Every summer when I was growing up, there would be stories in the newspaper about people drowning in the American River. Sometimes the people were “missing” and were “feared to have drowned in the raging waters.” Other times, people fell from boats or were seen trying to swim across the river and were “swept away by the roiling current of the river.” “They’re dredging the river again,” Dad would say, shaking his head. “Too bad people have got no sense.” Then he would glare at me and purse his lips. “Never go into water where you can’t see the bottom. And throw in a stick to judge the current. If it goes under, so will you.”
I swam in the river a lot. On hot summer days I would ride my horse along the trail that wound through oak groves and across the piles of rock left over from the mining operations and follow a sandy path along the riverbank. About a half mile from the base of the bluff there was a beautiful little pool that had been formed by the water eddying around a boulder and carving out the soft sand of the bank. It was almost round and sheltered by the bank on three sides. The river swept in gently between the bank and the north side of the boulder, swished through the pond and left quietly through the channel on the boulder’s south side. A perfect filtration system. The pond was about twelve feet deep and the sandy bottom was always visible. It was my private swimming pool.
But out there, past the boulder, was trouble. Especially in the spring when the melting snow pack made the river surge and froth. The current out there was strong and fast. If you tossed a stick in it would disappear almost at once. “It’s like the ocean,” Dad would say. “One minute you’re there, the next minute you’re gone. Never turn your back on the ocean.” Or slip off a boulder.
There were some I knew who underestimated the power of those deadly currents. Or who thought they could swim against them. Hubris, the Greeks called it. Arrogance. Isn’t that one of the seven? A deadly sin? Where is the line that separates confidence from vanity?
The river in flood could happen all at once. You went to bed one night and the river’s song was mellow and soft but come morning there was a new song in the air. A song with a violent pulse and a raging lyric. It called to you to come and look and dared you to defy it. And you could see the current flowing like a great tide and you knew that there were boulders beneath the surface and that if you fell into that opaque water you would surely die. For the river was dark, and wild, and howling like a beast. And you were afraid.