By Ed Staskus
“It was terrifying,” said Johanna Reid.
She was standing on the outside edge of the bridge in the town of Stanley Bridge, on the far side of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, looking down into the New London Bay.
She was 12-years-old. Her father had already jumped from the bridge. The hard flat dark blue of the bay was more than twenty feet below her.
“He didn’t tell me much. I stood on the opposite side of the rail looking down at the water for probably an hour,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it. I finally closed my eyes and jumped feet first. It took a lot of effort. After I hit the water I thought, Oh, my gosh, why couldn’t I have done that before?”
Now 20-years-old she’s been jumping every summer ever since. The Stanley Bridge is a simply supported beam-style bridge on Route 6 where it crosses the Stanley River. Built in the 1960s to replace a worse for the wear wood overpass, it is made of steel with a concrete deck. There is a sidewalk on the jumping side.
“The first couple of times I jumped I screamed, but now I just get up there, crawl over the railing, and go.”
Prince Edward Islanders living on the north central shore have been jumping the Stanley Bridge for as long as anyone can remember. “I used to jump off the bridge in the 1950s,” said Harriet Meacher.
“We all jumped off the bridge,” said Phyllis Carr, whose Carr’s Oyster Bar, on the near shore of the bay, is a few hundred-or-so yards from the bridge. Anyone on any summer day can sit on the outdoor dining deck of the eatery with a pint and a plate of shellfish and watch jumpers all day long.
“My brother Leon was only 4-years-old when he first jumped. It’s a tradition.”
The bridge at Basin Head, one of PEI’s better-known beaches on the eastern end of the island, is the other launching pad popular with jumpers. The Basin Head Bridge spans a fast-flowing boat run that is capable of rushing jumpers out into the Northumberland Strait, another way to get swept off your feet. Although signs prohibit any and all jumping, it is honored more in the breach.
“It’s one of those time-honored traditions here on Prince Edward Island, and from when I was down there watching the activities, people were really enjoying their experience,” said Tourism Minister Rob Henderson.
“A lot of people do it,” said Johanna about jumping the Stanley Bridge, “especially from around here. My dad lived just up the road and used to jump all the time when he was younger.”
“I dived since I was little,” said Earl Reid.
“I remember seeing people jumping off of it ever since I was born,” said Johanna. “I told my dad, you forward dive, but I’ll jump feet first. I’m too chicken.”
Majoring in Kinesiology, which is the study of human body movement, at the University of New Brunswick, Johanna Reid has played hockey since she was four-years-old, through high school, and continues to play in a women’s conference. A fast fit trim young lady, she has played rugby since she was a teenager and competes in her college league.
“I like making tackles, pulling them down, even when they’re twice my size,” she said.
She may have been a chicken once on the Stanley Bridge, but she takes the chicken out of chicken noodle soup everywhere else.
Some people forward dive off the bridge, others back dive or back flip, but most leap feet first. They do it for good reason
“You can do a starfish, or a belly flop, but that hurts,” said Denver McCabe, Johanna Reid’s 9-year-old cousin, who first jumped Stanley Bridge when he was 8-years-old. “I pencil dive, like a pencil, feet straight in.”
Belly flops are the bane of jumpers. “You never want to belly flop,” said Johanna. It is always a stinging pancake slap of a bad time. The crack of a belly hitting the New London Bay at velocity is the Frankendive of Stanley Bridge.
“One day there were a bunch of tourists jumping, and a little boy, 7 or 8-years-old, was trying to jump with them,” recalled Johanna. “I was swimming back after a jump. He was going to dive, so I watched him, while I paddled around. Halfway down he decided he didn’t want to be diving anymore and started to pull back. He belly flopped. We had to help him out because he was freaking. But, it just hurt him at the time and he was fine in the end.”
“It’s not quite like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation, ” said Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing will happen.”
The plucky brave curious come to Stanley Bridge from around the island, from Victoria, North Rustico, and Kensington, as well as some summer tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States. They jump alone or with their friends.
“Nothing says bonding like jumping off the bridge at Stanley Bridge,” said Rika Kebedie of Burlington, Ontario, about jumping with friends.
“When I was 13-years-old a lady was biking by,” said Johanna. “She had just gotten a cottage down the road and we had a chat when she stopped on the bridge. She had her bathing suit on, so I said, you should jump off.”
The woman gave it a thought. “OK, I’ll jump,” she said, leaning her bicycle on the railing and going over the side.
“She jumped off the bridge and survived, and now she’s here every summer, and she said I was her first friend on PEI.”
Jumping the Stanley Bridge starts in mid-to-late May, once the water has warmed up. “Some people jump in early May. That’s too crazy for me. I usually start at the start of June,” said Johanna. “When it’s cold, it’s an instant shock, like someone dumping a bucket of ice water on you. You come up from under the water pretty fast.”
Since the harbor on the bay side of the bridge brims with working fishing boats, and pleasure craft go up and down on both rivers, the Stanley and the Southwest, spotters keep an eye out for traffic. “I’ve heard someone once jumped and landed on the deck of a boat, but it could be a myth,” said Johanna.
Besides passing boats and belly flops, jellyfish are the scourge of jumpers swimming back to the breakwall or the shoreline dock ladder. “They just float along, their tentacles floating behind them, and they hit you going by. Some days there are huge ones, as big as a pie plate.”
Jellyfish are free-swimming marine animals and are called jellyfish because they are jelly-like. They have no brains and have been swimming the oceans from even before there were dinosaurs. Crabs sometimes hitch a ride on top of them so they don’t have to exert themselves swimming to where they want to go.
Jellyfish never give their crustacean freeloaders a second thought.
“Every so often you can see them from the bridge, so you wait until they go by,” said Johanna. “When they sting you it really stings, it can really hurt. What I do is take some mud off the ocean, rub it on the bite, and you’re good to go.”
The first step off the edge of a bridge into mid-air is a step into a second-or-two of complete freedom. It is where most people never thought they might be. “Once you step off nothing in the world matters,” said Marta Empinotte, a world-class Brazilian BASE jumper, about stepping into space.
In mid-air jumpers find out that they don’t know anything, only that they’re in the nothing of mid-air, even though there’s no such thing as nothing. Once you’re off firm ground there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. It’s only when you hit the water that you become something again.
“Whenever you go out on the bridge it looks kind of scary when you look down,” said Denver McCabe. ”The water will be 30 feet, even 40 feet down. The last time I jumped, when I checked on my iPad, it was 26 feet.
“It felt like nuthin’.”
The bravery of small boys can sometimes be larger than life, or not.
“But, you don’t want to belly flop, that’s for sure,” he added.
You don’t want to jump into a mass of eels, either.
“We used to jump off Tommy’s,” said Carrie Thompson, whose family owned the aquarium next to the Oyster Bar. She worked summers at the marine exhibit.
“We weren’t allowed to jump off the bridge, so we jumped off the wharf. Maybe the current pushed the eels that way. It was gross.”
On hot days when there is a crew on the Stanley Bridge waiting their turns, motorists often honk their horns while driving by, yelling, “Jump, jump!” Sometimes friends encourage their friends to make the leap, usually by daring them. “I dare you, they’ll say,” said Johanna, “and then they do it, even when they’ve never jumped from the top of the railing or done a back flip.”
Sometimes the encouragement takes the form of a shove.
“I wouldn’t push anyone I didn’t know or who was younger than me” said Johanna, “but if they were my friend, and weren’t going, weren’t doing it, I would just push them right in. The way I do it, I attempt it a few times, freak them out, and when they’re about to jump, it’s get in there! I just push them.”
The fear of jumping can take an unlikely turn.
“One of my friends from Bermuda was scared to get into the water because in Bermuda you can see everything, the water is so clear, but here it’s dark water. He eventually jumped the bridge, but he would only do it back-flipping.”
Joanna Reid has jumped the bridge every summer with every one of her friends. “Pretty much everyone in my high school did it. You could say, want to go bridge jumping, and anybody would go.”
A native of Stanley Bridge, “Yup, born and raised,” she spends autumn winter spring at university in New Brunswick, but her summers at home, kayaking, hanging out with her friends, and waiting tables at Carr’s Oyster Bar, as well as jumping the bridge at Stanley Bridge.
“When it’s a nice day, but there’s no wind, and you’re really hot, I will jump ten times, more-or-less. It cools you off.”
She never loses her cool, either, flying feet first thrill downwards cooling off, off the Stanley Bridge into the sparkling bright easy-landing water of New London Bay.
A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist.
Photograph by Andre Forget.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”