Friday, March 15, 2013

How I Almost Drowned or Don't Swim on the Sabbath

Reading Pete Codella's post at Modern Mormon Men reminded me of a time when I nearly drowned. I was with a group of male friends, mostly returned missionaries. We had gone to a cabin in Island Park that was owned by the family of a member of our group. We had agreed to do the work of opening up the cabin for the season in exchange for food and lodging for the Memorial Day weekend.

After driving up on Friday night, we split our time on Saturday between working and recreating. In the evening some of my friends started expressing doubts about trying to make it to church meetings in West Yellowstone the following morning. In the end, the matter was decided by the friend that had the vehicle. To my disappointment, he decided that we would sleep in. Most of the others concurred.

On Sunday morning I held my own worship service as my friends slept. After a late breakfast, my friends decided to drive into Yellowstone National Park. Someone mentioned that we should bring our swimsuits and towels in case we wanted to take a dip in the Firehole River, which is warmed by geothermal waters. Recalling the many times I had enjoyed the 80°+ currents of the Firehole River, I packed my gear.

It was cloudy and cool when we pulled up to the swimming hole. I was surprised to see no other cars. Many cars and swimmers had been present each time I had previously visited. I changed into my swimsuit in the car, the whole time thinking that something was not right. I knew I shouldn't be recreating on the Sabbath, but something more than that was wrong. I brashly brushed aside those thoughts and was soon headed toward the river.

Since I was familiar with the area, I directed the group to the point where people usually swim across the river and then walk up a rocky underwater shelf for a distance. A common practice is to jump directly into the current from the end of the shelf and be carried around the bend to where the river turns shallow.

The river seemed higher and faster than what I was used to. It was also quite a bit colder. This was runoff season. I had previously always visited in the latter half of the summer when the current was more sedate and the water was warmer. The conditions warranted serious caution. But I reasoned that I was a strong swimmer, while ignoring the feeling that I shouldn't be doing this.

I soon jumped in and started swimming. The force of the runoff surprised me as it pushed me further downstream than I expected. When I realized I could not reach the rocky shelf, I relaxed and allowed the current to carry me around the bend, something I had done many times. But I was again surprised as the river held me under much longer than usual. I finally emerged and made my way to the shallows panting hard.

I slowly clambered over the rocky outcropping that separated the entry and exit points. Two of my friends had decided against trying to swim. Two others had donned wet suits for the attempt. (We had no wet suits that fit me.) I stood in the water and watched each of those with wet suits barely manage to cross the strong current. Two other friends stayed dry on the rocky outcropping.

For a long time I stood in the shallows contemplating another attempt at crossing the river. I had expended quite a bit of strength in my previous battle with the ferocious current. But my other friends had made it, and neither of them was as good at swimming as I was. They beckoned me from the other side of the river.

After several anxious minutes I again lunged into the current and began employing my strongest freestyle stroke. I made it about halfway across and then my progress slowed. I crept forward until I was about three quarters of the way across. And then I stalled. The rocky shelf got no closer. It must have been only a portion of a minute, but it seemed like I held steady forever.

All kinds of warning bells were going off in my head, but I finally doubled down and exerted all my capacity to try to reach the shelf that was so close and yet so far away. I immediately knew that I should have turned and swam for the other side while I still had strength. Despite my exertion, the shelf got no closer.

Finally I was spent. I turned and tried to swim for the shore from which I had jumped, yelling for help as I did so. I knew I was in serious trouble. But somehow I couldn't bring myself to pray. How could I ask God for help when I was deliberately disobeying his commandments? As Huckleberry Finn discovered, "You can't pray a lie." Still, with weak faith that God would answer my sinner's call, I cried out to him within my soul for help.

The current was too strong for me to make it back to the shore. Instead, I was pushed downstream toward the rocky outcropping, which had been worn smooth by thousands of years of streaming water. As soon as it came close I tried grasping for anything that could keep my body from being pushed around the bend; a process that would have plunged me underwater for more time than I had breath to spare. In my mind's eye I could see myself being pushed, twisted, and turned underwater by the current until blackness overtook me.

In my reaching and grabbing at the outcropping, my hands grasped a mossy bump that allowed me to barely hold on. But it was too rounded and slippery. As my claw-like fingers slid over the surface of the bump, I suddenly saw my friend's arm and hand before my face. Just as my feet, legs, and hips were being pulled toward the bend, I managed to grasp my friend's hand. He held on with all his strength.

My friend had only realized the seriousness of my plight when I cried out for help. He had sprung down the outcropping to a tiny ledge where he had little leverage and had sprawled downward in one mighty lunge just in time to grab my hand. He couldn't pull me up on his own, so he held me there until another friend maneuvered into place and grabbed my other arm, which allowed the two of them to hoist me from the water and then onto somewhat level ground.

I collapsed onto a log feeling nauseous. I put my head between my legs and concentrated on breathing slowly and deeply. I was actually nearly hyperventilating. I felt like I was either going to retch, pass out, or both. My friends got my towel and jacket to help calm my uncontrollable shivering. In my soul I expressed sorrow for my disobedience and gratitude to God for being saved.

After about five or six minutes my breathing had calmed and I slowly started to feel like I wasn't necessarily going to faint. A few minutes later I was able to raise my head up. After awhile I was able to stand. We made our way back to the car. I almost immediately fell asleep as we drove toward Old Faithful.

I was pretty quiet the rest of the day. Not only was I keenly aware of how close I had come to departing this life, I was disappointed with myself for my rebellious choice and my willingness to give into peer pressure.

But the experience was not without some valuable lessons for me (although, you might draw other conclusions):
  • You can always pray.
  • God is merciful and is willing to help as much as he can, even when you do something stupid.
  • Don't ignore promptings of warning.
  • Don't ignore signs of danger. There was a good reason that there were no other swimmers at the river that day.
  • Don't let friends entice you into doing something you sense is not right for you.
  • While the old saying about getting right back on a horse after it has bucked you off can be valid advice, it is sometimes better to wait until conditions improve a bit before getting back in the saddle. You might need to recuperate and you might need to let the horse—or river—calm down for a few weeks.
And finally:
  • DON'T go swimming on the Sabbath.

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