The Bravest Boy
He was a teenager, maybe 15 at the time and had been afflicted with, I believe, Polio and wore a big brace on one leg. The kid was smart, likable and had a pronounced limp and an easy manner. His dad, Nick Arms, was on the staff of the park. I was working a night shift and was at home during a beautiful day when the phone rang and I was called to a rescue. The site was just a couple of hundred yards from my house and so I pulled on boots, grabbed a rope and first aid kit and ran down to the edge of the Merced River.
At El Portal, the Merced River rushes by with the full load of water coming down from the high country. It pours out of the cascades and runs down through the National Park and miles below to a series of impoundments where it is stored and metered out for various uses. Formerly a stream with one of the southern-most runs of salmon and other anadromous fish, the river is so over committed there is no longer any water getting into the San Joaquin River and on to the ocean.
All of those beautiful waterfalls we marvel at were feeding the river on that day, and it was running high and cold. Out in the middle, in a swift current, clawed onto a five or six foot granite boulder I spotted the Arms boy hanging on in the rough current. On the rock in front of him was his five or six year old brother. I scrambled down the twenty foot embankment and uncoiled my rope.
Bob Dunnigan, the El Portal Supervisory Ranger and Nick Arms, the boy’s father, accompanied by a couple of other men showed up with rescue gear and we rigged Nick up with a floatation jacket, strapped him into a harness and put him into the river, upstream from the boulder. It took a while, but he was finally able to reach his boys, get them attached to his harness and pendulum through the current to the shore of the river. Nick was chilled but still functioning and carried his youngest boy up the scramble route to the top. The older boy was unable to stand. His skin had a blue look to it and he could not speak. We wrapped him in a blanket, strapped him onto my back, and I climbed up the embankment and got him to a place to warm him.
After he could talk, he recounted their story. The two had been on the shore doing what boys do. I can’t recall if they were fishing or just skipping rocks, but at one point the younger boy slipped and fell in. Without hesitation, his brother went in after him, got a grip on him and was washed out in the current where he caught onto the boulder and yelled for help. Some way he pushed his brother up onto the smooth boulder and hung on in the swift current until his Father got to them.
After the boys were warmed up and examined by the doctor, I talked to the older boy and learned some lessons about bravery. Had he hesitated at all his brother would have been washed away, the brace on his leg must have hindered him in the rushing water and, given the glacier and snow-field origins of the water, hypothermia could have caused him to lose his grip and his life. In my years as a ranger I never encountered a braver person.