Facing Death in the Saluda River

 

It was around noon when Jared, Cory and I arrived at a local swimming hole. We climbed over a rusty fence, ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs that were attached to it. The three of us, each in our late teens, hurried through the woods. As we moved through one final thicket, we found ourselves in a clearing, and there before us was our oasis.

It was a sight to behold for sure. There was soft sand that made a beach of sorts. That beach led to an edge of land that quickly dropped off some 12 ft. into the Saluda River, which beckoned me to meet its cool waters.

“You going in?” Cory slurred in his slow Southern drawl. I ignored his question and peeled my shirt off. After three strong steps toward the edge of the drop-off, I flung myself out into the air, yelling some incoherent phrase as I did, and then dove a dozen feet into the cold water below.

Seeing me in the water, both guys approached the drop-off but hesitated. That sign of hesitancy should have been the foreshadowing I needed to cancel our aquatic expedition, but I willingly chose to ignore the visible signs, and rejected the idea that neither of them could swim. Cory, however, ripped my willful ignorance to shreds when he said, “I can’t swim; so my ass is finding a safer way in.” Even though I was confronted with this evident truth, I still chose to believe that he was either lying, or at the very least, severely exaggerating. Cory, being true to his sentiment, did find a safer way in. He lowered himself cautiously down a makeshift path that led directly to the water, and one toe at a time, he carefully waded out into the water. Jared, who was usually boisterous in his communication, was oddly silent. He declined the jump no-verbally, and instead followed Cory’s path into the river.

As we waded, we spoke the way that young men typically do, obnoxiously. Our conversations mostly involved schemes to impress various girls we fancied, as well as when and where we our next adventure would take us. The answer to the latter question came quicker than we expected, as I noticed that some 80 yards downstream there was a rock face that created a 20-foot drop off into the river that just begged to be climbed. I beckoned the guys to follow me, and set off through the water towards the rock without looking back.

Despite their initial fear to get in the water, they now showed that they trusted me completely. I admit that the gesture of them following me stroked my pride — so much so, that if I had any cautionary judgment left, it had abandoned me entirely then and there.

I led on, humming the Indiana Jones theme song softly, while we each took in the almost cinematic scenery that the Saluda River provided.

As we neared the rock, we came across a depression in the river. This did not trouble me at first. I could feel with my toes that it dipped down, but assuming that the river could not be that deep I barely thought twice about stepping out into the hole it created. When I did this though, I quickly resolved that perhaps I was wrong about my assumptions, that maybe it was slightly deep than I had expected. Still hesitant to believe this though, I dove down to prove myself right. From the center of the gap and standing as tall as I could, my head was nowhere near the surface of the water. I figured that the water line was at least four feet or more above me. When I had resurfaced, the guys asked for the diagnosis, and I slyly sugar-coated my findings. “It’s not so bad, really,” I lied.

To prove the point further, I swam across the gap and discovered that the expanse was only about 12 feet across. In the process, I realized that the current of the river had pulled me past the majority of the gap so quickly, that I barely had to swim at all. This was encouraging to them, as they followed my guidance without much convincing. Just as I predicted, the current did all of the work, and within a few short seconds they were both pulled safely across the divide.

After all of the work to arrive, the rock itself, was anti-climactic. After a few jumps, I was bored, especially considering the fact that no one else would jump with me. With very little effort, the guys persuaded me that it was time to leave, and agreed that we head back upstream.

Happily we all moved in the direction of the car, discussing as we did where would eat lunch. Before we got far though, I realized the error of my ways. In all of my excitement to explore, I had not taken the time to logically conclude the implications of the current that so kindly helped us. In a shocking moment of realization, I became fully aware that that same current was now our vicious and unforgiving enemy.

I moved towards the gap. The resistance was so strong that I was nearly out of breath before I even reached the edge of the drop-off. I looked around desperately hoping to see a way out of the river that did not involve us working back over the divide. To my disappointment, there was no bank to the river this far down. In fact, the closest that I could see was just past the gap. It appeared that the only option I had was to work my two friends, who could not swim, across the divide one at a time.

I attempted to fake confidence by reassuring Cory and Jared that there was nothing to worry about. Both guys consented once again to my leadership and placed their lives in my hands— thinking back to this truth, still creates an anxiety that is hard to dismiss.

Cory moved toward me first. I grabbed his arm and told him to kick as hard as he could. He was shaking, and looked at me fearfully and said, “I’ll try my best.”  After a quick countdown from three, we drew in deep breaths and propelled ourselves into the turbulent waters.

Our initial kickoff was a feeble attempt against the relentless strength of the current. Even with Cory’s hesitation—which caused his propulsion to suffer— my kick should have been sufficient. Sadly, I realized that I had considerably overestimated my abilities, and we found ourselves in the middle of the expanse with little hope of getting out of it. To his credit, Cory did not suffer from the mistake that I made. In fact, his abilities were precisely assessed. He was absolutely no help at all, and even though he kicked forcefully, his efforts were a wasted effort that only managed to completely exhaust himself.

There’s an odd thing that happens when a person begins to experience the real fear of drowning. Immediately as the realization sets in, the person starts to fight for every breath of air frantically. It’s almost as if for the first time in their lives they understand their mortality; a fear that drives them to do whatever it takes to avoid the seemingly inevitable. The problem is that this battle for survival sometimes comes at the cost of nearly drowning the person trying to save you, which is exactly what happened in our situation. As I pulled Cory forward, he used me to push himself above the water, an act that awarded him a few breaths of air, but also sank his chance of survival, literally.

The only hope either of us had was for Cory to tire himself out so that I could move him. Simply put, he had to nearly drown just so that I could save him. As I held my breath waiting for him to give up on survival, I felt helpless, and in some ways cruel.

Finally, the plan worked, and Cory’s strength left him, causing his body submerge rapidly. I resurfaced and drew a few painful breaths. I then grabbed his torso and pulled him over the gap to the small bank next to the river. He grasped the rocks on dry land and began coughing up the water inside of him as he desperately clung to dirt in front of him.

With Cory safe, I waded back into the water and tried to catch my breath. After fighting a drowning 18-year-old, my body now resisted the idea of attempting a second go of it, and I struggled to gather air. For the first time in my life I felt limited and weak. I felt as if any confidence I ever had in myself was some sick joke, and at this very moment some cruel prankster was revealing the truth that I was a failure.

Jared, who had been watching these events unfold, looked as if he were in shock. His face had lost all color and his eyes were void of all expression. I lifted a hand to gesture that he stay put so that I could regather my strength. Jared, in what I can only assume was due to a sever lack of judgment, misinterpreted the sign, and instead of waiting, pushed himself out into the expanse.

In a few seconds, the damage was done, and Jared was splashing in in the water helplessly. His movements were sporadic, and his voice echoed with wordless screams. Screams that still remain with me to this day, some ten years later.

Cory was still breathing heavy from the bank, but managed to yell out to me, “You can’t let him die, man… save him… do something!” Seeing the tears fall from his face, I dove back into the water and swam toward my sinking friend as best as I could.

My labored swimming was slow and with each kick of my feet I felt my body falling into a state of unrelenting pain. It ached to the point that I felt my muscles begging me to give up. I tried to persist, attempting to convince myself that I could make the difference somehow. With one final push, I lost the solid footing of the river floor and knew that I was at the depth of the expanse.

Jared was still attacking the water around him with frantic blows. I reached his arms and began the similar fight for survival that I had faced with Cory. Jared, however, was much stronger and his extra body weight caused my already winded body to cave. The force in which he thrust my head under took me by surprise. In the swift, violent action of it, I had not been able to secure a full breath. Quickly I ran out of air and tried to move back to the surface. That was the moment I discovered that Jared would not let me rise. He had wholly planted himself on my shoulders and was now desperately trying to breathe.

Below his weight, I faced, my own mortality, much in the way that Cory had earlier. I felt the primitive urge to frantically fight for life, but Jared continued to prevent the possibility of that. I told myself repeatedly, “Don’t open your mouth,” but I felt as if I could no longer hold my breath. In these moments I really had no ability to think cognitively anymore. Time speeds up to such a pace that the thoughts you do have are rapid enough that you are not able to isolate and evote focus to any one of them, and then when the speed and anxiety of the moment reaches a point where sanity itself begins to break apart, everything slows down to grinding halt and drowning sets in. My lungs at this point felt as if they were on fire from the effort they had already given, this coupled with my loss of reasonable thought led to one last attempt to resurface. When that failed I mindlessly gave up and my mouth opened wide.

The sensation was an odd one. Having my throat fill with water did not hurt like I would have imagined. Actually, being as tired as I was, the thought of drowning did not seem so bad. I could finally rest now.

And so could Jared

I had almost entirely accepted this when somewhere, in what felt like a distant reality, Jared let go of my body. The release of his weight on my shoulders momentarily jogged my memory, and I knew that his death would be my fault. I could not let him drown. With this final thought, I pushed myself upward.

Disoriented, I reached for Jared and forced him with what strength I had left toward the rocks. This in itself did very little to help, and honestly, we both would have drowned if it had not been for Cory, who was now standing out in the water holding a branch he had broken off from a nearby tree. Jared’s awareness returned long enough to grasp the end of the limb, and Cory, who was still recovering from his own brush with death, struggled, but managed to pull him onto the rocks safely.

Cory then reached out for me and pulled my exhausted body to the rocky bank. The water that had filled my lungs was pushed out violently. I struggled for air as I crawled a few feet and then collapsed beside Jared.

We each laid on the makeshift bank for what seemed like hours. The sounds of three heaving chests attempting to return to a somewhat regular pattern of breathing persisted for some time. Then it slowly transitioned into deep sighs of relief, and from there to silence. No one dared to speak. Jared later remarked that during that time on the bank he was not sure if he had survived or if he was in some form of purgatory. He said, “Every bit of me felt dead. I felt like my body was somewhere in the middle of that river and that my soul was destined to waste away on those rocks.” Cory added that he was cautious in his silence, “I didn’t want to mess anything up. If God saved us, I didn’t want to remind him that we didn’t deserve it, so I stayed quiet.”

The silence eventually ended, but not by me, as my guilt held my tongue motionless. Jared spoke up and said, “Let’s get home.” And together we made the rest of the trip up the river and to the car. Once we left, we didn’t talk about what happened on the way home; in fact, none of us mentioned that day again until some eight years had passed. I approached them both with apologies, but Cory stopped me before I could even address the subject properly by saying, “I knew you would get us out. Let’s leave it at that.”

Looking back we still see that day as a defining moment. Cory and Jared agree that they should have known their limits, and I of course still hold the majority of the blame for my failed leadership. But, despite all of the cumulative mistakes made, it could have ended worse. Jared summarized it by saying, “I prayed while I was drowning. Prayed that you’d get some strength and you did… that’s the closest I have ever been to dying. God saved us. I don’t care what anyone says. You gave up and then suddenly you were back and pushed me to Cory. God did that, bro. Sorry but you don’t get all the credit. He saved us.”

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