A Rite of Passage

Standing shivering by the shore at 8:30 AM, I eye the dark lake water in the shadows of an overhanging tree. The sun had barely warmed the sand of the tiny beach, and the dew formed during the night still lay thick in the grass near the walking path. Just a few months earlier, the lake had worn a  cap of ice, and today our group of seven- and eight-year-olds huddled together, waiting for the swim instructor to herd us into the water. I used the time attempting to convert my little towel into a blanket.

A piercing whistle followed by a deep voice bellowing in the distance, “everyone in the water,” signaled the dreaded start of the lesson. There were generally two methods of complying with “everyone in the water,” and I found them both equally unappealing. You could run a few steps and perform a quick surface dive that cold shocked your entire body, or the timid tiptoe method where you feel each inch of skin succumbing to the cold with an extra grimace reserved for when the water reaches your privates.

Swimming lessons in the Land of 10,000 Lakes were considered a necessary skill for kids growing up there. The instruction lasted 45 minutes, and surprisingly after being in the water, the more uncomfortable choice became exposing your wet skin to the cool morning air. This revelation caused the kids to hunker down, with only their heads above the water like a bunch of turtles.

Three years later, on a hot sticky July afternoon, I again found myself standing by the shore of a larger beach on the same lake. This beach had a sprawling area of sand, a lifeguard, glistening bodies lying about, and the smell of suntan lotion. The lake’s blue water sparkled like diamonds in the sunshine. It was an idyllic summertime scene, but I knew the water would still be cold.

Out beyond a string of yellow buoys tethered to the bottom and held in line by a nylon rope, I watched older kids playing on a wooden structure that looked like it had magically risen from the depths. Nearly 12 years old, my self-imposed imprisonment behind the roped area had gone on for too long.

The water depth at the buoys was nearly five and a half feet, and on windy days I sprang up slightly off the bottom to avoid waves hitting me in the face. I had watched the swimmers on the private wooden island all summer, a place where they escaped from screaming toddlers and their doting parents. I couldn’t bear to let another season pass without overcoming my fear of crossing that treacherous stretch of water.

Looking down at my blue swim trunks with their traditional drawstrings, that invariably formed knots so tight they would challenge superman to undo. The knots rendered the suit unadjustable at the waist and therefore unsafe for diving.

Tiptoeing into the cold waters, I made my way to the buoy line again. I could feel the slant of the lake bottom tilting into deeper waters beyond, and on other occasions, while still clinging tightly to the rope, I slipped underneath to see at what point the depth was over my head.

It was probably only twenty yards to the dock from the line, but it looked more like the lake’s center when the water was choppy. I did not imagine a gentle slope continuing from the buoys to the dock; I believed it dropped sharply like a cliff. I would be swimming over a deep chasm inhabited by lake creatures, maybe even a wreck or two from previous violent storms.

I had made up my mind that there was no turning back today. Slipping under the rope, I dog paddled in place for a moment, took one last look at the shore, and started swimming frantically toward the dock. Not knowing what lay in the murky water below, I kept my feet racing, and after just a few minutes, I looked up, elated to see I was close to the dock.

Reaching the structure, I clung to one of its corner legs; the green and slimy algae made the wood hard to hold. I saw kids flying above me to land spectacular belly flops and impressive cannonballs further out in the water.

Inching to the ladder, I carefully climbed out of the lake while ensuring my trunks stayed in place. The deck was wet and looked small and less interesting than I imagined. Looking back toward the beach, the distance to the buoys also shrunk. A sudden gust of wind against my bare skin combined with the adrenalin from the crossing caused a shiver throughout my body. Looking back at the shore, I spotted my towel lying in the warm sand, and I couldn’t help thinking of those early morning lessons where the last thing I wanted to do was swim in a cold lake.

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