Every year on June 21, I get a group email with the following story attached. It is about a day fifteen years ago, June 21, 2003, when my life intersected with that of John Mortellaro on what easily could have been his last day.
On this 15th anniversary of “The River Incident,” I invited John to share his story on this blog. Here it is…
The River Incident (How a Pleasant Hike Changed in a Moment)
The day is Saturday, June 21st, the summer solstice. Our plans for the day are to go on one of our favorite hikes with a few friends and our dogs. Susanne and I lead the group from “Big Elk Meadows” down to Higgins Park, along with Jill and Kristen and their three dogs, Pookey, Shane and Dakota; and Greg with his puppy, Mookie. Susanne and I had our two boys with us; Major and Guinness. We wonder if the toughest part of the day will be introducing all the dogs, since our boys have not yet met Jill and Kristen’s boys and Guinness can be aggressive with other dogs.
We arrive at the trailhead and gather up our packs and dogs. The dogs all seem to get along from the beginning, so we head down the Coulson Gulch trail toward Higgins Park. The meadow is about two and a half miles, and if we feel up to it we will head to the river, another half mile. It is a beautiful day and everyone is enjoying the conversations, so the hike flies by and before we know it we are at the meadow. We pause shortly then decide to continue to the river since everyone is feeling great. It had barely taken us an hour to get to the meadow and now it is just before noon.
As we approach the river we can hear the water roaring; it is like a freight train. Greg asks if it is the wind or the water that is so loud. It is indeed the water. As we get close to the river, Susanne suggests to Greg to put Mookie on his leash to keep him out of the fast running water. As we approach the river, even though we still can’t see it, we realize we should put all the dogs on their leashes. It is at this very moment that an incredibly relaxing day turns into chaos. The two retrievers break for the water as we collect the other dogs. Susanne yells to me “I’ve got Guinness, you get Major.” I drop my pack and start running through the trees to get Major, when Greg says “Major’s in trouble.”
The moment the river comes into view, I can see that Major is already caught in the current. I look to my right and see Dakota also caught in the river’s current. I start running to Major who is losing his fight against the current and is about to be swept away. I cannot see any good way to get to him. With rock faces on both sides of the river I would either have to climb around them to get to the dogs which would cause me to lose sight of them or I would need to run into the river. I run straight toward Major who is furthest downstream. I know this is crazy and there must be another way, but I can’t see it. My head is saying stop, but instead of slowing down, my feet move even faster. In the next moment Major loses his battle against the current, and then Dakota and I find ourselves being carried with the current. I hadn’t arrived in time and now we are all in trouble. The current knocks my feet out from under me and I now realize I am committed to a journey downstream. The three of us shoot between two large boulders, Major, Dakota and then me.
I am now going under water on the downstream side of the large boulders we had just passed through. As I try to surface, I hit rock after rock, until my face smashes into a boulder. It is the most pain I have ever felt; but the worst part of it is that at this moment I realize that, for the first time in my life, I have no control over my fate and I am in real trouble. I need to protect my face, because if I take another shot like I just did, I would not get out of this river alive. I also realize that I have no way to protect my face from the rocks if I want to keep my head above water. My dilemma is this: I could either use my arms to protect my face and drown or I could use my arms to keep myself afloat and continue to smash into the rocks. Either way, I now realize my fatal decision… I am not just in trouble — I will not be getting out of the river alive.
The next thing I know, I am sitting down safely on a large boulder at the river’s edge. What happened?!? I neither know how far I had gone nor remember grabbing anything, I just suddenly find myself sitting on the boulder. I look back and realize this feat would have been impossible even if I was dry and not moving with the swift current. Once on the rock I look downstream; the dogs are gone. I wipe my bloody face and reach for my cell phone in my back pocket to call 911. My cell is, of course, full of water and the buttons will not work. Thinking my nose is broken, I look upstream to get my bearings. I see Kristen and Greg on a steep rock face about fifty feet above the water. I worry they will slip, and try to motion to them to get off to a safe place, but the noise of the rushing water is so loud they cannot hear me and do not know what I mean by my waving arms. I head downstream looking for Dakota and Major. I am bruised, wet and have trouble walking, but I am not letting that slow me down. The terrain is rocky and steep. There are times when I can get close to the water and other times I have to climb up over a hundred feet to get around a rock face. I am exhausted but keep moving.
I finally come upon Dakota; he is standing in a slow area of the river about three feet from the shore on the other side of the river. He sees me and wants to come toward me. I quickly find a stick and throw it to the other shore. It works, Dakota goes for the stick and Kristen and Greg are only a few hundred yards away. OH NO!! Even though my plan worked, the current is strong enough three feet from the shore that it sweeps up Dakota again! Damn it! Dakota immediately goes over a seven-foot waterfall, but is OK since the water is deep and he does not hit the rocks. I take off downstream again, upset at my decision to throw the stick. A few hundred feet downstream Dakota makes it to the side of the river I am on. Thank God!! I am relieved, but still scared; I hadn’t seen Major since I was swept away at least twenty minutes earlier. Kristen and Greg are still on the other side of the river, and I motion to them that I have Dakota, he is OK and that I am taking him with me. They act like they understand what I am saying. At least Dakota is OK!
Dakota is now sticking to my side like glue. You would have never guessed we had just met two hours earlier. We continue downstream looking for Major. The terrain is still very difficult to maneuver, but even banged-up Dakota and I help each other maneuver the steep areas. It is not long before Kristen and Greg catch up to us and Dakota leaves my side and runs to Kristen. They head back to let people know that Dakota and I are OK and that we are still looking for Major. Greg and I keep moving, but we either have steep rocks to climb or thick brush to maneuver. Greg comments that it is like a rain forest. Greg is wearing shorts and a t-shirt revealing several deep scratches he received from the bushes we had battled. At one point we find ourselves at least a hundred feet up from the river and could not see the banks at all. We need to get back down to the river so we slide down over some rocks and dirt, being too steep to walk. We have no idea how long we will be able to walk along the river’s edge before the rocks force us away from the river again. At this point Greg and I, although never saying it, do not think there is much hope that we will find Major alive. We had traveled about a mile. I did a lot of praying, promising God that if we find Major alive that I would start going to church again, just please, let us find Major alive. I hadn’t gone to church other than major holidays since I was in grade school.
Not long after we return to the river’s edge, I hear Greg behind me say; “There he is!” I imagine Major’s lifeless body, but as I look across the river, there he is, about fifteen feet away from the river on the other bank. Major is alive! He is staring straight ahead without much emotion. I am so thankful, but still scared, wondering if Major would come toward us and go into the river again. What if he is badly injured? I turn to Greg and say that I am going to cross the river. Greg points out that Major is safe and that going into the water again is not. Although I know Greg is right, and we banter back and forth, I also know I need to get to Major. I had justified the risk in my mind; there is about ten feet of current in the middle of the river and a few feet on either side of still water. All I need to do is get through the ten feet of current – not like I need to swim the whole width and this is safer than the last time, as the water here is a little deeper.
I enter the frigid water despite Greg’s objections, and am quickly scooped up by the current. I am in about four feet of water and swimming for my life. I remember the beating I had taken and know I could not take that again. I hit a large rock with my left thigh, right on one of my earlier injuries. Infused with fear, I swim for my life and manage to grab hold of a vine near the shore on the other side. I made it!! I had traveled about forty feet downstream. Not my brightest moment. Talking to Greg later he had worried I was not going to make it and he did not know what he would have done if I got caught in the current again. I go to Major; he is traumatized, but seems OK physically.
I go back to the edge of the river to let Greg know. He suggests that he would head back to let everyone know that we are OK, and that Major and I would move back as best we could, due to our injuries and the fact that we are exhausted. Greg then remembers to throw me water and a granola bar, mentioning that it was Mookie’s water, but didn’t think that I would mind. I didn’t.
Once I return to Major, he is still just staring and drooling heavily, very uncharacteristic for him. I then palpate his chest, legs and belly to see if he is in pain or maybe had internal bleeding. He does not wince a bit. I am so glad, but still very concerned with his health and that there may still be internal injuries. I am so happy he is alive, but scared he could die from his injuries – his breathing was rapid and shallow. I want to get him back as soon as I can. I immediately start looking for a path out; I walk around calling Major to follow. He doesn’t move. He stays right where he is. When I am able to get him to move it is for very short distances, and then he would just lie down. I don’t want to lose sight of him, but at the same time I need to keep looking for a way out. While I look I try not to lost sight of Major for more than a few moments at a time. I quickly realize that it is not going to be easy to get out of here. I even look downstream, but there is no good way out and Major does not want to move at all. I yell at Major, put on his leash and try pulling him. I cannot get him to move. I feel so bad yelling at Major, but I am scared for his life. I would not forgive myself if he survived the river and dies because I can’t get him to a vet in time. But I finally come to the conclusion that Major did forty minutes earlier; we are not getting out of here on our own. I lie down next to Major and wait for help.
Now with nothing to do and way too much time to think, I wonder how long before help would come, who would come, would they get here before dark, if not would Major be OK, would my clothes dry, are there mountain lions in the area, etc. I start a timeline in my head; this all started just after noon when we went into the water. It was about 1:00 PM when we found Major, it would be 2:00 PM before Greg could get back, then finding help and hiking back in to find us, the best anyone could do is find us by 4:00 PM. It was now 1:45 PM. I spend the time worrying about my buddy, praying, thinking of the best and worst case scenarios. I figure the worst case we would not be found until the morning, but it is June 21st the longest day of the year, so we had that going for us. Could Major survive until the morning? His breathing is still shallow and he is still drooling a little. He is becoming more alert, but still has trouble keeping his eyes open for any length of time. As I think and pray, a song by Randy Travis keeps coming into my head, the verse “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you; It’s what you leave behind you when you go.”
Just before 4:00 PM, I become restless, knowing that the best cause scenario is fast approaching. I get up and start walking around. Major doesn’t move, he seems stable and OK, just not interested in moving. Then, I think I hear something. I start yelling “over here.” I hear it again and again; there is someone out there!! Then I see something moving, then a red shirt. A German Shepherd Dog wearing a rescue vest shows up then turns around and runs back toward the red shirt. Help has arrived!! It is Dave, Ryan and Terrie and Dave’s dog Falco with Front Range Rescue Dogs. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I can’t remember a time I was happier to see anyone, and they are four strangers. For the first time, since we found Major, he shows some enthusiasm and gets up to meet our new friends! They greet us and ask if we are OK. I tell them that “I am banged up, but nothing life threatening but I’m worried about Major.” Dave checks Major over. Ryan starts looking for a way out, and Terrie looks after me, giving me some water and a power bar. However, we all know we are far from “out of the woods”.
Ryan and Dave start talking about the best way out while Terrie looked after Major and me. As we get started, Major stops to pee for the first time since he went into the river, he goes for well over two minutes. Dave and Ryan come back and ask why we had stopped. Major really had to go; he must have swallowed a lot of water. Major goes two more times on the way out, each time a few minutes long. We hadn’t been walking long when we start climbing up a steep rock field. Major is having trouble. Under normal situations Major would have been able to climb this, but slowly, today it is more than he can do by himself. We help Major along by supporting him and pulling him behind his shoulders and hind legs. Dave mentions that there are three areas he is worried about. After struggling through the rock field I asked if that was one of the areas that he was worried about. He tells me “no it wasn’t.”
It isn’t long before Major gets so exhausted that he can’t make it even with our help and encouragement. At this point, the rescue team hooks up two harnesses for Major, one for his front legs and one for his hind quarters. Dave and Ryan then carry Major for a while; I limp along behind helping Major as much as I can. We come to another section that is even steeper and Major has nothing left. Major is basically a hundred pounds of dead weight. This would have been a tough climb if all you had was your pack. When we make it most of the way to the top, Dave says, “This is above and beyond the call of duty.” He is right and we are all exhausted. We make it through the first of the three tough passages.
When we arrive at the second area, Dave and Ryan harness Major to a ten-foot long branch. Knowing that Major needs the help, but fearing that the branch or harness might fail, I walk as close as I can to be there if something went wrong. At one point Major is seventy-five feet over the river with nothing but a branch and a web harness between him and the river, and my hopeful wishes that nothing will go wrong. After we are through that area we take a break. I am mentally and physically exhausted and so is Major. Although the branch and harnesses were solid, I am relieved that Major was off the branch. Major will still not eat or take water. He is responsive but completely wiped out and still breathing rapid and shallow.
While we hike out, there are times where we are near the water and times where we are over a hundred feet away from the water on rocky steep terrain. At one point when we are near the water I look up stream and see a fifteen-foot waterfall. There was no way around it. Major had to have gone over this waterfall. All I can think is how did he manage to survive? My stomach still goes into knots when I think about this.
As we get back underway, I don’t realize that the toughest section is still ahead. Zig-zagging the rough terrain we are on our way back up the ridge. This time we are going almost to the top. We find ourselves on an extremely narrow ledge about 6 inches wide; below us is the river, with one hundred fifty feet of steep rock face between us and it; with one false move, we will slide down the rock face into the river. With Dave and Ryan in the lead we keep Major between us and the rock wall, moving him inches at a time, while we do the same with our own poor footing. When I can, I grab a hold of Terrie’s pack to steady her, at least when I have a better handhold on the rock wall. The ledge is only about fifteen feet long, but time stands still until we pass it. Once off the ledge we are now past the worst of it. The energy level of the group picks up and even Major is moving around on his own for short distances. All of a sudden I see the bridge that is just upstream of where we originally went into the river. We made it!!!!
It takes two hours to get back to the bridge – it is now 6:00 PM. Across the bridge we are now on the road leading back to “Higgins Park”. At the meadow we all climb into Dave’s truck, Major and Falco in the bed, the rest of us in the cab. No one else is around. We reflect on the ordeal as we bounce along the road back to the ranger station. At 7:00 PM we arrive and I wave out the window to Susanne, Greg and Kristen as we approach. This is the first time Susanne has seen Major and me since noon when we went into the river. After a tearful reunion and many thanks to our rescuers, we hurry off to get Major to the vet, still worried about his breathing.
Once at the Boulder Emergency Vet, we understand why we were worried. Major’s breathing is still shallow and he now has a slight wheezing. His x-rays show swelling causing a restriction on his respiratory system. We are told that with the anti-inflammatory, they expect him to be OK, but want to keep him overnight for observation, because if the swelling gets worse we would not be able to get him to the vet fast enough, and this way they would be monitoring him all night. With that I ask if Susanne could stay with him. She looks at me with tears streaming down her face and asks how I knew what she was thinking. We leave Major at the vet for the night. It is 9:30 PM and we are now on our way to the emergency room for me. They look me over and confirm what I already knew. I had some very deep bruises but I was going to live, at least for now. They give me a prescription for giardia and painkillers and we are out of there, on our way home. We stop at Burger King where I get two chicken sandwiches and Susanne gets a burger. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it is now 11:00 PM. Once home, as we are devouring our sandwiches, we get a call from Greg to check on how we are doing. Not well, but it is great to have friends that care so much. We are exhausted.
We call the vet the next morning at 9:00. They say Major is still not eating or drinking. They had started an IV and want that to finish before we pick him up, so we are going to have to wait until 2:30 PM. The time dragged by, but it is finally 2:00 PM and it will take us about twenty minutes to get to the vet. We are off. When Major sees us, he looks happy and healthy. You would have had no idea anything had happened if you did not see the shaved fur where the IV was attached. We had all survived the ordeal, and will always be grateful to the great friends, rescue workers, vet and God for being there for us; the longest day of 2003. I will never be able to imagine what Susanne, my wife and best friend, went through that day seeing Major and me go into the water and not know our fate for the next seven hours. I later learn it was Susanne who, after seeing the three of us going into the river, found a cell phone in Greg’s backpack. She had to hike out a half mile, with Guinness and Mookie, to get a signal and call 911.
Her first instinct was to go into the river after us, but thankfully Greg handed her Mookie’s leash and he came after us. If not for Susanne calling 911, Major may not have survived and I would have suffered from exposure if we were not rescued until the next day. Jill stayed at the point of entry, where we went into the river, until Kristen got back and the two of them carried all the packs including my very heavy pack back to the trail head and our vehicles. I will never forget my heroes: Susanne, Greg, Jill, Kristen, Dave, Ryan, Terrie and Falco. Without them this story would have had a much different ending.
Every spring, it seems a couple people lose their lives in the rivers, with the water running from the mountain snows. In 2003 we had already lost a couple people in the previous few weeks and the county had closed all the rivers to any activity. We had a 100-year snow storm in late March. On this day, June 21, two others had fallen into mountain rivers. A 23-year-old man who was in the St Vrain River also, just upstream from us, and a women that fell into Coal Creek near Gross Reservoir while hiking – neither survived. Susanne had learned while at the ranger station, that along with the search and rescue teams another team was dispatched. It was a dive team that went to the lake at the river’s point of entry to try and recover our bodies.
From every life experience you should learn something, and from this day I have taken a lot. First of all, I thank God everyday for pulling me out of the water. As proud as I have been all my life for getting myself out of the trouble I get myself into, I know this time it wasn’t me who saved my butt, and maybe I wasn’t alone all the previous times.
I prayed that day for Major and Dakota’s lives, and kept my promise that I would go back to church if they lived. I was fortunate that I found a great Christian church, Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, CO, that teaches me something new every week. Otherwise, I would have stopped going after a couple weeks if it had been like the churches I have gone to in the past. I don’t think I ever took life for granted and have always been passionate about life, friends, family and work. I still am. I do get more emotional. Every time I think of this day, I get choked up. I think I was saved for a reason, just not sure what it is yet. So if I were to give advice from my experience it would be this: always be prepared, surround yourself with great friends, and don’t be in a hurry to answer the question, “will I risk my life for someone else?” Hopefully you will never have to answer that question and if someday you are called upon, do everything you can to protect yourself, but if it comes down to it, follow your heart; your head will always forgive your heart, but your heart may not always forgive your head.
Always give your best, be unselfish with your love and kindness. Volunteer, we all need a little help now and then and let’s be there for each other. We only go around once in this life, do it right! Take advantage of the world around you, and don’t let fear ever hold you back! Let the people you love know it with actions, words and hugs!!
Warning: here come my spiritual thoughts and lessons that I have learned since that day.
I have wondered since that day if I would have died, would I have gone to heaven? I have always tried to do the right thing. Tried to live by the golden rule, be polite most of the time. My motto for most of my adult life has been: “Do the right thing, for the right reasons and let the chips fall where they may.” I hope that most who know me feel that I have been a positive factor in their life, but I am certainly no saint. (Although I had been called a Saint when I was married to my first wife. I think it was more like “You must be a Saint.”) I’m not – I have my vices, and have committed my share of sins.
I know my parents are proud of me. Since I am one of the lucky ones, my parents tell me that they are proud of me and that they love me. I wish more parents did this for their children. It is so important to know the people you love are proud of you and love you.
I have always believed in God, but really did not have a relationship with him. So I don’t know if I would have gone to heaven. Since June 21st 2003, I have a relationship with Jesus, and know that I am going to heaven. Since I now have a relationship with God, I want to be a better person; sin less, help people more, including helping them bump into Jesus if they are open to that, since I want to see all of you in heaven. I am still working on this, and it’s not easy, as it takes time and commitment. I am doing better, but there is so much more that I can do.
Sometimes when I think back to the “river incident” I get all choked up. For a while I didn’t know why. It is not because I am afraid to die; I’m not, although I hope to be around for a while. I don’t think dying is hard, I think living and trying to do the right thing with all the pressures and temptations is hard and that is our challenge every day. It is not that I am afraid of hikes or water, I’m not. It is not because I am still on this earth and I am able to still be an active part in the lives of my family and friends, although this was the second greatest gift I was given that day. The reason is because I am humbled by the fact that God would save my sorry butt. That God pursued me and saved me so that I could be saved; there is no greater gift of love and grace than that.
Just a side note, I have worn a St. Christopher’s medal since I was 16, (the same one fortunately, that my older sister Lori gave me) and Major wears a St. Francis medal. We are certainly glad we had them on that day.
July 2004: It has been over a year since we went on this hike. Major, Dakota and I are all doing great. Dakota moved to Austin with Kristen and Jill and we miss them, but they are enjoying their next chapter. Major and I are enjoying life more than ever before. Major acts like a puppy at times. Major didn’t act like a puppy even when he was a puppy; he was always very mellow. June 21, 2003 was a week after my 42nd birthday and a week before Major’s 3rd birthday.
2011: Major and Falco have now both since passed over the Rainbow bridge, awaiting our arrival.
Thanks for your interest, I hope you enjoyed this; I will never forget it. Here are some photos…
A post-script note from Dave: Heading out on this mission, I was expecting that the divers would find John’s body where the river dumped into Button Rock Reservoir, or else we would find it snagged up on a tree limb strainer in the river. Understand that I am a Jesus-following believer and have seen enough miracles in my life to know one when I see one. One of most chilling moments in the story is when John suddenly finds himself up on that rock. God snatched him out of the water and lifted him up to safety (perhaps, nonetheless, by using John’s built-in unconscious adrenalin mechanism), and then ironically, John gets back into the raging river for the love of his dog and God honored that by saving all of their sorry asses. Ha! What a story! Thanks for sharing it with us, John, and thanks to all for reading.