Quicksand? Don’t Sink, Just “Dance” Across It

My husband lays shirt, shorts and boots on the rock. Pink as the sandstone around us, he walks toward the pool of water that blocks our way up this narrow canyon in southern Utah.

The pool is about the size of a big living room, maybe 30 by 20 feet. Jon will check its depth. If the water comes no higher than his chest — and my chin — we'll lift our packs over our heads and wade across. Any deeper and we'll turn around and try to find another route.

We're Easterners. We're familiar with fog and ice. Maine blackflies. Tree roots that twist ankles. Although we love these desert canyons, we know their perils mostly from books.

Jon steps into the chilly water. He yelps like a puppy, but strides on, buttocks bouncing. Soon, he's thigh-deep. "Easy wading!" he calls. His words end in a squawk. Jon's arms fling up, elbows stiff, fingers splayed. I hear the dread word: "Quicksand!"

Quicksand is odd: a bed of silt becomes saturated with water so that its grains no longer cohere. Heavy objects — a cow, a log, my husband — sink readily but can't easily rise. Quicksand creates a suction that makes it difficult to move anywhere but down, which is why creatures caught in it often die from exertion or starvation.

The locals assure us quicksand is a hassle, not a danger. "Do not panic," our map instructs us. "You will most likely not sink past your waist." But this quicksand is under five feet of water. If Jon sinks to his waist, his head submerges by at least a foot. He's already up to his armpits.

My husband of 37 years is disappearing. I look around for a long stick, but floods have scoured this canyon clean. I'd throw Jon a rope — if we had one. He sinks deeper. I pace the water's edge. Then suddenly, a mid-pool commotion. Jon is smacking his hands against the surface of the water and lurching forward. He looks silly but inches closer. I reach out, grab hold and pull. Finally, he emerges — a miracle of pink flesh.

I dry his mud-caked legs. Mystified, I ask how he escaped. He says he recalled something he once read in a book: quicksand takes a couple of seconds to break up.

Slapping the water for leverage, he began tiptoeing across the quaking surface of the siltbed before it could collapse. In that fashion, not unlike a giraffe pretending to be a member of the corps de ballet, he improvised a crossing to safety.

He's shivering. His skin is covered with goose bumps. I'm thinking: enough. Let's go back to hiking in New England where we know what's what. No more quicksand. No more near-death experiences, thank you very much.

Jon puts on his shirt, shorts and boots. He stands up, looks around and takes a deep breath. "Next time," he says cheerfully, "let's bring an inner tube."

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