A Drowning at Christmas Time

By Ancil Nance

Clackamas River Valley

A deputy said that his body was found on the upstream end of an island in the middle of the Clackamas River. The orange life jacket was torn, but that wasn't the cause of death. He had drowned, after a time of shivering with hypothermia, someone guessed. It was December 26th, 1961. The river was cold.

Inside our house it was very warm. Relatives were over for Christmas visits, eating pie and drinking coffee. Someone had turned the light off in the hallway, so when the phone rang and I answered it, I stood in darkness as an official voice on the other end asked if the parents of Jon Nance lived at this number. Yes, I replied, and called for Mom. The chill of bad news arriving made me hold my breath. Mom stood silent, only an "Oh no!" escaped her lips.

Jon and a friend, David King, had gone for a short canoe trip, intending to travel from McKiver to Carver on the Clackamas River. He had asked me to go, but I declined saying that I though it was too cold. Jon called David and they left around mid-morning.

Jon never returned. David survived and was able to help us reconstruct what happened. The river was high, but they were confident, dressed warmly, and had life jackets. They passed through several minor rapids before meeting the one that capsized the canoe. The current was fast and they did not anticipate the correct maneuver soon enough, and they slammed into the curl while trying to turn. The canoe capsized. They both made it to shore, David climbing up a slippery bank and Jon clung to a rock at the base of the cliff. David crawled along the edge and got above Jon and tried to hang a branch for him to cling onto. It was too short and Jon could not grab it without losing his grip on the rock.

David could not reach him and he could barely see. His thick eyeglasses had been snatched away by the water. Jon told him to go for help. It was a rough scramble to the nearest road through bottomland thickets.  Stumbling, panting, torn by pain and fear for the life of his friend, David made it to the road as darkness fell.

I have been back to run that part of the Clackamas River a couple of times in my kayak.  I have see a couple of spots that I would not want to run in an open canoe, especially in the winter. I have not been able to determine the site of the accident nor the island where Jon's body was found.

Over the phone the deputy told mom that it was too dark to start a search that evening, they would have to wait until morning. Another "Oh no!" Friends and relatives, however, decided a search had to begin immediately. Flashlights, hot drinks, blankets, walkie-talkies, but most of all, people, all headed for the Barton area of the Clackamas. It was dark, with a light rain making things slippery. Teams of two and three searched both sides of the river, shouting "JON!" Many turned out that night. I remember the Spragues the most. Boyd and his two sons, Thad and Marc. Boyd, with his camper at Carver was search command. Thad and Marc were on the river banks with two-way radios. Nothing stopped them. We walked all night, sinking up to our knees in streams and mud. We clawed back as brambles and stickers reached for us in the dark. We called his name as we reached for him on the edge of what we knew was eternity.

Thad and Marc understood the importance to me of the search. Jon was my brother. We couldn't see beyond the flashlight beams, we couldn't hear over the rush of the river. But they could see my thoughts and hear my heart. The edge of the river was sometimes a rocky beach, sometimes a swampy side stream, and many times a high, dangerous vertical bank. Jon could be anywhere, some place we couldn't reach with foot, light or voice. I had the feeling that he was already gone as night faded at dawn when the official search began.

Clackamas RiverA deputy took me aside. He wanted me to prepare mom and dad for the worst. They had been together all through the night, waiting for word, joining in the search, praying with friends. i told them what the official search team thought. Jon was not going to be found alive. It would be best if they went home and waited. I stayed on, meeting with my uncle, John, who had a boat with an outboard motor. We  took it up the river searching. Nothing. Just gray skies, bare trees and rushing water. We turned back. I got in my car and drove toward Barton from Carver. An ambulance passed me going the opposite direction. No lights flashing, not sirens, just a silent woosh.

I knew they had his body in that ambulance. I continued driving along the river until I heard the radio report. By the time I reached home, all the family had gathered. Some were looking for a reason why. Some were angry. All were grief stricken.  I recalled the words of my grandmother, Vina Nance. She said no one knows grief like a parent who has lost a child. My parents now knew that grief. I went to a girlfriend's house, hoping she would be home. We were no longer going together but she was still my best friend. I expressed my pain through bizarre jokes. A week later I let the tears lose. Mom was there, encouraging the release. Tears and laughter keep us sane. None of us went crazy. Some believed that we would see Jon in heaven. Some said dumb things like "It was his time to go." And "God took him home." And so on. I had my doubts.

I have not been able to resolve anything about the reason why. There is no reason. Jon was a good person, only 19 years old. I was 20 then. Many evil people live, Jon is dead. So death has nothing to do with being good or not. Accidents happen to all of us, just like good and bad weather. An airplane accident a few years later, 1968, killed my older sister and her family. My parent's burden was lifted a little by their hope and faith in God. I am willing to wait and see. Obviously God had nothing to do with Jon's death. In no one's cosmos did a god kill a whole family by crashing a plane. But relatives still say that God rules the universe. Maybe, but I know that he has nothing to do with my life.