A kayaker thought he was "fish food" as the swollen Hutt River pinned him against a submerged tree.
Companions fought for 15 minutes to free Masterton father of two Sam Ludden while he clung to a branch to keep his head above water, trapped in his agile stunt kayak against the massive rata log.
"The adrenaline was just pulsing, it was like taking a direct shot to the heart," said Ludden, 38, who thought during the ordeal: "I'm fish food."
The group of five experienced kayakers entered the Hutt River in Kaitoke Regional Park about 11.30am on Sunday and enjoyed big rapids in the isolated, demanding Hutt Gorge section, which was higher than normal after heavy rain last week.
About 2pm the group saw a huge rata log, toppled in recent high winds, blocking most of the river and leaving only a narrow, shallow flow over its upper branches near one bank.
The other four paddlers pulled over to assess the hazard but Ludden, who has paddled the river many times and was on a high from cartwheeling and flipping down rapids in his specialised "playboat" kayak, steamed straight across.
"It looked so innocuous . . . I just totally underestimated the whole situation, then you're scrambling for your life."
His kayak, its snub shape optimised for knifing into the water, got stuck on the log then was pulled under its upstream side, where it was trapped by the powerful current. Ludden felt himself being sucked under and grabbed a tree branch, which snapped; chest-deep, he seized another but realised he was in serious trouble.
"I was so scared . . . your brain works 10 times as fast, so many thoughts go through your mind in a split second."
Companions Alice Karvelas, Martina Naplawa and two others used ropes, slings and carabiners to keep Ludden's head above water, secure his kayak and gradually pull it off a branch snagging him and over the log to safety.
Karvelas said Ludden was almost caught under the log, where thick branches created a lethal barrier. "It was seriously life-threatening."
Afterwards she was shaken and exhausted. "It's just a lesson that you've got to be humble on the river, because it's more powerful than you are."
Naplawa said the group's experience was crucial.
"There was no panic, just a bunch of mates working together in harmony to help their friend."
Ludden, who called his friends heroes, was embarrassed by the incident, especially as he had recently watched YouTube videos about the dangers of "pinning" - regarded as one of whitewater kayaking's biggest risks.
"It was the perfect situation for a pinning, and I didn't recognise it."
Partner Janine Ogg has now banned him from kayaking for 15 years, until daughters Bella, 3, and Molly, 18 months, are adults - though she conceded it would be hard to keep him away from his passion for rivers.
"But he'll be a lot more careful next time near a tree."
- The Dominion Post