“It was terrifying,” Johanna Ridder told JT Markunas about the first time she jumped off the town’s bridge into the Stanley River where it flows into the New London Bay. She was 12 years old back in the day. Her father had already jumped a minute beforehand. The hard flat blue of the bay was more than twenty feet below her.
JT was parked his police car down at the wharf. He walked up to the bridge and was watching kids and teenagers heave themselves over the side. He was taking a fifteen-minute break.
“My dad didn’t tell me much. I stood on the opposite side of the rail looking down at the water for probably an hour,” Johanna 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?”
The Stanley Bridge is a beam-style span on Route 6 where it crosses the Stanley River. It was built in the 1960s to replace a worse for wear overpass built of wood. 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.” Youngsters and some of their parents on the north central shore had been jumping the Stanley Bridge for as long as anybody could remember. “I used to jump off the bridge in the 1950s,” Harriet Meacher said. They jumped in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. “We all jumped off the bridge,” Phyllis Carr said. “My brother Leon was only 4 years old when he first jumped. It’s a tradition.”
The bridge at Basin Head, one of the island’s beaches on the east end, is the other launching pad popular with jumpers. The Basin Head Bridge crosses a fast-flowing boat run that can bum rush jumpers out into the Northumberland Strait, another way to get swept off your feet. Although signs prohibit all jumping, it is honored more in the breach.
“It’s one of those time-honored traditions here on Prince Edward Island,” said Rob Henderson. “Lots of people do it,” said Johanna, “especially from around here. My dad lives just up the road and used to jump all the time when he was younger.”
“I dived since I was little,” her father said.
“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.” Some 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, Johanna’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.” Flopping is the bane of jumpers. “You never want to belly flop,” Denver said.. It is always a slap of a bad time. The crack of a belly hitting the New London Bay is what everybody calls Frankendiving.
“One day there were a bunch of tourists jumping, and a little boy, 7 or 8-years-old, was trying to jump with them,” Johanna said. “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 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.” Saltwater washed away hus tears.
“It’s not exactly like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation,” said a fisherman unloading oysters at the wharf. “Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing happens.”
The plucky brave curious come to Stanley Bridge from around the island, as well as from the rest of Atlantic Canada. They jump alone or with their friends. “Nothing says bonding like jumping off the bridge at Stanley Bridge,” Rika Kebedie said 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 Prince Edward Island.”
Jumping the Stanley Bridge starts in 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 darn fast.”
Since the harbor on the bay side of the bridge is full of working fishing boats, and pleasure craft go up and down on the river, 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,” Johanna said. Besides passing boats and belly flops, jellyfish are the scourge of jumpers as they swim back to the break wall 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 that because they are jelly-like. They have no brains and have been swimming the oceans from even before there were oceans. Crabs sometimes freeload a ride on top of the blobs, so they don’t have to exert themselves swimming to where they want to go. Jellyfish never give their crustacean cousins 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 sky was yellow gray. “It looks like that storm is just about here,” JT said nodding his head at the sky and reaching into his pocket for his pursuit car keys.
“What storm?” Joanna asked.
“It’s the backside of Hurricane Dean, although it’s going to be more of a big storm than a hurricane since it wore itself out coming up from the Caribbean.”
“I don’t like those storms,” Joanna said. “When the tide is wrong, the water gets pushed up the river, and when the tide goes out, there’s a rush of it back into the ocean. Sometimes it bangs the wharf up. We have to stay home when it gets bad.”
The first step off the bridge into mid-air is a step into a second-or-two of complete freedom. It is where most people never thought they would be. Once you step off into space nothing in the world matters. 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 your land legs 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. “The water will be 30 feet, even 40 feet down. The last time I jumped, when I checked, it was 29 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 weren’t allowed to jump off the bridge, so we jumped off the wharf,” said Carrie Thompson about her early leaps into the unknown. “The current pushes the eels away from there. They are gross.”
On hot days when there is a crowd on the Stanley Bridge waiting their turns, motorists honk their horns driving by, yelling, “Jump, jump, jump!” Sometimes friends encourage their friends to take the plunge, usually by daring them. “I dare you, they’ll say,” said Johanna, “and then they do it, even though they’ve never jumped from the top of the railing or done a back flip before.”
Sometimes the encouragement takes the form of a shove. “I wouldn’t push anyone I didn’t know or who was younger than me” Johanna said, “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 try it a few times, freak them out, and when they’re about to jump, I just push them.”
The fear of nose diving can take an unlikely turn.
“One of my friends from Bermuda was scared to go into the water because in Bermuda you can see everything, the water is so clear, but here it’s dark water. He was always bailing out. He eventually jumped the bridge, but he would only do it back-flipping so he wouldn’t see anything.”
Joanna told JT she jumped the bridge every summer since she was 12 years old with her high school friends. “Pretty much everyone in my school did it. You could say, want to go bridge jumping, and somebody would go.” Now when her college friends visited they got into the action. “When it’s a nice day, but there’s no wind, and I’m hot, I will jump ten times, more-or-less. It cools you off instantly.”
Heavy drops of cold rain started to fall on them. JT dug into his pocket for the keys to his car. “You and your friends had better get going home,” he said, walking away. As he turned to his left towards the gravel parking lot, a red Kawasaki motorcycle whispered past him going the other way, over the bridge and up the hill towards Kensington.
“Goddamn it,” JT swore breaking into a sprint to his Ford Mustang pursuit car.