Truckee River plunge

Who needs a water park when you have the untamed river to swim in?

James ponders making the leap into the Truckee River at a swimming spot 15 miles east of Sparks.

James ponders making the leap into the Truckee River at a swimming spot 15 miles east of Sparks.

Photo By David Robert

Editor’s note: Swimming holes abound on the Truckee River, but please remember to think before you dive in. There are no lifeguards waiting around to pull you out of the water should you run into trouble. And always check for rocks before diving.

You can’t dwell on the jump. Fix your gaze for more than a few seconds on the still brown water below, and the 40 feet between you and the Truckee River stretch, turning into miles of dangerous vertical territory where anything could happen. Death. Dismemberment. Belly flop. Prematurely empty bladder.

You just have to push your feet off the rock and plunge.

I found on a recent Saturday that there’s a lot that distinguishes me from a teenage boy. For instance, the balls to jump off a rock about as tall as a four-story building into the icy water below without first making a big deal out of it.

I drove out I-80 west toward Fernley on a Saturday afternoon with RN&R photographer David Robert, Dan and Eric Pike—two sons of RN&R Editor Deidre Pike—and two friends of theirs, Misty and James. Dan, 19, and Eric, 17, had graciously offered to be my “tour guides” for this day of plummeting into the Truckee River from Great Heights. They said they knew just the spot—an out-of-the-way mini-cliff about 15 minutes west of Reno. Rock jumping seems to be a natural part of teenage guy culture.

It was a hot May afternoon just after a bout of cold spring rains. I rode in a car with Dan and Dave, gazing out at the desert from the back seat as wind from the open windows whipped through the car. KRZQ was our soundtrack—though a fuzzy one as we drove out of Reno and began to lose reception. The highway, winding in and out of sight of the Truckee, snaked through the velvety brown hills, which had grown a stubble of faint green moss. Everything seemed a variation of green or brown. Spring is subtle in the desert.

About two and a half miles before Exit 36, out past Clark Station power plant, Dan pulled off to the side of the road. We piled out, and the youths led Dave and me past train tracks and over a short barbwire fence. Dave and I, not being 17 anymore, lagged behind as the rest of the group blithely trooped up the hill. A five-minute hike took us to a wide plateau. To the west of us, the river forked around a small grassy island, forming a brown, rippling V-shape in front of us. Misty, who had come along just for the ride, perched on a rock at the plateau’s edge, hugging her legs to her chest.

“It’s so nice out here,” she said, looking up at the bright blue sky. The breeze was stronger up on the hill. The air didn’t seem quite so hot any more. In fact, it was kind of cool, especially when you thought of the water. “We totally have to come here when it gets warmer.”

Misty, smart person that she was, knew to hold out for summer. The boys weren’t about to wait. They began to take off their shirts and socks. They headed for a flat rock about as wide as a chair that jetted out over the river. The diving board.

“It’s a little cold,” Dan admitted. He looked down at his sandals, unsure of whether to leave them on. He feared the cold water and the tricky climb back up through the rocks. In the end, though, he decided to take them off, just in case they slipped off in the river.

“Normally, one person stands out and hands you a towel,” Eric said.

“We should have brought a blanket,” Dan replied. He stepped onto the rock and jumped.

I watched as he sank through the air and plunged a few seconds later into the depths.

“It’s cold,” he said when he surfaced, swimming over to a rocky place that was angled enough to climb up. After a minute he emerged from the rocks.

“The water is cold. Let me tell ya.”

“Is it colder than Tahoe?” Eric and James wanted to know.

“Oh yeah. It’s like ice.”

Eric was next. Down he went. Up from the rocks he climbed.

“It’s so cold, man. Wow. Let me tell ya.”

I looked up at the diving rock just in time to see James step off.

“Ahhhhhhh!” said James. James likes to jump with sound effects.

Eric Pike, 17, does tricks on the trip down into the ice-cold snowmelt that is the Truckee.

Photo By David Robert

Filled with indecision, I watched the guys take turns again. It looked safe: The rock hung far enough over the hill that there was no danger of smacking into anything on the way down. And the boys said the water was deep—very deep. But this is one big jump, and over the last few years I have for some reason actually developed a fear of heights. (Aren’t you supposed to get all those irrational fears over with as a kid?) Plus, there was the report that the water felt not unlike an arctic bathtub.

But then again, you only live once. I decided to start out small. I carefully climbed down the rocks on the south side of the hill, gingerly avoiding bits of glass. I made it down to a rock that sat just a few feet over the water, stripped down to my swimsuit and board shorts, and surveyed the water for a few minutes. As I was pondering the potential coldness, I saw all three boys swimming over my way, having just done a group jump.

I figured they’d be impressed that I was even considering jumping in, but no. Dave came over and began taking pictures of the three climbing up the rocks. I figured maybe he’d be interested in the fact that I might possibly go in the water, but no.

“Uh, Carli, could you move out of the way?” he asked, brushing me off to the margins of his viewfinder with his hand. He wanted just the brave ones in his shot.

“OK,” I thought. “That’s it.” Everyone disappeared and I took the plunge. The water, I was surprised to find, wasn’t paralyzing. In fact, I began swimming right away and, as soon as my blood started circulating, the cold wasn’t bad at all.

OK, then. I can do the Big One.

I climbed back up onto the plateau and saw the guys shaking water from their bodies. Turns out that not only did I miss their group jump, but also Dan had done some stunts while I was staring down at the water like a sissy. Stunts that involved hitting the water at uncomfortable angles.

“I did a flip and a half,” Dan said. “It hurt like a bitch.”

“And I missed it? Do it again.”

“No way.”

I told everyone that I’d finally gotten the guts to jump. I edged up to the diving rock and looked down. I got scared again.

“Sure you don’t want to do it again?” I pleaded to Dan.

Obligingly, he went.

I was ready. I was psyched. I moved to the edge.

“No danger of slipping?” I asked.

“No,” said Dan, who had already climbed back up. “Unless you’re … crazy.”

I was crazy just to jump, but I did.

When I stepped off, my legs were taut, my body ready for the water, but things went into slow motion when I hit the air. I was paddling through space. I felt a split second of fear because my arms and legs were moving out, my body tilting back. I hit the water and felt a twinge of crotch pain, since my body had come unlocked from its “ready for impact” position.

I sank down into the water and opened my eyes again. I began kicking, cutting through the water with my arms, searching for air. I kicked and circled my arms a few times and, just when I began to wonder where the surface was, I saw light and broke through.

I had done it.

I climbed up the rocks, dripping. They guys still weren’t impressed, so I sought out Dave.

“Aren’t I brave?” I said.

“Yes, you are,” he said. “Yes, you are.”

Next: Par excellence