The crystal-clear water of the Nooksack River greeted us when we joined our friends far upstream from Ferndale in the foothills of the Cascades. Our Nooksack—where it flows through our town—is broader and colder and stronger and murkier. Still it’s a preferred play place for the hardy-souled in summertime. But this? This was a Nooksack River we did not know existed until Jim and Jeb discovered the gentle, warm stream of the South Fork.
Really the spot they found was at the confluence of two rivers where the mild, clear South Fork joins the turbulent, glacial North Fork. We parked just off Highway 9 and walked the potholed trail to the beach.
We floated and swam and soaked up the sun for hours: For the Pacific Northwest this felt almost like the tropics!
Afternoon waned and we returned to our starting point to begin the trek back home. The convergence of the two rivers was as clear as if a line was drawn in the water: The North Fork, filled with glacial sediment, was a sturdy milk-blue crested with choppy waves telling a story of speed and current; The good-natured South Fork disappeared into the North Fork's stronger flow.
Our son Benjamin and friend Jeb were in pursuit of fish. No poles and hooks involved, just swimming goggles and good eyes. They just wanted to see them. We figured the fish were here—we’d seen them upstream in the South Fork. What might the North Fork reveal? The boys ventured closer to the junction of the rivers and found what they were looking for. They dove and surfaced and dove again, capturing visual treasure, enjoying the camaraderie and adventure.
Benjamin was just a little further out than Jeb and he felt the ground cut away beneath him as the cold current grabbed him. He swam a retreat to the warm, placid South Fork, but he didn’t realize until that moment that he had no reserves. He had been in the river for a long time, and now, without realizing it, he was at the end of his strength. Now, at the moment he really needed it, he had no energy with which to fight his way to solid footing.
Jeb was quick to spot the trouble: “Are you OK?” he asked over the rushing water. “No!” Benjamin gasped. Benjamin was so close that Jeb reached out and they locked hands. Jeb pulled—pulled against the river that was pulling against both of them. But the river was stronger: He couldn’t pull Benjamin back to safety. Their grasp failed.
I don’t know exactly what Jeb yelled next: I was sauntering around on the beach with keys in hand, getting ready to go once the two of them returned to shore. They were in my peripheral view, but not the center of my attention.
I heard the yell, and glanced up in time to see my friend Jim, Jeb’s dad, leap to action from the other side of the South Fork where he was sitting, partially submerged, on a plastic lawn chair. I watched as he shouted and plowed through the water. In a flash, I understood. I ran down the beach, flip-flops flying off along the path, keys and phone dispatched along the route, and dove into the water.
Jim reached the boys some time before I did—who knows how much sooner?—and grappled with Benjamin while sending Jeb further back to safety. He held Benjamin up, but Benjamin was struggling for air, fighting to keep his own head above water. Jim fought the water and fought Benjamin—and he knew the fight couldn’t last for long.
I was oblivious as I plunged in and swam madly toward the current, toward Jim and my son. I was in a tunnel and rational thinking was somewhere on the outside in the world of light and air. I didn’t know—I couldn’t have known—that Jim was almost at his end, that he was despairing, “I don’t think I can save Benjamin.”
And then—I don’t know how long it took—I was there. I don’t remember noticing the current or the cold water. I just headed for my son, and, in a miracle of trust, Benjamin threw his arm around my neck and ceased to struggle.
We were still in the middle of the river; I was still in that strange tunnel that narrowed my focus to mechanical function. But the moment Jim was freed from the burden of rescue, his thinking focused and he was sharp enough to think for both of us. I was swimming vainly for the shore, trying to hold up my own head with the added burden of my almost limp son. Treading water in front of me, Jim shouted, “Swim right!” Right seemed all wrong—right would take us further away from the home beach, further through the current—but going right was with the current. I hesitated: Jim’s right (he was facing me) was my left. Jim shouted again, then started for the farther shore. In my tunnel, I just followed.
Strangely, in the life-and-death swim that ensued, I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed by fear. Emotions were somewhere on the shore with my phone and keys. I was in a match with the river, pitting determination against its relentless pressure.
I’d like to say that I cried out to God in my trouble, but I didn’t. The thought never entered my mind. I was conscious that my friend, Jim, was with me in the river. I was aware of the increasing pressure of Benjamin’ arm on my windpipe as I struggled for air. I was aware that my strength was failing, that it was almost gone. I was vaguely aware that I might have to peel Benjamin off to keep myself from drowning.
“I can’t make it!” I gasped.
And then I was there. My feet touched bottom.
We stood on the far shore panting and collecting ourselves for a couple of minutes before picking our way up the edge of the river to the place where the water suddenly turned warm again and we were back in the South Fork.
We returned across the easy water and looked back…
Jim’s girls had wanted to stay upriver longer, but Jim decided that it was time to return downstream to join us. When he arrived opposite our beach, he picked up a plastic lawn chair he had left on that side, and, instead of crossing the stream and loading the vehicle decided to sit down on the chair in the water facing the boys.
What if Jim hadn’t come back? What if he hadn’t sat down and watched? What if Jeb hadn’t called for help or Jim hadn’t heard and immediately responded? What if Benjamin continued struggling when I arrived? What if I had kept trying to swim against the current? What if I really couldn’t make it?
Jim and I sat down with our sons the following evening to look fear and death in the face, to retell the story, to weep for joy, to give thanks to the God for whom “what if” is mere fantasy, to praise the God who hears us before we call—and to pick up a few stones from this riverbed where God went with us through the peril.
“This is not a story of shame,” we told the boys. “It is a story to tell to your children and grandchildren.” It’s a story of our weakness—yes. But far more, it is a story of the kindness and might of our God. “You’ll need this story in the future,” we assured them.
It was as though we joined Joshua and the children of Israel on the banks of the Jordan River after their safe passage and together made a heap of stones.
“When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’… ‘so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever’” (Joshua 4:21-24).
You are mighty, O God, and we love and fear You. When we consider these stones again in times to come, we will remember that when we passed through the waters, You were with us; and through the rivers, they did not overwhelm us . . .for you are the Lord our God.
© Copyright August 2017 by Robert G. Robbins