This is What Fear Feels Like

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 73

Tired. Legs a bit wobbly. Growing ever hotter as the intense Colorado sun beats down on the national park along with everyone and everything in it, including me. This is how I was feeling as Tony and I were in the homestretch of a 14-mile hike last Friday. I was thinking about filling up our CamelBaks at the nearby natural springs and taking some photos of the many hummingbirds in the area as we came into the last mile. Having already passed Calypso Cascades (a waterfall), the North St. Vrain River was rushing down the mountain next to the trail.

Tony jokingly mentioned dipping his head in the river to cool off as he ventured a bit off the trail to get closer to the water. I followed him a few moments later, thinking I would put my hand in to grab a bit of water to throw on my overheated face. As I began to reach down toward the river, I heard Tony’s voice, not registering what he said. The slimmest edge of my left toe, encased in a heavy hiking boot, dipped ever so slightly into the water. In an instant, I felt the slippery surface of the riverbank, and I was gone.

Thrust into the rapids of the rushing river, my feet and legs slipped out from under me as I tried to fight against what was happening. The river’s bottom was too slick and the water too powerful for my legs to find any success. I frantically looked up to search for Tony on the river’s edge only to find him amongst the rapids coming after me. The river was moving so quickly, my brain couldn’t keep up to assimilate what was truly happening. I crashed into rocks, brushed harshly against fallen trees that I desperately attempted to grab on to with no avail. This is what fear feels like.

Then, I was pulled under the water’s surface. My body was tossed about as I gulped in water with an open mouth, caught off guard by this raging river. It felt like slow-motion when I was underwater. Images of Naomi Watts in The Impossible flashed through my mind. I felt like I was in a movie, being pummeled against boulders and debris as I was kept under by the sheer force of the water. I had the fleeting thought that this might be it. This is how I might die. This is what fear feels like.

I surfaced, facing up-river, wildly searching again for Tony and gasping for air. He was close behind, the current moving him directly to me. He yelled to me, urging me to try and grab the fallen trees that we kept rushing by. Again, I tried getting a hold of anything I could to stop this nightmare from unfurling. It was so hard to hold on. Part of a branch would be in my hand for a moment only for it to slip away from me as the river kept pushing me downstream. We began edging ever more closer to the next set of waterfalls. This is what fear feels like.

Next, I feel Tony grab me. I’m still wearing my backpack and my camera across my shoulders, and thankfully, the river has forced Tony closer and closer to me that he is finally able to get me in his grasp by snatching up part of my pack. I hear him repeating, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” The current pushes us farther from the trail edge of the river but that much closer to a downed tree. With his free arm, Tony manages to wrap it around the tree and stop our forward momentum.

Colorado-river_rsI am gulping in air now. I grab on to the tree. My upper torso has actually slammed into the tree. I look searchingly into Tony’s eyes. He tells me over and over, “I’m not gonna let you go. I’m not gonna let you go. I’m not gonna let you go.” And I believe him. I start to think – to feel – that part of the tree, a stray limb, may in fact be embedded in my side. Although we are in some momentary safety, I am keenly aware that we might not be in this spot for very long. The current is still raging, still pushing, still threatening. This is what fear feels like.

Repeating words of my own begin to spill out of my mouth. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.” I say it over and over. Am I pleading with my mind? With the Universe? Or is this just what shock does to the system? I glance down at my arm holding onto the tree branch and I see my hand and my wrist, noticing how pink and red my skin looks. That’s when something registers in my brain. I’m cold. This water that I am submerged in is very cold. We cannot stay in this river for much longer. This is what fear feels like.

While we are remaining fairly steady in our found bit of safety, we are also being shifted about at the whim of the river. I feel a huge rock under me and I try to wedge one of my legs behind it. I’m doing whatever I can to stay put. Hold on to the tree. Keep my leg plastered to this boulder. Do not go downstream. Do not go over Copeland Falls. Tony and I look at each other, and in that flicker of eye contact, I think we realize that we are not getting out of this river on our own.

Tony yells, “HELP!” Right, we need to call for help. Then I start screaming, “HELP!” My back is turned toward the trail, so it is difficult for me to see anything except the river and Tony. I can tell that someone has heard us, that someone has come toward the river and seen that we are in it. I hear Tony tell this person that we need help.

Then, a man quickly appears on the river bank. I turn my head to see what’s going on. I see this man trying to find his footing, precariously edging toward us. He’s looking for another fallen tree to use to help us get out. A few other men join him. There are four of them now. I realize that me turning back toward the trail is making my position in the water more risky. I look back at Tony and keep my eyes fixed on him. He reassures me we’re going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.

The men have linked themselves together, formed a human chain. The man in front extends the fallen tree he’s found toward us. Tony somehow manages to keep my pack firmly in his grasp, hold the fallen tree we have been clinging to for safety under his other arm, and then grasp the extended tree under the arm that is holding onto me. The four men slowly pull the extended tree toward them, hand-over-hand, pulling us toward them and toward safety. We get to the riverbank and one of the men pulls me out. I take a step forward away from the river and turn to watch the men pull Tony out of the rapids. We’re on land. Out of the current. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.”

I stand on the river’s edge for a few moments. I think I am in shock. I take off my pack. Remove the camera from around my neck. And I still stand there. I look at the men, and I say to them, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…” I burst into tears. We stumble up onto the trail.  A mass of people have assembled to watch the scene. I’m outside of myself now. Is this happening? Did this all just really happen?

Two women from two separate groups of hikers start talking to Tony and me. They are urging us to get out of our clothes. They tell us we are shivering and cold. We reply that we are fine, we’re okay. We have no idea how cold we are. They continue to urge. They insist we have to get warm, now. They each have a warming blanket in their packs – those metallic, aluminum foil-type blankets – and they unwrap the blankets and then wrap each of us up.

The four men who pulled us from the river have gone on their way, nameless to us forever. Another man asks if he can walk us to our car. He offers to carry Tony’s pack for him. The Park Ranger arrives, relieved to see us on the trail and not in the river. He gets some information from us, and asks us repeatedly if we have hit our heads, if we think we have broken any bones, and the like. He tells us we are the fifth and sixth people to get swept into the raging water just this week.

We – the Park Ranger, the man with Tony’s pack, one of the “blanket ladies,” Tony, and myself – walk the last mile of our 14-mile hike. At the car, I finally take off my shirts to see that, in fact, I was not impaled on the tree limb. Tony and I both assess our respective bodies, and despite massive bruises, cuts, and scrapes, we have exited this waterlogged nightmare virtually unharmed, all things considered. Our new friends bid us good luck and goodbye. And with our faith restored in humanity and the sheer kindness of strangers, and my decision to spend my life with Tony reinforced yet again, we pulled away from the trailhead.

If you’re curious about this experience through Tony’s eyes, you can read his account HERE.

73 Responses

  1. Debra says:

    Oh my God. I’m in tears here (so well done on the writing part 😉 ). I am SO grateful that you are ok. You are far too precious to lose. xo

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks, Debra. The most terrifying experience I’ve ever been in. So grateful to have made it through. xoxo

  2. Gretta D says:

    Oh Meg! Thank goodness both of you are safe!

    I understand that fear!

    Way to downplay your wet phones! How’s the camera?

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks, G! We didn’t want to alarm everyone right away. Needed a few days to process and recover. The camera is toast 🙁

  3. Alison says:

    Holy shitballs. I’m so so glad that you and Tony are alright! What an unbelievable moment of precariousness, of humanity, of fear and hope and grace. Thank you for sharing it here. Again, so glad you are okay. xoxo

    • Meghan says:

      Thank you, Alison. Yes, all of those things — precariousness, humanity, fear, grace. Very grateful right now. xoxo

  4. Vanessa says:

    Oh my GOD. That is the scariest thing ever. I am so glad you guys made it out. I was wondering what you were doing when your camera got dunked. Wow

  5. Staci Lee says:

    Oh my goodness! I am so sorry. So thankful you are safe now.

  6. Susan S says:

    Once again, written in such a way that I felt I was right by your side, trying desperately to pull you to safety. I am terrified of the water, so I was in tears very soon when reading this. I’m so happy you and Tony are safe. I can’t imagine all that was truly running through your mind, or how he felt watching you struggle. It was so interesting to read both of your perspectives. So happy for you that things turned out okay.

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks, Susan. Very scary and very grateful we are safe now. I love our 2 perspectives, too. We wrote them separately and only shared them with one another after we had written them.

  7. Rhianne says:

    Oh my gosh Meghan! I was scared just reading it – although of course I knew you must have written this post somehow – but woah, how terrifying this must have been for you. I’m glad you both came out of it alive and ok xx

  8. Lindsey says:

    The first thing that I thought of (besides thank God you and Tony are here writing about the experience) is the allegory of being swept down a river! Meghan is there ever was a sign from the universe, HERE IT IS. Take all the time you need to let the experience and its meaning reveal itself to you. The uncertainty, the unseen power, the helplessness, the need to let go, the bond between limbs, whoa… all of it is so powerful and so life affirming, I think this is just the experience one could use to propel them into a new chapter of their path. I’m so thankful you are OK. All I had to do was search the word river to read the countless stories of people who weren’t so lucky who had just slipped at the waters edge, honestly I had no idea how deadly an accident it can be. Thank you universe for your infinite wisdom and ultimately your safe return home.

    • Meghan says:

      Thank you, Linz, for your wisdom and for helping me begin to think of the larger meaning of this entire experience. I can’t wait to talk with you about it more. Much love. xoxo

  9. I went through a similar experience years ago — white water rafting in Costa Rica, our raft flipped in a huge rapid, and I got stuck under the craft. I remember having that same thought you did: “So this is it. This is how I die.” I remember the terror so well, and will probably never go white water rafting again. I am SO glad you are alive and well.

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks, E. I’m so sorry you had a similar experience. Terrifying. SO glad we are both alive and well. xo

  10. deb taylor says:

    I feel your FEAR. Thank God you both made it out. Thanks for sharing BOTH stories.

  11. Emily says:

    oh holy crap, meghan, i’m so relieved to know that you and tony are safe. what a harrowing experience and i can absolutely imagine it because you described it with such gripping realism my heart was in my mouth from the first moment. thank you for sharing. and may you and tony now enjoy many, many moments basking in warm sun on dry land.

    and thank you to all those strangers who were there to help and knew what to do.

    be safe. and keep exploring. xo

  12. Clare Mardall says:

    First, thank goodness you both came out relatively unharmed! Second, great writing! I was right there with you, and tearing up at my desk. How very frightening and scary how something like that can happen in the blink of an eye.

  13. Corinna says:

    Oh MEGHAN. Every hair on my body is standing up and I am teary. I am so grateful to your amazing partner and the strangers on the trail for keeping you with us. And to you for staying strong. I fear a world without you. So much love beaming your way.

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks for the love, C. Right back at you. And to Tony and all those who helped us. There is kindness and goodness in this world. xoxo

  14. Tara says:

    Tears here too. So glad help arrived when it did and you are here to tell the tale. Xoxo

  15. Amy says:

    Meghan! Wow. A veritable barrage of expletives is racing through my mind right now, but for all I know little old ladies are reading this and I don’t want to offend anyone. I drop too many f-bombs as it is.

    I am so very grateful you and Tony are okay. Giving many thanks right now, for your strength and Tony’s bravery and the kindness of strangers.

  16. Jess W says:

    Teary here as well. So much love to you! Xo

  17. rebecca says:

    Oh my word. Crying. Shaking. Meghan! This is terrifying. I have known moments of “is this really happening?” and they still shake me. I am profoundly grateful to the Universe for Tony’s strength, your calm, those good souls who helped you, and that river for giving you back to us. Love love love xoxoxo

  18. mary ebers says:

    Meghan! This is unbelievable. And yes, I am sure that is what fear feels like! Just reading your account of it made me cry. I’m so glad you and Tony are ok, were smart about what was happening even in the midst of the fear, counted on each other, and that fellow hikers were where they were when they were! Take care of your banged-up self!

    • Meghan says:

      Thanks so much, Mary!! It was an experience we won’t soon forget in terms of fear, sticking together, and the kindness of others.

  19. Melissa says:

    Oh my gosh, just read both of your blogs and am completely overwhelmed. I am so, so relieved you are both ok. Don’t really have words here….. I love you.

  20. Laura says:

    Oh MEGS. Glad to have connected earlier today… Mike and I are so grateful you and Tony are both ok. Having introduced you to that hike–as you know my very favorite in the Rockies, I pictured you vividly in that $@):& river. And I know that losing cameras and pictures are like losing a huge piece of yourself– that can’t be an easy recovery either!! Looking forward to a giant in person hug this weekend…. Love love love you! Sorry for this experience, tho as your eloquent friends have expressed so well above, think of the big picture…..

  21. Toby says:

    Sorry, but HOLY SHIT is about as polite as I can be after reading this. So glad you & Tony made it out OK. I am most definitely not jealous!

    • Meghan says:

      “HOLY SHIT” might be the most apt words, Toby! Thanks for the well wishes. And NOTHING to be jealous of!

  22. Anna Gay says:

    Toby stole what I was going to say.


    I was on the verge of tears reading this. I had NO IDEA it was this bad. I am just so, so thankful that the two of you are okay. Other than that, I am totally speechless.

  23. Oh my goodness! How terrifying! I’m so happy to hear that you are both ok.

  24. Rachel says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. The way you wrote it made me feel as though I were in the water with you. I’m so happy you both are safe. I’m going to hug my kids now.

  25. Cherish Bryck says:

    Oh my god. Sorry I’m late on this. How absolutely terrifying. My stomach was in knots reading this. You must still be shaken from this experience. I’m so sorry pal. Just glad the story ends the way it does. Much love. xox

  26. Nikki says:


    What a harrowing experience! I could feel fear set in as I read your story. I’m so glad to hear both you and Tony are okay and help came at just the right moment.

  27. tiff says:

    Oh my God! So glad you and Tony are ok! That sounds terrifying. 🙁

  28. […] been almost a week since the scare of our lives happened. The bruises are moving through their stages of purple to blue to green to yellow as my […]

  29. maile says:

    Meghan, I’m just reading this. I can’t imagine how scary that must have been. So, so happy you are okay. xo

  30. Tammy says:

    Oh my gosh, Meghan. Your story has me in tears, literally shaking. Please feel my arms around you, squeezing, glad that you are both ok.

  31. Jen Hardesty says:

    Reading this was terrifying. I can’t imagine what it was like for you. So glad you and Tony are safe.

  32. Oh my gosh Meghan! I’m so glad you’re both ok.
    Such a beautifully written post… I can’t even imagine.

  33. Melody says:

    Meghan! Like everyone reading, you led me through your unthinkable experience feeling fear and breathlessness. So thankful you and Tony are healing. Blessings to you.

  34. annie samuels says:

    Holy scary shit. I had no idea you had experienced such a harrowing experience. Thanks to your bravery and level headedness, and to the help of strangers, you are both safe.
    By the way, your writing is wonderful. You should submit this story for widespread consumption…people need to know what can happen in the blink of an eye.

  35. Jane says:

    A beautifully written piece. Thank heaven it worked out. Wow.

  36. Buffy says:

    Meghan amazing and scary. We are on our way to CO. I will take some different precautions thanks to you and your trip. We have our bear spray and will stay away from a 14 mile hike. So glad you are okay. Thanks for sharing.

  37. Nathalie says:

    Very glad to see you’re safe and on the mend. Get well soon!
    That’s one experience that is really terrifying, but I hope it won’t deter you to continue to enjoy swimming in other rivers. After reading I could only think of : “Ranger, why didn’t you put a warning sign after at least the 3rd person getting swallowed by the river?” Your partner in his account takes responsibility for you not being where you were meant to be, but still…
    I really liked your writing, it was griping.

  38. […] to Colorado. You know the one from Colorado…that roll of film that was in my camera as I was pulled into the turbulent rapids of the North St. Vrain River. The roll of film that spent 15 minutes under water inside my […]

  39. Ae-Kyung says:

    Oh. You must have been so scared.. It was more frightening than I imagined when I heard the incident from you. I am so glad you were safely rescued!

  40. […] have so much to share about summer that does not include near-death experiences and losing photos. Where to begin… June brought our annual Tribe retreat and travel to my […]

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