The hike through the trees and up the boulders has made me very hot and sticky. I almost lunge up the last bit of path and stand dazzled by the sky and water. Ward stands beside me as I peel off my tank top and fan myself with it. Below us are giant slabs of smooth rock that disappear slowly into the icy, blue water of Georgian Bay. There is no sand but it is a beach nonetheless and we watch the people paddling around and sunbathing for a moment. There are two paths open to us from our vantage point high above them. One, to the left, is rock-strewn and treacherous even on a dry, windless day such as this. It leads to a graveyard of ancient boulders that line the entrance to The Grotto, a water cave. There are people down there but we turn to the right and climb down a gentler path to join the party people.
I sit on the edge of the shelf, my feet dangling in the cold water and drink deeply from my cooler. Ward brings me another one and we sit companionably staring down at the depths. The water up here, where Georgian Bay meets Lake Huron is as pristine as you can find. I can see the bottom but have no idea if it is fifty or one hundred and fifty feet below. I feel the alcohol working on my brain and I relax onto my back, closing my eyes. The sun is beating down on my body and the voices of the laughing kids start to fade.
“Come on, let’s swim.” I shield my eyes and look at Ward. He is in the water in front of me. I hesitate – I am comfortable and warm but he smiles at me and I slip in beside him. We swim out and around the towering cliff that encloses The Grotto then pause. We are out of sight of everybody and I gaze out at the endless water. It is easy to imagine that we are the last people on earth. I look up to the top of the sheer cliff to the spot we stood on when we emerged from the climb. It is far above but I am able to pick out a figure standing on the edge. I start to wave but stop when Ward says we should go to The Grotto.
“Ah, I don’t know…we’d have to swim back around then climb the hill then scramble back down the other side….”. Ward is shaking his head.
“There’s another way in.” He points at a darkish smudge on the cliff wall beneath us. The water distorts the image as I peer into the depths. Now, I am shaking my head but he ignores me, continuing.
“Yeah, scuba divers use this to get in. All we have to do is dive down and swim through.”
“You are insane. Do you KNOW what scuba means? Do you SEE a big tank on my back? We can’t even tell how far down the hole is!” He laughs and warms to his topic.
“Nah, people free dive in too. You are an excellent swimmer, let’s do it.” I gaze at him, treading water.
“You don’t even know how long we would have to hold our breath or…anything.” I finish lamely and he smiles jovially – he knows he has me, again.
“Forty-five seconds, maybe a minute, that’s it. I’ll go first.” My brain is mentally preparing to hit the road. I am caving and it wants no part of such inanity.
I am terrified.
Alarm bells are going off – it’s taking too long to reach the gash in the cliff. I almost turn back but I can sense Ward pulling me along. The tunnel is small and I scrape my arm on the side. I do not feel it. Suddenly, we are through and I look up at light above me. I kick frantically, almost clawing my way up and burst into the cavern. Ward grabs my arm. He is grinning wildly.
“That was cool! Are you ok?” I nod and look around.
A few people are scattered around the cave, gazing at us in wonder. I scarcely notice them. The pool we are in is reflecting the light and prisms of blue are streaking across the walls and ceiling. I am fascinated by this vantage and laugh, delighted by the scene and the excitement in getting here. The only way to reach the water we are in is via the hole in the outside cliff and I have never been in the pool before. After a long while, I look at Ward. He is floating on his back, his hands behind his head as if he was in a hammock. He glances at my radiant face and chuckles then winks and goes back to staring at the cave.
We leave the way we came.
Perhaps we are both drawn to water in the same way because we find ourselves one day floating down The Grand River on large inner tubes. Beside us, the walls of the Elora Gorge tower and we admire the myriad of rain-fuelled waterfalls that have sprung up overnight. We have tubed a few of the rapids already but this is a slow spot and we are just supine, letting the gentle current push us onward. We chat and pass a drink back and forth, waving lazily at fellow tubers drifting by. I take a last sip and start to maneuver myself into rapid-riding position. The Big One is coming up next.
This rapid is fairly severe for a tuber. It hooks to the left and has a big drop. The current tends to push people toward the gorge wall and as many people get tossed as make it through. Because of its lie, it is possible to climb out on the right and bypass it. Many people either do that or run it and climb out below and go back to run it again. Ward and I are old pros and do not fear it but we have also been scraped up pretty good on the rocks when we have been tossed out. We plan to run it a few times before carrying on downstream.
Neither of us is tossed and I paddle madly to make it to the side before I sweep past the landing area. Ward is sitting about halfway up the rapid on a large rock watching me clamber out. A benevolent smile creases his face and he sips happily from the bottle. He waves me over and I join him. He doesn’t say anything for a moment and we enjoy the sounds of the crashing water and screams from dumped tubers.
“You see that section of rapid there?” He is pointing at some rocks and water that look just like the other rocks and water. I nod uncertainly.
“There’s an underwater chute there.” I look at him sharply and he turns that high-voltage smile on me.
“Forget it Ward.”
“No, seriously. I’ve seen some guys doing it and they told me it’s cool.” I hold my hands out.
“Slow down, Tex. The river is filled with rocks and this current is strong. You can kill yourself easily and nobody would even know where you were.” He waves his hand in dismissal.
“You just sit right there and get your knees up then let go. The current will pull you down and guide you through the rocks. It’ll pop you out down there.” He waves vaguely downstream and I narrow my eyes.
“Ward, listen to me. I am a lifeguard and I am urging you not to try this. It is stupid. What if your clothes get caught on the rocks or you run out of breath or bang your head?”
He laughs and hugs me.
“Everything will be fine. I will go first. I don’t think you have to hold your breath for too long.”
As usual, I am helpless to resist this man. He is all about living life in the moment and with me, he holds all the cards. He knows I need his kind of excitement. He knows I will follow and I do.
He gets in position and looks back at me, winking, then disappears. It seems a long time and I grow apprehensive but then his head emerges downstream. His face is alight with the rush and he gives me thumbs up. I edge midstream and close my eyes for a moment then let go.
The current yanks me down and I am indeed in an underwater channel. Smooth rock walls form s-curves and it is the strangest feeling. I cannot keep my legs up so I am vertical, being pushed through and around. The water is raging above me – I am in the middle of its fury but it is serene down here. My fear is gone and when I finally break the surface beside him, I hug him hard, laughing. We stare at each other then he grins.
“Wanna do some cliff jumping?” I dunk him.
Ward moved to Africa and I received an email from him the other day. It reads, in part:
“If you are coming this far then there are some things you gotta see! Safari in the Serengetti - or at Treetops - then there is hiking in the rain forest to see the great apes, then there is a 2000 year old Arab stone town on the Indian Ocean with no cars and clothing optional deserted beaches, and it is on the edge of a part of this world which is really, really truly Iron Age (ain't no white man there.)… and there is southern Mozambique by Ultralite... to see the whales and dolphins give birth and we can live on fresh spicy sea food curries all day... Ya, and we can swill down major quantities of fine wine in Cape Town when all is said and done (actually, in the charming 350 year old French Huegonot village of Franshoek nestled in the mountains - about 40 minutes away from my place…oh, and I left out the really exotic parts!! All kinds baby – start packin!”You bet I am.
Paris Wispy is a writer originally from Toronto, Canada and currently lives in Miami, FL.