STRONG — Clinging to a tree amid the rain-swollen Sandy River, Bob Cavaliere didn’t think he would survive what started out Tuesday as an adventurous solo kayak trip to celebrate his 50th birthday.

Surging rapids had just flipped his kayak, dumping him into shockingly cold water. He struggled against the current for seemingly an eternity before managing to grasp onto the tree.

Hands shivering, Cavaliere, of Wilton, pulled a cellphone from a plastic bag in his pocket. He called a couple friends who had planned to pick him up downstream and then dialed 911, but was unable to tell them exactly where he was stranded.

As his friends and emergency responders frantically searched for him, Cavaliere waited alone in the waning sunlight and prayed he would get a chance to see his three sons and many friends again.

Then he heard a faint siren in the distance and started to help emergency dispatchers guide firefighters to him as the sound grew louder.

“I was just praying to Jesus Christ that he wouldn’t let me perish on my birthday,” he said Wednesday. “The sound of that horn was like trumpets from heaven blowing.”

When he saw the first firefighter emerge from woods lining the river, Cavaliere had spent about an hour in the water. Rescuers threw him a rope, sent out an inflatable raft and pulled him to safety.

Unharmed but still badly shaken by the harrowing experience, his voice trembled Wednesday when he tried to find words to describe the debt he owes his rescuers.

“I just want to say thank you to the guys who came out and got to me so quickly,” he said.

Strong Fire Chief Duayne Boyd, one of those who responded to Cavaliere’s emergency call, said the kayaker was extremely lucky to be alive, given the fast-moving water and cold temperatures Tuesday evening.

Boyd noted, however, that Cavaliere took vital safety precautions such as wearing a life jacket, bringing a cellphone in a waterproof bag and letting other people know about the trip.

“The biggest thing is that he was using his head when things went bad,” he said.

Rescuers found Cavaliere on a stretch of the winding Sandy River just north of the border with Farmington. Recent rain had created a fast-moving current, which fed into more dangerous whitewater rapids just downstream from where he was rescued, Boyd said.

Maine Game Warden Jonathan Parker, who also responded Tuesday, estimated the water temperature was in the 50s when Cavaliere’s kayak tipped about 6:30 p.m. He added that hypothermia is a danger whenever people are in water below their core body temperature for extended periods.

Parker said Cavaliere would have been tougher to find without the emergency call to guide rescuers. He said that in another half hour, hypothermia could have set in.

Boyd didn’t know how high the Sandy River reached Tuesday, saying the waterway is known for rapid changes following storms. An average of two rescues are made annually on the river, with a majority caused by people underestimating the conditions, he said.

Farmington Fire Department assisted with the rescue Tuesday.

Cavaliere, who works in the service station at an area car dealer, has been kayaking for about a year. He kayaked the same section of Sandy River on Memorial Day weekend and wanted to test himself Tuesday following the recent storm.

He said when he pushed off near the Strong Bridge, he was worried about the conditions, but let the excitement lead him to a bad decision. He plans to keep kayaking, but added that he will be more careful about avoiding conditions above his skill level.

He added, “I got caught up in the moment, and I’ll never let that happen again.”

David F. Robinson — 861-9287

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