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Rescue in the Rapids

She was overboard in dangerous rapids. Only a heavenly angel could save her.

Heavenly angels help her!

We lounged on inner tubes, floating lazily down the river.

It was August and some coworkers had invited me along on a weekend getaway, tubing Wisconsin’s Apple River. The river’s a hugely popular tubing spot.

Already, only a few minutes after we’d entered the water, other tubers were joining our flotilla. At least 20 of us drifted in the gentle current, our tubes lashed together with thick twine. We talked, ate and drank, and watched the wooded banks glide by.

It was the first time I’d relaxed in months. All of a sudden everything had changed in my life. I’d moved to a new town in Wisconsin, gotten a new job and broken up with a guy I’d been dating for seven years. When people I worked with asked if I wanted to go tubing, I said yes. I wasn’t much of an outdoors person, but I’d been so lonely lately and this was my chance to make some new friends. I hoped I could handle the rapids.

So far all had gone well. We’d arrived Friday afternoon—and we had enough time to try a test run down the river. The weekend crowds were just trickling in so the river was calm and quiet. Even the rapids I’d worried about had turned out to be fun. They were shallow and not too fast. The tubes swooped and bounced over rocks and waves. As long as you held on you were fine.

Today was Saturday and it was like a different river. A traffic jam of tubes clogged the water. Total strangers bumped into us, and before we knew it they were tied onto our tubes like they’d known us forever.

I couldn’t help noticing one handsome guy who tied onto my tube near the back of the flotilla. He looked just about my age, mid-twenties, with dark, close-cut hair and a tank top that showed off tan, muscled arms. I tried a few times to talk to him but he didn’t seem interested in conversation. He was never rude. Just seemed to want to be by himself. I had others to talk to.

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The ride down the river lasted four hours. The rapids came just before the end. Soon, in the distance, we heard the loud rush of swirling water. “Rapids up ahead!” someone called out. “Bathroom break.”

We paddled the flotilla to a bank lined with portable toilets. I was one of the last to go, and when I came back I saw someone had taken my tube. I didn’t mind. We didn’t have far to go. I jumped onto the cooler tube, a smaller inner tube they give you at the rental shop for carrying an ice chest.

Someone had put the ice chest on their own tube so the cooler tube was free. I’m small so I fit fine. I looked for the handsome guy. He was still in his tube not far away.

We pushed back out into the river. I noticed that with so many tubes tied together we were floating much faster than we had the day before. I looked at my little cooler tube. My legs and arms hung way outside. All it would take was one good bounce on those rapids and I’d be in the water.

Small waves formed atop the current. The river bank whizzed past then rose into steep cliffs. I saw white water in the distance and felt the flotilla drift to one side, following the flow of the river. We swung around until my little tube was closest to the bank. All of a sudden I saw something large and white speeding toward me. It was some kind of plastic culvert embedded in the embankment. I gripped my tube as it struck the culvert, bending like a bicycle tire rammed into a curb. Before I knew it I was hurled into the air and landed face first in the water.

The flotilla shot down the rapids. I felt a sharp pain in my left bicep and realized somehow the twine lashing my tube to the other tubes had gotten wrapped around my arm. I was dragged through the water, slamming against rocks, unable to get my head up. The twine kept me trapped against the tube. I was in shock. I knew my body was taking a terrible beating but I couldn’t feel a thing.

I remembered the day before it had taken about 10 minutes to get through the rapids. No way could I hold my breath that long. I heaved as hard as I could and barely got my head up to take a gulp of air. Then I was slammed down again. No one, I figured, had seen me go under. They’d be looking down river.

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Don’t panic, Jennifer. If I thrashed around I’d just use up more oxygen. It doesn’t matter, I thought. I had no more strength to lift my head. I was about to suffocate. I was going to die.

Suddenly in my mind’s eye—or did I open my eyes?—I saw surrounding me a circle of faces. The faces were calm, encouraging. They didn’t say anything and I didn’t recognize any of them. But I knew they were real. I relaxed. I feared nothing.

The next moment I felt a powerful grip on my right arm and I was hauled out of the water. The dark-haired man I’d seen earlier was standing beside me, his hand clamped to my arm. He’d jumped off his tube and somehow planted his feet on the rocky bottom. My arm was still tangled in the twine.

The flotilla jerked to a halt, tugging me with unbearable force. My head went under the water. Vaguely I heard the man shouting. People began jumping off their tubes, trying to push the flotilla to shore. The man must have realized there was no time. He let go my arm, grabbed the wet twine—it was at least an inch-and-a-half thick—and ripped it apart. The flotilla spun away. The man lifted me from the water and I wrapped my arms around his neck.

“Oh, my God! Thank you!” I coughed. He sloshed his way to the riverbank and set me down. “What’s your name?” I asked. But before I could say more my new friends were around me with frightened faces. I strained to see the dark-haired man. I thought I glimpsed him walking away. Then he was gone.

I never saw the man again. I searched the shore, asked everyone on the bus back to the camping area and scoured the campground itself. No one had seen him. No one knew who he was. By that point I was feeling every one of those rocks that had bashed into me.

I lay in my tent thinking about the man. Not just because he’d saved my life. But because in some strange way that awful moment beneath the water—those calm faces, that strong grip on my arm—reassured me that no matter how lonely I might ever feel, I would never truly be alone.

That man was my guardian angel. His strong, silent strength will be with me always.

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Angels All Around Us

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