(I told this story at a local storytelling event a few years ago. This comes from my Booby Naked collection of personal stories). By the way, if you wish to visit this fun place, go to the page about tubing on the Comal . See also more of my Central Texas aquatic photos .
When I was 11, my family took us tubing at the Chute in New Braunfels. My brother and sisters were all accomplished swimmers, and so of course we were eager to go swimming at the Comal River. We had never done anything like it.
The first part to the tubing adventure was the Chute. The Chute was a curvy slide that shot you into the river at lightning speed. The first time you do it it’s terrifying and exhilarating. When you see that final drop, you experience that loss of control; you know you are the mercy of this water slide; it can toss you anywhere — and that was the fun of it–you didn’t know whether you going to go left, straight down the middle or to the right.
The challenge came from trying to stay with family and friends without losing your tube. Your sister could be only two feet ahead of you, but the current could easily send her to the right over 100 feet away. You on the other hand could be hurled straight ahead. Sometimes the water current would speed up near the exit ladders, making it impossible to get out. Instead you would grab a random tube and hold onto it to stay in the same position. But often the current would take you in a circle…over and over and over. You feel like you’re in a Hieronymus Bosch painting where souls on all sides of you are clutching madly for salvation.
After the chute, most people float down the river for a good hour. But right after the chute there is a tiny quiet waterfall; it goes down only about two or three feet, and you have to cross it to reach the rest of the Comal River.
I remember my first time at the waterfall. It was deserted and I went down gently.
Then a strange thing happened. The waterfall — as I said — was only a 2 or 3 feet drop, nothing special. But when I went over it, my tube stayed there at the bottom; it refused to move. I thought, “Ok, I’m here,what am I supposed to do?”
And then the undertow violently flipped my tube from behind — it caught me totally by surprise. I grabbed my tube and went up for air — then I flipped backward again, this time hurling me out of the tube. I grabbed onto that tube for dear life — only to be flipped once again. I spied my little brother coming down the waterfall and flipping over as well — knocking me over and dislodging the tube from my grip. My brother and I were grasping at each other, until my brother’s tube finally escaped the undertow. But I was stuck at the bottom of that waterfall — and now my sister was coming. I tried to warn her, but Kathy flipped over like I did, letting go of her tube and swimming away.
I was still stuck at the bottom of that waterfall — and I had lost my tube. All I wanted was to get away from that evil thing. Another boy came down with his tube, and as he started to drown, I pushed against his tube and got enough momentum to propel myself away.
I had no tube, but at least I was alive. I could see my brother and sister ahead of me. All three of us were shaken — we could have died back there! We were star swimmers; it just didn’t seem possible that it could have happened. But it did. And our parents had brought us here. Mom had said, “Oh, we’re going on vacation to Camp Warnecke” — without mentioning that we would probably be losing our lives! What’s more, I had lost my tube, the tube my parents had rented for me. And I fully understood the legal ramifications of losing one’s tube. This was not going to be a fun vacation.
We avoided the waterfall for the rest of the day only to observe it from a safe distance the next day. There we saw people going down that same waterfall and capsizing in the same way. It caught them by surprise just as much as it did to us. But some of the teenagers had managed to go down the waterfall without capsizing. I was amazed.
Three years later my family took us to the same vacation spot. My siblings were excited. We loved going down the chute, but not the waterfall. However, intellectual curiosity led me to wonder whether the waterfall trauma occurred simply because we were young. So I got out of the water and watched people go down the waterfall. Almost everybody lost their tubes and flailed about, but some teenagers were standing a few feet away from the waterfall without toppling. How could that be? Some had even managed to walk across the top of the waterfall without difficulty. They were like superheroes.
So I had to try again. The first time I flipped over and lost my tube (which one of the teenagers rescued for me). But after a few times, I had figured out how to maneuver to the side (where there was no undertow) and had even practiced balancing my legs at the the top of the waterfall. I felt as though I had discovered one of life’s darkest secrets.
Ten years later I came to the water park again. This time I noticed a lot more people by the waterfall section. There was even a warning sign and a short cut that allowed people to bypass the waterfall. Despite all that, most people still went down the waterfall; it looked so harmless! Yet, I saw the waterfall was just as dangerous as before. People were still losing their tubes and flipping and coming close to drowning.
By then a whole new subculture had formed around the waterfall area.
First, there were the gawkers. Those were people who just enjoyed watching people fall over and fight for their lives. As long as it wasn’t happening to you, the experience of watching other people cling for dear life was …. relaxing.
Then, there were the do-gooders. These were usually teenage girls between the age of 15 and 19. They would go to each tuber and say, “Ok, you need to take off your prescription glasses and make sure your wallet is safe. When you flip, don’t panic and don’t let go of your sunglasses or wallet. If you lose your tube, don’t worry about it; someone will get it for you.”
The funny thing is that although the do-gooders gave the same friendly warnings to everybody, almost nobody listened. The waterfall didn’t look scary, so people never took precautions.
Then, there were the retrievers. Whenever swimmers capsized, retrievers would chase after any items which the people had lost. One adult even had snorkeling gear to retrieve sunglasses and jewelry.
Then you had the rescuers. Those were teenage boys and even young adults who eagerly looked for opportunities to rescue drowning people after they capsized and lost their tubes. These rescuers would rescue pets, coolers, caps, sunglasses. They stayed at the top – ready to jump in whenever someone (or something) needed rescuing.
The next party looked like they needed rescuing. It was a family of 8 African-Americans — including an older overweight woman and a man who looked like a grandfather. One of the tubes had a three year old. Another tube had a dog propped inside of it. Another tube had a cooler of beer and a jambox playing rap music; another tube had a boy and his brother eating a giant bag of orange Cheetos. Another tube was apparently the “laundry tube”-containing dry towels and shirts.
Immediately the do-gooders went out to warn the chain of eight people. At first the eight people didn’t comprehend, and then, when they did understand, they started wading to avoid the waterfall together. But it was too late. After one person fell down, all the others got pushed down too. After briefly waiting at the bottom, the undertow flipped them all over, including the dog and overweight woman. The father was clutching the four year old, and I could see a boy’s hand grasping the inner tube with one hand and the bag of Cheetos with the other. Finally the Cheetos spilled into the water, along with sunglasses, caps, towels, beer cans, coolers, runaway tubes. All of the rescuers jumped in to rescue the dog and tow the tube with the younger child to safety. The older woman had not only lost her tube but the top of her bathing suit and was busy searching for it in the water.
For fifteen minutes the whole waterfall crew assisted in the recovery effort. Finally though, the people and their tubes were out of the way, and there was no trace of the disaster that had just taken place — aside from a random orange Cheeto floating to the surface. One teenage boy (a rescuer I think) ran into the water and asked, “Hey did I miss anything?”
“I saw boobies!” said his younger brother. Now that was excitement.
I recently learned a nifty trick. I had figured out how to shift my weight on my tube in a way that I never flipped over. The undertow would pull at my tube every five seconds, but I’d stay afloat the whole time. It was like riding a bucking bronco. At first, my presence infuriated the other regulars at the waterfall. I got in the way of the rescuers and undermined the warnings of the do-gooders. They had never seen a person who could stay put on the bottom part of the waterfall for so long. But I was also a kind of decoy, fooling people into thinking the waterfall was more gentle than it was.
In 2006 I took some college friends to New Braunfels. Before arriving, I told them everything about the waterfall…all the secrets I had picked up over the last two decades. I wanted to prepare them – both physically and psychologically. One friend was a lawyer who had traveled around the world several times. Another was a Silicon Valley project manager. Another was an ex-Foreign Service officer whom we suspected of working for the CIA. In other words, these were adventurous people not easily intimidated. They insisted on seeing this traumatizing waterfall. When my lawyer friend saw it, he looked disappointed.
“This isn’t scary,” he said to me. “really you got us worried.”
“Try it yourselves.” I said, jumping into the water.
They put away their valuables and started down the river to the waterfall. What do you think happened?
Shirin came to the waterfall first. She was the energetic and athletic woman from Silicon Valley. Her tube sailed gently to the bottom of the waterfall until it came next to mine at the waterfall bottom.
“Hello,” I said to her calmly.
“Well, that was interesting,” Shirin said sarcastically. Her inner tube was at the bottom of the waterfall, not moving at all.
“Remember,” I said, “Don’t flip.”
“What?” she said. Then, with a sudden jerk, the tube flipped backward, and Shirin went underwater. I tried to steady the tube for her, but Shirin got caught again by the undertow. All this time while I sat in my inner tube, Shirin lost her tube and belongings and struggled for breath. Honestly, I tried to bring her above water by holding her arm, but Shirin was struggling too much. When she finally came up for air, she was half-laughing and yelled, “Are you trying to save me or drown me?”
Afterwards, we surveyed the damage. All of my overconfident friends fell over. Three of them lost their tube (and one lost his permanently).
One lost his cap.
Another lost his prescription eyeglasses (which was recovered later).
And all that time, I stayed at the bottom of the waterfall, bucking my aquatic bronco and laughing.
(Above: me by the Chute, after being tossed out of my tube. Below: Me bragging about my aquatic feats afterwards to my friend Drew. He’s the one who lost his Tube—after I reminded him several times to hold onto it for dear life!)
July 27, 2009 Update. Last Saturday, I took my 8 year old nephew along with a friend (who took his 9 year old son) to go tubing. It was disappointing. The kids did NOT like going tubing — especially with all the drunk teenagers and adults around.
They did love the chute and the waterfall (the waterfall wasn’t bad last Saturday at all). Practical tip: there is a detour which lets you bypass the waterfall, so it’s not really a problem.
I personally think it’s better to go to the City tube site . (It is also known as Prince Solm’s Park). Admission, parking and tubes are relatively cheap. The majority of the people who go to New Braunfels go either to the Schlitterbahn (which is expensive but fun) or go only to the Chute itself by going to the City park. I would not recommend taking kids down the river — it’s boring for them and inappropriate. Also, if you go to a river tubing company (like Texas tubes) to get your tubes, you may have to wait a long time just to get your tubes. We waited 45 minutes. At the city park, there was no wait at all.
Another thing: many tubers go through the Chute to go down the river. However, this year the lifeguards were unusually strict about not letting tubers go down the chute multiple times unless they had paid admission to the city park. (Frankly, I found that extremely annoying). This only underscores my point: the city water park is a great deal, and you don’t have to deal with the drunk tubers.