John P. Kudel
“Will I live tomorrow | Well I just can’t say.” –Jimi Hendrix
Each year, state and local bar Presidents-Elect descend on Chicago to attend an ABA sponsored program called Bar Leadership Institute. The Institute teaches future bar leaders how to be good presidents and includes such topics as “How to Handle the Media”, “Educating Our Profession”, and “Recruiting New Members in the New Millennium”.
I attended the Institute in early March 2011 in preparation for my bar year. While I was there, I attended a session entitled “Writing Your Monthly Bar Column”.
In that session, an instructor made the observation that, in many circumstances, the column will “write itself,” meaning that events during a President’s year would provide the grist for many bar columns.
Such was the case for this month’s column.
The MSBA is a member of two Conferences of State Bar leaders: The Southern Conference, comprised of seventeen states; and the Mid Atlantic Conference, comprised of six states. This year, the Southern Conference was hosted by the North Carolina Bar, and the event was held in Asheville, North Carolina. Among the many activities offered by the North Carolina Bar was a half-day rafting trip on The French Broad River just outside Asheville. A box lunch and a 20 minute bus ride were included, and I decided to sign up.
I was no stranger to white water rafting, although I am not a great swimmer (a significant point to this story). My previous experiences included the Cheat River in West Virginia, the Youghiogheny in Maryland, and the Dead River in Maine, all Class 4 or 5 white water adventures. The French Broad River guides informed us that we would be in Class 2-3 water. Paul Carlin, MSBA Executive Director, who had gone on a day-long trip earlier in the week, said the water was, in essence, a piece of cake.
Thirty-six people signed up for the trip including MSBA’s President-Elect, Michael J. Baxter, and his wife, Mary. On the ride to the launch point, Mike and I joked that we should probably not ride in the same raft in order to avoid “succession problems” in the event of a mishap. When we arrived at the launch point, we were told what to do in the event that the raft capsized or that anyone fell out.
We were instructed to float on our backs with our heads upstream and our feet downstream. We were further instructed that if a person fell into the water, they were to be pulled back into the raft by their life vest and not by their arms so to avoid possibly dislocating their shoulders. We divided ourselves into six rafts with six people per raft. My raft included Mike and Mary Baxter, Roseanne Lucianek, Director of the ABA Division for Bar Services, her daughter, Sarah, and our guide. We were told the entire trip would take a little less than two hours.
The first hour of the trip was completely uneventful; a true Class 2 ride. In fact, Sarah commented on several occasions that the ride was boring.
Suddenly, up ahead, the first raft in our party of six seemed to be experiencing difficulty in getting through two large rocks in the middle of the river. There was room for a raft to go through the rocks, but the first raft seemed to be hung up on a big rock to the left. Our guide steered our raft to the right, and in the next instant, we were hung up on the other rock.
Our guide told us to bounce up and down in an effort to dislodge us from the rock.
In the meantime, raft number three was coming at us with nowhere to go since both rafts now effectively blocked the passage. Our guide jumped into the water to attempt to pull our raft off the rock. Suddenly, we were struck by raft number three which caused our raft to rise straight out of the water. I fell onto Sarah and everyone except Mary was thrown out of the raft.
I was turned around; my feet were upstream, and my head was downstream. The cold river was covering my face and head, and it seemed that every breath included a large swallow of water.
I went under water for a few seconds, and when I surfaced, I was completely disoriented. I was turned around; my feet were upstream, and my head was downstream. The cold river water was covering my face and head, and it seemed that every breath included a large swallow of water.
I felt that I was traveling at a quick pace away from the raft, and I felt a sense of panic setting in. For a moment, I wondered if this was how it would all come to an end. The headline would read: THIRD MARYLAND BAR PRESIDENT TO DIE IN OFFICE.
(For those of you who attended my installation speech in June, I really was joking when I said my first order of business would be to avoid being the third President to die during his or her term.)
No matter how much I tried to right myself, I could not get turned around. Thankfully, I finally heard Mike’s voice, as he was telling me to swim to the raft, and just then I saw them approximately 10 feet away.
Somehow, between my flailing and the efforts of those in the raft, I was able to grab one of the cords that encircle the raft and hold on. I tried to climb into the raft on my own but could do nothing more than get one leg onto the raft which, of course, caused my head to go under water.
Mary and Mike grabbed my vest and somehow were able to drag me back into the raft. I rested on the bottom of the raft, coughing and choking but feeling relieved that I was out of the water. Everyone was accounted for except Roseanne, who had gone out in the opposite direction from me. She drifted a long distance away from the raft but was ultimately rescued by kayakers who had seen what happened and had come to her rescue.
The wife of a South Carolina Bar President struck her head on a rock when she was thrown from her raft and received a large bruise, but she was otherwise okay, and everyone else was unhurt.
We reached the end point without further mishap, and the bus ride back to the hotel was filled with stories of each person’s encounter with the French Broad.
In my October column, I told the story of how I spent time with my son on a fishing trip, and how he and I cherished the time spent together. My experience in the water of the French Broad was a reminder that life is a gift that we should not take for granted, although I suspect most of us do.
Out of curiosity, I scrolled back through my texts to my son that day.
Although I had not actually come close to dying, the ordeal provided me with the opportunity for reflection. I was interested to see what might have been my last text to him. In the text, I was critical of him for leaving a job without having another lined up. In retrospect, that concern now seems rather trivial.
On a lighter note, Mike Baxter now refuses to sit next to me.