Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Near Death Experience in Nicaragua (No Joke)


This is the beautiful ¨Laguna de Apoyo¨, the crater lake in Nicaragua, near Grenada.

It´s a beatufil crater lake (a lake on top of a previously active volcano) and extremely large, over 6 kilometer across and deep enough for people to scuba dive. You can stay next to the shore, lay on hammocks, or take a swim in the clear, warm water, or swim out to the dock and sock up the sun if you like. Very peaceful and tranquil. That´s exactly what I wanted. I brought my swim trunks, a book for some leisurely reading and my journal. I had everything I needed, I thought.

But, they also have kayaks freely available if you would like to take them out. Just ocean kayaks where you sit on the top of them. Just hop in, take off and enjoy. What could be better? Well, what started as a pleasant little kayak stroll, turned into one of those horror stories you see in safety videos or safey belt commercials.

The lake is 6 kilometers across and asked the girl at the desk before I took off if anyone had actually crossed it. She said people had but it takes over 4 hours and they wouldn´t be real enthusiastic about rescuing me if something went wrong. I shrugged it off and didn´t think much about it. I had no intention of crossing the lake. My only thought was that it didn´t look THAT far.

I got in the water, turned left, then right and thought, ¨This is easy money, I´m crossing this mug.¨ And so I did. Going across was very very slow because I was going directly against the wind. Crashing into the waves, slow and steady. It reminded of boats during a storm in movies. When they hit a wave, the boat crashes into it and everyone has trouble seeing because they are getting sprayed with water in their faces. It wasn´t near as dramatic but very similar. Anyway, I don´t know how long it took to cross but my best guess would be around 2 hours. But no worries I thought, with the wind behind me when I return, I could make it back in record time.

And I did. I didn´t even stop or get off the kayak at the other side of the lake. I just touched my paddle on the shore and turned around. I would bet that I made it half way back in 20 minutes or less. I was zooming across the lake and feeling good. I remember thinking ¨I´m going to be back in 2 and a half hours easy. Who said this would take 4 hours?¨ It was then that I noticed the kayak had progressively become more unstable. It was getting harder to balance myself. When I started, I put the kayak in the water and practically stood on top of it. But now, it was hard just to sit. I thought the waves may be the cause because the wind did pick up a little. But then I fell off the kayak. And then again, and again. I realized the kayak was filling up with water and a shift in weight from anything would cause the water inside the kayak to shift and thus flip. I kept going until the point came that just my weight on the kayak would cause it to flip backwards (the backend sank completely underwater and the frontend would fall back on me.) I remember being a little upset and thinking, ¨Damn, this is going to screw up my time.¨ I tried to think of ways to remove the water inside but determined it was in possible without getting to land. I was really irritated because I looked silly swimming next to a kayak in the middle of the lake. And every attempt to get back on made me even more angry because it would flip over. I wasn´t even concerned that I was in the middle of the lake, almost 3 kilometers or roughly 2 miles from land, or that I didn´t have a life jacket. I just thought about how silly it was and how long it would take me to get back.

The game and my perspective changed when on my last and final attempt to straddle the kayak, (I thought if I get in the middle, not in the seat, I could maintain balance) I pulled my legs up fast to get them on the boat and the unthinkable happened. My left calf cramped like never before. I didn´t eat much that day, maybe a pack of peanuts and I hadn´t had much to drink either. I was dehyrdated, hungry, and the run I took around Grenada probably didn´t help matters either.

So I´m in the water trying to swim and my left leg isn´t moving. I can feel the muscle ball up like a rock and the pain tear through my body. It was here that I said, ¨This can´t be happening, this is a deal breaker. People can die from things like this.¨ I swam over to the kayak and managed to throw my body across the kayak, just enough to keep my head above water. I pressed the heel of my right leg into the cramped calf until I felt it release. The whole dynamic from here changed dramatically. I´m not a great swimmer but felt comfortable doing the back float for 2 miles if I absolutely had to. Now, if I left the kayak and had another cramp, I would be a gonner. (I later found out the back float wasn´t going to work either because the waves were too big and would crash over you and your mouth when you tried to breathe.) I stretched out the my leg and used it cautiously. I had a pretty scary thought about drowning and quickly dismissed it because I could simply lay on the kayak and let the waves take me in.

And that was good for the next 30 minutes but I noticed something that really scared me. To gauge my distance or speed, I would always point the kayak to a specific point on the shore in front of me and then look directly over my right shoulder for a reference point. For me, it was a house off in the distance. I remember floating on the kayak for at least a half hour, maybe more and all I saw was that house. I wasn´t moving. At least not at any rate to get me back to land anytime soon.
I had another dreadful thought but quickly dismissed it because now, the worst case scenario was that I lay on the kayak and wait until someone comes after me. They knew I had the kayak and I´d already been gone for over 3 hours. In the hour I was in the water, I had a lot of thoughts race through my mind. What about snakes or fish in the water? What if they don´t come after me? What if the person working the desk didn´t write my name down? What if...?

But I dismissed them all because I could still just lay on the kayak and float back. And within 15 minutes, the kayak flipped while I was just laying on it. It had taken in so much water that any weight, any shift at all, would cause it to flip over. Just hanging on to the side lightly would cause the front end to come out of the water and just about flip over.

Suddenly, all of those fears I had came flooding back into my mind and I didn´t have response. These were valid fears and I needed to do something. I was still in the dead center of the lake and it appeared to be the same distance to the shore, whichever direction I took. I decided to keep moving forward, with the wind, since it was the same distance and started swimming. I kept the kayak with me in case I needed it if only for temporary relief if my leg cramped up again.

I remember when I started to panic. This was real. My luck was running out and quick. I started breathing faster and my mind started racing. But within, seconds, something inside me said,¨This isn´t helping, I need to be calm right now. This is just a waste of energy. I´m not going to die. It´s just that simple. I´m not going to die.¨ I certainly didn´t hear Dad´s voice but it definitely sounds like something he would say. ¨There´s no sense in complaining about it, don´t get excited.¨

It was here when I started getting strategic. The little back support on the kayak could be removed and it functioned as a small float. Although not great, it did provide some bouyancy. The paddle float as well so I laid it under my arms. I still held on to the kayak just in case but I just started swimming. I started waving one of my arms in the air occasionally to signal for help in case anyone was looking. I was constantly thinking, ¨What else can I do? Is their no way to remove the water from the kayak? Would anyone hear me if I yelled for help? How do you say ¨help¨in Spanish?¨

I can´t say that I was a rock and I banished all doubt and fear because I clearly wasn´t. A storm was coming in and the waves were constantly pounding me in the face and making it hard to breathe. My calf wasn´t cramped but I could tell it was tense and one wrong move and it would seize up again. I knew this and it bothered me. I was just about to start screaming for help when I saw a tiny kayak heading towards me in the distance. I couldn´t believe it! ¨I´m saved!¨I thought.

But the battle wasn´t quite over. The storm came in and fast. With the heavy rain and the rough waves, it made it very difficult to get the kayak back to shore. But after another 30 to 45 minutes and some help from a kind (and appreciated) Irish couple, I finanlly made it back to land. Sweet, sweet land! The kayak that towed me in was impossible to navigate in the weather so we just paddled with the current and let it take us in wherever it liked. Once on land, I drained the water from the kayak. I would bet that it was over half way full. No joke.

I paddled back to the shop with a standing ovation waiting for me. Sunburned from head to toe, completely (and I mean completely) dehydrated, starved and exhausted but alive. Just barely, but alive. Not a bad day.

Here´s a picture of me the next day with the infamous kayak:



Moral of the story. Always wear a LIFE JACKET!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank God you're alive and well. Good golly, that sounds horribly frightening! I look forward to seeing you on Friday!
Much love,Christina

asvalk@msn.com said...

Frank,
I can't believe you didn't tell THIS story the other day at Toot's!! I was a nervous wreck just reading it.
Hope you remember me, Sharon Valk, Andy's "aunt'-in-law??"

Kelly said...

so sorry.....You definitely had your Guardian angels with you that day. You better have your life guard with you anytime in water.