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Tim Cahill stands along the

Yellowstone River near his home
in Livingston. The well-known
writer died and was brought back
to life during a rafting trip in the
Grand Canyon.


I had never thought of our game as one small component of a life well lived. the flow broke around a monolithic rock maybe 40 feet high. But if it is possible to be happy mindlessly throwing a ball. This meant a raft or kayak or swimmer caught in the hole could end up endlessly circulating in a process some call being “Maytagged. Crystal. My dog raced along the side of the house. I had to imagine that. There were 16 people in my party and it was the 14th day of the trip. Montana. Dexter the Dog trotted back and dropped the ball at my feet. “I never realized how much I like roof ball. at Lava Falls. in the roar of surging water echoing off rock walls. the most challenging. It’s called being “postage stamped. Hermit and Granite rapids were all behind us. It was unclear who enjoyed roof ball more: me or the dog. I was happy. the nastiest rapid on the river. all of us. Dex and I have been doing this for years.The DEATH of TIM CAHILL BY TIM CAHILL PORTRAIT BY THOMAS LEE J ust yesterday. Me? I just thought. jumped 10 feet in the air. frankly. Now. Toward the bottom of the right side. in places. listening to the thump and roll of the ball. We had to shout to be heard as we walked up the steep trail on the north side of the river to scout the rapid.” My death experience happened in the Grand Canyon. then caught it on the fly as it dropped near the garbage cans. You didn’t want to hit that rock. throwing a tennis ball on the roof of my house.” There were great curling waves to the right and the current. on the Colorado River.” M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 9 . Lava Falls was the last big one. Our party beached our five rafts and numerous kayaks just before the rapid. “This is really kind of pretty. There was a pourover at the top and it dropped into a huge hole which had at its tail an enormous wave curling back upriver. yes. It was a very simple pleasure to be sure.” It felt like swimming through a shining monochromatic kaleidoscope and I found myself thinking. The experience might have made a philosopher of a finer man. There was a brief contemplative moment. I was standing out in my backyard in Livingston. I suppose that is because I had never died before—and then been resuscitated— as I had been just a few weeks earlier. The river would crush you and hold you there. We’d navigated the other rough stretches with some ease. staring down at an anthology of the dangers a river can muster. And there we stood.

both tough and omni-competent. 10 . He was the captain of our raft and felt responsible for the gear. Moreover. So when someone dropped out of this trip at the last minute. Bill proved to be a master. I had been endlessly told—you’ll excuse me—of heart-stopping beauty. So it was abundantly clear that a river craft would have to pull very hard left to avoid the rock and then even harder left to skirt the hole near the bottom of Lava Falls. Most of the party had kayaks. Green Bay Packers). It took days to drag all this out of him. they either lived there. So. My raft mate Bill Hobbins. or had some cheese-encrusted association with the state. near the bottom of the rapid. We—the rafters—would carry food and tents and sleeping bags. I was perfectly comfortable. The kayakers. to my untrained eye. Over the next few days.” “Hardly. an open boat captain. then you’d pull left because. I’d never been there but it was a place. The raft packing was arduous and Bill wanted to do it himself.” Harry said and there were some muffled chuckles at the idea. in fact. They spoke of rivers they’d run in the Midwest and the South and the West. Many had kayaked in Central and South America. he figured that. Bill did not inspire immediate confidence.No. a record breaking ice-boater. who originally presented himself as a sort of doofus. Then he proceeded to load the raft. the younger brother of a guy I hung out with in high school in Waukesha. even though I’d lived in Montana for 40 years. staring and. a skill he tried his best to help me learn. They talked kayaking at a length that I found required several strong shots of Scotch for me to tolerate. After a few days. consequently. an honor that had previously been his. I didn’t know my team well. I might still understand Wisconsin folks (beer. No one spoke much. and I quickly realized ack in that the five rafts were support for the kayaks. feeling a little stunned. was another large hole. but the guy was a kayaker. I asked the group whether they might be considered “elite. All the other participants were also from Wisconsin. often in rough conditions. I don’t know what I’m doing here. And then we were out on the river. In the dry Arizona air. he held a master’s degree in science and could read the river like a book. I did not know any of the other 15 river runners except for Harry Butler. Harry was a cross-country skier and avid kayaker. was making an effort to speak with a certain civility. That’s what Super Glue is for. a guy who was offered a full ride to play hockey at the University of Wisconsin (he turned it down). Wisconsin. and consequently might even know what I was doing on a river trip. And. at 71. I was the oldest guy on the trip. but they weren’t going to say it because cheeseheads don’t brag on themselves. a last wily Maytag lying in wait. securing the gear with webbing straps and pulling them tight made his fingertips bleed. The talk turned to truly great kayakers they’d either known or seen. No matter. he knew I’d spent almost 40 years traveling overseas. they did so infrequently and appropriately. “Gol dang!” B October of last year. But they weren’t fooling me: these guys were great in kayaks. it was easy enough to row for an hour and work up a sweat. I liked that about them and. I was invited on a private rafting trip though the Grand Canyon. who welcomed me with the information that. strapping down gear and rearranging things in such a way that we’d lose nothing if the raft flipped. but I had noticed that while they sometimes cursed. for instance. presumably. and in those times when I caught a chill. We’d talked about that a bit when I had returned to Wisconsin.” he said. was. I was paired off with Bill Hobbins. So I looked down at the rapid that would kill me in about 15 minutes and whispered. The others were always pulling off the tops of their dry suits in the warmth of the sun or when they got overheated while paddling or rowing. seemed insanely talented. though he was dyslexic. It was a winter trip—from the end of November to mid-December—and the temperature at night sometimes I guess I thought I was smart. a boxer and a judo instructor. We were done scouting but we all just stood there for another 20 minutes. I was an obvious person to call: a guy who might be able to carve out the time and get his poop in a pile in 10 days. cheese. “Ah. in my case. you’d want to avoid the top pourover by entering right.

I can’t stand dry suits. as were the eddies. While I’m perfectly at ease rowing a fishing boat down the Yellowstone near Livingston. in fact. even in the slower water. choke me. waterproof material secured by tight wrist and ankle bands and even tighter neck bands. In the daytime. it was easy enough to row for an hour and work up a sweat. The others were always pulling off the tops of their dry suits in the warmth of the sun or when they got overheated while paddling or rowing. I guess I thought I was smart. I could take rough water labeled 3 or 4 easily enough. I know they can be cut and adjusted. The neck bands.PHOTO COURTESY OF RALPH LEE Kayakers corral the Hobbins-Cahill raft downstream from Lava Falls after both men were ejected from it. more difficult than I’d imagined. but they still choke me. Everyone wore dry suits. but the Colorado has its own system. You could get trapped in an eddy and it might take 10 minutes of hard pulling to get back into the main current. The volume of water was astounding. And that main current was something. and its rapids are rated 1 to 10. dropped into the 20s. but the 5s made me a little queasy and the one 6 I navigated M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 11 . I did not. But rowing was. My dry suit languished in the bottom of my dry bag. I wore good waterproof gear over heavy fleece worn over expedition weight underwear. Rivers are generally rated on an ascending scale of difficulty from 1 to 6. on the water. I was perfectly comfortable. the temperatures might rise into the 50s or even hit the low 70s in the hour or so the sun peeked over the narrow rim of the canyon. called gaskets. the Colorado was another matter altogether. and in those times when I caught a chill.

I had no idea where I was in the rapid. This. John McConville took the right entrance and pulled left neatly. Exhausted and disoriented. I didn’t want a heavy jacket weighing me down. because 12 I recall looking up at a 10-foot-wide round hole. A kayak picked him up in less than a minute. on the 14th day. Even set a pool record at Notre Dame. In any case. probably in the head. all waiting for Bill and me. holding the perimeter line. was scary enough that I turned the rest of them over to Bill. And all of a sudden I was in the water. Too fast. A wave curled up under the boat on the right and I “highsided” by leaning into it. we found ourselves on a hillside. the rapid rated the highest on the river. There was a lot more mean water below. “This is really kind of pretty. but I grabbed a back handle and kicked hard. At the top of Lava Falls. Bill entered the rapid to the right and immediately pulled left. Justin Kleberg hit it perfectly and so did Dan LaHam. I swam varsity at the University of Wisconsin for four years. It may have been simultaneously the stupidest and smartest thing I did that day.The second involuntary breath was less pleasant. I grabbed the perimeter line. The rapid didn’t much scare me. I swam the wrong way. I recall taking a large involuntary breath of river water and thinking. That gave me a needed breath and I continued to fight my way through the shards of the kaleidoscope. All I know is that I came out from under the raft and Justin Kleberg and Rachel Butler yanked me into the bow where I lay gasping like a freshly landed tuna. I was a few feet from the surface when the hole started to fall apart in various shining ovals that dropped off on the downstream side while the rest of the surface looked like large shards of glass exploding in slow motion. Then. glad that I wasn’t weighted down with fleece. looking down at all that hyperbolic water. I don’t know who was paddling. I thought. The water was still rough and a dead weight on the back of a kayak will sink it. But he couldn’t see me and chose not to row and risk hitting me. When I looked downriver. Anywhere. I was somewhere in the rapid. under the water.) In any case. These rafts are 18 feet long and weigh a couple thousand pounds. The surface seemed about 15 feet above and the center of the hole was so calm that I could see through it to the blue Arizona sky. Meanwhile. Steve Smits followed. (They tell me it lasted about a week. There may have been a third. It felt like swimming through a shining monochromatic kaleidoscope and I found myself thinking. But. “Holy cats. The raft made it through upright. I saw a video of that run. I swam against the strong current of the eddy.” I muttered. shot from the bank by a group that followed us down the river. So I ducked under and swam. as off a cliff. I swam toward the surface. I had stripped off my fleece. I know I must have been pretty deep despite my life jacket. does not bode well. that wasn’t so bad. There may have been a third. I’ve studied the video frame by frame and have never seen even a hint of my blue rain gear. All I know is that I came out from under the raft and Justin Kleberg and Rachel Butler yanked me into the bow where I lay gasping like a freshly landed tuna. Four rafts through the rapids. was coming in fast. . T he kayaks went through first and took up rescue positions near the tail of the rapid. An unconscious swimmer is unlikely to survive. I didn’t want to get crushed between them. The kayak pulled to an eddy where a raft was waiting. reasoning that if I had to swim. In the video some nasty bit of rogue hydraulics came up from the left and tipped the raft to the right.” The second involuntary breath was less pleasant. pushed by the eddy. another rescue raft. moronically. which he did fairly quickly. I surfaced in the tail of the rapid where I managed to grab a rescue kayak. a 9. Perhaps I made it. The video shows Bill being tossed sideways and struggling to regain the oars. gasping for breath. Later. and I just stood there. but I wanted to thread the needle between the rock and the hole at the bottom. That meant I was all but trapped under the second boat. “Well. scouting Lava Falls. and I felt myself falling in air.” And then the water dropped. I was kneeling in the bow. dumbfounded. Deciding not to row meant Bill hit the hole at the bottom of Lava Falls and was flung some distance to the right and out of the hole.

PHOTO COURTESY OF RALPH LEE M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 13 . EMT Justin Kleberg holds Cahill’s head steady. whose heart had stopped for several minutes. fearing a neck injury.Grand Canyon floaters Jennifer Gordon and Steve Schmit swap a high five after teammates successfully resuscitated Tim Cahill.

work to keep him warm and stable while they await a rescue helicopter. such as nurse Steve Schmit. and EMT Justin Kleberg. Liz Arnold.Fortunately for Cahill. left. center. PHOTO COURTESY OF RALPH LEE 14 . He monitors Cahill’s pulse as another nurse. his float party and a second one on the river that day included medical professionals.

Was that the sound of my ribs cracking? What the hell? Rachel Butler says. The team sprang into action. they said. But up top.” he shouted. staring at the ceiling. “You roared. turned blue. Strangeways at 9 music And when I looked up at the people I’d just punched. But this place had a special meaning for them: a friend of theirs had died kayaking Lava Falls and they were there to celebrate his life. Still no pulse. “It took Tacos and Live bingo Trivia at 7.I have to say that a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon isn’t much of a treat if you’re lying on your back in a neck brace. Everyone was deeply moved. hat comes next Mint Bar & Grill M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 15 . turned to my team and said. They’d run the rapid without incident. was on the way. shook his head. I saw men 102 N. And I woke to someone sitting on my stomach pushing my sternum three quarters of the way to my backbone. My boat mates said that I stopped breathing. LaHam said he could feel a pulse. I sat down. a guy who’d paddled the whole river in an abbreviated canoe. A National Park Service helicopter. C’mon. and then. they’d seen a man die and then be brought back to life. And then it was getting stronger. Dan LaHam. They cut my life vest off with knives. It didn’t make any sense to me. Now. W I thought I’d simply passed out for a bit. passed out and died. Roy Crimmins. Sometime during the sixth round of CPR. it seemed like a waste of resources. Livingston. MT (406) 222-1095 and women wiping away tears. The group that followed us was there as well. they’d seen another man go down. Justin Kleberg. But suddenly that man was back.” Bill live jazz Live music by Live local Hobbins said.” I recall trying to wrestle Justin off of me and throwing Tuesdays Wednesdays Thursdays Fridays and a few ineffectual punches. Saturdays seven of us to hold you down.com Follow us on Facebook seemed an overreaction. At the time. drew two rescue breaths and Kleberg started compressions again. at my arm.mintbarandgrill. started CPR. I crawled off the raft and walked 15 or 20 steps over the sand. Steve Smits. Justin rowed across the river to a large area called Tequila Beach. After 30 chest compressions. where groups that run Lava Falls typically stop to celebrate. breathing and alive. The helicopter landed. Bill Hobbins saw my eyelids flutter. It was loud. they lost my pulse altogether. a registered nurse. contacted by satellite phone. “C’mon. Main Street. Since I didn’t know my heart had stopped. “They did?” I have to say that a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon I only know from what I’ve been told. “You guys saved a life today. It must have been some kind of rage to live.” I thought. C’mon. a wilderness EMT. This www. handed me a beer. a paramedic did a quick examination.

Tests. I was taken to the Heart and Vascular Center of Northern Arizona. The care at the hospital was superb and I got to talk to a lot of doctors and 16 . Perhaps I’d simply drowned. I felt fine.PHOTOS COURTESY OF RALPH LEE At top. except that Justin had done the CPR correctly and fractured a lot of ribs. showed that I hadn’t had a heart attack. however. isn’t much of a treat if you’re lying on your back in a neck brace. I was coming to the realization that my heart had actually stopped for several minutes. I’d died. members of the “Colorado River Miracle Team” wait anxiously while medical professionals administer CPR to Cahill after he was submersed in the Colorado River’s Lava Falls. Above. where I was put into intensive care. in Flagstaff. staring at the ceiling. Arizona. rescuers load Cahill into a National Park Service helicopter for transfer to a hospital in Flagstaff.

COM | LIVINGSTON. but then how I was able to get out of the water and walk? I guess I’m just going to have to call it a miracle and live with that. It seems that CPR isn’t very effective in cases of cardiac arrest. And I was swimming in it hard for 20 minutes. I have a theory though. the guy in it was shallow. I wasn’t there. after all. nurses who simply wanted to hear my story. Hiking and Riding Trails Convenient Distance to Downtown Bozeman and Livingston LIST PRICE | $2. I wasn’t there.I have little or no emotional investment in my death and resurrection. Breathing slows and sometimes stops. In thin rain gear and without fleece. SHIELDS RIVER RESERVE A premiere lifestyle property with its harmonious blend of nature and exquisite amenities… n n n n n +320 Acres of Varied Terrain With Year-Round Access Approximately 1 Mile of Pristine Shields River Frontage Larry Pearson Designed Main Home. There is something like a single digit percent of success. or so it seemed. I still didn’t know what had happened.” But miracle or not. But no. after all. The water was about 45 degrees. I feel a little guilty about it all. is shunted away from the hands and feet. I wasn’t there for the exciting part (because I was unconscious). Guest Quarters and Studio Expansive Views. To somehow devote my life to doing good works. Still. I have little or no emotional investment in my death and resurrection. MT M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 17 . So there may have been a hypothermic reaction. What the doctors said. Protected Wildlife Habitat.223. Blood.95 MILLION Tracy raich Broker | Owner 406.8418 | TRACYRAICH. what the nurses said. I wish I felt compelled to feed the homeless or cure cancer. about the only thing I got out of the experience is a realization that I like to play roof ball with my dog. Intellectually. needed by internal organs.” I began thinking of my boat mates as the “Colorado River Miracle Team. What can I say? The river was deep. was that my recovery on Tequila Beach was “a miracle. but I believe I may have gone into what is called the mammalian diving reflex. a condition in which the heart slows down in cold water. That all made sense.