The Time I Almost Died in Lake Erie

Some of the many things that I like about Randall Munroe's XKCD comic is the honesty and intelligence that goes into every strip. His strips can make a person feel sadness for a robot on Mars, make people laugh, change a person's perceptions, and remind you of people you've known (and probably worked with). Today's comic was unique as it instantly reminded me of the time I almost drowned in Lake Erie, the shallowest and filthiest of the North American Great Lakes.

XKCD - Swimming

In the summer of 1992, when Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back and Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You seemed to repeat endlessly on every FM radio station in the area, my step-father's family was having a rather large get-together at Rock Point Provincial Park, which is not too far from the small town of Dunnville, Ontario. The exact number of people in attendance slips my mind but, as my step father came from a rather large family that multiplied to create many more large families, there were several dozen of us playing around on the beach and in the lake. As one of the older kids present, I was expected to be the "life guard" and keep an eye on the people swimming nearby. No problem. Then we started to play a game involving throwing a ball as far as we could ….

The rest of the story can be pretty much worked out from that one line alone.

The ball was thrown too far for any of the younger kids to get it, as they would have been no more than 10. So I swam out to retrieve the object. Getting to the ball was no problem but, when I turned and tried to make my way back, I couldn't make any progress back to shore. I would swim towards land, but see it recede with every wave. In my mind, I needed to push against something to get a little boost. This meant going down to the lake bed and pushing. I didn't think I had gone too far out, so the bottom of the lake shouldn't have been more than two or three metres from the surface.

I was quite wrong.

When I went under, I didn't find the bottom. I didn't find anything but colder water. Lake Erie is said to be a "fresh water" lake, but the green liquid is anything but drinkable. Visibility is less than 50cm on a good day. The light from the sun was completely gone and I was in a world of darkness. I panicked. There were no signs as to which direction was up1 and air was in short supply. My uncle Ron must have seen me go out to get the ball because before the situation got much worse, he grabbed my arm and pulled me to the surface. I didn't even know he was that close.

Someone told me that I must have drank half the lake given how much water was coughed up afterwards. I don't remember the coughing, but I do remember being carried to the beach and put in a plastic lawn chair.

Just like in the comic, I still get a little shiver of panic when I don't realize how deep the water is beneath me. This won't stop me from swimming, but it is a good reminder to pay attention and keep my wits.

  1. I hadn't yet learned about "following the bubbles"; releasing a bit of air and seeing which direction the gas rises. An uncle suggested that later.