What we were about to do had me full of fear. I was 14 years old, and a moment of truth was upon me. The sound from the motor was constant. Persistent like my thoughts as we neared our destination. Instead of anticipation of fun and excitement, I was nervous and hesitant.
Although, the boat ride was beautiful through one of the most geographically stunning areas in the world spread over miles of the St. Lawrence River called the Thousand Islands.
Thousand Islands is not just a name for a wide chain of islands analogous to nature’s version of suburban sprawl. The diverse land masses are sprinkled all along the 50 miles from Cape Vincent to Morristown, NY. There are actually 1,864 Islands.
The River serves as part of the border between the U.S. and Canada, and the islands are shared by both countries. To qualify as an island, the land must be above water all year long and have at least two trees. Tom Thumb island fits this description and is the smallest. The largest is Wolf Island and is 20 miles long.
Despite my anxiety, or maybe because of it, I wanted the trip to continue. Or maybe we could just turn around and go back.
The Cliffs at Stovin Island
As part of a summer family tradition, we rented a cottage near my cousins’ place in Black Bay, NY, a small river town between Ogdensburg and Alexandria Bay, NY. We were heading to one island in particular. Just it’s name made my stomach sink. It was like in the Harry Potter stories in which Voldemort was the name to not be uttered. Stovin Island is a Canadian Park and Campground.
This was my third trip in as many years, but in the previous two trips, I had not found the courage to leap. I had yet to have my first cliff jumping experience, unlike my seven cousins on the trip with me. Among other activities like swimming, waterskiing, snorkeling, fishing, and boating, most of my cousins were thrill-seekers, and they loved to go to the cliffs at Stovin. I was determined not to disappoint, this time.
I had jumped down a few stairs and over a fence. I had gotten serious air on jumps while snow sledding. I had even been on a trampoline! But nothing I had done could compare with a forty-foot drop off a rocky cliff into brisk and bracing cold, very deep water.
Could They Tell How Scared I was?
We arrived after a two-mile, mostly smooth ride in the aluminum 12-foot skiff powered by a 20 horse Johnson. I liked that the motor shared my name. Along the way, we took some time to play in the three to four-foot swells created by passing ships and cargo boats in the nearby St. Lawrence Seaway channel. We called it “surfing the wakes”.
We docked on the south side of the island, and walked up the hill, over and through the campgrounds and directly to the cliffs. There were signs that said “Caution: No Lifeguards on Duty”.
It was August, and I had spent my summer back home playing baseball and tennis, bike riding and cutting lawns back in the “city” of Watertown, NY. I was tan from all this outdoor stuff, much of it with no shirt, but I could feel my skin go pale as a I cautiously approached to take an obligatory look over the edge.
It was sunny, but the water was black only a few feet below the rippled surface. It was crowded with other kids and a few adults. There was a boat or two that had come by to watch the jumpers, and the occupants yelled out for “cannonballs” and cheered each big splash. I wondered if they could see how scared I was.
I was seriously deep in my head. Like when you’re five years old and you fully believe there is a monster in the bedroom closet or under the bed. I actually thought, “I could die.” Three or four of my cousins were with me, and one asked if I was going to try it this year. I said, “Sure . . . probably.” Then back to my head.
Perhaps You Know the Fear Script – Imagining the Worse
What if a boat drifts into the way? What if I jump where another swimmer is surfacing? What if I don’t take a deep enough breath? What if I lean too far forward and do a belly whopper?
Then more. What if I chickened out again? We were going home tomorrow. Would I be disappointed? Would my cousins think less of me? What would Dad think? I knew Mom would probably be happy. This could be another “Balk of Shame”.
Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying
My cousins were supportive and encouraging, as I remained the only one who hadn’t jumped. They didn’t tease or agitate. Each of them had already taken about three jumps as I assessed, analyzed, agonized, and just watched.
We came together and talked. They said, let’s get you in.
There were a number of plans.
Hold hands and all go together. One, two, three, GO! I let go as they made a big splash.
There was follow the leader. One go left, another go right and I would go down the middle. He went left, she went right, and I . . . yeah . . . stayed dry at the top.
Then there was some other plan, and I failed to go again as they all whooped and hollered over the edge. As they surfaced and swam over to the trail to climb back up, I looked out over the water to the horizon at Canada. It was about four o’clock and the sun had started to descend. Suddenly, I felt courage. I went to the edge to check it was clear.
There was no sound. I yelled silently inside. I was in the air. Time felt like it stopped along with my heart. I became aware of the rush of speed just before I hit the water.
OMG that’s cold!
No matter how many times you’ve been in, the St. Lawrence always reminds you that it’s headed to the North Atlantic.
Help! This is deep! Oh . . . did I forget to take a breath? Oh . . . Kick!! Oh . . . Use your arms too!! Surface! GASP! Yikes! I’m drifting, swim! Get to the shore!
I Did It!!
My cousins spotted me as I swam past them on the trail. They yelled to me, “We missed your first jump!” You gotta go again!” And we did.
The Joy and Lesson of Facing my Fear
What made me feel so great after that jump? Biochemistry and neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin? Back in 1976, I didn’t know what it was, but it was magical! Of course, I felt that I earned a badge of honor with my cousins and that was super cool.
But this moment lit a fire in me that still burns today, vivid and strong.
I knew it was going to be hard and scary because I was letting my fearful thoughts get in the way of fun. That day, I learned a unique and powerful lesson in what it means to live. I got out of my head. I found presence in the moment, and allowed myself to be liberated by life.
We all have first times. Some are scary, some take courage, some are just silly. And they all move us forward with fulfillment. What’s your next first in life? Are you stuck at the top of a cliff or raring to go? Tell us about it in the #365FirstChallenge Facebook Page.