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March 13, 2006

Last Run — Near Life

Have any of you ever known it was the last run? Not the last run of the day or even the last run of the year. But truly the last run you’ll ever make. I have had that privilege.

It was in late September, a little over six months after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). My muscles had started to weaken and there was the constant cramping to deal with. I had mostly been concerned with what might happen if I put someone else in jeopardy. So I had been out of the water for nearly a year. But after a fair amount of coaxing and the promised use of a duckie, I thought what the heck lets give it one more try. After all it was the Mongaup. In basketball terms it was a slam dunk on the home court.

So a small but selective team was put together. Roger, Tom, and Dave were there for me. All were strong paddlers, all strong man, all good guys. I just had one proviso. If by some chance I got in a precarious situation they had to promise to not put themselves in jeopardy. With that agreement made, off we went.

On the way down to the put-in I was already showing some of the impact of my disease. As I clumsily made my way into the duckie I made a casual remark to a stranger about how I used to be pretty good at this. He replied with: "We all are getting a little older." Honestly my first reaction was to think about jabbing him with my paddle. But instead I just realized the humor in the situation.

So off we went. I have to admit to a little trepidation when we hit the first rapid. After sailing through it without any problems I started to relax. Soon I was starting to feel like my old self. Moves would soon come back to me. I even went so far as to entertain the possibility of another run on a more difficult river. Well, that thought was soon to be extinguished.

The day was beautiful. The company was simply the best. Everything was right. Onward we paddled, laughing together, not a care in the world.

As we came upon the last long set of rapids I was really starting to feel my oats. So what the heck. I thought I should try a little surfing. As I slipped onto the wave everything felt perfect. Back and forth I rode. The hoots from my companions spurred me onward. I leaned forward to gain a little speed and then started to lean back to slow down a bit. Next thing I knew I was staring at the sky. I was incapable of righting myself. My abdominal muscles had become too weak. But I was still surfing. I stayed that way for quite some time. My pals probably thought that I was just trying to [lamely] show off. Finally I figured I better try and get off the wave. Much to my surprise I was able to slide off safely; but I still was lying flat on my back. To top it all off I couldn’t help laughing hysterically.

Between the sounds of the rapids and my hysterical laughter, my paddling partners did not initially grasp what was going on. When they did they rushed to my side. Tom quickly tried to help me into an upright position. Unfortunately I could not help him in the least. As he struggled in vain it was not long before I rolled out of the duckie.

Now the three of them were truly worried. When I finally popped my head through the surface I still could not keep from hysterical laughter. Roger was quickly there for me to hold onto his boat. Only I was no longer strong enough to hang on. Dave had righted the duckie and was calling for me to climb in. As he reached across the duckie to grab onto me Roger and Tom tried to lift me into the boat. They must now know how the handlers at Sea World feel when they try and move Shamu around.

On down through the rapids we went. Three very determined guys trying to save a friend. While they were probably not quite sure if the friend had gone insane. At least his laughter would have indicated so.

As I said, three strong paddlers, all strong man, all good guys. They would not quit until they got me back into the duckie. They ultimately got me into the boat and even managed to get me into a proper paddling position. Unfortunately only a handful of strokes were left and we were at the take-out.

My encounter with reality was not quite over yet. To get to the parking lot from the take-out requires a short uphill climb. I was on all fours like a baby with someone pushing my butt the whole way. And there was still that infernal laughter.

I referred to this experience as a privilege and it truly was. Upon hearing the story, Dave’s brother referred to it as a "near life" experience. I very much like this description. To have experienced just a little bit more of life’s goodness with wonderful people, even knowing it was the last time I would ever do so, was truly a privilege.

My sincere thanks to this superb group and to anyone who has ever shared life on the river with me.

Tom Masters



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Tom Master’s Last Run