Okay, stay with me; the good part’s coming up.
Here’s what happened: I was in first year at Carleton (that’s freshman for any American readers) and enrolled in this exclusive school-within-a-school. There were only about seventy of us in first year, with even fewer in second, third, and fourth. This one guy—I’ll call him Cube since he had a weird obsession with Ice Cube—decided that we should all get to know each other better and that the best way to do that was to go camping.
Cube was in second year and had worked as a guide or something at Gatineau Park. He knew the park, would organize the whole thing and could even get us a deal. As long as a few of us could supply tents and rides, we were golden.
I had grown up camping. My parents were both teachers so every summer vacation was spent in a tent by the shore of a different Ontario lake, but it had been years since my last camping experience. For that reason, there was no way I’d miss out. I informed Cube that I could supply a tent and provide rides for three passengers. He called me a king among men and said that about twenty people, total, would be joining.
Now, the ride up alone was eventful enough, but that’s a whole ’nother story. Suffice to say that my passengers and I arrived late, way past sundown, and before we retired to our respective tents, Cube told us that, oh, by the way, we’ll be exploring some caves tomorrow morning if we were interested. I went to sleep thinking, hell yes I’m interested.
So, that next morning about a dozen of us geared up for the caves. Cube, though, made it clear that these caves were really little more than a ditch. There’d be an hour-long hike, then we’d get to the “ditch” and we’d hike back.
It was September, a bit chilly, so most of us, myself included, dressed in jeans and flannel shirts. I strapped on my trusty Doc Martens.
The hike was uneventful but the temperature had begun to rise, so by the time Cube turned to tell us we’d nearly reached the caves, many of us had stripped down to t-shirts and wore our flannels around our waists; we looked less like hikers and more like members of a grunge band, hopelessly lost on the way to a gig.
Finally, we came to the caves; the caves were there. It became quite clear that Cube had been kidding—or straight up lying—when he’d described the caves as a “ditch”. This was no ditch. These were proper caves.
I was thrilled. I loved caving then and still do. Some of the others, however, were far less thrilled. Many decided to sit out the cave exploration, settling onto a patch of grass and sullenly nursing their water bottles.
As I breached the cave entrance, I was joined by a pair of fellow students—let’s call them Beth and Jenny. I knew them but only in passing, so Cube’s mission to have us get to know each other better through outdoor adventure was off to a decent start.
Still with me? I’m telling you: the good part’s coming up.
Just a few yards into the caves, sunlight began to fade. Given Cube’s rather understated description of the caves, I was surprised to learn that Beth had brought a flashlight. It was actually more of a penlight, the beam struggling to pierce the growing gloom, but it was better than nothing.
As we advanced, we realized two things: One, there was water in this section of the caves. A tiny stream trickled along the cave floor, winding its way between rocks and around boulders. Second, we were no longer alone.
Somehow, at some indeterminate point in time, a girl of about ten had joined our group, turning our trio into a quartet. I don’t remember the kid’s name, but let’s call her Dora, ’cause damned if she wasn’t gonna explore that cave, come hell or—well, we’ll come to that part in a bit . . .
Anyway, Dora was in full exploration mode, taking the lead, warning us of wobbly stones ahead, even shouting directives when she felt they were called for. At one point, she crouched on a boulder some three yards before us and reached back. “Hand me the flashlight,” she ordered. Confused and amused, Beth complied and we watched as Dora searched the darkness ahead, as though checking for possible cave monsters before allowing us to proceed.
“Uh, Dora,” Jenny asked, “are you here with anyone?”
“My dad and my brother,” Dora said, waving vaguely behind us.
We looked back and saw a man in his thirties, about twenty yards back, strolling leisurely along. The man carried a two-year-old boy in his arms. He did not appear to have a flashlight.
“Uh, Dora’s dad?” Jenny called. “Just so you know, Dora’s with us, okay?”
“Sure, cool,” came the bafflingly casual reply.
So the three of us exchanged shrugs and rushed to catch up with Dora, who’d forged ahead without us—and with our only flashlight.
As we did proceed, however, we noticed the little stream we’d initially encountered wasn’t so much trickling around stones as bubbling over them. We were finding it necessary to leap from stone to stone to avoid getting our feet wet. Eventually, though, that stream had turned into a small river and there was simply no avoiding the water.
And then the cave floor dropped out and there was nothing but water.
The four of us stood in a few inches of water, on the edge of what appeared to be a few feet of water. The stones and boulders gave way to an unbroken expanse, like a pond within the caves. We could either turn back or wade in. We’d come this far, so the two women and I slipped off our boots and rolled up our jeans.
But then Dora looked up at us and said, “I can’t swim.”
Oh boy. The three of us exchanged glances. Beth said to Dora, “Don’t worry, I’ll carry you.”
Dora shook her head. “No,” she said, “I want him to do it,” and pointed straight at me.
Fine. Okay. No problem.
The ladies waded in first, their gasps reminding me that it was September, inside a cave that saw zero sunlight, and that the water would be cold as hell. Their occasional painful hisses told me the ground under the surface was strewn with sharp pebbles. As they first stepped into the pond or lake or whatever you wanna call it, the water reached their knees but, within just a few yards, the water level climbed up their thighs to their hips.
By then, though, I’d stopped paying attention to the women’s progress. With Dora clinging to my neck, piggyback-style, I waded into the water myself. It was cold as hell. And, yeah, those pebbles were sharp. Within seconds, though, the cold water numbed my feet and I hardly felt it as the rocks bit into my soles.
As I trudged along, the water rising past my hips and then my waist, Dora said, “You remind me of my uncle.”
“That’s nice,” I said, understanding now why she wanted me to be Luke to her Yoda, “but can you relax your grip a tad, you’re kinda choking me.”
By then the water had reached my chest and was lapping at my collar bones, and the floor would occasionally drop out from under me, forcing me to kick to keep our heads and shoulders above the surface until I could regain my footing, but I could see the exit ahead. Sunlight streamed in . . . but not that much of it. The exit offered only about a foot of clearance above the water’s surface, and its upper edge was lined with jagged rocks.
If Dora smacked her head against one of those rocks it would be . . . not good.
There wasn’t room enough for both my head and Dora’s head, which stuck out some eight inches above mine. Inwardly, I sighed, knowing what I’d have to do.
“Okay, Dora,” I said, “I’m gonna have to go under so’s to make sure you don’t hit your head. I’m gonna be swimming, so I might not be touching the ground the whole time. Okay? That means your head might dip under water, too. Just don’t worry, okay? Don’t panic. I’ve got you. The whole time. I’ve got you.”
I felt her arms tighten around my neck, but she nodded and said, “Okay.”
Facing the exit, I took a breath and said, “Ready?”
“Ready,” she said.
I dived under. Dora went rigid but she didn’t panic, just clung hard. I couldn’t see much, the sun couldn’t reach beyond the water’s surface, at least not within the cave, but I reasoned that, once I was out, light would get through and I’d notice a shift in visibility. That would tell me when it was safe to stand.
I swam hard, trying to go deep enough to allow Dora’s head to clear the rocks without bringing her under the surface with me. Within seconds—which, of course, felt like minutes—the water cleared as sunlight filtered through. I brought my feet under me and stood.
Sunlight stung my eyes. The water here reached just a tad above my waist. Dora was laughing, soaked to the shoulders, maybe a bit wet on the chin, but her hair was mostly dry so I figured I’d done good.
Beth and Jenny stood on the shore with Cube, the three of them grinning and, next to them stood Dora’s dad.
That sonofabitch was standing there, two-year-old in one arm, waving with his free hand as he said, “Hey, Dora, have fun?”
So, yeah, okay, I didn’t exactly save the kid from drowning. But if I hadn’t been there, and if she’d tried wading through that water on her own, well, then, she might’ve drowned. So I stand by that title. I feel I’ve earned that title.
(Also, really weird to realize that girl, today, would be somewhere ’round 27 years old . . .)