90 seconds to find out what you're made of
Some of the details from before and after the jump are fuzzy now, but I'll never forget the sensation of that moment. About 360 days before today, I jumped into Lake Superior wearing nothing but my underwear.
My friends and I were visiting some old pals in Marquette, Mich., for the weekend. Since a few summers ago, it's been a tradition to take a dip in The Lake whenever we visit, and I meant to honor that tradition - whether it was March or not (it was). So, with very little convincing, my friends decided they were up for watching me make a fool of myself in the frigid, wind-whipped water of Lake Superior on a Sunday morning.
The finer details of our westbound venture down County Road 550 are mostly gone, though I imagine my thoughts were woven in some nostalgic fabric, having taken the route so many times in years past. Soon enough we were out by Wetmore, walking through the snow in boots and coats and hats, me with a bath towel rolled up under my arm.
I still didn't think it was crazy when we came out of the woods onto a plane of old ice and rotting snow washed up where the summer shore would have been. My friend Chris even punched through the snow and got a soggy foot in one spot, indicating some areas may not be so stable, but I was beyond turning back...
There was a young family out there that day, two kids and their parents, enjoying the warm weather (high 30's), under the brightly shining sun. We trudged past them, out along the far side of the bay towards an outcropping of rocks. It only took a few hops, skips, and jumps to get to the water's edge where it looked like it would be safe to make an easy escape from the lake should things go sour. That spot would have to do, I determined, and started stripping down before my courage failed me.
I wasn't thinking about what I was about to do, just that it needed to be done or I would be letting myself down. I moved quickly, not wanting to be exposed to the wind off the lake for too long before the jump, and before long I stood bare skinned above the crystal clear water of the great lake. I peered down into it, inches from where it swelled at my toes gripping the jagged granite rocks where I stood. A second's delay, no more. I looked at my buddies, probably gave them some sort of stupid grin and a thumbs up combo, and jumped.
In an instant everything changed. You could have measured the shock on my face on the Richter Scale. I was released from all conscious thought and torn apart by absolute biological shock. Words would not come to my mouth (or at least none I can repeat here), only scream after scream of utter disbelief (sorry, young family in earshot).
Every muscle in my entire body pulled taught - each and every tendon. Every ligament reeled like fishing line, every bone rattled and bent in the blink of an eye. The instant cold was inflammatory - my body was on fire - or so it felt for a few moments.
I was in the absence of heat. Like absolute dark that only exists without light - I was engulfed in the complete darkness of cold. There was no warm pocket. My feet and toes were not spared, though I instinctively dug them into the coarse sand below. I spun my arms in circles above my head like some crazed madman who'd finally lost all control. I twisted my torso back and forth, shimmied my shoulders to cut the wind coming off the water, and slapped closed fists against my chest and stomach, eyes gone wide. And all the while, I continued to shout and holler inhuman incantations of discomfort.
A lifetime had passed me by, or maybe only 45 seconds, but I had to do something if I wanted the torture to continue. My body was slowing, I could feel it already. It was almost like I had become so cold I was melting. My movements, which at first had been powerful, electric pulses of resistance, kicking, punching, and crazed flailing, were slowing into vague and cumbersome motions. I wasn't seizing up, I was shutting down.
I began to jog through the water, gripping the sand with toes like ghost limbs - I wasn't sure they existed anymore. I brought my knees up high, towards my chest, and swung my arms like a runner. I exaggerated all my movements and headed for deeper water. I would not let myself get out yet, not yet. Mind over matter, mind over matter.
My thoughts were becoming more scattered and desperate. My friends were standing up on the rocks, howling laughter at my self-induced pain - they were becoming far away - at least in my head. All I could do now was focus on the dig, the dig for willpower. Willpower? That doesn't make any sense, it was… disconnected, stupid. I… I had to do something, fast!
Without thinking I arched back viciously and lead the top of my skull through the surface of the water behind me. At the same instant I kicked up with my feet as hard as I could, and soon I was completely submerged. My arms were coiled back, hands just in front of my chest to push off the bottom when I groped the sand and rocks. A heave of shoulder and elbow along with a torque of my lower back shot my top half back up to the surface while my knees and then ankles zoomed through the water like crystal and my feet set back on the bottom - back roll complete.
I shot straight up out of the water in a wake of madness. My voice cracked in a sharp and agonizing whip coiled in anguish. Bits of needle water sloshed around me in a flurry of diamond-cutting droplets. My jaw was frozen open, gaping with shock. My friends, dry on the rocks, loved it.
That was my end. I was beaten; I had decided I could take no more. I had played dolphin in the arctic water and was finished with the game.
I made for the salvation of jagged granite, dry granite. My arms were some strange combination of electricity and stone - equal parts savage power and lifeless weight. My brow dripped silver drops from my eyebrows, my shoulders felt cut from iron, strong and heavy, and my back I could… just... no longer... feel. My legs and feet were gone, as far as I could tell. Some remote and automated part of my brain seemed to be moving those lost limbs.
My chest though… my chest was alive. Whether it was the long-dead ghost of some great golden kraken, or the shimmering soul of some other myth from the deep, I was overflowing with an outrageous courage, shaped like a sunburst exploding under my sternum. The energy crackled and rose like a steady stream of heat to sift out of each pore in my skin. I swelled with a purity and clarity of both purpose and direction that I've caught only glimpses of a few times before. I had entered the Great Lake on a quest; I emerged victorious - Achilles be damned!
I clawed at the rocks with hands gone stark white, pulling myself up out of the water. I grabbed for the towel I'd left there and wrapped it around myself. That's when I noticed my body was shaking violently. My buddies' laughter made me grin from ear to ear. They told me I'd stayed in about 90 seconds, and though it had felt like half an eternity, I guess a minute and a half was more probable.
The sun had been out all morning, but just then I noticed it again. A great yellow wafer, pacing itself leisurely across a broad, pale blue, unpredictable March sky.
It's been 360 long days since then, but those 90 seconds will be crystallized in my head forever. They remind me I need not be afraid to test myself, because I can do anything. I can do anything as long as I’m willing to truly try.
“The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, 'Oh, now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.' And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”
- Thornton Wilder
See you out there,
A woodsman in training.