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The Dumbest Things I’ve Done in NorCal: Swimming Across the Sacramento River

Photo by Tony Webster

Don’t try it. Redding in the summertime is a study in contrasts, contrasts that can be too much for the human body.

I remember one summer night pulling into town at 11:00pm to notice the I-5 digital temperature still pegged at a balmy 97 degrees. In other warm-weather localities kids can spend their summers barefoot and carefree, but not in parts of NorCal unless you’re looking for 3rd-degree burns. 

This is the second in a series of short, real-life stunts I’ve pulled (here’s the first), where better judgement should have prevailed, but usually didn’t. At least I learned a lesson.

Just so you don’t think I’m not a complete fool, I had reason to be confident in my swimming abilities. I led our college swim team to many victories, and I assumed death by drowning was something I’d never have to worry about. So maybe my main screw up was falling into the trap of being overconfident, an attitude that can get you killed.

The Sacramento River Trail above Lake Redding Estates is a wonder. It’s about a 5.5 mile loop with terrific views of the river and Bully Chupe behind Whiskeytown Lake. Over the years I’ve hiked and biked it hundreds of times. But there was that one day…

The river between the Diestelhorst Bridge and the footbridge below Keswick Dam in Redding is the narrowest part of the lower Sacramento River, so swimming across didn’t seem as ridiculous as you might think. Even though it was blast-furnace hot that day, I hadn’t figured on the frigid temperature of the water, or the gigantic difference between the air and water temperatures. It’s the coldest water in the whole system.

I thought it would be an adventure. I went shirtless that day just so I only had my running shoes and socks to tuck under one arm. This left me still able to side-stroke across the river, something I’d always been pretty good at. So I plunged in that day stroking and kicking for all I was worth.

 My first reaction to the frigid water was a huge, sucking gasp followed by involuntary hyperventilation. It took ten or twelve strokes before I got my breathing under control, but then I noticed my legs were less responsive and starting to feel heavy. 

By the time I was just beyond the halfway point, I could barely move my legs. They felt like stiff, dead weights and I let go of my running shoes so I could stroke with both hands. Soon I felt the bitter taste of panic.

Though only about ten feet from the far bank, the current was dragging me downstream much faster than I was getting closer to the bank. I fully understood my life was in danger. 

I don’t remember reaching the far side, but I obviously did. By the time I hoisted myself out of the river I was more animal than human. For minutes I fought wave after wave of intense shivering. My teeth all but chattered out of my head. 

The only silver lining to this embarrassing tale of stupidity and misplaced bravado is that I learned a valuable lesson that day. You hear about the dangers of hypothermia, but seldom about cold water shock (CWS) which kills more people. Not only did I experience all the classic symptoms of CWS, but was well on my way toward cold incapacitation, (CI).

Hiking back to my car barefoot on a summer day in Redding was my penance. Don’t try it.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

One Comment

  1. A few of us swam across the river in the Colusa area. Really don’t remember the water being overly cold but that was about 60 years ago… Memories wane.

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