My friend Todd sat paddling in front of me and without warning he lept from the canoe. Whether he had lost his balance or his nerve I’ve never been quite sure but the sudden shift of his weight sent us both tumbling into the Guadalupe River. That year the river was running fast and deep with water released from rain swollen Canyon Lake and as I resurfaced, I could see Todd, our canoe, and all its contents disappear over the edge of the waterfall.
The rocks that crowd into the river on both sides of Hueco Springs Rapids are a common gathering place for white water enthusiasts to observe and encourage each other and several people were standing there. Shouting and pointing, they directed me to the right side of the fall where the transition through the rapids would be easiest; but their voices were drowned by the roaring of the water and the swift current made navigation impossible so I had little choice but to try and remain calm and let the river take me. The fall at the head of the rapids is not great, perhaps four or five feet. The danger lay at the base, where the rocks on either side squeezed the fast moving river into a churning maelstrom. I leaned back and went over feet first.
I was instantly disoriented. The incredible force of the waterfall held me and dragged me down, pushed me under and rolled me over tossing me madly about. I surfaced momentarily and gulped in a small amount of air, but the undertow quickly pulled me back below. I kicked my feet, feeling for the bottom in hopes of pushing myself away from the grip of the fall, but the water was too deep and I was caught, suspended in the swirling power of the river that twisted me round and around like a load of laundry in an industrial sized washing machine.
I was a good swimmer and I could hold my breath longer than most, but the effort of my struggle and the lack of oxygen quickly left me exhausted. I began to swallow water with each gulp of air frantically stolen when I cycled to the surface. The reality of my situation was clear. I was in trouble. I might not make it. I fought on, but I was too weak to break free.
There are moments when time becomes unrecognizable from our normal experience; when our attention is so laser focused on here and now that we lose ourselves completely. Time becomes compressible and hours seem like minutes. But time also stretches and events that occur in seconds can be shattered into fragments that can only be perceived, they are beyond our physical ability to react. Time also stands still, but in the seething water beneath the falls I lost all ability to tell the difference.
I’m so tired! My arms and legs ached from exertion. I’m going to die!
My lungs burned from oxygen starvation and I had reached the point where I could no longer hold my breath and soon I would either lose consciousness or give into the fatal overpowering compulsion to open my mouth and breathe in the water that was drowning me.
I was completely spent. Oh my God, I am going to die!
I thought of my wife. Who would give her the news?
I’ll never see my unborn son.
I had this weird sense of pity for those people downstream who would soon be pulling my dead body from the river. Who should have to go through that?
My parents, my friends, I would never see them again. They’d never see me. I was concerned for all the things that I had left undone in my life. For times when I had acted petty and self indulgent, for things I’d said in anger, for things I should have said and hadn’t. And then…
And then I was concerned with nothing at all.
Powerless to save myself, tired beyond comprehension, I was enveloped by a sense of all encompassing serenity. I stopped struggling. My struggle was over and the weight of my existence was lifted from me. It was as if I had given myself to the river and been cleansed of all pain and worry and care. There was no fear. I was there at the inevitable conclusion of all living things and marveled at the absolute calm of it. I felt like a traveler at the end of a long and arduous journey, but now I was going home.
I am not a particularly religious person. I don’t subscribe to any doctrine written by men claiming inspiration from God; but for the first time in my life I felt my own Spirit, not that my life was ending, but that it was about to begin. I was joyful beyond anything I had ever experienced.
I let go and I offered myself up and I stood at the edge of the universe and in that instant, a rope appeared in my hand and pulled me back. I was alive, but for the briefest of moments, strangely disappointed.