Sharon and Jeff set out early Friday afternoon, driving to the state forest for a camping trip. They got a coveted site right on the river and set up the tent. Jeff asked, “Did you remember the steaks?”
“They’re in the cooler,” Sharon said. “Start the charcoal and I’ll make the salad.”
“Did you bring potato salad?”
“That and corn on the cob. We’re going to be stuffed.” She grinned at him.
Jeff opened two beers and handed her one. Then he got busy with the charcoal. They watched the moon rise, sitting by the fire wrapped in each other’s arms. He predicted, “It’s going to be the perfect weekend.”
“I’m already having fun,” Sharon said.
Morning dawned hot and humid. Jeff said, “I’m going swimming, I’m just going in to cool off.”
“Wait until after breakfast and I’ll come with you. You really shouldn’t swim alone.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I just want to cool off a bit. I’ll stay within sight of the camp.”
“Stay within earshot. I’ll call you out for breakfast.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He changed into his trunks and stepped into the frigid water. He decided to drift for a while, let the cold sink through his bones. The river was wide and flat, relaxing, but he was looking for a little bit of a work out. The current was strong, but he didn’t notice it pulling him farther away from the camp. He could still see the cook fire, even though he had drifted. By the time he figured out the river was pulling him downstream, it narrowed considerably and the current picked up. He turned and went feet first between the boulders on his back, getting banged up a bit, but it was fantastic. He figured he’d get out after a mile or so and hike back. Sharon might get nervous if she couldn’t see him, but she’d get over it.
He was going to have to bring the kayak down here later today. Sharon would love it. Suddenly the river bottlenecked, got deeper and faster, churning into whitewater. Loud whoops and hollers echoed out of him, not that they could be heard above the roar of the water.
“Oh, shit . . . oh no!” He back pedaled, turning on his stomach. He swam as hard as he could, all the way over the cliff, and plunged into a pool nearly seventy feet below. He momentarily blacked out and came to on the bottom, at least twenty feet under water. He fought his way up to the surface, lungs on fire, and popped up spouting. The roar of the water was deafening. He swam to the quieter side of the pool to the side of the river the camp was on. He had no idea how far up the waterfall was, or how he was going to climb back up to the top. Looking up it was one sheer rock wall.
He sat and huffed until he’d calmed down, and then he started to worry. He automatically reached for his cell phone to call Sharon and then laughed falling back. It was back at the camp.
“Beautiful,” he watched the rainbow effect around the top of the falls in the early morning sunlight. He saw a group of vines running the length of the fall, just inside the water. He stood up and gave them a good yank. When they didn’t budge he twisted up into them and they held. He used one foot to leg up, and the other to slide the slack from the vine. He looked back once, about twenty feet off the ground, and was overcome with dizziness. “Don’t look down . . . just don’t look down.”
He was exhausted halfway there, but kept pushing himself. His muscles were on fire. He leaned against the cliffs face for a minute, trying to catch his breath. “Come on,” he urged himself. Looking up at the ledge that stood out a few feet he panicked. The vines were rooted under it and he had to get over it without falling, or he was dead. He knew the fall would kill him. “C’mon,” he growled, starting up toward the cliff again. The skin on his hands was peeling away under the stress and the roughness of the vines, and growing slippery between the water spray and the blood. His foot and shin were in no better shape.
He stopped to think just under the shelf of the cliff. About the only thing he could think of was to wrap up in the vines and attempt to climb up the face. The vines could break his fall, but then again they could leave him dangling fifty feet off the ground with a broken neck.
The idea was to secure himself on the vine, grab the shelf, and flip himself up onto it. He tested the rock ledge, pulling it hard. Balancing his weight on the cliff face he shook the shelf as hard as he could. A huge piece of rock let go. It bounced off his forehead and took most of the cliff around him with it. He slid down the vine, nearly lost his footing altogether. The rock almost knocked him out it hit him so hard. He touched his left brow; it was split to the bone. Blood was running freely from it.
“Slow down,” he warned himself, now dangling twenty feet under what had been the cliffs ledge. Blood dribbled down his head into his eye. “Shit.” He felt like he’d been run over by a truck. His bound foot was throbbing and his muscles ached as he inched back up. He stretched out as far over the cliff as he could and grabbed a boulder now uncovered from the falling piece of shale. The whole time the rushing water was deafening, and now streaming through where the ledge had been a few minutes ago. Jeff knew it was only a matter of time before the rapids claimed that spot and he’d be washed back over the falls. He tested the boulder once and then pulled his chest up. He grunted, pulling farther up. He was scraping his face raw on the boulder, the loose gravel surrounding it eating into his fingers, elbows, his legs. He finally got his hips up over the boulder and laid there panting, kicking the vines free. His nose was in the bubbling rush of water. “Yes,” he said. “Yes!” he shouted, jumping up with a burst of victorious energy. He carefully picked his way off the shale. He went twenty, thirty yards away, until the trees thinned out. Then he collapsed to the ground.
The sun was blistering hot and he knew he had to get moving. He knew he needed stitches, and he was never going to hear the end of it from Sharon.
He picked himself up and worked his way up the riverbed. It was mostly grassland, only a few feet along the edges were full of bushes, which he had to part to drink he was so thirsty. He heard the ducks nyuking back and forth, and spotted them in a quiet pool. There had to be a dozen of them paddling about.
He finally entered the river where it broadened and the water grew shallower. It wouldn’t due for Sharon to see him covered in blood and dirt and bleeding. He swam for fifteen minutes and had an acute need to lie down, so he swam back to the camp. It was nearly noon when he came out of the water.
Sharon was in a snit. She almost growled, “I thought you were going to stay within earshot. I was worried sick about you.” That was when she noticed how disheveled he was, the blood running from his eyebrow, his cheeks and fingers. “What happened?”
“Did you know there’s a waterfall down there?”
“I thought everybody knew. Why do you think I didn’t want you swimming alone? I would have told you if I thought you didn’t know.” Then she thought about it. He was from out of state, how could he have known?
Jeff collapsed in a lawn chair.
“Don’t get comfortable. You need to go to the hospital.”
“I know. I feel like I’ve been beaten.” He pointed at the river. “That river almost won. I blacked out when I hit the water under the waterfall. Technically, I should be dead. I just feel that way instead.” Sharon drove him to the hospital where they waited for hours in the emergency room. “Sorry I ruined our perfect weekend,” Jeff said.
“I’m just glad you’re alive.” She warned, “Next time I think I should call out the rescue squad I’m really going to do it.”