When time stood still
Chris and I were packing up our things in Bryan Wilson’s yard when Bryan came out to chat about the weather. He said it had been so dry for so long that when it rains the water will not soak into the ground at first, and that it will run right off the hillside. We sat around on our phones looking at various weather sites trying to make a judgement of our own. Chris had just arrived in New Zealand and we were very excited to get out and explore a river together. We contemplated driving far away from the oncoming rain but our judgement was skewed and we were mis guided by the brown trout of our dreams yet again.
We packed what we needed and hit the road. We hitch hiked and got picked up by a young dairy farmer with his old shitty truck almost tipping over coming around the corner. He was the most absurd driver I have ever seen as he was trying to kill us he was driving so fast around corners. All the while striking up conversation like life was just fucking peachy. I wanted out of that truck so fast and luckily we got stuck behind a semi on this steep mountain pass and finally I told him to drop us off. He didn’t know what the hell was going on and that was fine and I didn’t care to get his name and frankly didn’t want to have another word with him.
We shouldered our packs and hit the trail. We hiked for an hour and a half before we had to make our first decision. We approached a steep dry creek bed that was obviously flood prone and decided to set up camp on the downstream side just to be safe. It wasn’t a great camp site but we were trying to be responsible. We set up camp pretty quick and put our rods together and started walking up stream. We started seeing fish and catching a few until the rain started. I didn’t think much of the rain but told Chris we should probably head back to camp. An hour later, by the time we got back towards camp we could hear what sounded like a landslide or an earthquake or some other horrendous thing tumbling down the hillside. We both realized it at the same time. That dried out creek bed had flash flooded and we were on the opposite side of our tents, dry clothes, and food. The feeling of despair came over me and I started thinking irrationally. I offered the idea to hike way up the hill where the creek had to be smaller and cross it then walk back down the other side. That would have made things worse and chances are we would still be up there as the New Zealand bush is unnavigable. I also thought about crossing the raging mad creek but thought back to my swiftwater rescue class and realized we were safe and putting even a toe in that water would have put us in danger so why make matters worse. If your head is above water keep it that way.
So Chris and I stopped, let the adrenaline subside, talked about all of our options, and decided to cross the main river just upstream from our camp and this raging creek. We thought that if we could get to the other side safely we could then walk downstream a while and see if the river was wider thus slowing down the speed of the water. The problem was that it was almost dark and we didn’t want to travel that way so we needed to make a decision and fast. We made it to the other side and started walking and mostly bush bashing downstream. With our headlamps we could see a wide pool in the river and the sound of the whitewater had subsided so we decided to try the crossing here. Immediately the river was over our heads but we had locked arms and using a ferry angle we were able to bob and weave and tip toe over towards the other side. When I first got in the water my heart skipped a beat and I gasped for air. I wasn’t ready for the plunge and it caught me off guard. We eventually made it in the dark and got back to our tents soaking wet. Oddly enough we had anticipated a feast that night and packed in italian sausages, pasta sauce and fresh herbs for dinner. Chris was beat down so I stayed out in the rain and cooked a delicious meal. All the while the river was coming up fast. By the time we went to bed the river was only now 10 feet away from our tents. When we woke up the river was in full flood. I could have stayed in bed forever that morning but we had to pack our things in the pouring rain and started the hike out.
Only a day later and our egos a bit deflated we were dry and heading South. We were driving alongside a river in the sunshine reflecting on all that life has to offer. The river was clear and beautiful when we pulled over to start fishing. I hooked into a big fish then Chris came up river and crossed to help me net the big brown. The hook eventually popped out and I lost the fish. At this time the river was clear and as we worked upstream the fishing was incredible. It had been raining very lightly for about a half an hour and again I didn’t think anything of it for fuck’s sake. Then, in a blur of an instant I noticed the river change color. Not 2 minutes later the river was on a rapid rise. We exchanged a few fucks and shits as we ran upstream, then downstream, attempting to find slower water to cross. We came to an area that we thought was our best option. We talked about crossing and we were sure we could make it. I put the fly rods in my pack and waded out with Chris. We weren’t thinking clear and surely the adrenaline was talking now. I could see the van, just sitting there on the other side of the river, full of all my necessary gear for a night out. I didn’t have any extra clothes with me, no way of starting a fire, no emergency bivy, and no headlamp. I wanted to swim so badly. Chris and I were literally walking out towards the middle to do just that. In a moment of brilliance I suggested this might not be a good idea. We backed off and talked it through and Im glad we did, that moment was the difference between life or death for us.
We stood on the bank with our feet firmly on the ground and breathed. As we stood there the river came up a couple more feet and eventually good sized trees and branches were soon tumbling downstream. Its hard to say when I look back now, but this entire ordeal happened in just a few minutes. From the river changing color to the first flood surge, to the full on flood then the trees coming downstream. As I reflected on the situation I remembered the rule of threes that I was taught by one of my college professors John Saunders. The rule of threes for a survival situation goes like this, 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. So which is most important? I had already almost sacrificed my airway by attempting to swim across a flooded river with no throw bag or PFD at dark. Secondly, I had no dry clothes and was only wearing a lousy fishing shirt with a lousy wind breaker and also had no headlamp which severely hindered our ability to build a decent shelter. I had broke my own rules in pursuit of a fish. In my head I was only considering the gear that I would need for a 2 hour fish. I was completely ill prepared for the night ahead of us.
Chris and I remembered seeing a camper van upstream a ways and decided that was our only connection to the outside world. We had to try to get their attention somehow and the river was so loud they would never hear us. So I had another brilliant idea which was to pull my camera out and use the flash to signal them. They eventually saw the light and put their headlamps on to communicate with us. We couldn’t hear a word they were saying and finally he shouted the only thing that ever mattered. “Don’t cross the river!” And with that we started building our shelter for the night with whatever means we had. Chris had a great idea of building it on a slope so the rain didn’t flood us out from the bottom up. Keep in mind it was totally dark and the only light I had was a periodic camera flash. Lets just say our shelter was shitty. It leaked, it was windy and really really cold out. Chris and I knew we were going to make it over night but that it was going to be a really really long night.
We were so cold it was not even funny and during the night I thought about my warm bed back home. I thought about the sunshine and thought about my mom and how it always pays to listen to her. And how when she hangs up the phone she always says please be safe. I thought about the “Bucket List,” and how in a strange way this was something I always wondered about. I thought about that moment when we were about to cross the river. I thought about how thankful I am that we didn’t.
When morning came Chris and I were sore and tired. We had cuddled and shivered together through the night and when daylight broke the wind picked up and the rain came but harder. We were using up our reserves now and were truly on empty. The guy camping up on the bluff shouted a few things and we couldn’t hear a word he was saying until finally he sad, “I’m going for help!” We took deep breaths and got real with each other and realized we weren’t out of the woods yet. We went back to the trees and tried to get out of the wind. After two hours passed we were really impatient and getting colder. We thought about our lifeline going for help and realized all of our eggs were in one basket. What if something had happened to him? What if he forgot about us? The weather was not letting up and the river was higher than ever now. Chris and I decided that by 9 a.m I would set off my spot beacon if no help had come. At 9 a.m I pressed the button and then thought about my mom again and how she would be worried sick about me now. At 9:05 a.m a couple construction workers were stopped looking at a culvert nearby. We shouted and shouted at them and got their attention. There was no way Chris and I could have stayed out there for another night and we were in full rescue mode now. We made it apparent to the construction workers that we needed immediate help and they motioned to us to stay put. An hour went by when finally one of the workers came back and spray painted, “Police Know” on the rocks. Still, an hour later the first cop drove right past us and our hearts sank. Would we ever get off this damn river? Finally, a cop stopped on the side of the road way up on the cliff and started communicating with us using his loudspeaker. He told us to stay put and that a rescue attempt was underway. He told us a helicopter was en route from the little town we were supposed to be at the night before.
When we first heard the helicopter round the corner we were relieved like never before. I was so cold and we both had stopped shivering at that point. The pilot and the police officer were really kind and didn’t make any assumptions about our judgements. We were taken about 20 minutes away where an ambulance was waiting for us. We were wrapped in blankets and seated in a warm room where all the pertinent questions were asked. Eventually we were given the ok to leave. We blasted the heat and kept heading south where we immediately checked into a hotel room and took hot showers. We went out for a big meal and took naps.
It took us two days to warm up. We were both shocked about the whole thing. You never think its going to happen to you until it does and hopefully your ready for it. All we needed was a lighter and a headlamp and a couple emergency blankets. Maybe an emergency bivy sack. We made a couple of good decisions as well which I will give my self credit for. I had my emergency spot beacon which sent out my coordinates to search and rescue. We almost crossed the river but we had the sense to step back and say is this a good idea?
I have just returned from some unbelievable saltwater flats fishing for Kingfish. We had the most amazing 4 days chasing these guys on the flats and catching them every way imaginable. I saw some of the most amazing flats fishing of my life and even caught a few on small crab flies. Stay tuned for the most recent trip report!