A Cold Day on the River

With California’s snow pack near 5% of average, Jens and I had kept a patient eye on river levels to catch any that came up. Staying in South Lake Tahoe, our interests were piqued when the Truckee near Floriston showed a release at it’s low range of runnable; just over 500 cfs. On April 2nd we packed up the cabin we had been renting for the winter and headed to the Truckee for a lap or two.

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Beth Jens hikes the tracks to put on for the Floriston Gorge of the Truckee River

Arriving at the Floriston exit of I-80 near the Nevada border the sun was shining but there little warmth in it. A few fishermen were coming or going from the river or catching an afternoon nap in the car. Beth and I suited up and – not having a second car for shuttle – started a short hike up river along the train tracks. We intended to run the short gorge section that contains two III/IV rapids; Jaws and Bronco. While the section is not very clean at 500 cfs – sharp rocks and concrete slabs litter the river bed – it would be good practice for anyone considering moving on to class IV.

After finishing the short, ~1/2 mile gorge, we began hiking our boats back to the car. The other cars had cleared out save for the still-dozing fisherman who we had parked behind. Beating Jens back to the car and deciding that a second lap wasn’t in the cards, I began strapping my boat to the roof. It wasn’t until after I had accidentally dropped my boat from the roof, setting off my car alarm, that it fully occurred to me that something was off about the situation. In spite having a Subaru alarm blaring only a few feet behind him, the sleeping fisherman never roused or even stirred. About this time, Beth was making her way across the parking area and looked into the fisherman’s car from a distance. “Is he okay?” she silently mouthed to me. We put our boats on the ground and decided to go check. Beth stayed by our car ready to drive us away quickly in case he woke angrily from a drug or alcohol induced sleep.

Walking to the driver’s side door of the fisherman’s car, I was calling out to ask if the man was okay, “Sir, are you all right?”. With no response, no movement, I leaned down to the driver’s side window. I took in the scene in sequence: his head slumped to the right, eyes closed; a bit of blood on the tip of his nose; the large beer can held between his legs; the revolver cradled in both hands.

I could almost feel the ‘click’ as my brain switched from a scenario of dealing with a potentially ill person to dealing with a suicide victim.

I stepped away from the car. Beth was watching on, concerned. I told her to get her phone and walk away from the cars. While it was fairly evident what had occurred – a man had driven to river, had a beer while looking out over the water, then taken his life – there was still some uncertainty about the situation. From the perspective of driver’s window in which I had leaned, even being so close to him, a bullet wound was not clearly evident. Therefore I saw two possibilities: the man was dead and there was nothing we could do; or he was gravely injured, yet still armed, so potentially dangerous. I explained what I had seen to Beth as we walked up the hill, away from the cars, and called the cops.

The cops arrived shortly and confirmed what we had assumed. After getting a few pieces of information from us, we were left to pack our car and head home. There was a strange dichotomy about the situation; the pedestrian task of strapping kayaks to a car juxtaposed with police combing the scene of a shooting suicide.

Lying in bed that night I could feel how the experience had began to form in my memory. During the situation, it felt that everything had occurred and been assessed in an objective fashion : sleeping person, don’t bother them, hike to river, kayaking, avoid that piece of concrete, hike to car, person still sleeping, pack car, potentially sick person, provide help, gun, danger, safe distance, suicide victim, call authorities. However, as it started to settle in my mind, details began to stand out and it took on a more subjective nature. The way his head was tilted to the right and slightly forward, eyes shut, no different from someone sleeping during a flight; the deep lines of his face; the 22oz can of beer; the gun resting pointed at the driver’s window so that, while standing there, you could see the unspent rounds in the cylinder; the view looking out his windshield onto the river.