Terror on the River

by Jen on March 18, 2006

By Howard Lemmon

“It was one of the most incredible things that has ever happened to me in my entire life… I was literally lifted out of the water and placed there!”

I am driving my car down Interstate 40 through Nashville, Tennessee returning from our overnight canoe trip. The Boy Scouts in the back of my car are sound asleep at 4:00 P.M. It was an exhausting trip. But as I drive down the highway, the realization of what actually happened to me sinks in. The hair on my arms stands on end. I am overcome with emotion. I am awestruck with gratitude. It is the first chance I have to really process in my mind what has just happened to me.

May 21, 2005, 9:30 A.M. On the River

I am standing on the banks of the Harpeth River near Dixon, Tennessee along with the other 13 people in our party. I am the Scout Master of Troop 439 in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, chartered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My primary objective is to bring each person back home safely. Secondary to that objective is to have fun. I know that if the primary objective is not met, having fun isn’t even an option.

I feel some degree of trepidation as we prepare to enter the water. Having planned and organized the trip, I feel responsible for the welfare of each person on it. But an uneasy feeling hovers over me.

Chris Loch, my Assistant Scout Master and son-in-law, reminds me that we should have a prayer before we embark on our 13 mile journey in the two-man canoes. Nathan Rosas, our Senior Patrol Leader, asks me to offer the prayer, which I am happy to do. I ask the Lord to watch over us and keep us safe from harm or accident.

After pairing the older boys together, and the younger boys with the adult leaders, we board our canoes and shove off into the deceptively strong current of the river.

The beauty and wonder of the greenery on both sides of the river are inspiring as the river snakes in and out through the countryside. The lush vegetation all around is one of the things I like about Tennessee compared to the dry, brown, weedy hillsides of Southern California where I come from.

The river is peaceful and serene. But a glance to the right or left brings me to the realization of how fast the river really is moving as I see the trees whisking by me at a very fast clip.

It has been about an hour now since we shoved off. This is great. We come around a bend in the river. Five of the seven canoes are up ahead. Scott Carroll’s canoe and mine are bringing up the rear. The banks of the river become narrow and the river bed becomes shallow. The water speeds up accordingly. Up ahead I can see that the terrain is directing the current toward the far side of the river. I can see that a huge tree on the far bank has collapsed and fallen one third of the way across the river. As we get closer to the tree, I see that two of our canoes have been pinned sideways against the tree trunk by the force of the river. I watch the boys in the canoes struggle in vain to free themselves as I pass by on the right side. The pull of the current is so strong to the left that only with great effort I am able to steer clear. I quickly beach my canoe on the near side, instruct the other boys to stay put, and join Scott who is already standing in the rushing water up to his chest trying to help the stranded paddlers.

Hanging onto a thick, dead kudzu vine dangling from the treetops overhead, I extend a paddle to them with an outstretched arm thinking that I could pull them to safety if we could only make contact. The idea is quickly abandoned. They are too far away and the river is too mighty to let go of the vine.

Nathan Rosas and Alex Lounsbury operate the canoe closest to the end of the tree trunk. Evan and Isaac are manning the canoe behind them near the far bank.

Alex and Nathan work feverishly to free themselves from their situation. Eventually Nathan is able to hook his arm around a protruding branch and pull the canoe beyond the ends of the trunk. Free at last, the current rushes them down the river.

The other canoe has three boys in it: Evan, Isaac and Nathaniel. Nathaniel, the third boy, playfully transferred into their canoe from his own during the calm waters just moments before.

The boys struggle to free themselves the same way their fellow scouts did. But the more they fight the elements, the more unstable the canoe becomes. Rocking the craft back and forth, the edge of the canoe becomes perilously closer to the water level. With the full force of the river slamming against their starboard side, the vessel seems to be at the complete mercy of the river.

I yell at the top of my lungs “Don’t let the water come over the rim of the canoe!” If that were to happen, I knew their fate. They look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. I repeat myself again and again, but the boys look dazed and confused. Even if they can hear me over the roar of the river, they are too traumatized by the pummeling to process it.

Suddenly, my fears are realized. The canoe rocks too far to the starboard side and within two seconds, it fills completely with water and capsizes. The force of the river takes the canoe straight down to the bottom and wedges it there underneath the tree against the boulders lining the river bed. Three scouts are in the river. Instinctively, I dive in and make a beeline for Nathaniel. Weighing all of 60 pounds soaking wet, he needs the assistance. The older boys can fend for themselves. It happened so fast, I can only assume that they escaped by going over the tree trunk and into the water on the other side just before the canoe capsized. Eventually all three scouts find their way to safety on the gravel shore downstream.

After breathing a sigh of relief, Scott and I are faced with our next challenge: how to get the canoe off the river bed. Somehow, I have to forge my way into the rushing current and try to dislodge the canoe from under the water.

On my first attempt, I grab onto the same kudzu vine I hung on to earlier, and extend myself out toward the canoe. This idea lasts about ten seconds. There is no way it will work; the vine isn’t long enough. We then try a variation. Scott would hold to the vine and we would grasp wrists. This idea lasts even less time. The river is too deep and too strong.

As I stand in the river, I scan the area for alternatives. I come up with a third idea. I get out of the river on the near side and walk up the river bank twenty yards. If I could just use the river to take me where I wanted to go instead of fighting against it, I would have better success.

Moments later and 20 yards upstream, I enter the river again, crossing over until the water is up to my chest. I can barely hold my footing while walking across the large slippery rocks on the bottom of the river bed with the rushing water pressing constantly against my backside. If I could only get to the tree, then I could pull myself up onto it and try to dislodge the canoe from there.

I retrace the path of the canoes. As I approach the tree trunk, the water is up almost to my neck. I take a good look at the situation. I see that there are actually two canoes under the tree, ours and another one that is crushed underneath and bowed in the middle. I realize that whatever force is holding the canoes down can likewise pin me down under the water.

I yell to Scott who is standing eight or ten yards away. “If I go under this log, I’m a dead man!” I hear him holler back, “I know!”

I ease my way toward the trunk of the tree. With only my head above the water, I come face to face with the water-logged monster that lay horizontally across the river. I raise both arms above my head and place the palm side of my forearms against the tree. Slamming against my back side is the constant hammering of the full force of the river. The undercurrent is starting to sweep my feet out from under me.

“If I’m going to get up on this log, I better do it now,” I say to myself, “because I can’t hold this for long.”

I try to pull myself up onto the log with my arms, but this only reveals yet another problem. There is nothing to grab onto but the trunk itself which is about three feet in diameter. Plus, the trunk is completely covered with a green, wet, slimy moss. Grabbing on to anything is next to impossible.

Using my arms as a guide, I try to push up from the river bed and leap onto the log. I get about 6 inches up and slide right back to where I started from. It is an exercise in futility.

Not one to give in so easily, I try again with identical results. I don’t have a prayer. I realize that the chances of getting on top of the log from here are slim to none. I quickly look around for another alternative but find none. With only my head above water and the force of the river still slamming against my back side, I’m running out of strength and about to be pinned under the water along with the canoes. I decide to try one more time. I push off from the bottom again and reach up toward the top of the log. Again, I can only get 6 inches up on the log and I think to myself, “Here we go again.”

The very next thing I can remember, I am halfway up onto the log. A marvelous power from the unseen world has reached down and lifted me out of the water and is boosting me up onto the tree trunk. I instinctively raise my left leg and place my left foot on top of the log. With my left foot and both hands I effortlessly pull myself the rest of the way up as if I weigh absolutely nothing. As I am hoisted to the top of the log, I exclaim to myself, “How did I do that? That was incredible!”

But there is no time to analyze it now. I am pressed by the urgency of the next step: to save the canoe. Nearly a half an hour has passed and the rest of our party downstream are probably going nuts wondering what has happened to us. They can’t paddle back upstream; all they can do is sit and wait. I can’t do anything about that, so I just keep working.

I sit down on the log and dangle my legs over the opposite side. I can’t reach our canoe, but I am able to rock the canoe that was already there by pressing against it with my tennis shoe. Since the two canoes are touching, it causes our canoe to move also. I keep the rocking motion going until eventually, and miraculously, our canoe begins moving down the river. It is still two or three feet below the surface, but I can see from my vantage point perched above the trunk that it is moving downstream.

Thirty yards downstream, the center ridge at the bottom of the canoe pops up to the surface and the canoe continues to float downstream for another 70 yards where it stops and sits.

I jump into the river and swim over to the near side. All are safe; that’s the important thing.

The same strong current condition and dangerous boulder problem in the river still exist, but at the current resting place of the canoe, the river is less turbulent. With paddle in hand, I venture forth across the river to recapture the canoe. It is difficult to maneuver without getting a foothold on the riverbed. The water current and slippery rocks that move around beneath my feet render my trip amazingly inefficient.

I finally arrive at the canoe. It appears that the hard part is over. The canoe now is only about six inches below the surface of the water. All I have to do is get it out of the river, turn it over, empty the water out of it, and paddle it back to shore.

I cannot see what the canoe is lodged on. With the paddle in my left hand, I reach down with my right hand, grab the edge of the canoe, and lift. It doesn’t budge! I try again and again from all directions with no results. I cannot dislodge the canoe alone with one hand.

If I let go of the paddle even for a second, it will disappear down stream. I try putting the handle in my mouth to hold it so I can use both hands on my next attempt. The handle is too wide and made of aluminum. I can’t hold it.

Moments later, Scott Carroll joins me from the shore; working together, we are able to free the canoe, drag it to the far bank, empty the water out of it, and return using the paddle.

I breathe a sigh of relief.

We get all three remaining canoes together, place the boys back in them, point them down the river and forge ahead.

The ordeal is over. I open my mouth and say out loud, “Thank you, God. Thank you for sparing my life…one…more…time.”

Eldred Salizar, the young scout in the front of my canoe hears me. He turns around and looks right at me. I just smile and keep on paddling. Around the bend, we catch up with the rest of our party, waiting on a secluded beach. We had some explaining to do.

The Aftermath

Sitting in the dining area at the Wendy’s restaurant following the canoe trip, the adults dine together separately from the scouts.

Of the incident, Scott Carroll asks, “How in the world did you get up onto that tree trunk?”

“I have no idea!” I tell him. “It was one of the most incredible things that has ever happened to me in my entire life. All I know is that I began to pull myself up, and before I knew it I was standing on the tree. I was literally lifted out of the water and placed there!”

He responds, “That’s incredible. While I was watching you, I was so scared that my whole body was shaking. I thought you were going to drown. Suddenly, I saw your entire body just pop straight up out of the water and onto the log.

We were both stunned and amazed. He reminds me that we were talking about the power of the priesthood the night before around the camp fire. I say, “We must never ever forget what happed here today.”

I record this true story so that my great-great grandchildren’s great-great grand children will know who I was and what I give to them. I pass along my personal testimony and witness that today my life was spared because I was in the service of the Lord. I am in his employ and my mission in this life is not yet completed. He is my master, which, by definition, makes me his servant. I identify with Nephi of old who exclaimed, “My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep” (2 Nephi 4:20).

That evening, I lie on the couch reminiscing and relishing in the fact that I am alive.

Raquel, my little seven-year-old girl, approaches me and puts her arm around my neck. She is excited because she just got a really cute short haircut which she was wanting.

She says, “Daddy, I have this really great idea. You and I could plan a day and just spend the whole day together having fun. We could play a computer game together. We could watch some movies together and play some other games. We could play with Bonnie [our hamster] and, most importantly, play in the club house. You could take a vacation day, just you and me together”.

I look at her and thank God with all my heart that I am alive this evening to be with her and enjoy her presence. I still have her, and she still has a daddy.

I reach my arm around her head, pull it toward me and kiss her affectionately on the cheek. “Yeah, little gumdrop, we have to do that!”

Cherish every precious moment we have with our families. Take nothing for granted. It could be all gone tonight and you are powerless to change it. Stephen R. Covey says, “The problem with the control paradigm is that you are not in control”.

The principle of works and grace became effective for me today. Only after I did everything in my power to accomplish a worthy goal did the Lord reach down and make up the difference (See 2 Nephi 25:23).

Author’s Notes:

About being plucked out of the water and placed on the log:

I have given considerable reflection on this experience. One thing I must note here is that there is a piece of my memory that is missing. From the time I was standing on the river bed with the water up to my neck with my face against the log and my arms stretched upward against the log, to the time that I noticed my being almost all the way onto the log does not exist in my memory!

I do not know why. From the time I was in the water, my very next memory is of me being on the log. I do not have any memory of me being actually lifted up out of the water and moving upward toward the top of the log. I just went from one place to the next without anything in between!

Was that part erased from my memory for some reason? Did the Lord or his angels reposition me in the space-time continuum, skipping me ahead a few seconds as if I were a digital clock that was being reset?

I doubt I will ever know the answer to this phenomenon in my lifetime, but I will sure never forget it!

Days later, I wanted to know from Scott Carroll exactly what he saw. He told me that his experience was somewhat different from mine. He said that he actually saw my whole body lunge straight out of the water and land on the tree trunk. There was no lapse or skipping in the continuity of his experience.

The following individuals are listed by canoe:
1) Howard Lemmon (adult), Eldred Salazar (12)
2) Scott Carroll (adult), Clark Perkins, (12)
3) Bill Seaman (adult), Scott Seaman (12).
4) Chris Loch (adult), Nathaniel Hughes (12).
5) Evan Lemmon (14), Isaac Garcia (14).
6) Stephen Pack (14), Clint Lasson (14)
7) Nathan Rosas (14), Alex Lounsbury (14)

Howard Lemmon resides in Mt. Juliet Tennessee. He writes essays like this one as a creative way of recording and sharing his personal history. Howard enjoys public speaking and people admire his gift to entertain and engage an audience while delivering a powerful message. He is the father of five great children including Jen of *Jen* Magazine.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

David March 22, 2006 at 8:02 pm

I would say that the story is amazing, but being a priesthood holder myself I know that our Lord walks with us.

The Latter Day Saint Priesthood is nothing to kid about it is as or more real than any other element of our lives.

Simply, his life was spared by the hand of God. For me and my house, we praise the Lord our God and this story illustrates his involvement in our lives. Great testimony, thank you so much for sharing it.

David

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Jolayna, age 14 March 22, 2006 at 10:20 pm

Wow! Thst story is so inspiring and great proof that God watches over us. From my own experiences, I’ve learned that prayer works! And when God does something so wonderful, such as this, make sure you thank him. Gratitude goes a long way! 😀

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Tricia March 23, 2006 at 9:14 am

That is amazing! My dad also had a mirrical happen. He just recently had a stroke. Although the doctores say he should be dead, He is still with us today thanks to a priesthood blessing. Also, my older sister just had a little mirical three weeks early and her name is Caitlin Sarah Hayes! It is blessings like these that tell me that God is watching over me and won’t let me fall into a ditch I can’t get out of. I know he will always be there for me!

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Anonymous April 3, 2006 at 8:32 pm

Dear Mr. Lemmon,

You have definitely proven, that our God is an awesome God:-)

Respectfully,

Karen

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