Sixty feet isn’t a long distance. It’s only about two-thirds of the way from home plate to first base. But when you’re sitting on the bottom of a lake that’s sixty feet deep, it can sure seem like a long, long way to the surface.
My older brother Chuck joined the Air Force in the early ’60s and was assigned to Electronics School at Kessler Air Force Base near Biloxi Mississippi. While he was there he became friends with several other guys who were all crazy about scuba diving. In short order, Chuck had purchased a full scuba diving rig with tank, regulator, mask, weight belt, fins, and a wet suit. He enjoyed his time underwater with his friends and hoped that wherever the Air Force posted him, it would be somewhere with a lot of interesting scuba diving possibilities. The dear old Air Force, with its twisted sense of humor, posted Chuck to Diyarbakir Air Station in the middle of the Turkish desert.
Chuck, home on Leave before traveling to the Middle East, showed me where he had stowed his scuba gear in the garage and said that if I ever wanted to use it, that would be okay as long as I got Certified first. I told him I was grateful for the thought but didn’t think I’d have the opportunity.
Then the family wished him Good Luck and Godspeed and he was gone. After returning, he told me a bunch of stories about his Turkish adventures, enough to fill at least a couple of these blogs, but those are his stories and you’ll have to get him to tell them to you.
Several months after Chuck left, it was early spring and my friend Tom-from-across-the-alley suddenly developed an interest in scuba diving. Since I have always been easily recruited – the madder the scheme the better – in very little time I was eager and ready to go. After all, I already had the equipment. Luckily for us, there were some divers already living in Laramie who had formed a club. Their leader, his official title was Divemaster, was a young man named Tom Atwell.
Under the auspices of the club, we neophytes learned about our equipment, passed our tests, and were given Certifications from some national organization. Thereafter there were club meetings and excursions to dive at nearby Lake Hattie. About half the time of the meetings was spent planning the big club outing in early June to Guernsey Reservoir. The other half was listening to Tom Atwell’s diving stories.
One story was about the first time he came face-to-face with a sea bass. The creature was so ugly Tom nearly spit out his mouthpiece and drowned. Or there was the one about the time he and another man were paid the almost unheard-of sum of a dollar a minute to dive into a local reservoir in the winter to fix a clogged outlet. Or there was the story about the time he was diving in Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody. The Buffalo Bill Dam, at 360 feet high, is the tallest dam in the United States. So the water on the other side of it is about 300 feet deep. Up near the dam, so deep they had to use powerful underwater lights, he and another diver saw Rainbow Trout that were easily 6 or 7 feet long. Had spearfishing been legal, they could have fed a dozen people on one of these monster-sized trout.
Now, there are two problems with scuba diving in Wyoming. One is that the water is cold. The top few feet may have been warmed by the sun enough to swim in without protection. But as you go deeper you enter layers where the temperature suddenly drops substantially. These are called “thermoclines.” A lake of any depth usually has three. In Wyoming, the top layer is “cold,” the middle layer is “really, really cold,” and the bottom layer is “Yikes!” To combat this, a diver wears a “wet suit.” This is a close-fitting neck-to-ankle neoprene suit about three-eighths of an inch thick. It soaks up the cold water like a sponge and then holds a very thin layer of it against your skin. Your body heats that film of water up and suddenly, miraculously, you are warm.
The second problem is that most of the smaller, shallower lakes in the State are murky. The inflow and outflow of water create currents and the silt never has a chance to completely settle. And that was the reason for the expedition to Guernsey Reservoir. All that spring, as the snow in the mountains melted, the reservoir had been slowly filling up. But the farmers downstream traditionally don’t need irrigation water until the middle of June or later.
“If we can get there no later than the second weekend in June,” Tom the Divemaster told us, “we’ll have crystal-clear water to dive in.”
And so it turned out to be. There I was sitting on the bottom of the lake next to the boat anchor and looking up the anchor line. I could clearly see the bottom of the boat floating on the surface sixty feet away and divers entering the water by rolling backward off the boat.
Being deep underwater with a scuba tank on your back is an amazing thing. If you’ve balanced the flotation of the wet suit with your weight belt, you are neutrally buoyant. You neither float up nor sink down. A push of your hand or a kick of your flippers and you are headed in any direction. Fish swim by with minor curiosity, then go on about their business. Plants and rocks on the bottom of the lake become mysteries that must be explored.
After what seemed like only a few minutes of this, my breath became harder and harder to draw and I realized I was running out of air. A single scuba tank being used at 60 feet will provide enough air for about half an hour of diving time. Rather than leaving me in deep water unable to breathe, the equipment designers provided a safety measure called a “J Valve.” Along the side of my tank, there was a wire with a loop on the end that, when pulled, would give me the five more minutes of air that I would need to get easily to the surface.
I pulled the valve, took a couple of deep breaths, and decided that rather than go back up to the boat it would be more fun to paddle back to the shore along the bottom of the lake. I must have lost track of time again because it was surprising to be once more running out of air. There was no second J Valve to pull. With a thrill of fear, I kicked toward the surface. But what had seemed like very little air in my lungs steadily expanded to become plenty of air as the water pressure decreased. My head broke the surface only about twenty yards offshore.
Although I went on a couple more diving trips to some of the nearby murky lakes, due to a newly-acquired Summer Job it was not possible for me to go on the rest of the club’s major diving expeditions that season. And then, just as luck had brought me to Scuba Diving, the currents of my life shifted once more and I was to never again find myself bubbling my way through deep water. But I will never forget the joy of it.
It would not do to end this ramble without telling you my favorite of Tom Atwell’s stories.
Tom and several of the club’s more experienced divers would, during the long Wyoming winter, get the urge to go underwater. Since they couldn’t afford to fly to Cozumel, they would drive out to Lake Hattie, chop a hole in the ice, and dive in. Actually, when proper preparations were made, doing this was feasible. A little crazy, yes, but definitely feasible.
The main danger involved in diving under the ice is not, as you would expect, the risk of heart failure when you first jump into the icy cold water. It is that once you are in the water more than a few feet down if you look back up toward the hole you can’t see it. All you see is your lifeline going up into a general glare. This rope that is firmly tied to you becomes literally what its name implies. If it is broken or lost you can only feel your way around under the ice sheet hoping to find the hole before your air runs out.
To dive under the ice, one first has to have an extra thick wetsuit that includes a hood, gloves, and booties. Tom and a couple of his friends were so equipped. Just as he was preparing to jump in, Tom recognized an ice fisherman, a friend of his Father’s named Frank, who had set up his stool next to a hole in the ice about 50 feet away. Frank had had his back to the divers the whole time and didn’t know what was going on, so Tom decided to play a little prank on him. Tom took a careful compass reading of the ice fisherman’s position and then entered the water.
With an eye on the compass, and after his body temperature had normalized, Tom swam down to the bottom of the lake and picked up a handful of waterweeds that were growing there. Tom’s diving glove was black neoprene with a bright yellow line that ran around the tips of each of its three fingers. Wrapping the weeds around his left hand, he checked the compass again and kicked upwards.
Tom proceeded slowly under the ice sheet, feeling his way until he found Frank’s ice fishing hole. Chuckling to himself, he put his left arm up through the hole and patted it around on the ice. Then he put his head up through the hole, pulled his mask off, and prepared to say, “I gave you a start there, didn’t I?”
The stool was knocked over, the pole and tackle box were left on the ice, Frank was about 70 feet away and running as hard as he could go.