LUMBERTON — “I am convinced that if I had let go of the kayak when it submerged, I’d have died on that river,” said Annette Porter.
Bruised, sore and suffering from hypothermia, Porter emerged from a traumatic afternoon kayak trip on the Lumber River that nearly cost her life. A veteran paddler, she had planned a leisurely Sunday afternoon paddle on a river that Porter thought she knew.
Mistakes abounded but so did take precautions ahead of the trip. Porter is 45 and describes herself as not as fit as she used to be, but she managed to cling to a tree for two hours, discovered an unbelievable will to survive. And she found a hero in an 11-year-old named Kiki.
We will let her tell the story.
“When I was younger, I was a lifeguard and kayak instructor at a camp in Connecticut. I had not been in a kayak since 1993. I got one in April as a birthday present from a friend. I had taken it out several times at the Lumber River State Park and the Riverside (Stephens) Park in Lumberton. I paddled up stream and drifted back.
“On Sunday, I was looking to relax. I planned an afternoon trip alone, putting in at Harper’s Ferry Church (near Pembroke). I was going to paddle until I reached a bridge and then call my daughter to pick me up. I had a safety plan. I was going to call every half hour. I told her, ‘If I don’t call, call 911. I’m in trouble.’
“Right away, I realized the river is not what it was before Hurricane Matthew. There are trees in the water everywhere, and the water was high from rain. That make it challenging and fun. A couple of minutes before coming to a tree I saw an alligator. I could just see his eyes and head, but he was pretty big. I came to the tree and decided to break down my paddles in two, so it wouldn’t get caught on branches above.
“My paddle got hung on some branches, and the kayak moved sideways against the tree. I flipped into the river. I didn’t have my life vest on. Foolish I know. I will always wear it from now on. I was able to grab it before it floated away. I put it on and hung on to the handle of the kayak and floated/swam to a nearby fallen tree.
“I hung on to that tree with my arms and legs for two hours. I wouldn’t let go of the kayak, which was full of water and mostly sunk. I had put my cellphone in a baggie, but it had ripped open, and the water ruined it. I was able to get the kayak up on the tree inch by inch, and get the water out as best I could. I took off my shirt to soak up water.
“I stepped into the kayak but caught my foot on the seat straps, and it flipped over again. After two hours in the water, that’s when I prayed. ‘All things are possible through Christ,’ I said to myself. I found the strength to pull the kayak out of the water again. This time, I was able to get into the kayak.
“I paddled about 200 yards down the river and came to a tree that completely blocked the river. I paddled back. I wedged the kayak into some driftwood and decided to hang on and wait for water rescue. After an hour and a half, the sun started to go down. No rescue. There was going to be no moon that night, so it was going to be really dark.
“’Where was I? I am not going to sit on this river all night.’ I could hear motorcycles and what I thought was the 710 dragstrip. I started to paddle into the swamp. ‘All things through Christ.’ I reached a hill and dragged the kayak to a dirt road. There was a field and a white house and a young girl. I called to her: ‘Please get an adult. Please call 911!’
“The next thing I knew all sorts of people showed up. There I was without a shirt, freezing. They gave me a blanket. I had some bumps and bruises, but I’m OK. I am really still processing all this. I could have died. If I hadn’t held on to that submerged kayak, I would have died. It was cold, windy, and I was losing energy.”
One thing that Porter is certain of: “That little girl looked like an angel. I think of her as my hero.”
Mistakes were made. Not wearing a lifejacket was No. 1. Going alone was was also questionable. Porter was not familiar with the section of the river she chose to paddle and did not look at Google Maps. “That river has so many curves,” she said.
Checking changing river conditions is important also. Before Porter’s Sunday outing, the Lumber River Basin experienced very heavy rain causing the river to rise and the current to flow faster.
A call to the Lumber River State Park, which has rescued many boaters, is advisable, said Park Superintendent Neil Lee.
“After the hurricane, the entire length of the river is blocked with trees,” Lee said. “From U.S. 74 to the state line is passable, but there are many trees in the river that have to be worked around.”
The park superintendent advises trips that take paddlers upstream and back.
“Please call us and we can tailor a trip for you,” Les said. “We’ll be cutting fallen trees this summer.”
Superintendent Lee said Porter had a bit of luck going for her because the temperature of river water is around 76 degrees, higher than usual for this time of year. Any lower could have been fatal.
Porter had a good safety plan, but it failed. Not only did Porter fail to recognize the conditions, so did her friends, who did not respond when they did not get calls for several hours.
Porter credits past training as a lifeguard and kayak instructor and a never-say-die attitude.
“I plan to go kayaking again,” she said.