Mrs. Frederick Arnold and the River Rapids

Mrs. Frederick Arnold and the River Rapids Gold Watchman | Oil on Hardboard | Rod Jones Artist

Mrs. Frederick Arnold and the River Rapids: Mary Arnold hung her wet washboard upon the wall of the wash house. Her weekly washing routine was done, including putting up the laundry on the sagging cotton clothesline, which she would have to prop up with notched wooden boards. The worst part of laundry day was carrying a nearly full washtub out to dump the dirty water. There was a small garden at the back of the washhouse. The heavy tub required the help of her husband, Frederick. Mary always washed on Thursdays. She was superstitious about Wednesdays. She was told many times by her mother that she should never wash on Wednesdays. It was horrible bad luck to do so.

Mary lived with her husband and their one child, a boy named Jeffrey. Their home was partially an old log home with some additions that were made out of milled would. It sat near the banks of the Trinity River in northern California. Their home rested far enough away from the river so that they never really had to worry about flooding when the river rose after the spring snowmelt. It was, however, close enough to use when they needed to cross the river and go into town for supplies. They had a small boat with paddles to get across. Frederick ran a rope across the river so instead of paddling, if the water was calm enough, they could just pull themselves safely across the river to the other bank.

Mary and her husband Frederick and their son Jeffrey had been living in that home for close to six years. They were living off a small inheritance that Frederick received when his grandfather passed away. Mary did not necessarily like the idea of living on the other side of the river. It was terribly remote. There were no roads, and there were no neighbors. It was pretty isolating, especially for their boy Jeff who was pretty much homeschooled by Mary. On rare occasions, some people would come out to that part of the river and go fishing. Most of them knew Mary and Frederick. They would often ask to come over on the boat to chat about what was going on in town, etc. The wives usually came with their fishing husbands, and they often brought their children and picnic baskets. It would take, sometimes, five or more trips to get everybody over to their home. Mary absolutely loved it when she could entertain all of these friends. Unfortunately, it mainly occurred during the summer months. Winters could be pretty bleak, although they did not experience much snow, if at all.

The side of the river where Mary and Frederick lived had many wild animals in the area. Sometimes when Mary would go out to retrieve the wash she had just hung on the line, she would run into a mountain lion. Quietly she would try to call for Frederick to get his gun and chase the unwelcome guest away. It seemed to her that most of the animals were pretty understanding of them being neighborly with all of them. Mary made sure there was fresh water and sometimes food for them to eat. Although Frederick would laugh at her and say, “These animals can go down to the river and drink, and there’s plenty of food for them to eat in the forest around them.” Mary still practiced giving them water and scraps of food. After all, she thought she was just being a good friend to the animals.

Mary grew up in Douglas City, one of those towns along the river, where anglers would fish for steelhead and salmon and others would pan for gold along the river banks. That’s where she met Frederick. Mary worked part-time at the hardware store where people from out of town picked up fishing gear or additional stuff they needed to augment their existing fishing equipment. Mary was barely 20, and Frederick was close to 30. But for whatever reason, they fell in love and married. Mary always thought it was strange for a man to have two first names as a proper name. One day she decided to query him about his name, “how is it you are named Frederick Arnold?” 

“Well, Mary, my dear, that name, at least my last name, goes back many generations. Most of my family lived in Louisiana. The earliest of them came from Germany. I had an uncle who was named Frederick, and my mom apparently thought that would be a good name for me.” Mary replied laughingly, “well, your name would make a great title for a story about me, you know, Mrs. Frederick Arnold.”

It was Friday morning, the day after wash day. The skies were partly cloudy, and off to the West, the clouds were becoming eerily dark. Mary was thinking she really wanted to go into town. Her main excuse for that journey was that they were running out of flour for baking bread. After lunch, she told Frederick that she and Jeffrey would cross the river and go into town. After crossing the river, it required a 30-minute walk to get to the store. Mary made sure that she and Jeff had heavy coats with them. She knew when the clouds built up, especially towards the Northwest, the temperatures could drop quickly.

The river was starting to rise, and then all of a sudden, it would drop again. Mary had witnessed this before, but generally, Frederick told her, “it shouldn’t be a problem. The water must be getting held up upstream.” The one thing Mary and Frederick did not know was the fact that there was a major landslide a couple miles up the river. And the rushing water was eating away at the mud, which also had debris mixed in with it. This was causing the water to become more turbulent, and certainly, it wasn’t going to be the usual easy task of crossing the river along the rope line. Before they got into the boat, Mary started to have an unsettling feeling inside. She asked Jeffrey, “what you think? Should we go into town?” Jeffrey was barely 12 years old. And of course, he wanted to go into town just to see some people and maybe, his mom would buy him some candy. Jeffrey did his best to encourage his mom by saying, “it’ll be okay, we have crossed when it was much more turbulent than this, and you and I managed it just fine.” Mary wanted to reply to Jeffrey by saying. “Yeah, but your father was with us.” But she decided to keep quiet on the subject, as not to make Jeffrey frightened.

Mary put her shopping baskets in the boat. Jeff jumped in and made sure that the oars were secure if needed. Mary looked up into the sky and said to Jeff, “it’s really starting to get dark. I wonder if it’s going to rain? That’s all we need is to get all wet trying to carry the groceries back to the boat.” Jeff, with a grin on his face, said, “don’t worry, mom, I have a couple of umbrellas underneath the rear seat.” For some reason, that did not seem to give Mary much comfort. She was becoming a little more concerned as the river started to look to her like it was getting turbulent. She knew if they could not hang onto the rope, they would be heading down the river in that rushing water. She also knew that downriver from them could get rocky and narrow, not the best place for a woman and her young son in a small wooden boat.

Mary and Jeffrey got into the boat, and off in the distance, they could see Frederick his waving hands, but they both mistook that for him waving goodbye. Which in actuality, he was telling them to come back and don’t risk crossing the river. Frederick was yelling to them not to go, but the raging water was drowning out the sound of his voice. Mary and Jeff waved, and then they started their journey across the river. They were about halfway. Mary was feeling quite confident that they would have no problem. But then disaster happened. The rope they were pulling themselves across the river with broke. It not only snapped in one place, but it seemed to break up in two or three places, almost as if it were disintegrating because it was getting old and rotten.

Mary not wanting to scare Jeffrey, even though she was deathly frightened herself. Told her son, “well, I guess we’re going to have to row it across this time.” The water was starting to turn the boat sideways. The unstable water with its short-lived eddies seemed to become more turbulent. The water began to lose its typical green color and became more and more grayish white. The boat was turned around. The stern of the boat was facing downriver. Mary was trying to turn it around with both oars in the water, so at least the bow was facing the direction they wanted to go and most assuredly to the shore. Mary did not care which shore, as long as they could get out of the water that was starting to act like turbulent rapids. 

It got worse! The boat started to heave up and down. First, the bow went up, and then it came crashing down, creating the opportunity for water to splash inside. Mary looked down at the floor of the boat, which had a wooden slatted deck board, to make it even to walk on. The water was starting to breach the top of those boards. It was all she could do to hang on to the boat oars. The boat’s bow hit the crest of one of the undulating turbulent rapids, and a major splash of water hit her right in the face and actually knocked her hat off. By this time, when she looked over at Jeffrey, she could tell he was as white as a sheep and very frightened. She yelled over the sound of the raging river and told him, “hang on, it’s going to be okay. I’m going to try to get us to the shore. Once we get past this rocky section, it should calm down; it will be okay.” Mary was praying for the safety of her son.

Back on the shore, Frederick could see his wife and son were being swept down the river. He didn’t exactly know what he could do. They didn’t have a second boat for him to chase them with. But he did grab the first aid kit and a couple coils of rope, then started to head down the river running as fast as he could through the undergrowth, hoping that he could catch up with them. The worse part of the whole thing was where they lived. There were no telephone lines, so they had no phone. For power, they relied upon a generator which more often than not didn’t work all that well.

By this time, Mary lost most of the control over the boat. It would ride up one turbulent then crashed down into a small one causing water to splash over them, and what made it especially worse, the water was starting to fill up the boat. The boat began to list to the starboard side. Mary shifted her weight and told her son to move over to the other side of the boat. Hoping that it would level out. And luckily, it finally did. But then, all of a sudden, it was leaning heavily in the other direction causing more water to flow into the boat. They both could feel rocks slamming into the bow of the boat and then dragging down along the bottom. The scraping sound was intensified by the magnification of the boat’s wooden hull.

By this time, panic started to set into both of them. Jeffrey was close to tears, and Mary was literally scared that they might not make it. Then the boat turned sideways and hit a rock, cracking one of the wood benches in the boat. She instinctively knew that wasn’t a good sign because the boat’s integrity was becoming compromised by the repeated banging into rocks. The boat was being rushed down the river by the racing current. Slamming into a rock that was sloped on one side like a launching ramp, it because airborne. The boat shot up into the air, pushed by an extremely large turbulent rapid. It went high enough to where you could almost not hear the rapids below. It was so quiet at the peak before the descent, Mary thought she could hear birds singing in the trees. Mary knew that it was going to come down hard. She yelled to Jeffrey. “hang on! Hang on! Hang on!” She kept repeating, hoping that Jeffrey could hear her.

The river was raging out of control. And the sound was deafening. People that deliberately ride down rapids often make the comparison, it sounds like a freight train, and you’re right in the middle of it. Now they were right in the worst part of the river. The boulders were large, at least the ones you can see. Most of the other ones were just below the water surface but high enough to tear up the boat. The sides of the river turned into rock walls that went up 10 to 15 feet or more. It was getting narrower and narrower. The poor little boat was being hit from all angles. It was becoming waterlogged, which meant it could sink at any moment.

Then it happened. The boat literally split in half. Mary on one side Jeffrey on the other, she told him. “Take off your heavy coat; you won’t be able to swim with that on.” While she was yanking hers off. Into the cold icy water, they both went. Pieces of the crumbling boat were swirling around them. Mary grabbed Jeffrey by the collar of his shirt and then through her arm across and around his chest. His shirt was starting to tear where she first grabbed it. She wanted to make sure that she could keep his head above water, if at all possible, so he could breathe. They were gliding over the rocks like on some tormenting magical slide. But every once in a while, they were slammed into a rock that would hit them hard. The most brutal one, Mary, hit with her knee. She thought she felt it crack. The pain was excruciating. But all she could think of was trying to navigate them over to one of the shores. The turbulence started to subside, and it was almost becoming somewhat calm. But it still was raging dangerously. Mary and Jeff were gasping for air because they both kept being pulled under. When they surfaced, they were both choking on the vapors they inhaled from the agitated foamy water.

Mary and Jeffrey were now in deep trouble. They literally were both drowning between trying to gasp for air and stay afloat enough not to go so far under that they would become confused and not know which way was up. Mary knew this could happen. Her body was chilled to the bone, and she was becoming numb; she was certain the same was happening to her son. She was thinking to herself, “if we can just hang on past these rapids, it would be an answer to all my prayers.” She was looking when her head was above water at the shoreline. Off in the distance downstream, she could see Frederick and another man standing there with ropes in their hand. Her first thought was, “thank God we just might make it.”

By now, both Mary and Jeffrey were pretty banged up. She knew she was bleeding from some of the bludgeons she took from rocks and debris. She was certain that Jeffrey was equally hurt. He was starting to drift off and lose consciousness. Mary held onto him tight. Every time they got pulled under the water, she struggled to bring them both up to the surface. All the while being driven and forced into rocks and the sticks that were swirling around in the water.

Frederick and this other man knew the situation, and they planned to wade into the water and then throw the ropes out to Mary and Jeffrey; as they got closer, Mary could see what they were going to try to do. She mustered up the last of bit of her terribly taxed strength. And with Jeffrey in tow, she did her best to move them towards the shore, where her husband was ready to rescue them. It seemed like it was becoming a little less turbulent, but the water was also becoming very deep. She couldn’t really push off the bottom to help her on her mission to move closer to where her husband was. They were less than 20 feet or so away from Frederick. They still were moving pretty swiftly, being carried along by the river current. Frederick knew he would have to throw the rope behind them so it would float close enough to them to grab it.

Frederick and his companion timed it perfectly; they threw the rope out, and Mary was able to grab it while still hanging on to Jeffrey. Her hand was nearly frozen, and it was hard for her to wrap it around the rope, but she managed. Frederick was in the water up to his mid-chest as he pulled them closer to him, where the water was calmer. Within a few minutes, they were on the shore. Frederick took off his heavy jacket, and so did the man that was helping him. They wrapped both Mary and Jeffrey up in their body-warmed jackets. Trying to get them quickly warmed up as they moved away from the river. While Frederick was massaging both Mary and Jeffrey to help get their circulation going, the man that was helping Frederick built a campfire. They were doing everything they could to warm them up. Frederick was almost certain they were suffering from hypothermia. After all, how could they not be? The water was deathly cold, and to add insult to injury, there now was a light cold rain.

An hour passed. The campfire was raging, and Mary and Jeffrey were starting to warm up. They both were very confused and out of it. All that trauma, anxiety, stress, and fear had taken its toll. Mary started to shake uncontrollably. Frederick knew that that wasn’t a good sign; he held her close to him to keep her as warm as possible. He wished he had something warm for her to drink. His friend ran back to the cabin, which by this time was well over a mile away. It took him close to an hour to get back; he brought some food, cups, and tea with him. He even managed to find a small bottle of brandy in the kitchen cabinet he brought that along too.

Jeffrey seemed to warm up pretty fast, and he was cognizant but definitely frightened, and he was definitely worrying about his mom, who was still drifting in and out of consciousness. He knew that she literally saved his life and her own too. He looked up at his dad and said, “is mom going to die?” Frederick had a very concerned expression on his face which made Jeffrey feel even more insecure about his mother’s plight. But his father shook Jeffrey’s shoulder and said to him. “Of course, she’s going to be okay, son. She is a tough woman, and she knows how to survive.” Frederick thought to himself. “Mary is a strong-willed person and knows a lot about the river and the dangers it can impose with very little or no warning.” He also knew that she was experienced in dealing with the river because she grew up almost literally on the banks of the Trinity River.

Frederick and his friend fixed a cup of warm light tea and decided to put a little brandy in it. Slowly they managed to get Mary to drink it down. She was no longer drifting in and out of consciousness. She was becoming more and more alert. She looked up at her husband Frederick and said, “thank God… you’re able to rescue us. I don’t think I could’ve held on much longer. The river was tugging at us, trying to pull us under. It was almost surreal. I even started to have those flashbacks that people always talk about when they have a near-death experience. Thank God! Thank God Jeffrey is safe now.”

It took the remainder of the afternoon for Frederick and his friend to get his wife and son back to the cabin. And it took nearly a week for both of them to get their health back. They still both had a lot of bruises and abrasions on the body. Mary’s knee turned out to be sorely bruised, but it did not actually crack her kneecap. But they all agreed. “We’re alive.” And the minor or maybe the not so minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises will heal. The big question that they had to face in the future would Mary ever want to cross the river again?

Rod Jones Artist-Writer