As a last look at this year’s storms, I mention that social media users have leveled harsh criticism toward the many people who either blatantly disregarded signs or misjudged flood conditions that required rescue operations; some of these incidents resulted in death. To such criticisms I counterpoint with the following.
From early years I have been a swimmer, my training came at the pool at Oak Park in Greenfield. These were the traditional Red Cross swim programs, one advanced after mastering the skill required at each level. I went through all levels until I qualified as a lifeguard. I later qualified as swim instructor, then as a swim and lifeguard instructor until ultimately as one who trains people to become lifeguard instructors, the last step before administrative position.
But the chlorine water of a pool was not my first aquatic adventure. That took place in a short stretch of the Arroyo Seco River, downstream from Miller’s Lodge maybe 500 yards, where myself and a friend named Darold (you’ll meet him again), accompanied by our fathers, Rick and Benny, took early steps toward becoming swimmers.
I don’t suppose I was more than 6 years old, Darold a year younger, the both of us clad in only our underwear. I don’t know the time of year, but the river in that stretch was only a few inches deep and ran mostly over stones, I remember how tender my feet were walking toward the flow. What little I remember includes cold, swift water running over my feet; I doubt we got in much further than my knees. But it was the first venture into a river I would come to swim in many times, and plan to do so again.
Two of the three short episodes composing today’s column took place in the Arroyo Seco River, the first in a stretch of the river between the Indians and Escondido Camp we called Pozzi’s Hole. A buddy named Jerome Kenneth “Jerry” Campbell and I went for a swim there one day; both 21 years young, both strong river swimmers. It was our first venture to the hole that swim season, a fact we failed to fully appreciate.
In that part of the river there is (or was) a tunnel of sorts. It was actually an underwater space between the riverbank, mostly stone, and a large boulder laying at water’s edge, about 12 to 15 feet in length. We both had safely swum through this little underwater crevice before, so under we went. Jerry preceded me, and when I was a little more than half way he quit forward motion, he was stuck.
In seconds his feet were kicking frantically, and I could feel the panic rising. With river sand swirling about my head, I made the first motions of backing out, if that was even possible, when suddenly the way before me shown daylight and I shot forward like a torpedo. Gasping for breath on the bank, we both agreed that not checking how much the rainy season had brought up the level of the river bottom could have been fatal. Even the experienced may chose unwisely.
Downstream some 12 years later, give or take a weekend, I had ventured to that well-known swimming hole The Gorge. I was alone but for a handful of young skinny dippers from out of the area, common back then, and though I was in swim trunks I was acceptable company. At the upper end of the deep hole there is a place where eons of erosion have created a natural rock slide about 15 feet in length, ending in a small waterfall.
I had slid down this chute many times, but this year the flow was heavier than I realized and suddenly I was doing somersaults under water, caught in the swirling vortex. When the pressure pulled my loose-fitting swim trunks down around my knees, I could feel panic rising in my throat. I managed to get one gulp of half air and half water, struggled as deep as I could get, pulled the shorts free and crabbed along the bottom of the riverbed until free to surface.
When I finally made it to the rocky shore, gasping for air, I looked up and three naked teens, two guys and a girl, were standing on the rocks above me saying how scared they were watching me fight to get out of the swirl and apologetic they couldn’t help. The power of flowing water almost got me, again.
At flood times the 175-mile stretch of the normally placid Salinas River can be frightfully dangerous. Three of us found this out back in January 1970. Hal, Darold (again) and myself entered the swollen, flooding water of the Salinas River about three and a half miles south of the 101 bridge at King City, accessing through Lloyd and Betty Jo Schmidt’s property. We carried an ice chest, a Crossman air rifle, two oars, three life vests and ourselves. Had we been wiser we would have known that a boat going downstream cannot be steered unless it is traveling faster than the current; we weren’t.
This current, in the middle of the river, was far stronger than we imagined and while struggling to keep the boat’s nose pointed in the right direction we got sideways and hit a branch of a submerged tree. The boat flipped over so fast all the three of us could do was struggle to get to the surface and grab hold of the now capsized vessel as we rapidly headed toward Monterey Bay. We were all excellent swimmers, so when shallow water presented itself, we flipped the boat over, gathered lost gear that floated close by and finally got out on the east side of the river just below the 101 overpass. We were muddy and exhausted but a lot wiser.
Fast water is dangerous; mishaps happen to even the experienced.
Take care. Peace.