Yesterday with my wife, I did what turned to be an 8 mile walk along a river canal near Milton Keynes in the UK. We usually take a few pics on our smartphones along the way – photogenic narrow boats, rolling green landscapes and any wildlife we see. And the occasional selfie too. As you do.
Anyway, at one point along the walk, we passed over a short, concrete aqueduct, with a concrete spillway channel coming off it at right angles, to take excess water down to a lower channel, some 70m away from the main canal path.
I sometimes see a photo opportunity in my head ahead of time and thought I could pose, standing in the middle of the spillway, while my wife took a pic from above. At first glance, the spillway looked fairly dry and not a drop of water was trickling down it. I climbed partway down the waste ground (about the first 20m in distance from the main canal) next to the spillway and stepped down onto it, with my wife watching from the top. The spillway seemed walkable at first and not too steep to walk across. My hands left the side wall of the spillway and I gingerly started walking across it, to the mid point.
I noticed in the bottom section of the spillway, about 50m from where I was, that it flattened out. There were a series of concrete pillars on the flat section, regularly spaced. Each pillar was about one metre high – presumably to stop tree branches or other debris from going any further along the drainage channel.
Suddenly, both feet started gently sliding downwards. I used to roller blade and ski. So I knew about upper body balance, when you start moving in a diagonal direction. It was one of those moments when several things start flashing through your mind in quick succession. My first thought. This isn’t going to plan! The surface isn’t as dry as I thought. I can’t retrace my footsteps. Or quickly put a hand on the side wall of the spillway. I seem to be picking up speed. I can’t seem to use the edge of my walking boots to create any friction.
By now, most of me is touching the slimy surface and I’m moving my hands outwards for balance. I look below and see the row of concrete barriers that I’m heading for. As I approach, my speed is accelerating. I’m out of other options, so I brace for impact.
I think about trying to hit the barriers with both feet fairly close together, my knees slightly bent. I hope I’m going to hit one barrier square on and not slip half through the gap between them. My body is like a child’s body going down a slide in the playground. I’m not panicking. But I do have time to wonder how hard I’m going to hit. I decide to use my legs as a giant shock absorber and hope for the best.
The soles of my feet hit and I keep travelling. I’m still wondering whether my legs will stop me in time. Then just before my torso slams into the concrete, I stop. I have a second to register that nothing is broken and that I’ve made a clean landing.
It could have gone much worse. If I’d have panicked, or not acted quickly, I probably would be in hospital right now, with parts of my body in a plaster cast. If I’d been less lucky and there had been some metal or wood debris clogging up the concrete pillars, my landing would have been a lot more painful. Ditto if the spillway was longer or steeper. Or had potholes in it.
On the positive side, my wife is still speaking to me and I haven’t lost all credibility for making judgements. I also surprised myself in acting quickly in the heat of the moment. It’s been a long while since I’ve been in an unplanned adventurous situation, with skin in the game i.e. being out of control with a likely painful and hazardous ending coming for me personally.
What did I learn? That sometimes in life, the unexpected overrides your plan. That when it does, you become resourceful real fast, or suffer the consequences. That you can’t always change the unexpected. But you can ride it out and try to control the outcome. And also, that the work you put in earlier (lots of walking previously to strengthen my legs), sometimes pays off big time in a momentary crisis situation. And most of all, have faith in yourself and don’t panic. Brace for impact instead and hope for the best!