I was stranded in the middle of the river, freezing cold, humiliated and exhausted. My only solace came from the fact that we recovered the boat I had borrowed and it wasn’t completely destroyed by its solo mission down Gorilla. I was also incredibly relieved to see two other kayakers since we hadn’t set shuttle. But mostly I felt like an idiot and was tired and cold. “Aren’t we too old and experienced to find ourselves in a situation like this,” I thought to myself. Which is silly, of course, you’re never too good or too smart to make a mistake.
As I was having a philosophical discussion with myself about the valuable lessons one learns during challenging times, David was busy acting erratically and exhibiting what I considered to be extreme thoughtlessness. At this particular moment our boats, bodies, and paddles were in various states of disarray while our fully extended throw ropes floated from one side of the river to the other, completely tangled. I was in no mental condition to question his logic at the time, but he kept insisting I stand up on a slippery rock above a river feature that looked to me like certain death. And he was really distracted. And seemed strangely happy. Little did I know what he had been planning for weeks.
I turned towards him calmly and looked him straight in the eye — the only way I knew I could communicate for real seriousness (something we had been working on). “David, I don’t understand what you want from me right now.” Which actually meant “David!! What on earth are you doing, why are you trying to get me killed, and most importantly, why the hell is some guy over there collecting evidence (taking pictures) of my swim!?!?”
David turned away while I was talking. I was super frustrated, but accepted the temporary defeat of our communication strategy and went into self-preservation mode. Now I was just going to do my best to ignore everything he did. What I didn’t realize is that he was nervously digging a diamond ring out of his pocket while simultaneously queuing our engagement photographer and trying to keep me in position. Without giving it all away.
I had both hands on one end of the rope, pulling the still-submerged kayak dangling from the other end closer, one hand after the other. I tried to focus. All I wanted to do was get back in the boat, paddle downstream, and get off the river as quickly as possible.
I honestly don’t remember what happened next very well. It kind of all blurred together. But at some point I looked down at David and he was on one knee looking up at me, smiling. I still didn’t realize what he was doing until he waved the ring in front of my face. Then I went into shock.
I think David had to ask me a few times whether I would marry him before I actually answered. I distinctly remember his final plea: “Jessie, please just put the ring on your finger, I REALLY don’t want to lose it.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes.”
I still didn’t know to what degree David had this whole thing planned. I remember asking him if the two kayakers were deliberately staged, and if so, what time the helicopter was supposed to show up with champagne and lobster and hooks to tow our boats. Surely he didn’t expect me to finish paddling the river with the most beautiful ring in the world on my finger, right?
A few of the longest and happiest minutes of my life passed. David and I laughed with our accidental witnesses and I was still shaking from a combination shock and starvation when I finally got back in my boat. And just like that our little group was paddling out, chasing the sun as dusk settled in.
As we approached each rapid, I prayed I wouldn’t swim again. Then I would just stare at my ring during the calm sections in between. Before this moment, I didn’t even think I liked diamonds. Oh how quickly I turned into “that girl!” And this diamond was my best friend. My BEST Friend.
The ring wasn’t on my finger long when I started to wonder if I could get away with whining and complaining now that David and I were engaged. Kidding! I’ll obviously wait until we’re married for that.
Anyway, this chapter of our story ends here. We made it off the river, back to our car, and eventually back to West Virginia. Where we celebrated. But the first thing I did was look at the pictures. The SD card on David’s camera was almost full, so his impromptu on-location photographer only captured a few – but every single one of them is priceless.
And it was there… just below Gorilla on the Green Narrows… in the middle of the river… amid a tangled mess of rope and hope… a kayak full of water, bobbing precariously close to a sieve… one hand holding hers, the other, a ring… she finally said the word I was anxiously waiting to hear… “yes!”
Rewind a month. It was a perfect February day in Chile. The sun was shining, the rivers were full, and Pucón Kayak Hostel was at capacity. So why was I getting on a plane and leaving this paradise behind for the worst West Virginia winter in more than 20 years? I was chasing a girl, of course.
Jessie and I had been defining what it would take for us to share our lives together. We were committed to each other, and our future, but that didn’t make the distance any easier. And I could tell sub-zero temperatures, frozen pipes, and isolation were taking a toll on her. Jessie needed me stateside. So I made the trek with the goal of working on my long-term objectives for Patagonia Study Abroad – and our relationship. If there’s only one thing I’ve learned in my 40+ years, it’s when to act.
I’d been trying to think of the best proposal for quite some time… meaning I did a bunch of Google searches and played out a few different scenarios in my head. They were terrifying. This proposal stuff is risky business! The one thing I kept coming back to is the river. Jessie loves to paddle as much as I do and the river is an integral part of our lives. It just made sense to propose on the river. What I didn’t know is how on earth we would make it out to the river when the entire east coast felt like the arctic tundra.
For as much thought as I had put into it, the actual proposal went nothing like I planned. I scheduled a meeting in Tennessee with my long-time mentor and business consultant, John Miller, and convinced Jessie to join me. “We” decided to turn the trip south into a long weekend, and headed to Asheville. I nonchalantly brought our kayaking gear, but we had only one creek boat between the two of us and I had no clue if anything would be running.
Jessie and I had an incredible date night in Asheville and woke up very late on Sunday foggy-headed and hungry. We headed downtown for food. I was patient as Jessie showed off her old stomping grounds and walked in-and-out and in-and-out of at least 3,000 quaint shops and hippie boutiques. My plan was simple. Drive to put-in for the Narrows. Set shuttle. Offer someone upto $200 cash to take photos. Propose at Gorilla or below Sunshine. Drive back to West Virginia. Celebrate. But morning had turned into afternoon and I needed to get this girl moving for my plan to work.
“Jessie, we need to go. I want to go kayaking. It’s the first warm day all winter. We can’t come to Asheville and not paddle the Green.” I kept imagining a proposal at some cheesy tourist overlook and the thought disturbed me. I didn’t want to reveal my hidden agenda, but the consequences of not paddling were at an all-time high. Thankfully my girl unconditionally agreed. Yet another reason I am completely in love her.
We still had a few logistical challenges. We only had one boat and no shuttle. And it was getting late. I called my friend Nathan Silsbee and within minutes was getting directions to pick-up his Magnum-72. Perfect. As we drove to the put-in, I started to focus on details for the first time. “Jess, are you planning to run Gorilla?” To which she replied, “I don’t know. Probably.” Enter our next problem, which I had not previously anticipated.
The last time I ran Gorilla, I swam. That was eight years earlier and slightly closer to my prime. I knew Jessie had raced the Green before, and figured she had done the run hundreds of other times. I love that she is a badass and can out-stout me on class V. The problem is that Jessie is also the world champion of shit-talk. She finds great pride in humiliating men when they fail on the river. It’s fantastic to watch her skills in action… when you aren’t the victim. And I knew if she ran Gorilla on the day I proposed, while I walked around it, I’d have to endure her telling this story at every holiday for the rest of my life.
I would have no part in securing my own matrimonial humiliation hell. No, I would have to stick it. Then get the girl. That’s the way this was going to work.
But I remained uneasy. I mean, I was confident about the girl part… not so much about Gorilla.
We didn’t get to the put-in until 4:30 and things did not look good. The warmest day in months and there were only three cars and no signs of people. We would need to catch someone on the river, but this meant we had to hustle. I started to worry about how I would get a photo of the proposal. Jess was changing on the other side of the truck when I secretly put the diamond ring in my drysuit pocket. I compulsively checked and rechecked the ring remained securely in place by patting my breast pocket. Then I reached for my camera.
“David, why on earth are you bringing your camera? We don’t have time to stop for photos.” No time for arguing, I dismissibely responded “I know, but who knows when we will get to run the Green together again. I’ll just snap a few quick pics at Gorilla if you run it.” Phew. She bought the excuse and we shouldered our kayaks and trotted down the path to the river.
It had been 8 years since I led a group of high school students down the Green. And it had been more than 5 years since the Green was Jessie’s after-work special. I was kind of counting on her for the lines, but she just kept saying that a horizon line is a horizon line is a horizon line. We would approach each rapid and look at each other and ask “Do you remember this one?” We’d then eddy scout and yell things at each other like “keep your bow left” as we paddled downstream.
Jessie and I have paddled difficult runs together before, by ourselves. But it was always on rivers I knew well. This day was different. It was fast-paced and the river was ours to own. There’s something special about the teamwork required to explore a challenging river. And every single time I’d drop into a rapid, Jessie would follow fearlessly with a perfect line. Knowing I was going to propose to her, I could not help but look back upstream and smile, whispering “I love you” under my breath. I was smitten.
Then we get to Zwicks. I went first and waited in the small river-left eddy at the bottom. Jessie cleared the first hole with a perfect boof, and I turned away after I saw her approaching the ledge in perfect position. But at some point, her skirt blew. She made it to the bottom upright, but her boat caught an edge in the seam of the last eddy and she started sinking. By the time I turned around to see what was taking her so long, she was neck-deep, trying desperately to paddle to shore while drifting slowly towards the next drop. “Swim Jessie! Swim” I yelled as I frantically paddled over to her as fast as I could. She clawed her way up the river left bank and I tried to get her boat.
I chased her boat through Chief’s and watched as it slowly drifted into Pencil Sharpener. I didn’t hesitate knowing Gorilla was next. There wasn’t a single thought of being a hero or running Gorilla solo. Nope, I am getting smart with age I tell you. I got to shore and ran the unofficial fastest Gorilla portage ever.
Jessie’s boat (which was actually Nathan’s boat, in case you forgot), tomb-stoned at the Scream Machine hole. I placed my kayak on the Gorilla seal launch, looked at Speed Trap and wondered for a second if I was in the right spot. “No room for another rescue” I told myself. Luckily, the kayak landed on a river left rock ledge just below Power Slide. It’s almost as if it had that destination in mind all along. And it finally arrived. Jessie caught up just as I was launching. “What’s the line?” I yelled to her in a last attempt at verifying my approach. “JUST GO” she screamed back at me. Damn I love this girl.
I made it to the bottom and there it was, lodged on a log and teetering centimeters above a sieve. Nathan’s Green Magnum 72. Jessie was not yet in range, still clambering over rocks on shore. I checked the drysuit pocket for the ring. It was still there, thank god. The kayak was a good 40’ away from the river bank, and I knew I would need a swim to get to it. I climbed a boulder in the river that cut the distance, allowing me to get within three feet of the pool. I assessed the situation. Not deep there. Deeper there. Jump there. Spread your body and land flat. Take your paddle so you can paddle her kayak back. The water was cold. I yelled again for Jessie so she could know my location. Then I jumped as far as possible, spreading my body to flop, not go in too deep.
The kayak was in a tough position, stuck just barely on a log sieve. I held on body upstream of the kayak, and could feel a slight undertow pulling my body. I couldn’t get any purchase with my feet, as the kayak created an overhang. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I pulled up my spray skirt and hooked it on the log under the kayak. I thought about the sadness of drowning and what the headline would be when they discovered my body and the engagement ring in my drysuit.
Holding the completely unstable kayak, I balanced the paddle on the log and lowered myself below the current and unhooked the skirt. No shifts. I was relieved. Now I needed to tip the kayak into the water, climb on top of it, and then get back on the log. I saw Jessie scuffling down the canyon. It would be too dangerous to dump the kayak on the log and there was no place on the river right cliff wall. The only remaining option was to throw a rescue line to Jessie and have her tow the kayak from the shore. The drag in the line would cause the boat to drop into a different downstream channel unless I could get Jessie onto a 6-foot wide flat rock island. In the middle of the river.
I patted my drysuit pocket for the ring once more. It’s not Gorilla, but I reckon that rock island is as good of a place as any to propose. She might be mad at me for making her swim back into the river, but she’ll get over it. New plan. Get her onto that rock. Slip the rock out of your pocket. And ask her to marry you. You got this.
Jessie arrived to the far bank and I instructed her to make the 12’ swim to the rock island. She yelled some expletives back at me and said to throw her a rope. I pointed to the downstream channel, “YOU HAVE TO TOW ME AND THE KAYAK!” She saw the danger and grimaced acknowledgement of what she had to do. Jessie dipped into the water. Swam. Climbed the rock. And positioned herself to receive the throw rope. Upstream I spotted two kayakers portaging Gorilla and pointed. I have never been so happy to see two other kayakers in my entire life. Jessie seemed happy too, but for different reasons I am sure. She threw me the rope. I entered the water, flipped the kayak and hooked the carabineer to the bow end. I pushed and pulled the kayak off the log while holding my paddle in one hand and the kayak in the other. Another moment passed. Jessie and I were on the rock island together at last.
But our work wasn’t quite finished. I had to swim back to my kayak, which I had left on some rocks just downstream at the beginning of the boat recovery mission. The two kayakers who had portaged Gorilla arrived. They asked if we were okay. Jess, exhausted, was sitting on the rock. I called one of them over and immediately recognized him as Eric, from the NOC Youth Team. He had just stayed at my hostel in Chile. I asked him if he wanted to make $40. Eric replied, “Huh?” Me again, “You want to make $40 bucks? I’m about to propose to her. I’ve got the ring and am going to get down on one knee and everything. I need you to take the photos with my camera.” He smiled, “Sure.”
Note- This story was published on the U.S. April Fools day or Liars Day. In effect the story had a buzz of disbelief. Thus, the following continuation is properly titled, “Proposalgate.”