I pull my head out of the depths of the snow melt that feeds Takhlakh lake and gasp in the heat of the summer air. I fix my eyes to the pine trees on the opposite shoreline. The coldness numbs my body and my legs are leaden as I duck my face back into the water. I can’t feel my fingers but I keep my stroke strong and even, propelling me forward.
I am ten when I finally swim across that lake. Every August, I spend a week with my grandparents and cousins at a campground at the base of Mount Adams. A highlight of the week is our family “Swim Across the Lake” challenge. When I was finally old enough, I was strapped into the red life jacket that my cousins had worn before me. My little brother and Grandpa Thomas coasted next to me in the yellow canoe, just in case. That first year I made it one way across, but I wanted more. The next year, I again donned the red life jacket, and with the yellow canoe trailing behind me I made it across the lake and back. This summer, I don’t need the life jacket. I feel invincible and courageous enough to tackle any challenges that cross my path.
The bright sun scorches my back as my eyes study the small crowd waiting by the side of the pool. Which of these youngsters will be my students? The lead swim instructor calls my name, and I smile encouragingly at the three year-olds, some who are still clutching at their parents, frightened to venture into the water with a stranger.
I am fifteen years old, and I am teaching my first solo swim class. I am so nervous that my voice cracks as I demonstrate Monkey Grip on the pool’s edge. I remember coaching my little brother, strapped into that same red life jacket, on his first attempt across the lake. I suddenly feel reassured. I know that I have taught before.
I hear the alien sound of my breath flowing through the long tube that links me to the oxygen tank floating above me. My flippers, awkward on the boat, give me grace below the surface. Through my mask, I see a school of fish darting by, their bright blue scales reflecting the light of the sun. I notice a gliding grey shadow. The shark swims on, not bothered by the human intruders.
I am sixteen years old, and I am in Belize with my schoolmates. We are on a snuba excursion in the Caribbean Sea. Snuba is a combination of snorkeling and scuba diving. We are tethered to a floating oxygen tank which means we can’t go very deep. When I first slip underwater, I struggle to get air, but I eventually master breathing through the tube suctioned to my lips. As I work to adjust to the new experience, I imagine my Grandpa Thomas in the yellow canoe, drifting behind me ready to be of assistance. I remember my first time conquering the lake without that red life jacket and then I know I can do this, too.
As I anticipate my college career, I know that I have much to draw from: my family support, my life experiences and my own strength. The yellow canoe and that red life jacket will always be with me.