Though this story happened years ago I still feel the chills and remember it as though it were yesterday.
To set the stage I must share one key bit of information about myself that I never tell anyone but I’ll disclose to you today. When I was 12 our family relocated to a small town on an island in Southeast Alaska. Sitka was a beautiful area especially when the sun was shining (which did not happen every day since it received over 100 inches of rain a year). Because it was on the edge of the ocean the townspeople decided that all children should know how to swim so they built an Olympic size pool at the junior high which was open for summer swimming and during the school year used for lessons. Fine and dandy, right? Well, except when my family moved there my sister and I thought we were too old for lessons since everyone else knew how to swim. This did not pose a problem to me until the semester before high school graduation. You know, the time period when school officials are reviewing your transcripts to make sure you didn’t miss an important required subject. They looked at my records: Good grades? Check. All required classes? Check. College application turned in? Check. Passed Basic Beginning Swimming? Whoops…where was that? After questioning me, and probably my parents, it was discovered that I had missed that important requirement for graduation and the swim teacher would have to tutor me or I wouldn’t graduate.
Oh the trauma I faced. Like a cat, I did not want to get into the cold pool, hated water up my nose and was scared when my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. But the swim teacher (who deserved a medal) did not let my protests sway him from his work and we practiced and practiced until finally I could jump off the low diving board, swim the length of the pool (without crying) and tread water for what seemed like an eternity.
Whew. I could graduate.
There you have it. I don’t call it a fear, I call it a healthy respect of water…naturally Matthew has the same feeling.
Back to my story.
Years had passed and I was married in Arizona and son Matthew was about five years old. In the mountains of Arizona there are many small manmade lakes. The Mogollon Rim country is idyllic especially in the summer, large puffy clouds skate across the sapphire blue sky. I often romanticized about wafting along leaning back in a small boat with my fingers gently skimming the clear deep water. Yes, I read too many romance stories when I was a teen… but I thought we needed to have a small little boat, big enough that we didn’t have to row but easy to transport to these mountain lakes.
In any case, the more common sense and practical spouse of mine suggested that we first try renting to see whether boating would fit our lifestyle, a smarter choice before running out to buy a craft we might rarely use. And so rent we did. Since Bob, Matthew and I were spending a week’s vacation in the mountains at my parent’s cabin it seemed this would be a great time to hire a boat for a day at one of the closer rim lakes. We picked up a nice 12-footer just a short drive from Blue Ridge Reservoir with plenty of room for the three of us.
The lake is contained in a long, steep and narrow canyon and is extremely deep. Tall Ponderosa Pine trees line it but few are able to grow roots in the bedrock so are only found higher along the ridge. From the boat ramp the reservoir snakes around to the dam. It is spectacularly beautiful. And for reasons that will soon become apparent you will have to be content with this picture from The Payson Roundup.
Or you can use your imagination and look at this photo I took last week up there when we discovered the lake has been drained for major maintenance on the pump system.
The day was everything I imagined: the puffy clouds, the big blue sky, the cool clear water. For a while we putzed around the dam, throwing our fishing lines in but not caring whether we caught anything. The remote location meant it was not a crowded lake but still we saw several other boats and fishermen angling for one of the native Arizona trout but happy to catch a still delicious stocked trout. It was just as peaceful as in my dream.
Until the sun disappeared behind the clouds.
We had lived in Arizona long enough to understand the threat of Monsoon storms but hidden down in this canyon we could see no sign of a significant weather change until the clouds were nearly overhead. Still, we weren’t concerned and just decided it was time pack up our stuff and head back. As we putted along with the little five horsepower motor it soon became apparent that the wind had shifted and now was blowing directly down upon us making forward progress difficult. The idyllic day was rapidly deteriorating, my bright blue sky dotted with cottony clouds of a happy Bob Ross painting was hidden now by dark angry strokes from a tortured Van Gogh scene turning into a full-fledged summer deluge with thunder and lightning bringing with it wind and rain. It happened that I was handling the motor at the time and we decided we needed a more experienced driver so that we could get off the lake as quickly as possible therefore we would need to trade seats.
Matthew was up in the bow of the boat enjoying the bouncy ride. But we knew changing seats in a small boat requires coordination so Bob and I talked about moving as we had done before. Everything went well, I moved to the middle seat and Bob to the rear…
And just as he sat on the bench a ferocious gust of wind pushed the bow of the boat up in to the air with such force that everything changed! In an instant Matthew was thrown out of the boat, our belongings dumped into the lake and the back of the boat rapidly filled with water. A half second later Bob realizing the crisis jumped out of the boat to take the weight out of the back end. He snagged Matthew, who was screaming his head off, but quite safe wearing his life jacket and at the same time with Herculean effort pushed the back end of the boat up out of the water. Where was I? Well, it turns out I was going to take that Basic Beginning Swimmers Certificate down with me to Davey Jones’ locker. Yes, I was hanging on for dear life in a sinking boat.
There we were, a screaming mess, a half sunk boat on the far edge of the lake. Not another boat in sight. Fortunately, our hero Bob still holding onto Matthew and holding the boat from completely submerging somehow managed to swim and pull us to shore. As Matthew and I scrambled onto the steep ledge soaked, covered in mud and crying our hearts out we watched Bob bail water out of the boat. In typical monsoon fashion, nature’s fury was pelting huge rain drops down upon us but the rocky shore was so steep we could not climb to any shelter. There we sat huddled in the cold rain.
And when I say ‘we’ I mean me because Bob did not stop to cry, instead he bailed out the boat and somehow managed to get the motor running. It took him a good amount of time to convince Matthew and me to climb back into the boat if there had been any other way to walk we would have taken it. The rest of the ride was uneventful; by then the storm had died and there was only the chattering of our teeth to be heard above the motor. It didn’t take us long to unload the boat when we got it back on its trailer because everything was left at the bottom of the lake; the camera, our fishing poles, everything. Bob’s company ring, long a source of pride like a fraternity, was gone slipping his finger off as he pushed the boat out of the water.
Even though this happened years and years ago none of us has had a desire to do anything but fish from shore since. So there it is: my most harrowing experience. A day I never ever will repeat because I never ever will get in a small boat again.