As Josh Hubbard intently studies a video of his first descents of rivers in Colorado and Belize—taking wild lines through narrow, rocky gullies, or going straight over daunting waterfalls—a faraway look fills his dark eyes, a grin tugs at the corners of his mouth. There’s little doubt he’d rather be on the water than here in his living room.
Hubbard draws closer to the screen as the Colorado footage comes on. “This shows you what I do, and why people think I’m crazy,” he explains, as he watches himself hurtle down a craggy 30-foot chute, nearly buried in churning water. “Tight, steep creeks—that’s what I love.”
Hubbard’s love of rough water springs from his youth. “As a kid, I was floating sticks on a creek, and just went from a stick to a boat,” says the Washington, D.C., native, who began canoeing with the Boy Scouts at 12 and quickly graduated to kayaks at 14. Today, at 39, Hubbard has earned a solid reputation in whitewater circles as a bold, powerful paddler, as well as a thorough and capable rafting guide.
The home Hubbard shares with his wife, Sherry, and their hyper but lovable Chesapeake Bay retriever, Rapid, sits near the banks of the Tygart River in a tiny town called Arden in northeastern West Virginia. There are paddles on the wall, stacks of paddling magazines by the sofa, paddling videos piled by the television. The place is a shrine to whitewater. Which is eerie, considering the Tygart River nearly took Hubbard’s life.
Morning broke raw and wintry on March 31, 1984. Josh Hubbard, his older brother David, and younger siblings Zach and Sarah were set to guide a rafting trip down the Tygart River Gorge. Good friend Steve Ware was leading his first commercial trip for Rough Run Outfitters, a company once housed in the same building that Hubbard now uses for his home and business—Tygart River Enterprises. There were three rafts on the trip: one was set aside for guides in training, the other two occupied by guests of the American Whitewater Association. Josh was paddling safety kayak, responsible for collecting any rafters who might be jettisoned in the rough water. Although only 23 at the time, he had already been paddling for a decade, and was comfortable in this watchdog role.
Zach recalls the cold air, and his reservations about how warm the wetsuit-and-wool sweater combination of the day would keep them. But the water was running high on this tight, twisting river—about 8 feet on the Belington Gauge and rising. And, in the hardy tradition of river runners, no one was going to let a few snow flurries and cold water keep them from paddling.
Not long into the trip, at Keyhole Falls, about 20 miles upstream from Arden, one of the rafts flipped. Nothing serious, but in water measuring between 38 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit, precaution is paramount. So everyone made their way to shore to dry off and warm up—everyone but Josh. When the lunch cooler and a few pieces of gear from the flipped raft floated downstream, the watchdog took off to retrieve everything. About a quarter mile downstream, he came to a rugged spot of whitewater dubbed Hard Tongue Falls. Hubbard assessed the usual line, or route, which was on the left side of the river, and decided it looked “a little hairy.” Instead, he paddled to the right.
“I’m by myself, so I figure I shouldn’t run the line I normally would run,” he remembers. “I went scouting for an easier way over the ledge. I found a slot that looked like it was all right, dropped over it—and that’s where I pinned vertically.”
For reasons he can’t explain, Hubbard chose to ease over the seven-foot drop, instead of punching the kayak forward. “If I had gone over with some speed, I wouldn’t have gotten pinned,” he says. Instead, in an instant, the nose of Hubbard’s kayak—a 13-foot, 4-inch boat whose longer size was typical of the mid-1980s—jammed behind a large rock he hadn’t noticed when preparing his line, leaving the boat stuck upright at a 45-degree angle, his body suspended over the river. The river was running at about 2,500 cubic feet per second (CFS). For perspective, a basketball holds a cubic foot of water; Hubbard now had the equivalent of 2,500 basketballs buffeting his boat and body every second. “The force of the water is what kept the boat pinned,” he explains. “For a few seconds, I had an air pocket. The water was crashing over my head, and I tried shaking the kayak loose, moving my hips, trying to pull it up with the paddle.”
Hubbard’s movements had just the opposite effect, wedging the kayak deeper behind the rock. Failing to dislodge the boat, he knew he had to get out—and he couldn’t. “I pulled the skirt and pushed my butt out, thinking I’d roll right out of the boat. But the force of the water grabbed my body at that point, and my knees got locked in the cockpit. I got out to where the cockpit rim was right across my knees, and then the force of the water hyperextended my knees about 90 degrees.”
As Hubbard reflects, an ironic smile crosses his face. He knows today’s whitewater kayaks, typically shorter than 9 feet, would probably never pin in the same scenario. And even if they did, the newer, wider cockpits would allow much easier exit (see sidebar). Hubbard’s kayak was designed with a breakaway cockpit, specifically so paddlers could escape in this type of event. “I remember the pain, but it wasn’t uppermost in my mind at that point,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Come on, cockpit, break away.’ But it never did. I couldn’t do anything. I was stuck there. I couldn’t reach anything with my hands, couldn’t touch the boat, couldn’t touch any rocks, couldn’t get a hold of anything.
“I was never afraid. I was concerned about getting out of the situation, and thinking about that, I was still praying for that cockpit to break away,” says Hubbard. “Then I can remember the lifejacket getting ripped off my body by the force of the water—it just got peeled off me. Then my spray skirt got peeled off me. Then it just dawned on me: ‘I’m not going to get out of this.’ ”
Hubbard twice tried to breathe, but “my body wouldn’t let me. The third time, I sucked in water big time.”
“I don’t have any ‘lights at the end of the tunnel’ type of memories. I remember that it didn’t feel like an end. I remember a peacefulness. My last conscious thought was sticking my hand out of the water ... waving good-bye to the world.”
In most instances, drowning victims suffocate when water fills their lungs. The loss of oxygen leads to traumatic brain injury and heart failure. But as Hubbard’s body overrode its own reluctance to breathe, it was also reacting to protect itself by using the oxygen it already had. In all likelihood, Hubbard benefited from a little-known physiological phenomenon called the “mammalian diving reflex.”
Cold can kill. Exposure to chilly water is a physiological insult, instantly triggering the body’s hormonal “fight or flight” system—the heart races, breathing becomes more rapid and deeper. Normally, as the body’s core temperature drops below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the heart begins to beat irregularly and blood pressure drops. But extremely cold water can be either a blessing or a curse, says Dr. Douglas Connor, an emergency room physician at Concord Hospital in Concord, New Hampshire, and owner of a fishing boat in Alaska. Exposure to near-freezing waters can deliver a fatal shock to the system, or it can protect the body by triggering a “mammalian diving reflex” in some people. This reflex, most often found in seals and other lower mammals, can put the body in a state of suspended animation, essentially protecting the brain and heart at the expense of the rest of the body.
Though not fully understood by scientists, the mammalian diving reflex is believed to stimulate the vagal nervous system—which controls the lungs, heart, larynx, and esophagus—in order to protect vital organs. “What we think happens for some people is this: you go into cold water, and that stimulates nerve receptors on the skin, and with that stimulation you have shunting of blood to the brain and to the heart, and away from the skin, away from the gastro-intestinal tract, away from the extremities,” says Connor. “It is also thought that there is a protective reflex bradycardia, or slowing down of the heart.”
Apparently, this reflex isn’t expressed the same in all people, says Connor, and it’s believed to be a factor in only 10 to 20 percent of cold-water immersion cases. However, those who do have it are capable of miraculous recoveries. “If you survive the sudden immersion in cold water, and you’re one of the 10 to 20 percent of the people thought to have the reflex, then your chances of survival are increased,” Connor says.
The reason the reflex is such an enigma, says Connor, is that “you can’t test it.” In a barbaric twist, the most detailed research on cold-water drowning and immersion hypothermia came out of the Dachau concentration camp. There, Nazi scientists subjected their victims to immersion in cold-water tanks, says Connor, meticulously recording what happened as the body temperature lowered and the victims eventually died.
While Josh Hubbard’s core body temperature plummeted below 90 degrees, and he slowly slipped from consciousness, up river his brother Zach sensed something was terribly amiss. Suddenly struck by a feeling arguably as mysterious as the mammalian diving reflex, Zach asked if anyone had seen his brother. Since no one had, Zach started walking quickly along the railroad tracks that run high beside the river.
“First I saw his lifejacket and paddle floating away,” says Zach. “Then I saw the back of his kayak sticking out of the water, and his hand sticking up.” From his spot 50 feet above the river, Zach threw a rope to his brother, just as Josh’s hand slipped underwater. After scrambling down the gravel bank, Zach jumped to a rock alongside Josh’s kayak, which was less than five feet from the river's edge. He grabbed the stern of the kayak to right it, but it wouldn’t budge. And the thundering current prevented him from reaching Josh, still trapped inside the cockpit.
Zach ran for help, his shouts drawing the attention of Ware and David Hubbard. The three were able to fight the river’s current and yank Josh from the kayak. He had no pulse and wasn’t breathing. They estimate that he was underwater for at least 10 minutes, and possibly more than 15.
“I wasn’t breathing, so I guess that means I was dead,” says Josh today. “I say I drowned, but other people say I didn’t because I’m alive. But I was dead at that point.”
Ware and David Hubbard immediately began to administer CPR. About a full minute later, Josh coughed, spit up, and started breathing again.
“It was just such a relief to see him breathing,” says Ware. “Once he was breathing, we knew he’d be all right. Obviously, he was in a lot of pain, but the first conscious thing he did was ask about his boat. The boat wasn’t very old, and he hadn’t had it very long. And I promised him right on the spot that I would take care of his boat.”
Once Josh was revived, Zach was dispatched to find a phone. Within an hour Josh was making the painful journey via all-terrain ambulance to Alderson-Broaddus Hospital in Philippi. He arrived at the Intensive Care Unit severely hypothermic, and took “nearly a week to get warm,” he recalls. The ligaments in his knees were destroyed, and both of his legs were placed in casts. In the years since, he has had several major operations on both knees, and deals with permanent nerve damage to his feet. The accident also wiped out Josh’s childhood memories. Though he recognizes people and places, and has command of learned skills such as vocabulary and math, his memories prior to March 1984 are forever lost. He’s not complaining. “It was the beginning of the life I have now,” he says. “And I love my life.”
“I was saved by a miracle, and that the people I was with knew how to do CPR,” says Hubbard. “They knew what to do. If they didn’t know what to do, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Hubbard’s survival may have also been aided by the almost fetal position that the hard-charging waters of the Tygart forced him into. By being bent over at a right angle, he inadvertently assumed the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) position advocated by the Coast Guard for people who find themselves in frigid waters. The position, with arms crossed and knees drawn to the chest, is designed to minimize heat loss.
But there is no doubt that the knowledge of his companions saved him. Steve Ware, who was also 23 at the time of Josh’s accident, is now a school teacher and emergency medical technician (EMT). Still an avid paddler, Ware has developed an abiding commitment to safety. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t expect CPR to be a miracle,’” he says. “It’s not going to work all the time. But if it works once, it’s worth it. So try it.”
Connor also cautions against making premature judgments on someone’s ability to survive, regardless of how hopeless a drowning situation may appear. The longest survival after submersion on record is a young boy from Minnesota, who spent 55 minutes under the ice.
“No decision should be made until the patient is euthermic, meaning their body temperature is brought up to 90 degrees,” Connor says. “No patient is declared dead until they’re warm and dead. We don’t declare them dead when they’re cold.”
Everyone on the Tygart River that day says Josh’s accident humbled them, and they have a greater respect for the power of the river. Still, there’s no place Hubbard would rather be than in his boat, paddle in hand. “The fact that I went through this is the reason I still do what I do,” he says. “I love the river.”
When he’s not working on the water, guiding for his own rafting business or other outfitters, he says he’s “out there anyway to play.” His brother Zach, who now calls Colorado home, has spent the years since the accident traveling throughout the country, following the whitewater client trail. Josh jokes that the two call themselves “migrant wave workers.”
But he does note that his brush with death has “probably made me more cautious.” For example, on their first descent of Lake Creek in Colorado, Josh and Zach opted for inflatable kayaks, which are more flexible and better suited for quick exits. And he recalls a guide in Belize, “about 18, young and fearless, and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to be like that again.’ There’s fear there now. I know I’m not bulletproof anymore.”
Bulletproof or not, it’s clear that Hubbard is inexorably drawn to whitewater. Asked to describe that pull, Hubbard nods and smiles. “Water is life,” he says, with a shrug that conveys that paddling is as much a part of his fiber as breathing. “And you only live once—unless you’re lucky.”
—Boston-based writer Brion O’Connor has developed a healthy respect for
whitewater, and whitewater paddlers, since interviewing the Hubbards.