Three weeks ago, South Lake Tahoe resident Elys Clark almost drowned in the Upper Truckee River. Two weeks later, a Minden woman died after falling from her paddleboard in the river — and Clark decided it was time to speak up.
“My partner and I were both wearing life vests or I wouldn’t be telling this,” Clark wrote in a harrowing Reddit post where she recounted her near-death experience. “I experienced what (I learned later) is called cold water shock. BAM — excruciating, stabbing, full body pain and immediate, involuntary gasping for air that drew in water, as my head kept going under because of the suction vortex that seemed to have formed at depth around the debris.”
Clark, 50, has been kayaking for more than 30 years and has regularly kayaked the Upper Truckee River — which she can see from her house — for the last five years. She describes herself as a strong swimmer. But with the river level higher than normal and running faster than most are used to, navigating the Upper Truckee proved to be a dangerous endeavor for Clark and her husband.
On May 28, the couple carried their tandem sit-on-top kayak from their house down to the river. Partway through their paddle the kayak hit debris that was concealed by the water and sent the two tumbling out of the boat.
“We’ve had that kayak almost nine years and we’ve tipped it three times total,” Clark later told the Tahoe Daily Tribune. “When we fell out my head went under and I experienced the most amazing physical shock — and I’ve fallen off horses and been in a car accident.
“My whole body just felt like it was burning. All I could do was gasp for air.”
Despite wearing a life vest, an underwater current kept pulling Clark beneath the surface until she finally felt a solid piece of debris under her foot.
“I pushed off of it toward the shore. By the time I was able to do that I had lost control of my limbs. I could not make my arms or legs move,” explained Clark.
Finally out of the main channel, Clark let the current push her over near the bank where she spotted a root coming out of the ground.
“It took all of my willpower to reach that little root and grasp onto it,” said Clark.
Jamming her elbows into the bank, Clark wiggled just enough of her body onto the bank so the current wouldn’t drag her back in — it was all she could muster.
“I just laid there gasping for air. I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. My vision went gray a few times, but I couldn’t stop,” said Clark. “The whole experience lasted maybe five to eight minutes, but it felt like an eternity. It’s as close to helpless as I’ve been in my whole life.”
Her husband’s experience was a little less extreme, but traumatic nonetheless.
Clark’s husband fell out of the boat and instead of being pulled under was shot forward by the current. He landed on a jammed log along with the kayak. He was able to get back in the kayak and find Clark where she was lying on the bank.
The two sat on the shore for 45 minutes recuperating from the experience.
When they got back to the house, Clark walked down to the river with a pool thermometer. The water was 43 degrees.
“Looking out at the river from my house, I see all of these people on SUPs and kayaks with nothing on but their bathing suits. It scares me,” said Clark, who now has extra life vests out on her deck just in case.
It was the death of 49-year-old Stephanie Waggoner on the Upper Truckee River that pushed Clark to come forward with her warning tale.
Waggoner, an experienced paddleboarder, fell into the river when her board hit debris on June 7. Though she was wearing a life vest, she was tethered to her board, which became hooked to a log. The leash dragged her underwater. Waggoner, a resident of Minden, succumbed to her injuries while in the hospital two days later. The official cause of death was drowning.
South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Tim Spencer told the Tribune at the time people should think twice before heading out on the river right now.
“You have to be super, super careful … this time of year we have extremely cold water and very high flow rates.”