Marissa jumps through the waterfall. She was visiting from France and I don’t think she’d had too much experience in the woods before this trip. The only shoes she brought on our trip were two pairs of heels. 2013.

Why I Risk My Life Diving Into Swimming Holes

The secret places that bring me closer to nature, to my friends, and to myself

Published in
5 min readMar 13, 2015


By Bryan Derballa

“Turn left onto a dirt road about two miles after you pass the crumbling barn. Keep going up the hill and take your second right. Park at the first gravel patch, under the old oak tree.”

“Search through the tall grass until you find the trailhead; it gets wider as you go down. Cross the stream three times — the first two are over logs but you’ll have to take off your shoes for the third one. Then climb across the rocks, following the sound of the waterfall until you get there.”

We found an old sign while searching for a new waterfall. The arrow meant nothing; it took us an hour of bushwacking until we came across the falls. 2013.

Pretty much every weekend in the summer, my friends and I hang out at swimming holes that we reach via directions like those: vague yet tangible, and weirdly reassuring. I’d much rather be a wanderer in the woods than a blue dot on a Google map.

The whole crew soaks up some rays. The waterfall, which usually functions as a slide, was flowing heavier than usual and only the bravest attempted a turn. 2014.

I live in New York City now, but I grew up in Western North Carolina. As a teenager, spending time at waterfalls was like a natural extension of skateboarding: The same brain defect that made me want to fly off sets of stairs on my board made me want to hurl myself off cliffs into water.

Cameron basks in the spray at a natural waterslide. It’s faster than it looks. 2014.

After moving away for college, I didn’t make it into the woods as often. I got caught up going to music shows and house parties. I rode the bus or my bike all over town, but I couldn’t get far enough out to find a good waterfall.

More recently, though, I bought a car. And now I can escape the city, I’ve rediscovered my supreme form of diversion…

Top photo: Batman watches over a river spot out west. This is maybe the only swimming hole graffiti that didn’t hurt my soul. 2013. Bottom photo: After a full day of swimming, Danilo and Allen feel inspired by the waterfall and start to get weird. I think they were living out some kind of Lord of the Rings fantasy. 2013.

I’ve spent the last few years asking friends, friends of friends, locals, and teenage bad-asses for good information about swimming holes.

I’ve also searched around on the internet, which is refreshingly unhelpful. These are beautiful, isolated places and I believe they should have an element of secrecy. They’re not for everyone—and particularly not for those who can’t bother carrying out their own beer cans.

Top photo: Matt ducks behind a little waterfall. I think the backside of waterfalls are some of the most spiritual places. 2012. Bottom photo: The gang set off fireworks at dusk. For the last couple summers fireworks and swimming holes have been pretty inextricable among our crew. 2013.

That’s why I’ve chosen not to publish the names or locations of any of these spots. If you really want to find that gorgeous thundering waterfall in the Appalachians, or that rope swing into a slow-moving river under a bridge in rural Kansas, ask around. If it’s worth the trouble to you, and you’re not bothered by frigid water or mosquitos, you’ll be a welcome visitor.

Mike jumps the cliff at a beach in Hawaii as his girlfriend Kristen watches. I’ve been swimming with Mike since we were kids. There’s nothing he’ll jump off of that I won’t and vice versa. It’s a good feeling to find your adventure equal. 2014.

A good swimming hole has a big deep pool of cold, clear water, with some element of recreation like a cliff jump, rope swing, or sliding rock.

The best ones are so perfect, you’d think they’d been designed for human enjoyment. I’ve been to a waterfall that cascades with just the right pitch and smoothness; you can sit on it and slide the length of a basketball court, eliciting equal parts fear and exhilaration, before being spit out into the pool below.

Top photo: Phil and Allen explore the underside of the gorge. Swimming holes always seem to bring out a sense of exploration. 2013. Bottom photo: Cameron did a midnight rope swing in the buff at a nice lake spot where we sometimes camp. I try to maintain a rule that if it’s nighttime and it’s a natural body of water, you’ve gotta go nude. 2012.

There’s something special about jumping into water. The fact that you could fall 30 or 40 or 50 feet (for the record, 75 feet was my highest) into liquid and still swim away feels like you’re cheating death. And that feeling isn’t entirely untrue; there is some danger involved.

But that’s part of the appeal to me. I’ve never been one for a sanitized life of caution and safety. And as I’ve moved into my thirties, I crave that recklessness more than ever. Given all the responsibilities of adult life, there’s something oddly comforting about distilling my decision-making down to whether or not to jump. It’s completely irrational, yet massively life-affirming. And so I take the plunge.

Kevin mastered the rope swing to dive last summer. He also learned gainers (running forward backflip), but only after giving himself a black eye first. 2014.

The thrill of survival prevails over my inbox, invoicing, and IRA. It’s a connection to my youth and to nature and to my friends. Sharing those intense experiences helps to form bonds that I don’t find in the city.

When summer ends and the leaves begin to shake free from their branches, I get a little melancholy. No matter how many trips I’ve been on, it’s never enough. I scroll through my photos from the season and anticipate the warmer times when I can throw on a pair of swim trunks and climb to the top of the cliff, ready to go again.

Top photo: This is me doing a belly slide when I was 18, nearly 15 years ago. I just revisited that spot last summer and it was as fun as ever. It’s interesting to think that the water has probably been flowing there for hundreds or thousands of years and will continue flowing well after I’m gone. Bottom photo: Phil dries off on the dock after a night swim. Swimming out to the middle of the lake with him that night was when I knew we’d be good friends. 2013.

All photos by Bryan Derballa.