The choppy Altai water, as white as snow, was crashing around us. I was sitting on the cushy boat, my rear end completely numb from not only the temperature but from the sheer amount of time we had been sitting down for. My brain was numb as well, petrified by the thought of jumping into the glacial water. The churning waves triggering a hidden fear inside me, though I knew jumping in would be worth it. All around me, the quaking bodies of my friends lined the orange rim of the boat. It was hard to imagine only hours ago we were warm and dry, sitting in our small cozy cabins, heaters on, nervously anticipating the day ahead of us.
The air was cold and crept into my nose leaving the smell of dew on the grass, and falling leaves on the trees. The aroma of autumn scattered in the air. The water was wild and rocked the raft back and forth, swaying to an imaginary beat. Leafless trees dotted the shore, and the smell of dirt permeated the air. Contrasting the grey morning, cheerful voices of students bounced against the gloom. Laughter and light chatter provided a warm shield protecting us from the damp cloud surrounding us.
The voices hushed as the guide told us to paddle hard, sweat dribbled down my forehead and my arms started to cramp; the pain spreading up my shoulder. A thousand knots looped themselves around my arm, tightening at every second. I kept paddling as I worried about jumping in, and the knots tightened. The water seemed so deep and glacial, glaring at me as it rotated ferociously. It pushed hard against my paddle as if fighting me for power. I squeezed my eyes shut, imagining plunging into the frigid water. Hopefully, four years of swimming class came through when it was my time to jump in, although the thought of jumping hadn’t entirely crossed my mind. I hadn't yet pondered the threatening water below me, and how the darkness could very easy swallow me whole, blanketing me in the cold grasp of the rapids. I quickly distracted myself by rowing even harder. I didn’t want to think of creatures lurking below the surface ready to drag me under as soon as my flesh touched the water. Although I knew it would be worth it, the nervousness swirled inside me, faster than a tornado.
“I’m so cold,” chattered Sasha, her voice shattering my thoughts. “I’m about to die from hypothermia.” I laughed, the sound echoing off the stones and bouncing back to me in a ghostly manner.
“I can’t feel my fingers,” said Amelia, flexing her hand as she spoke, her fingers were a ghostly white.
“Neither can I,” Sasha replied. “It’s freezing out here.” I could almost hear her individual teeth clicking against each other
The conversation continued as we passed more looming mountains and swirling rapids. All of a sudden– a loud splash emitted from behind us, the sound ringing in my ears. Had someone fallen off their boat? Moments later, more splashes filled the air, this time followed by laughter... People were jumping in! I anxiously bounced in my seat as my friends pestered the teacher, asking if we could jump in as well.
“Mr. Wolf, can we jump in?” Dasha said, her tone tinged with impatience.
“Let me ask the guide first,” Mr. Wolf said, as he turned to the guide. “Can they jump in?” He asked.
“??, ???????.¹” The guide responded, his accent sharp.
“...Alright.” Said Mr. Wolf back, his tone semi-reluctant.
Dasha leaned backward, her spine arching from her weight. Then she simply rolled in. She landed in the water with a thundering splash, her neon life jacket quickly bringing her to the surface. My stomach dropped. Now, it was my turn… I was so uneasy, the impulse to run far from the deep unknown was so strong. My stomach churned as an armageddon of butterflies fluttered around inside it. My pulse raced as I got ready to jump in, my heart pounding as fast as a hummingbird's wings. I remembered all the activities I had missed out on, all the times my swimsuit was left dry because I had been too afraid to go out of my comfort zone. I was determined to jump in.
This was it. I was going to jump in. Slowly, excitement started to build inside me, making the butterflies dissipate into thin air. I readied my legs, hunching into a crouch, my individual muscles tensing up, preparing to plunge into the froth. I took a deep breath, letting the air fill my lungs. Although the task should have been easy, it was quite arduous.
“I changed my – SPLASH”
My body shuddered as it hit the water. Immediately, the water encompassed me surrounding me in a blanket of ice. The frost pricked its way into my skin; it wriggled through my veins like a snake and traveled up into my brain. The cold jolted me instantly, like an electric shock spreading through my entire body. The string of the cold hurt; it felt like fire burning my skin. It covered my flesh, surrounding me, leaving my entire body feeling raw. Time seemed to slow down, my brain slowed down next. I couldn’t think– couldn’t breathe. I opened my eyes, the grey-green water filling my pupils; I blinked, bubbles escaping from my mouth. My throat tightened, cinched by an imaginary cord. I looked around and saw oars dipping into the water and rocks jutting from spirling waterfalls. And as if time never stopped, as if it never happened, time sped up again. My life jacket thrust me upwards, and my instinct kicked in as my legs paddled furiously. My entire body working on overdrive to make up for its lag. My arms spun like bicycle wheels as I swam back to the boat, which had floated several feet away. I swam with confidence, no longer fearing what was inside the swirling depths, no longer imagining things that weren’t there. I opened my mouth, barely managing to form any words.
“Get me out!” I managed to sputter through my chattering blue lips.
My classmates struggled to lift my tremoring body out of the water; their arms grasping my slippery elbow, but finally, I was back on the boat. My body was not just cold – it was freezing. Ice formed over my skin, coating me, turning me into a human statue. I tried to move my toes, tried to crack the ice, and succeeded. Pride filled me with happiness, making my fingers tingle, and my legs twitch. I had jumped in, nothing had eaten me, I didn’t drown, I just had a lot of fun!
“I shouldn’t have been afraid after all…” I thought.
Voices clamored around me asking when it was their turn when they could jump in, but I was too distracted to notice. I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I nearly screamed with joy.
“Can I jump in again?”
¹ “Yes of course” (As spoken in Russian.)