Quite some time back now, I was walking around a certain reservoir. I know this reservoir pretty well in all its moods, from overflowing to almost empty. I know the solid mud and the sticky mud, the shallow mud and the deep mud, where you can walk and where you can’t, where’s risky and where’s fine, what looks bad but has actually just been churned up by the geese. But this particular time, I was in a particularly adventurous mood, and it was exceptionally low. I went walking out across the flats: I do that a fair amount when the water is low. And I decided to cross one of the riverbeds on the bottom of the reservoir, which I have also done before, although not with that particular riverbed (there’s more than one of them down there).

At the point I chose, this riverbed is pretty shallow compared to the one I usually cross, maybe a metre deep compared to the rest of the reservoir bottom. It was also pretty much flat at the base, and only just over a stretched pace wide at its narrowest point. An old tyre embedded in the mud partway across provided an ideal stepping-stone to reach the other bank, but I didn’t want to leap to it in case it sank. Having the bright idea that humans are a tool-using species, I found a large bit of driftwood from nearby and put it in the water as an interim stepping-place so I could move my weight slowly.

So far, so good. The wood held, and as I shifted my weight, the tyre held. Under the silt, everything seemed firm.

Between me and the far bank was a half-metre flat expanse of damp but solid-looking ground. There was nothing unusual about it in appearance: it was more fine-grained than I’m used to, but looked no different to, say, the silt beneath the tyre. Having done the difficult part, I leapt confidently across.


It was a good thing I’d jumped a long way, expecting it to be a bit squishy nearer the water. I hit ground, or at least I should have hit ground, and essentially just kept on falling. Before I knew it, I was slammed against the steep bank with my right leg up to my hip in what had looked like solid ground, and the other one kind of cramped up on the bank. I’d never encountered this before: it was the domain of books and action movies, not real life and certainly not where I was. Quicksand.

Naturally, I yelled for help, and generally panicked a little. I was walking with my father, so all I had to do was stay put until he could pick his way carefully across to me from the path. This, however, would take some time. In the meantime, there I was, stuck.

Well, panicking was stupid. Panicking is a lovely, fast way to die. So after a few moments, I forced myself to calm down and took stock of the situation. A firm clay bank, smoothed by water. One leg completely out of action: I tried to move it and couldn’t at all. Talk about suction. No handholds or footholds, no leverage.

Well, okay, think. I’m not sinking right now, the bank is holding me up, but I feel like I could slide, it’s so smooth, only my weight holding me up through friction, which I don’t trust because my weight is also what will get me killed if I slip, and I don’t have any leverage. But it’s only clayey soil. I can scoop out some of that. Hard-packed, but I do improve my handholds and foothold. Not… really helping with the whole leverage issue, though: I have more than I did, but it isn’t doing me any good, I can’t possibly pull my leg even a centimetre free.

Okay. Rules of Quicksand, as I recalled them. Rule One: struggling makes you sink faster. Rule Two: lie flat. Vertically positioned legs are a bad idea, low surface area at the low point = high pressure = sinking faster. Humans float in water, this stuff is way denser. So maybe I can just try to get flatter, and I should maybe start to rise.

Of course, I could hardly lean any further forwards, being as my face was pretty much in the clay of the bank already. But I could set my hips closer to the bank, which would automatically force my hip joint to bend backwards, causing my leg to lift. I tried this, and it worked! Press forwards… relax. Press… relax. It’s working! I have some degree of movement in my leg! Soon, I’ll be able to pull myself out…

And then, my father shows up (this whole situation not actually having taken more than a minute or two to get through with my mind going at a million miles an hour), and hauls me out, giving me an entertaining story to tell later and also leaving me realising that I’m going to need hosing down before I can possibly go indoors when we get back. Which is extremely annoying because I hate being dirty, so I consoled myself with the thought that at least I had an adventure and that was a good reason to be dirty.

Possibly this demonstrates that I have my priorities on wrong, or something.

I think, though, this event is, in its way, pretty good writing advice. Pretty good anything advice, really. Something bad happens, so the best reaction is calm. Struggle and you sink: calm down, take control, and fight on through, no matter what it takes. Realise what’s happening, analyse, work out the way out. Don’t give up, not for an hour, not for a minute, not for a second. Focus on how to get out of there, and maybe it doesn’t work in one go, but that just means you have to keep trying. One wriggle gets you a couple of millimetres, the next one gets you a couple more. Eventually you can pull free.

And then, for the future, memorise what quicksand looks like so you can avoid jumping in it the next time you feel like crossing rivers…

(Incidentally, I never did feel bottom, and I must have had my leg in the better part of a metre of depth. It’s entirely possible all of me could have vanished under there if I’d jumped a bit differently. For some reason, that doesn’t bother me. I didn’t, I hit the bank, and I got out.)