has a lifetime guarantee. We've already taken it back to the builder twice to repair (it is an early experimental model) so I guess this coming weekend she and I are going to the Adirondacks to test that guarantee. Again. We'll see if it is repairable.