Bernie’s Hole

BERNIE’S HOLE:  A Meditation on the Almost-Superman, 

or Maybe Just on Clark Kent 

By Kent H. Dixon

It’s a river-wide dam of corrugated and bolted steel that was designed to take pressure off a water main about 30 feet upstream.

~Bernie, on the dam at Bernie’s Hole

If you think you’re going to die, you’re probably right.

~Kayaker wisdom

I’ve nearly drowned a couple of times in my life, once when I was 17 and more recently at 71—bookends those numbers, a palindrome like kayak. The recent episode entailed kayaking on the Mad River (through Dayton, Ohio), which they say really was quite mad maybe a century ago, but nowadays the stretch I run doesn’t get much above a Class II, with a couple of Class III spots—a few rapids, a man-made standing wave, and a rather nasty low head dam—the one in the epigraph.

The ‘Bernie’ of my title runs the shop where we rent our boats, and for $2, if you BYOB, provides the shuttle up river to the put-in. And a ‘hole’ as anyone who canoes, rafts, or kayaks in white water well knows, is most any kind of hydraulic that, through tricky water dynamics, creates a circulating backwash contrary to the main stream flow, and often as well to the health and welfare of the boater. Holes come in all shapes and sizes, and yak jockeys use them to propel their stunts; but experts know the score and do their best to avoid the really angry ones, the ‘keepers.’

And a hole is just that—a foamed-over depression in the surface caused by the water flowing over an obstacle and smashing down with enough force to approach the bottom, but then instead of ricocheting off the bottom and moving on downstream, it bounces back up and since there’s more water piled up in front of it (downstream), it follows the path of least resistance and folds back upstream, toward the obstacle; where it meets up with the water pouring over the top and so on thus creating a cycle, a kind of vigorous whirl pool on its side, circulating counter-clockwise. You and your boat can get trapped in such a circulation. You flip over. Rolling back up doesn’t help much because you’re dragged back toward the over-pouring current which flips you over again. Round and round you go, and where you stop—well, you don’t. Fish drown in these holes—from exhaustion.

A hole can be a kind of fence, too, running along the whole base of a low head dam from shore to opposite shore—like the one in my epigraph though that one is far more intimidating for its look than its actual dynamic. It’s the corrugated and bolted steel that’s arresting. Stretches of it, corroded and tree-battered, look like crazy traffic spikes. Foot-long rusting claws reaching up and curling toward you. It’s easy enough to see why Bernie won’t let his boats go over it in low water.

But me and my charges (a novice couple and their two children) were in our own boats and there are open places, river center and another to river left. I’ve taken both openings many times and I know where to go, but high and low water can completely change a waterscape—you wouldn’t know it’s the same river sometimes—and after I’d shepherded the family through and it came my turn, I spotted what I thought was a was a nice chubby ‘green tongue’ wagging out into down stream. Tongues are good because you can count on this longitudinal swell of green water: clear passage—just mount it and slide on down.     

Thing is, in this instance what I’d thought was a greeny tongue was really a ‘pillow.’ The wave ‘pillows up’ on the upstream side of a barely submerged rock. I’d never seen this one before because I hadn’t been on the water when it was this low—a new rock, so to speak. So I crest over the dam, ably aiming my boat toward this inviting “tongue” and plow headlong into this lurking rock. The current takes my stern and now I’m sideways and I know not to lean toward the upstream current, which will flip me quicker than a finger snap, but . . . that must have been what happened. I flipped, slam, in less time than it takes to say Oh, shit! David Quammen in his essay “Vortex” puts it aptly:   “. . . snapping you upside down so fast you’ll think Shaquille O’Neal has slam-dunked your head into a Maytag.”

And now in your Maytag world it’s all about maniacal bubbles and muffled thuds and a crashing about your head and ears as if you’d submerged in a hot tub with half a dozen waterfalls for jets. Quammen again: “For a rough approximation of how it feels to drop into a hole, you could take a pass through the car wash on your bicycle.” The American Canoe Association’s manual on kayaking: “A person caught in the re-circulating portion of the hydraulic may re-circulate endlessly. An unaided person usually drowns.”

There wasn’t time to think of drowning. If it did cross my mind, it was a distant thought, as remote as death is most of the time. Drowning and Death were off tail-gating somewhere. I’m being facetious analytically: this cavalier shrug at one’s danger is probably both necessary and natural. It would be a complete waste of time to worry about drowning, when you’re actually/maybe/probably about to; there are other things you’d best be doing.

I did think about rolling as the seething retro-circulation robo-circulated me, and decided against it. There was this half-ton of water pouring down on top of me; I’d just go over again. Twice I remember as I came around, leveraging on my paddle to lift up enough to snatch a breath underneath the pour-over, my head being behind the small waterfall—a little bit of air space (charmingly called a ‘grotto’), between the cascade and the structure and I took comfort in it. ‘Remember this next time you come around, Kent.’ I actually had a half-thought like that. Gee, I could do this all day, or at least until the cavalry came. Calling on the sardonic there, I think gave me the smidgen of thinking time that may have saved me. It’s not counter-productive to keep your sense of humor in these things, however dark.  (Cf. second epigraph above. Like another piece of kayak advice I love, on the matter of self-rescue: ‘Don’t give up. You might get lucky.’)

But if I weren’t going to roll, then it was time to get out, so I wet-exited. You pull this handy rip-cord on the front of your spray skirt, and the rubber skirt peels off and the water rushes into the cockpit so fast that you’re flushed out of it in a second or two. So now I’m going round and round outside my boat, bumpity-bump and loud as a passing train. Why wasn’t I wearing my helmet? A learning moment, because now my boat felt like it had turned on me, some gigantic mad child pounding me about my head, chest, face, shoulders, back, knees . . . I had to hold it off.

But it was a new boat! I wasn’t about to leave it to become minced-Kevlar.  So I muscled her into some sort of right angle to the dam, me underneath embracing my Baby Blue above me, and thrust from a squat to a plunge with all my might . . . and out we went. That is, next moment, there’s a haze of froth and I’m spitting a bit, but I’m moving downstream again and it doesn’t sound like I’m inside a tornado any more.

And that should be it. I goofed, had an accident, that might have killed me, but pulled out of it, recovered, am here to tell about it. Except, I didn’t entirely recover. It was more than four hours later when I was finally home sitting in my leather chair, which is about five feet from the granite island in the middle of the kitchen, when suddenly comes the river again, snatches of it, the feel of it and . . . what’s this, a bit of childhoo’…no, that’s Iowa Cit’.. no, that’s . . . water gnashing at my ear.  Mentally it was like being in the hole again but battered by random memories and visual bites from anywhere, everywhere, from my life or apparently some stranger’s, in lieu of the turbulent roiling water. It was horrible. It was Alzheimer’s meets LSD. It was so bad I couldn’t make the distance from my chair to the island, got lost in thought only nothing so coherent as thought—flickering nano-bites of half-formed memory and intention, too fast to hold in the mind’s eye and then immediately eluding the mind’s recall, all at once! Like a snow globe in fast forward. I do remember articulating this thought: If I hit my head today and this is the new normal, I’m out of here, I’ll kill myself. I sure can’t live this way.

PTSD, everyone tells me later. I suppose, though nothing like the debilitating military disorder; maybe just a first step in that direction, but I must say, it held some fascination (after the fact).  I dropped acid a few times in my 1960s youth: none of those trips was as intense or unhinging as the black hole of kaleidoscopic-consciousness that opened up four hours after I’d spent about a minute in a hydraulic hole. I’m not really recommending it, just telling you it’s there if you’re into experimenting with chemical stimulants. This one’s organic.  

What’s an adrenaline junkie all about anyway—cortisol and adrenaline gushing into the bloodstream, vessels constricting, endorphins splurging, heart rate climbing to a fanfare of the Lone Ranger, lungs pulsing in concert—all that extra O2 massing at the heart the lungs—your own circulatory system saying to hell with the extremities (hence the clammy hands and dry mouth). They say the rush is better than crack cocaine, and we all know the woebegone truth about crack: you’re doomed to chasing down your first high; it’s never quite as good ever after. Hence in extremis, your ice climber, hang glider, windsurfer, et al. have to move on to the next bigger thrill-maker, their own sport’s equivalents of base-jumping or the like— BASE as in Buildings, Antennae, Spans, Earth—places it’s best to leap from, provided they’re at least a 1000 feet high, enough for a parachute to open.

There is no other feeling as intense—a given. Also Googledom has it that these crazy brave hearts are driven to the ultimate for two main reasons—the competition and the respect, this latter, the admiration of the other 99.06% of the population, far outweighing the winning. And one supposes that winning finally promotes to your own personal best each time anyway, a photo-finish with death a close second.

I was watching a Dane Jackson video recently—I’ve been a fan of this guy since he was ten, in his father’s commercial how-to videos on rolling and play boating—and in this one he’s collecting waterfalls. These are 50 to 100 foot drops in your kayak over massive waterfalls, all around the world. Dane:

They are terrifying, stressful1 . . . but getting through a day like that uninjured is just unreal2.  The last time I went hunting  for waterfalls in the southeast I ran the 90 foot Noccalulah, and did two runs on the 80 foot Desoto.3  This time I got the 100 foot Ozone and 70 foot Cane Creek.4  I wonder what the next search. will bring.5

The profile rather leaps out at you:

1.  the promulgation—somebody needs to know; you wouldn’t do it in secret. Most practitioners are sporting Go-Pros.

2. the risk factor, stated, admitted. Honored, even.

3. past glories: not dealing w a newbie here. This is an expert, w a record to beat,

4. and it must needs beat the past ones: bigger and better, each time, every time,

5. and finally, what’s next?  Bring ’em on.

This craving for respect, what the ancient Greeks called honor, may be the common denominator for our virtual-supermen; the admirers’ responses, however, vary. Many people do admire, even honor and revere, the super-heroism. But there’s a spectrum, too; some people turn away, like shying away from an accident about to happen. And plenty of people get downright angry: they condemn the tom-foolery of it, harshly, I think to protect themselves from any empathy or proxy thrill. That’s how close they don’t want to get: don’t even let it enter your sympathetic nerve endings. The one doing a free-solo climb on the underside of a projecting spar, like a spider . . .  Looking at the pictures, I feel a queasiness bordering on nausea, and then dismissive disgust. Is he still alive? Probably not. Do I care? I’m not disrespecting him, just tracking my feelings.

But the waterfalls I can dig (best word choice?). Having run a couple of two and three foot ones, I need only multiply by thirty and remember to throw my paddle away—you don’t want to land on your paddle after an 89 foot drop, or grip it too hard and have your arm wrenched off. Plus, on the matter of landing, Plan B is reassuring: I know I can swim.

But I can’t fly. That guy that based-jumped off a point 3500 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley—and didn’t make it. Dean Potter, with a nice memoriam in Elsewhere in BASE lore there’s a review of a documentary of the Boenishes’ story, Carl (deceased) and Jean (still jumping)—‘the godparents of BASE jumping.’  Reviewing this Sunshine Superman, Frances Dodds wraps up with exploring the why of it all—not just the heroes’ why, but ours. Our meaning, in their seemingly super-human feats.  Their deaths, she proposes, are just half the equation; the other half transcends our mourning them because:

These men died young, but they chose to live their lives in a way that makes it impossible for others to shout and shake their fists to the heavens when it turned out they weren’t superhuman after all.

We don’t let Potter and the rest be laid to rest: we tribute-mourn them by absorbing them into our most ideal (most heroic) selves. This was Achilles’ heroic choice: stay at Troy and kill Hector, and be on people’s lips today, 3000 years later. Or take your armor and go home, let Hector live and Achilles retire in forgotten ordinariness.

I don’t know. I won’t remember Potter as long as I will Achilles, nor even as long as Falstaff—‘Discretion is the better part of valor.’ (Homer and Shakespeare—it strikes me I set my own bar rather high.) Just go ahead and let the Supermen fly their thing, I say. Let the Class V rapids roar maniacally on (without me), let one’s life flash before one’s eyes under the red glow of a final Exit sign, this particular Superman prefers sitting behind the mild-mannered reporter’s desk, gathering and purveying the news, mentally undressing Lois Lane in the bargain, no doubt. The muse loves the breed of harpers, says Homer. They, too, deserve timê—honor,  “…for they are dearest to the Muse who puts upon their lips the ways of life.”

And you don’t have to die young in the middle of it. And, be it noted, the relationship here is symbiotic: your hero and your bard are profoundly dependent upon each other. Like love and marriage—no, you can’t have one, you can’t have one without the other.