I don’t remember the last time I willingly, and perhaps unknowingly, did something that made me laugh out loud – but I’m about to share one of those stories with you right now.
In the last post I shared my excitement about finding the Yellowstone River in the hostel’s backyard. From that day forward, I visited the shoreline as though I was courting a new-found friend.
The Yellowstone River is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states. 670 miles of undammed water rushes out of Lake Yellowstone and follows its natural course to the Upper Missouri River in North Dakota. When I first dipped my toes into the river it was running around 9,000cfs – that’s a lot of water per second!
My young colleagues, Adam and Parker, get their exercise by swimming downstream a few miles, then climb up a steep hill to get to the road, run back to the spot opposite the hostel’s shore and swim back across, all in less than 15 minutes. Everyone else just hops into the eddy to cool off after a work shift – or so they say. I’ve never witnessed this but had an idyllic picture of the process, so in celebration of my first full week of labor I decided it was my turn to cool off in the splendid Yellowstone waters.
From the shore the swimming hole looked harmless. The large rocks upriver create a lazy whirlpool circulating water counterclockwise back to the shore, along the “seam” and out into the river.
I guess I should have looked at this diagram before I jumped in.
Unafraid, or perhaps under-informed, I waded into the murky waters leaving a towel and some clothes neatly folded on the shore with my water shoes parked at the edge of the water. It wasn’t until I was about neck-deep that I realized I hadn’t been in a river without a life-jacket (much less clothes) in a very long time!
Being IN the water gave me a new perspective. The rocks along the shore now looked sharp as crocodile teeth, the riffle-making rocks at the head of the eddy were big as Volkswagens and water running beyond the eddy was moving downriver like a freight train.
Oh yeah, it was cold, too!
Faster than I could say “Yikes!” the current sucked me upriver along the ragged shore toward the big rocks. Just before colliding with the Volkswagens, a pillow of water pushed me away from the rocky barrier, gently turned me around and spit me into the river’s flow. That was kind of fun – until I realized the stream was stronger than my swimming ability.
Mild panic propelled me as I started paddle-thrashing (my version of swimming) as if a hippopotamus was after me. In a few
hours seconds I made it back into the eddy and was caught up in the whirlpool again. This time, in an attempt to anchor myself to terra firma, I grabbed some greenery dangling in the water. The little willow tree held fast, but the current was so strong I couldn’t gain footing on the slippery rocks, so I let go.
A little shiver ran down my spine as I took another spin around the eddy. When the current let go of me, I paddled back to the river’s raw edge and grabbed an irrigation line which turned out to be as slippery as a fish. I lost the grip, slipped into the whirlpool and started the spin cycle again.
This all happened in a matter of minutes, but it seemed like I had been in the drink for an hour. Cold, tired and trying to beat down panic, I made my way to the rocky ledge and braced myself against the current while I tried to figure out my next move.
As I pawed the sandy water out of my eyes and caught my breath, I noticed a slight movement on the beach and watched while the river licked at my earth-bound sandals and gently pulled them into the current. For a minute I thought someone was playing a trick on me, so I looked around to see who was watching, but no one was around.
First one, then the other shoe drifted slowly toward me as if guided by an unseen hand. It didn’t take long for my soggy brain to instruct my shivering hand to grab the sandals and put them on. In another flash of brilliance, it dawned on me that my tender feet were now protected and I could possibly navigate my way out of the water.
Once I gained my footing, I crab-walked sideways grabbing slimy stones, weeds, and branches to pull myself against the strong current to the safety of the sandy beach. Thankfully there was not a fisherman or raft in sight so I scrambled ashore, grabbed my towel and plopped down on the shore laughing out loud. Perhaps I was a little delirious, but I felt a happiness as deep as the eddy and as fresh as the silt-laden water!
I still visit the river everyday with renewed respect and timidity. The water is crystal clear now and running at 4,000 cfs, so I can see how smart it would have been to let the river carry me a little farther from shore to the shallow, sandy bottom where I could have easily walked out. Someday I’m going to put on the old swimsuit and try my hand at the whirlpool again. Until that day, I am happy to perch on my favorite “Volkswagen” and dangle my feet in the cool water.
Here’s a side note from Jackson, the NYLAH ambassador, “When in doubt, dog-paddle like crazy. You may not get anywhere but you will have fun trying!”
More adventures are on the way as I widen my circle of exploration. For now, keep your shoes and towel close by as you swim along with me. Thanks for following along – I appreciate you!