They say drowning isn’t loud.
These were the only two words I could quietly say as the early morning waters of Flathead Lake began to take my life.
After a couple of very difficult years and overwhelming last few months that culminated in the recent passing of my father, we left town for a few days’ retreat to decompress, camping on the northeast shores of Flathead Lake. It was just what we needed to unwind, relax, and reflect on the difficult journey we’ve been on these last few years. It was a perfect little getaway, except for the almost drowning part.
I should clarify a few things before I get into the details of the story:
First, I am not speaking hyperbolically or crafting a metaphorical story or even expressing an artful dream sequence. This event really happened just a few days ago, and I was likely only a few moments from losing my life on a quiet July morning in the still waters of Flathead Lake. Secondly, even though I have always known that I am not a strong swimmer, I’m not particularly afraid of the water. I enjoy most watersports, outdoor recreation centering around lakes, oceans and rivers. I am renewed and healed by the peace and serenity that comes from being in and around bodies of water. Thirdly, I’m typically very situationally aware. I’m pretty good about risk assessment even when I’m being somewhat impulsive. I like challenges, and even a little risk taking, But I don’t typically enter life threatening situations by choice without reasonable safety precautions. Lastly, had my wife not followed her instinct to stay on the empty shoreline instead of heading to the public bathroom a few hundred feet away, our family would have been planning my memorial service this week alongside my father’s.
I wish I could claim there was something particularly challenging about the scene that nearly took my life, but I can’t. It was by all accounts an idyllic and peaceful morning with the rhythmic sound of the gentle lake, not yet agitated by the day’s activities, lapping peacefully on the shoreline a couple of yards from our camp chairs. The healing and timeless sounds transported me to the summers of my teenage years on the lake for our youth group’s annual waterski camps -- happy memories of simpler times – while Sherry and I ate our camp breakfast and reflected.
We are accustomed to change. If you know us, you are probably already aware that we are quite capable of handling most of life’s difficulties and setbacks by holding expectations loosely and being willing to pivot on a dime. To be honest, it’s part of our DNA as a couple. We don’t do “normal” that well and are typically at our best when we are leaning into life’s headwinds. That being said, it was time for us to unpack some of the trauma we have been holding onto over the last few years, and a quiet few days on the lake seemed like a good way to start.
So maybe it was a mental fog that clouded my judgement on that beautiful cloudless morning or the emotional letdown I was experiencing in that uplifting setting.
But as we sat in that still tableau, an impulse came to me. “I’m going to swim out to that buoy and back - because I can!” I announced to Sherry, abruptly breaking the serenity of our morning respite. “It’s just sitting there, taunting me!” I recall justifying to my amused and obviously skeptical wife who hadn’t even said anything yet in response. After 30 years together, she’s pretty used to my impetuous behavior by now, and is typically resigned to let me fail or succeed on my own terms. To be honest, it was less about wanting to swim that early morning and more about actually claiming a sense of personal autonomy and ability to act quickly on an independent thought. I used to live in the moment and operated with a strong sense of self-determination. I wanted that feeling again. Swimming out to the buoy was a chance to act with free will, a fleeting thought turned into an action to reclaim my independence. I stepped behind the tent and slipped into my swim trunks.
Standing on the water’s edge in my flip-flops, my thoughts percolated for a moment. It’s really not that far -- I can always just dog paddle if I need to – I’m in the best shape I’ve been in for years – I just ran a 5k – My sister is good at swimming, so maybe I could be too – I always like a challenge – I can do this! That’s not far!
And then the one fateful thought that almost killed me – I’ll need to walk across all these uneven rocks; maybe I should go put on my water shoes instead.
Protective water shoes. The irony is only now just sinking in.
I was distracted, momentarily focused on the discomfort of walking barefoot across a rocky shoreline, and never once considered how strapping on heavy webbed footwear would hinder my already limited swimming abilities, wearing me out to the point of total exhaustion. Oblivious to my fate, I returned to the picnic table and donned my soon-to-be antagonists of this story.
I have owned these water shoes for many years now and I’ve never really liked them. They were big and heavy with excessive nylon webbing and were very hard to get on and off. But once strapped on, they were admittedly quite sturdy, fine for kayaking or rafting and walking in and out of the shallows of a lake or river. So, I kept them and wore them for well over a decade. After all those years of hard use, they were beginning to finally show some signs of wear. Some layers were separating and one of the tie strings that laced the whole thing up like a shoe had failed so I decided to just remove it. I thought it was a good idea because it made the water shoes a little easier to get on an off while still feeling quite secure. I considered removing the lace on the right shoe to match the now floppy webbing of the left, but decided not to as it would have been an annoying process and it seemed unnecessary at the time. So equipped with no life vest or flotation device, I waded into the chilly morning waters with my mismatched and ill-fated ballasts on my feet.
The swim started out innocently enough. After leaving the shallows I began to explore various strokes, all of which I clearly have little form to speak of. After some time in the water, I was greeted by two kayakers who were exploring our quiet bay before the crowds of day-users arrived. There was no one else in the water other than the three of us. I treaded water for a few moments as we exchanged a few pleasantries. As I idled in place, I can recall having my first fleeting thought of concern. The webbing of my water shoes was creating a significant extra drag as I strained below the surface to stay afloat, stealing precious energy that I could not afford to lose. However, I pressed on toward that sinister buoy which suddenly seemed to have moved farther from the shore than I remembered just moments ago. I attempted to swim again, but with every motion the shoes continued to drag like weights, adding resistance to my efforts and limiting any substantial progress. Doubt entered my mind and for the first time I felt the vulnerability and isolation of my situation; anxiety began to take control.
Reflecting on this moment as I write this account, I can now easily identify the signs that indicate I was already in a losing battle for my life, but in the moment my judgement did not have the luxury of this perspective. I had tunnel vision on achieving my goal.
According to the internet, I was already displaying some of the tell-tale signs of someone drowning. First, from that moment on, I never got back to a horizontal position, which would have allowed me to use my legs to kick hard to catch that buoy. I remained generally upright with all my energy being consumed too rapidly. My water shoes suddenly felt like anchors – an energy-sink like kryptonite to Superman – my legs could no longer save me. Secondly, I was very low in the water. At this point I just could just barely keep my face above the surface. Panic was beginning to set in as I realized I had nothing to support me to gain a moment of rest or to remove these bricks attached to my feet. Thirdly, all efforts were focused on my arms. I recall feeling the instinctual need to reach, grab, pull or hold onto something that just wasn’t there. All my energies automatically re-routed to this seemingly futile life-preserving instinct. And lastly, my eyes and my mind began to cloud over. I could not think beyond the immediate task of survival. I didn’t have the time for deliberation or to consider new actions. It was like my mind shut off all extraneous input to focus on self-preservation. I tried to calm my mind, as my neck strained to hold my head above water against my own sinking weight, suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my neck and felt a sudden surge of an extreme headache like something just burst.
I abandoned my goal of reaching the buoy and was instantly aware of the danger I was in. I looked back to the shore and felt the rush of panic overtake my body.
The buoy could have provided me something to grab onto and rest, but it just seemed unrealistic and out of reach now, but abandoning it meant I had no hope of any immediate relief. I no longer had the physical or mental resources to help myself and I couldn’t even reach my water shoes to remove them, especially the right one that was securely strapped around my ankles. They continued to pull me under, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. It was that moment I was aware that I was at risk of drowning.
This was not the first time I’ve been in a near-death moment. A couple of years ago, Sherry and I found ourselves in a risky situation while hiking in Glacier National Park. A few poor decisions and some clear lack of survival readiness put us in a very serious life-threatening situation. And about a decade ago I was nearly crushed by our van while simply changing a tire. That vehicle that took our family all over the US with little incident, rolled off the jack stand while I was retrieving the spare tire mounted under the chassis. I recall the moment the trailer hitch landed dead center on my chest expelling all my breath from my lungs. Somehow, by God’s grace, I was able to squirm out from under this crushing force because even though I had removed the lug nuts of the rear flat tire, I had left the tire in place holding the weight of the vehicle just enough as the hitch pressed my torso to the pavement. Both of these life-threatening events, as well as other risky situations of the past, however, were on dry land. Being in trouble in the water is a completely different story.
Glancing back to shore I called out, “Sherry. Help.”
How I found the focus, lung capacity, or even the words to call for help in that moment, seems like a miracle to me. I don’t recall much after that feeble call for help. I didn’t hear anything, and time seemed to churn in slow motion as the water gurgled in my ears and I struggled for air. I remember wondering as my world went dark if she even heard me, or what she could possibly do if she did.
A friend of mine drowned in the Bitterroot River many years ago on a fly-fishing trip. He got tied up on a log jam and was pulled under. I’ve often thought about the panic and the struggle he certainly went through as he fought for his life. Did he ever call for help? Could anyone even hear him if he did? What were those last moments like struggling for your life all alone? He unfortunately lost his battle; his body was pulled from the river later by a search and rescue team. Was this to be my fate as well?
What happened next is only recounted from what I have been told, as I have no memories of the minutes after my call for help.
Sherry was on the shoreline in the quiet campground where I had left her. The state park we were camping in would soon be filled with the generally happy noises of day-users. The sounds of children playing in the water, boats motoring around pulling skiers or dragging teenagers on tubes and moms and dads bustling about trying to make happy family memories were soon expected. But for the moment, the campground was quiet and still as we were one of only two occupied campsites in our section of the park. The other camper in the site just down the trail from us was up and tending to his morning routine while an older gentleman was wandering the shoreline, tossing sticks for his two energetic yellow labs.
Sherry had considered taking a walk up to the public bathroom a few hundred feet away as she saw me frolicking around in the water. He’s not taking his swim very seriously, she later recalled thinking. He must be just having some fun playing around. But her instincts overrode her personal needs and she decided to wait, as long as I was still in the water. Had she not been there to hear my calls, I certainly would have drowned.
“Are you serious?” she recounts calling back to me after my quiet call for help. I was silent. Apparently, my lack of answer back was evidence enough for her. “Hey! Somebody help me!” she shouted as she kicked off her sandals and flung off all unnecessary accessories while dashing into the water towards me. The day before she had gingerly and slowly waded into the shallows for a swim, but this time she jumped in headlong, not exactly knowing how she would even be a help when she got to me. Fortunately, our neighboring camper was nearby and he also jumped into action, swimming on the diagonal from his nearby campsite and reaching me at the same moment Sherry did. He was a strong swimmer and quickly took charge of the situation. The two of them began to pull me towards the shoreline. The kayakers from earlier who had long since moved on, heard the commotion and quickly arrived with a life vest tossed by my side. Even one of the yellow labs on the shoreline was apparently ready to jump into action having been trained as a rescue dog.
I don’t really know how long all that took, and I have zero recollection of any of it. My next memory was being supported from behind and a life vest splashing to the side of my head. I discovered I was holding one water shoe in my left hand, attempting to use it as a paddle while the right one was still firmly fastened to my motionless foot. And then suddenly, I could touch the bottom. Everything was fine again. I was one breath away from going under when they saved me. I must have been able to hold that last breath while underwater because water fortunately hadn’t filled my lungs yet. I spluttered and coughed a bit but was no longer in respiratory distress. Shocked and embarrassed but grateful to have survived, I gingerly walked the rest of the way to shore noting the irony of my right water shoe now protecting my foot from the painful rocks.
And just like that it was over. No paramedics or park rangers or forms to fill out. Just a lingering sense of gratitude a little shock and some raw adrenaline to process. Oh, and the stiff neck and sharp headaches, that haven’t fully gone away yet. I tried to take a nap shortly afterward, but the nerves and adrenaline had not yet worn off, so we decided to go for a long walk and then take our new mountain bikes for a spin later that day. Emotions and nerves finally settled down and we talked and cried a little over what could have happened. I quietly thanked God for giving me more time to spend with my wife. Later that evening we decided to put it behind us and learn from it and the rest of our camping trip was lovely.
To be honest, the event now feels like an anomaly to what was otherwise a wonderful few days of getting away. I am tempted to just brush it off in order to not dwell on what might have happened, but I am sobered as to the impact this near-tragedy could have had on our lives. This shouldn’t be written off and ignored. My experience has given me some perspective that directly applies to our future travels. Here are just a few lessons I learned from that crazy day:
Know your limitations. I am 54 not 24. This certainly doesn’t mean I can’t do challenging things; it just means I need to be sure they are within the realm of good judgment.
Practice situational awareness. This is a skill that must be rehearsed to stay useful. Having good situational awareness is not the same as being an alarmist or fear-monger. It is a tactical skillset that keeps your mind actively calculating and anticipating the possible outcomes in any situation.
Mitigate risks. I could have worn a life vest or swam with a floatation device or even just tested my ability to swim any distance prior to launching into unproven territory. There is no reason to not have a contingency plan.
Improve communication. I should have been more proactive in communicating with my wife about the potential risks of my activity. My confidence and determination may have given her false assurances even to the point of her almost leaving me alone in my moment of crisis.
Be educated. I am now much more aware of the silent signs of drowning. It’s not like the movies where someone thrashes about and is loudly calling for help. The signs were there, why didn’t I recognize them? What other survival skills should we be training for to be better prepared for our overland travels?
We have big dreams and plans for our future, and it’s hard to fathom that those dreams could have ended in this moment of indiscretion. I am certainly humbled and grateful for the instinct and fast actions my wife and the campground neighbor took. They truly saved my life. Apparently, God doesn’t think I am done here yet. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from this experience and apply the lessons I’ve learned to our adventures yet to come.