A man’s got to know his limitations.
Harry Callahan- Magnum Force 1973
When I received the call from my brother that I was invited for a few days of trout fishing at Montauk Park, I didn’t hesitate to accept. At this point in my life I wasn’t much of a trout fisherman; in fact I didn’t even own a fly rod. I still fished mainly for smallmouth and goggle eye on my lightweight spinning reel and rod. It wasn’t the trout fishing I was looking forward to, but the chance to get away, camp out, sit around a campfire, smoke a fine cigar, and maybe, just maybe, go on a canoe trip once again. I was aware that Montauk feeds the Current River and hoping a one day float would be within reach.
As my boys had since grown up and moved from home, I would make this trip by myself. Joining my brother and me at the campsite would be a couple of brothers in law and a handful of nephews. Once we all arrived, the fishing began. Someone brought an extra rod for me and I muddled my way through the day, catching a couple of small trout, but coming in dead last in fish count. I was resigned to my fate, but still enjoyed the experience of standing in an ice-cold stream on a hot sunny day, watching everyone around me haul in fish after fish. In my defense I maintained that I was new to this kind of fishing and once I got the hang of it I would be catching just as many fish as everyone else (I was right, but the transformation wouldn’t happen on this trip).
The first night around the campfire, after talking about politics, movies, songs, old times, religion, and other important topics (we would throw out different topics and let each one around the campfire have his turn at answering; for example, “Name your favorite western movie, or comedy, or adventure, etc.”) we addressed the agenda for the next couple of days. To my delight we were going on a float trip on day three. I love fishing, but floating down a cool, clear Ozark river on a hot summer day is almost unbeatable for fun.
Not long after we started our journey downstream, we noticed a huge torrent of water rushing into the river from the side of the mountain. We parked our canoes and began making our way up the steep hillside. Once arriving at the top of the climb, we saw a cave with a large deluge of water pouring out; moving swiftly across the top of huge boulders and rocks and on down to the river. In order to get to the cave we had to cross an extremely perilous, cascading rush of rapids. The water was swift, about waist deep and the footing was precarious. One thing that happens to me when I get around a bunch of guys, especially nephews and other family members, is I lose my mind. I do things that I normally wouldn’t do. You might call it showing off, but I would rather call it being a leader and blazing a trail to unknown adventure (there may have even been some grunting and taunting going on: “Come on. Don’t be a chicken. What are you afraid of? It’s just a little water. What could happen?”).
Anyway, as we gingerly made our way across the swift current, doing everything within our strength and agility to keep from falling in and being swept down the side of the mountain, we all eventually made it across. In front of the cave was a large pool of deep water, blue-green in color and in order to get to the cave you had to swim across. The water was cold, but felt good in the summer heat.
Once we had all swam the distance, we stood at the lip of the cave and stared into the dark passageway. Back about thirty to forty feet from the entrance was a manmade fence, designed to keep curious passersby from going too far back into the cave. The water was about three feet deep and had an eerie green glow as if absinthe was pouring out from the bowels of the earth. The current was strong. As we stood looking at this wonderful creation of God, one of us threw out the challenge: “Let’s see who can swim to the fence and back.” That’s all it took for me; I was in.
We each took our turns, one after the other, with the older nephews going first. When it came my turn I took a deep breath, dove in, and began the swim back to the fence. The water was ice-cold and nearly took my breath away. The current was so strong that it took every effort to inch slowly forward, any hesitation causing a return to the start. The water was clear enough that I could see where I was going the entire time under water. Every one of us took on the challenge and were successful in our efforts, each touching the fence and returning quickly back to the cave opening. With goose bumps, purple lips and frozen toes inside our shoes, we congratulated one another with high fives and pats on the back and began the journey down the side of the hill to our awaiting canoes.
Once in our canoes we resumed our journey downstream; fishing, stopping for lunch on a gravel bar and swimming in some of the deeper holes; we were clearly enjoying a great time on the river. Around one bend we came upon a bluff, fifteen to twenty feet above the water, and noticed a few teenagers climbing the rocks to the top of the bluff and jumping in. The nephews all shouted for us to stop, not wanting to miss this great opportunity. I viewed this as my chance to do something no one else was willing to do (show off).
Watching the others for a brief moment, I noticed that each of them was doing a basic jump; with arms outstretched in a windmill motion, shouting on the way down, and entering the water feet first. I was convinced that no one else was going to “one up” me on what I was about to do, so I frantically hurried up the rocks until I reached the top of the bluff. This was the moment I had been waiting for and I had to be the first in the family to go.
As I walked to the edge of the precipice I shouted to all within earshot (the remaining adults were still sitting safely in their canoes, awaiting the coming attraction), “Hey boys, watch this!” I stood on my toes, back to the water, and prepared to do something that I had done a thousand times before, a simple back flip. For some reason, as I pushed off, I must have had a little too much adrenaline, wanting to make sure I completed the full flip, and I over rotated; somewhere between one and one and a half rotations (one and a quarter to be exact). SMACK! was the sickening sound as my back violently hit the water. The pain was sharp and excruciating as I slowly sank to the bottom of the river.
Lying submerged on the bottom of the river I was feeling multiple sensations. Pain was the first and most obvious, but that would soon go away. Embarrassment was another and this led me to stay under the water far beyond the normal amount of time. (In the Olympics there is always a camera on the platform divers as they enter the water and gracefully push-off the bottom to triumphantly return to the surface, cheering and clapping awaiting them as they exit the pool. Not me.) From the bottom of the river, wincing in pain, I could actually hear the muffled sound of laughter coming from the surface of the water; adding unnecessary insult to my immediate physical pain. It seems that I was the entertainment du jour. Just under the surface, peering through the water, I could see my nephews bent over, slapping their knees and clapping their hands, unable to contain themselves. Once I was composed I finally swam to a shallow spot and as I emerged from the water I said to no one and everyone, “I didn’t see any of you guys do a back flip.” That was all I needed and we loaded back up and continued down the river. As we slowly floated down a long deep stretch of water, I heard my nephew Tymon exclaim, “Uncle Ronnie, that was pretty funny. If we see another bluff, would you do it again?” The rest of the trip was uneventful.