Rivers are beautiful, exciting, and mysterious all at the same time. Rapids are a puzzle that not only puts paddlers to the test but can also humble the most skilled paddler. The training that whitewater paddlers go through is more than just being in optimal physical shape for the river but more importantly safety on the river and what to do when things go wrong. Werner Team paddler, Eleanor Knight, recently learned a lesson from the river and her training, specifically the focus on safety, saved her life. She shared the experience with us, and we felt it was a good reminder to all of us paddlers just how quickly things go wrong, and our safety training needs to kick in.
“Last Thursday, I became the first female ever to paddle the Slave River’s Pony Monster rapid. The first descent was Leif Anderson. The second, Aniol Seresoles.
My attempt was unintentional.
It was also unsuccessful.
I lost my kayak, paddle and two Go-Pros. But I clung on, barely, to the only thing that really matters.
Four months earlier, I had qualified for the US Freestyle Kayak team, and was committed to competing in the World Championships this October in Columbus Georgia. To prepare, Leif and Natalie Anderson, kayakers from 'White Salmon, Washington invited me to their hostel in the Northwest Territories to train.
Although I had been kayaking there for a week before my accident, I hardly knew the river at all.
The Slave is a very large river, at times the Slave stretches a mile and a half from bank to bank, filled with thousands of cumecs that alternate between mass chaos and calm pool. The ferry from one side of the river to the other takes around 30 minutes to an hour. Because of this it is hard to recognize the landmarks needed to differentiate features, rapids, and even channels.
On that fateful day, my 17-year-old friend and I, who also swam after unwittingly following me into the rapid, were stranded on a mid-river island until midnight, clinging to each other for warmth as the rain raided our bodies of a dwindling supply of heat.
Hours earlier, we had planned to paddle a rapid called Molly’s Nipple—similar, in character and in consequence to Lochsa Falls, only much bigger.
But unbeknownst to us, we ran the wrong channel—mistaking an island for the far river-right bank. When I peered over the edge of that rapid, about to drop in, I was shocked, stunned really. My stomach dropped, my throat dried, and the air from my lungs evaporated in an instant. I was only able to scream a few words back at my friend before dropping into the ledge. The ledge is large, a vertical drop of almost 10 feet, but instead of calm water at the bottom, there is whitewater folding back in on itself, over and over again, creating a pit of a hole. Behind the initial hole, is a 2nd hole, the size of a large bus. And behind that, a 3rd hole, again, as deep as the first, and as wide as the 2nd hole.
In that moment, the split second before I dropped in, I knew something was off. A few hours prior, we had been told that the river was slightly higher, but Molly’s Nipple should have the same line, and the same magnitude. This was much, much bigger.
The first hole stopped me, flipped me and instinctually, I knew that my best chance of survival was to pull my skirt and swim. I immediately felt the force of the river thrusting me deep—deeper than I have ever been and for much longer. My lungs convulsed. I resisted. They convulsed again. But I resisted. I was nowhere near the surface; not close to air. So, involuntarily, I sucked in.
With my larynx closed off, the water gushed into my stomach. And I fought for the surface.
When I popped up, I saw my paddling partner, who was also swimming, head out of the water, twisting in an effort to spot me. Later, during the eight hours we were stranded on the island, he told me that he, too, went deep. But he reached the surface 20 seconds before I did. He estimated I was under for a full 60-second count. My GoPro confirmed it was 58 seconds.
As I lay on shore, the memory of the turbulent holes, and hydraulics, still clung to my senses like a relentless phantom. The waves had nearly swallowed me, dragging me beneath their watery depths before relinquishing their grip just in time. My body felt both drained and invigorated, a paradox born from the brink of survival. The sun blazed overhead, casting its golden touch upon the grains of sand that clung to my skin. As I lay there, stranded but alive, I felt a renewed sense of connection to both the untamed power of nature and the fragile resilience of human existence.
Stranded on that river island time seemed to bend and blur. With the initial shock subsiding, we quickly shifted into survival mode, assessing our resources and surroundings. Building a makeshift shelter from fallen branches and leaves, we huddled together, sharing stories and laughter to keep our spirits buoyant and our bodies warm.
The biting cold seemed to seep into our very bones. The wind carried a frigid chill that cut through our makeshift shelter. We huddled together, our breath visible in a misty testament to the harsh conditions. Our damp clothes clung to our bodies like a second skin, our fingers and toes numb despite our attempts to rub some warmth back into them. Every movement was a battle against the shivers that racked our bodies. In those moments, the island's beauty faded as our primary focus became fighting the cold's unyielding grip.
Only when the sky darkened did we see a figure way out in the distance. Leif. We shouted, and blew our whistles, begging him to see us. And he did. When he got to us it was past 11 at night.
In the meantime, Leif, Nick Beavis, and Natalie had been communicating non-stop about our situation. They decided to paddle a dynamic duo in so that we could get out safely.
When they arrived, I was so cold, I lacked the dexterity necessary to remove my wet clothes. With the help of our rescuers, I stripped and warmed my body. We spent the next few hours paddling up eddies, across logs, and through lakes to make it home. At 3 am, we made it home.
On Friday, later in the morning, I kayaked again. But, acutely aware of the river’s power, I avoided all the holes and waves I had played in with ease. I was scared to flip over. Scared to run the harder lines. And scared of the boils. The thought of being trapped in a kayak under the water again made my body seize. The river had always been both a playground and a challenge, a place of exhilaration and growth. But after the accident, the thrill had been replaced by a gripping apprehension. The memory of the lack of oxygen lingered, leaving me hesitant to confront the tumultuous currents that had once been my source of joy. Instead, I sought the safety of the easier lines, steering clear of the harder rapids that once ignited my passion. The following days felt like an eternity spent wrestling with the fear that had taken root within me. It was a battle between my desire to reclaim the river's embrace and the weight of that setback's aftermath. But as time passed, the river's siren call proved irresistible. With newfound determination, I dipped my paddle back into the water, each stroke a testament to my resilience. Slowly, the fear began to recede, replaced by a renewed sense of caution and an understanding that setbacks are but steppingstones on the path to becoming an even stronger kayaker.
We learned a lesson the hard way. I am so thankful it wasn’t the hardest way.”
You can follow more of Eleanor’s paddling adventures on Instagram @eleanor.ruth.knight