Kayaker’s life turned upside down
May 27, 2008
A friend peered over the waterfall and spotted Hanna Farrar wading in the water, her kayak floating nearby. He yelled out to her, then tapped his helmet – the universal symbol for “Are you OK?”The Carbondale kayaker shook her head. Moments later, when the group’s guide, Scott, glanced up river, Farrar pointed toward her feet. Then, she made a breaking motion with both hands.”It’s actually funny because it didn’t hurt,” the Dartmouth College junior and U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team member said Monday. “But when I looked down, I said ‘Oh no, this isn’t good.'” It was noon on March 19. Farrar and six others were nearly a week into a Spring Break trip chasing whitewater in North Carolina. Farrar had seen footage of the Class IV and V rapids on the Green River’s famed Narrows and was eager to run them.As the group idled in the water surveying a seemingly innocuous 12-foot drop, she finally had her chance.Two people pushed off – maybe three – before Farrar peeled out of the eddy and approached the waterfall. As she paddled, Farrar drifted to the right, veering from the planned line.
It didn’t take long to realize something was awry. As she approached the lip, Farrar’s boat began to tip forward – “like going over the handlebars, if you can imagine,” the 21-year-old Colorado Rocky Mountain School graduate said. She figured she would just pencil into the pool below. She had no idea a large rock was lurking on the right side. “Usually when you land on a rock off a waterfall, your boat dents in and takes some of the force,” Farrar said. “I’m not sure what I think may have happened. Because I was tipping over forward onto my head almost, I didn’t hit the rock with the bottom [of my boat]. I hit it more toward the top. … There’s a seam along the top of the bow, and I’m guessing it was the strongest part of the boat.” Farrar’s kayak didn’t give. She remembers striking the rock and feeling both ankles instantly buckle under the force as she landed upside down. Farrar pulled her skirt and swam out of the kayak. She pushed her boat into a calm current and dragged herself onto some nearby rocks. Reality sunk in as Farrar surveyed both feet. The left appeared to be intact, but the right ankle was dislocated and her foot was pointing outward. Those nearby, including a few boaters not in the group, rushed to Farrar and helped pull her up a steep, rock-strewn embankment and out of the water. As the group idled in the remote gorge, they contemplated their next move. Boating the river’s final stretch was out of the question. Farrar, figuring her left ankle was only sprained, tried to limp up the embankment.”I felt the bone give out right away,” she said.They decided to put Farrar back in the water, guide her around a rock outcropping and to a point where the river met up with a trail. The struggles were just beginning.
While a few boaters continued downstream to pick up a truck and drive it to the trailhead, others began the painstaking process of transporting Farrar. She was placed in a boat and initially carried.Because the trail was uneven – and almost vertical in spots – the group concocted a pulley system in the trees. They pulled her 10 to 15 feet at a time before resetting the ropes and repeating the process.Persistent rain and mud “added insult to injury,” Farrar joked.”The people who I was with were absolutely amazing,” she added. “It was much harder for them than me, despite anything they’ll say to refute that. It was really physically and mentally demanding work. “All I had to do was ignore my foot.” Easier said than done, to be sure, but Scott had a temporary solution. One hour into the ordeal, he offered Farrar a shot of vodka – something he carried in his first-aid kit ever since he spent a cold night out in the New Zealand wilderness, Farrar said.She was happy to accept.For more than five hours, the group dragged Farrar foot by foot through the woods. Mercifully, the group’s truck rounded into view by late afternoon. From there, Scott and Farrar took the 45-minute ride to Mission Hospital in Asheville, in the western part of the state. She said she was able to block out the pain during much of the ordeal, in large part because she knew the process would be a “long haul.” The discomfort finally began to set in, however, on the streets of downtown Asheville. “The anticipation of getting to the hospital set in,” she remembered. “I was ready to get there. … Those were the longest stop lights I’ve ever been at in my life.”Soon after her arrival, Farrar had a friend use her cell phone to call home.
“It’s funny hearing my mom’s side – she was freaked out,” Farrar said. “She picked up thinking it was me, and it took a few seconds to set in that my friend was calling, which meant I couldn’t use my phone for some reason. Obviously, it was better than her worst nightmare.”Cathie Farrar then called Hanna’s father.”It was certainly a shock,” Davis Farrar said Tuesday. “When I heard Hanna had an accident, it really got the adrenaline going.”X-rays revealed breaks in both ankles, but more severe damage to the right side. On the right, she broke both the talus and tibia, and a nerve was bent precariously over bone fragments. Doctors put the right ankle back in its socket and splinted both.Thursday morning – after a night in which Farrar routinely fell asleep and subconsciously tried to roll over using her right foot, which caused her to writhe in pain – she went to surgery.Six screws were inserted into the right ankle and three in the left. In addition, an external fixator attached by two pins in the foot, one in the shin and one through the heel helped stabilize her right foot.Cathie Farrar arrived Thursday night.”I was doing well at that point and had recovered from most of the surgery,” Hanna Farrar said. “She was exhausted, but was glad to see I was doing well.”Farrar spent 10 days in the hospital, learning to manage her pain and use a wheelchair. During that time, she and her parents weighed the pros and cons of heading home versus returning to school. “I was thinking that if she was back at school, she’d have her mind preoccupied with doing things other than thinking about her ankles,” Davis Farrar said. “I was pretty much an advocate for her staying at school. Cathie certainly had mixed feelings, but I think it was the right decision. Hanna will back me up on that.”Davis Farrar arrived in North Carolina little more than a week after the accident. A few days later, the family rented a car and headed for Dartmouth. Hanna arrived about one week after the spring semester resumed. The learning continues both in and out of the classroom as Farrar adjusts to life on two wheels.
“Learning to be patient has been the toughest part,” she said. “I’ve always been a person who doesn’t like to rely on other people, so I’m getting used to asking for help.”Farrar insists she has been so busy with class work that she rarely thinks about kayaking. That undoubtedly will change this summer. Farrar plans to fly back to Colorado on Saturday, then begins summer premed classes at the University of Colorado on June 2. She’ll be living with brother Matt in Boulder. “I’m sure my brother will be going kayaking a lot, and that will be tough being around people and places I associate with kayaking,” Farrar said. “This is the first spring I’ve really been out of my boat in a long time.”While her left ankle is healing, Farrar’s right has not yet showed signs of growth. “We still have our fingers crossed that Mother Nature will do what’s supposed to happen,” said Davis Farrar. Doctors cautioned that a full recovery could take up to nine months. The external fixator was removed two weeks ago, and Hanna Farrar now wears two air casts. She’s hoping to be on crutches in the next month. When she’s back on the water is up in the air, however. In the wake of her first major injury, Farrar said she expects things to be different once she does paddle again.”I’ll probably be a little more cautious,” she added. “We’ll see how much extreme kayaking I do in the future.”That decision will be up to her, Davis Farrar said.”I thought kayaking was a lot safer than skiing, but I’m beginning to wonder what is safe. I told Hanna that if she took up extreme knitting, she’d poke her eye out,” he added. “I have great confidence in Hanna. … Both my kids are very skilled athletes, and I think they have pretty good judgment. “I just hope everything they do is calculated, and they know what they’re up against.”email@example.com