Baxil (baxil) wrote,

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A sobering swimming situation

kadyg and I headed down to the river at Bridgeport today to meet roaminrob and his brother Tim.

On our drive in, we tailed two different fire vehicles, and were passed by a third. At Bridgeport, they pulled into the parking lot ahead of us.

Unexpectedly, Rob met us in the parking lot. (Which was a relief. He's recently been learning to swim, and if there was going to be some sort of drowning, I didn't want him involved.) We quickly got the story from him -- especially since he had been within earshot of the incident, and had in fact been one of the volunteers who raced downriver to call 911.

Some background, first.

The South Fork Yuba River is one of the most awesome swimming locations within driving distance of civilization. The water is crystal clear, and in the summer heats up to swimming-pool temperatures. Bridgeport, and the river for a mile in either direction, is a maze of gentle white beaches and smooth, polished rock. The river is often shallow enough to wade across, but has many stretches of pools as much as 10-12 feet deep, offering plenty of opportunity for diving with goggles and fish-chasing; inner-tubing down gentle rapids; and leaping from Jumpy Rocks into the water.

The two best jumpy rocks on the river are upstream of the bridge and parking lot.

One of them is smack dab in the middle of the nearby large beach area that can draw crowds of a hundred or more on a hot weekend day; it juts out from the middle of the river and has three natural platforms (near water level, five feet up, and 10 feet up) in an arc around a depression in the riverbed with roughly eight feet of water. At the top of the rock, the third platform, is a small, roughly square patch of concrete -- apparently there used to be a diving board there at some time in the past, but it's long since been torn out, leaving only its base.

This concrete is one of the best features of the jumpy rock. Did I mention that the natural state of the river rocks there is smooth and polished? I wasn't kidding. It's nice, because you're not stabbing yourself or your feet when you're scrambling around on them ... but even the slightest bit of moisture -- and for that matter even when dry -- that shit is slick. To the point that even a brisk walking pace down any sort of slope whatsoever is a recipe for a pratfall, and any maneuvers requiring delicate footwork or a strong push are right out. A running start off of a jumpy rock is madness, and even a standing start can be dangerous if you're trying to strongly jump and put lots of pressure on your feet. Except for that little tiny patch of concrete, an island of friction in a sea of ice.

The second jumpy rock is some distance further upstream -- accessible by river and rock-scrambling, but much easier to reach by taking a hiking trail from the parking lot up to the canyon wall, walking down the broad, flat walkway to a set of crude stairs carved into the hill beyond the main crowds, and clambering down to the river on a well-used but tenuous path. From there, you can't help but see it -- you arrive at the river atop it, do a double-take ("People jump off of THIS?!"), and walk upstream down the rock's slope until you reach the water's edge about thirty feet below.

The stone of jumpy rock #2 is still slightly slick, but not polished -- it's well above the winter flood line. Yep, that's right. If a surge of water ever takes out the bridge you drive across the river to the parking lot on, you could sit on the jumpy rock and watch that wave blow by underneath you. Jumpy rock #2 is so high that you can stand at the top and squint, trying to make out swimmers through the atmospheric effects. Well, okay, there I exaggerate, but it's high enough up to give you vertigo as you lean over and peer past the edge.

You might think from this description that the canyon in the area of jumpy rock #2 has Half Dome-like vertical walls that fall away from view as you lean over the edge. You would, however, be wrong.

That's part of what's so vertigo-inducing about jumpy rock #2. You look straight down at the river and readjust your balance as you realize that "straight down" is about ten degrees off. In order to reach the water, you have to hurtle yourself out into space some 6-8 feet over the course of your leap. That distance is not a hazardous physical feat -- from personal experience, I know a solid standing jump will do it with room to spare, and the footing is reliable enough to allow that -- but it is certainly a feat of sustained bravery. You're high enough up that even a rough landing in the water is enough to leave you with a large, painful bruise.


Apparently, Rob explained, an adolescent girl backed up for a good running start on jumpy rock #2. (There's a nearly perfectly flat ledge about eight feet long behind the jumpy point. I never thought running starts were a good idea, but they're at least possible.) She made it within a few feet of the edge, and chickened out. The act of stopping, however, did not quite go as planned.

His first clue was the shriek. He turned and looked downstream. His second clue was seeing one of her friends, who was still atop the jumpy rock, look down, turn around, and lose his lunch.

As mentioned, Kady and I arrived at Bridgeport right after the fire trucks. They assembled paramedic gear and began hiking out while I paused to use the bathroom. Our destination was just beyond the accident scene, since we had to meet back up with Tim (who was still down at the river).

As we walked upstream along the hiking trail, a CHP medicopter flew in from behind us.

We stopped and looked down at the scene. The copter circled, looking for landing spots, and chose a broad beach just downstream of the jumpy rock. The three of us stared from just above, watching river grass flatten in the wind wash, watching the few people who had set up camp on the site scatter, watching the circling crowd stare up at the chopper from below. It set down, swinging its tail out over the river.

We descended to the river, passing the firefighter who was keeping watch on the scene from the hiking trail at the top of the stairs, me marveling at the closest I'd ever been to a helicopter.

The paramedics were there for about 20 minutes. There were about two people in the water that entire time, out of a crowd of perhaps two dozen. Mostly, they clustered and stared, silent or talking among themselves, on the gentle upstream parts of the jumpy rock or on the much shorter rock ("Sane Chicken Rock," it was christened last year by alynna) across the river.

Finally, the helicopter took off, flitting downstream before pulling up out of the canyon and circling out of sight.

Within minutes, the entire crowd had filed up the stairs and back down the path. Everyone. Every. Single. One.

Kady, Tim, Rob and I stayed near the site briefly -- although the three of them were already further upstream, leaving me to explore the area around the jumpy rock -- before deciding to retreat ourselves and seek better sunshine back at the large beach.

In the meantime, I did what I could to lift out the nasty energy the incident seared into the stones, but honestly, it was less of a cleansing than a taking-the-edge-off. I just didn't want to see one of the river's nicer sites continue to broadcast the taint from the dozens of strong emotions the fall produced.

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