Tag Archives: Red Island

Calm Before the Storm

By Ed Staskus

   There is plenty of good better best even better seafood chowder on Prince Edward Island, since there is plenty of seafood on all sides of the crescent-shaped province. There are cultured mussels and lean white halibut and wild-caught lobster. They go into the chowder. It comes in cups and bowls. Some of the bowls are bigger than others and can be meals in themselves.

   Or more than a meal in themselves.

   “We had a large bowl of chowder last year, but I don’t see it on the menu anymore,” Frank Glass said to the young man who was putting glasses of water down on their table.

   “We have a really good seafood chowder,” he said, pointing to the menu.

   “Is it a big bowl?” asked Frank.

   The young man sized up an imaginary bowl with his hands.

   “No, the chowder we had was in a bowl about twice that size,” Frank said.

   “Oh, you mean the big ass bowl.”

   “What kind of bowl?” asked Vera Glass, sitting across from her husband. They were at a table at one of the windows overlooking the Clyde River. On the far bank the red roof of the PEI Preserve Company, where jams and jellies are made, glowed in the rolling up of dusk.

   “That’s what we call it in the kitchen,” the young man said. “We don’t call it that on the menu, obviously. If you want it, I can ask, and I’m sure we can make it for you.”

   “You’ll just clear the decks and whip it up, even though it’s not on the menu?” Vera asked.

   “Sure,” said the young man.

   “Sweet,” she said.

   Vera and Frank Glass were at the Mill, a snug as a bug up-to-speed restaurant in New Glasgow on Prince Edward Island. It is neither a small nor big roadhouse, seating maybe fifty diners, right on the road, on a zigzag of Route 13 as it runs south from coastal Cavendish through New Glasgow to Hunter River. There is a performance space on the second floor. A deli case just inside the front door is always full of fruit pies and meat pies. The building is blue, two–story, and wide front-porched. It is kitty-corner to the bridge that crosses the snaky river. The Mill describes itself as “carefully sourcing seafood, steaks and entrees served in a rustic yet refined space with scenic views.”

   That’s hitting the nail square on the head.

   It was the night before Hurricane Dorian slammed into PEI, even though it wasn’t a hurricane anymore when it did. It was a post-tropical storm, which is like saying you took it on the chin from a cruiserweight rather than a heavyweight boxer.

   “Under the right conditions, post-tropical storms can produce hurricane-strength winds,” said CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland the day after the storm. “Dorian serves as a good example that the difference between a hurricane and a post-tropical storm is more about the storm’s structure and not its intensity.” On Saturday morning, moving north, it sucked up energy from another weather system moving in from the west. The winds spreading over the island grew to hurricane strength during the day and the storm unrolled over a larger area than Hurricane Juan, the “storm of the century,” had done in 2003.

   “Look who’s back,” said Vera, looking over Frank’s shoulder.

   “Who?”

   “Michelle.”

   “Good, maybe she’ll be our waitress.”

   “She looks better tonight, not so spaced.”

   “Didn’t she have to go home the last time we were here?”

   “I think so.”

   “Hi, how are you?”

   “Good,” said Michelle. “I see you two have made it back again.”

   “This is our third time here in three weeks, although we’re leaving for home on Sunday,” said Vera.

   “So, you’ll be here for the storm.”

   “It looks like it.”

   “Where’s home?”

   “In Ohio, Lakewood, which is right on the lake, just west of Cleveland,” said Frank. “We get thunderstorms that come across Lake Erie from Canada, but nothing like what we’ve been hearing is going to blow up here in your neck of the woods.”

   Hurricane Dorian hit home like a battle-ax.

   “The result was much higher rainfall and more widespread destructive winds across PEI with Dorian compared to Juan,” said Jay Scotland, the weatherman. On Monday Blair Campbell, the chief executive officer of PEI Mutual Insurance, said they logged the most claims ever on Sunday, the day after the storm. More than four hundred policy holders called in property damage.

   “These are damage claims in the frequency and magnitude that we have not seen before,’’ he said.

   Fishing boats from Stanley Bridge to Covehead were smashed submerged sunk.

   “Sobeys in Charlottetown this morning was worse than Christmas time,” said Michelle. “You couldn’t get anywhere with your cart. Everybody was buying dry cereal, canned fruit, ready-to-eat, and cases of water.”

   Frances MacLure was stocking up like everybody else.

   “So far I have just bought batteries,” she said. “I have two radios and I’m going to make sure one of them is going to work. It’s always nice to be able to keep in touch if the power is out for any length of time,” she said.

   There were sandwich makings on her list, as well.

   “Just for a quick bite if the power goes off.”

   “Everybody was buying batteries,” said Michelle. “The last time a hurricane came to the island, power was out for more than a week.”

   “We are very concerned, we’ve certainly spent the last three days in readiness, in going through all of our checklist and checking our equipment,” said Kim Griffin of Maritime Electric as the weekend approached. “There is a lot of greenery and foliage on the trees, that is a concern to us. So, we are really asking our customers to make sure they are prepared and ready.”

   “When was that?” asked Frank.

   “About fifteen years ago,” said Michelle. “Summerside has its own power, but if it goes out in New Brunswick, this whole part of the island won’t have any power.”

   “Do you still have that moonshine cocktail?” asked Vera.

   “We do,” Michelle said.

   Vera had an Island Shine and Frank had a pint of Charlottetown lager.

   “Are you going to have the big chowder?” asked Vera.

   “Yes,” Frank said.

   “I’m going to have a small bowl of soup and the ribs,” Vera said. “What about going halves on the lamb and feta appetizer? It’s good with everything.”

   “Sure,” Frank said. “You can’t go wrong with the ribs, and the mac and cheese they come with. That cheese from Glasgow Glen, it’s good. I had it the last time we were here.”

   “I hope Emily has the sweet potato curry soup tonight,” said Vera. “Curry is my number one favorite thing in the world.”

   “What about me?”

   “You’re close, maybe third or fourth.”

   “That close, huh?”

   “You don’t like curry, which is a problem. It drops you in the standings. I think Emily is a curry person, like me. She probably does a great Fall Flavors menu.”

   The Mill’s owner and chef Emily Wells was born in England and lived on the continent before coming to Prince Edward Island in 1974 when her parents bought Cold Comfort Farm. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada, committed to local healthy food and ethical food production. She has worked in restaurants in PEI and Ontario for more than three decades and is a key contributor to the River Clyde Pageant. The pageant is about the tidal river, and features great blue herons, trout puppets, schools of dressed-up jellyfish, bridge trolls and mermaids and fishermen.

   “I love it when you put curry in things, but sometimes all of a sudden you don’t taste anything else. I feel like you can taste everything in her soups.”

   “It’s like her chowder, it’s chock-full, but nothing’s drowned out, all the parts stand out,” Frank said. “It’s not too busy.”

   “Everything here is always better than I expect, even though I always expect it to be good,” Vera said.

   “My boyfriend is a chef at the Blue Mussel in North Rustico, and it’s hard for us to get a day off in the summer on the same day, so we hardly ever eat out,” Michelle said.

   “After eating here and at the Mussel, we don’t always want to go, anyway, but we ate out in Charlottetown a few weeks ago, and the chowder we got was mostly a milky liquid, with so little fish in it. We poked around for whatever we could find but ended up asking for another loaf of bread. We got it to dunk into the chowder, because there were hardly any pieces of anything.”

   From one end of Prince Edward Island to the other pieces of preparation for the storm were coming together.

   “We have been busy as a team,” said Randy MacDonald, chief of the Charlottetown Fire Department, the day before the storm. “Our team has been making preparations for tomorrow.”

   He said chainsaws and generators were on hand. “We may see trees down, branches down, large branches taking down power lines, that sort of thing.” Rapid response cars, trucks, and ambulances were gassed up full and staff was on the alert, ready to go.

   While the tempest was rolling up the coast, Michelle didn’t only rush to Sobeys. She took matters into her own hands, in her own kitchen, in her own house.  “I live just down the road from here, next to the Gouda place. I send my son there for pizza, since he can walk over.”

   The Gouda place makes artisan cheese.

   “I’ve passed my name and my expertise on to Jeff McCourt and his new company Glasgow Glen Cheese,” said the former Cheese Lady, Martina ter Beek.

   Glasgow Glen Farm slaps out skins from scratch, down the line doing the dough to sprinkling homegrown veggies and meats on the pie, featuring their own made from scratch gouda, working behind the front counter at two long tables just inside the door, wood firing the pizzas in a brick oven.

   In the summer there are picnic tables on the side of the gravel parking lot, a grassy field sloping away from a pile of cordwood.

   “I made chowder,” said Michelle. “It was a fishy stew, like Mel does. I ended up using cod, clams, and scallops. I made everything else, clam juice, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes out of my garden. Once the potatoes were almost completely cooked, I took the pieces of cod and sat them on top. I put a lid on it and all the flavor of the cod went into it, yeah.”

  She didn’t need any bread to help her chowder out, either.

   While Vera pulled gently at her baby back ribs, Frank started scooping out his large bowl of broth and seafood.

   “How’s the sinkhole?” Vera asked.

   “So far so good,” said Frank. “It’s sort of like a Manhattan clam chowder, like the Portuguese make, and like a seafood goulash at the same time.”

   “Like a cioppino.”

   “Like a what?”

   “That’s the official name of it,” Vera said.

   “Anyway, I can taste bay leaves and thyme, and there might be some oregano in it. It’s loaded with stuff. She must have hit the motherload at the fish market. There are mussels, halibut, lobster, a chuck of salmon, and shrimp.”

   “Emily probably uses whatever she has on hand,” Vera said.

   “On top there’s a red pepper rouille, almost like a pesto, which gives it a kick.”   

   “Are you going to be able to finish it?”

   “I’m going to give it my best shot.”

   Halfway through their meal, when Vera spotted a plate of maple mousse walking by, she said to Frank, “That’s what I want to try for dessert tonight. It’s frozen mousse, like ice cream. I thought it might not be good for sharing, but that thing is more than big enough.”

   “All right,” said Frank, “since that Anna kid is a wizard. First, we eat well, then we face tomorrow, no matter what happens.”

   The Mill was almost vacated evacuated when they paid their bill of fare and left.

   “You wouldn’t know a hurricane is blowing in,” Frank said to Vera as they lingered in the front lot after dinner, leaning against the back hatch of their Hyundai, watching the no traffic on the quiet road, the starry northern sky inky and still above them.

   When Saturday morning rolled around, it started getting dark, and by noon it started raining. It got windy and windier. The Coastline Cottages and the Doyle houses on the other side of the park road lost power in the late afternoon. Churchill Avenue in town was shut down. The Gulf Shore Parkway east from Brackley was shut down. Roads in all directions were shut down, as utility wires and branches blew away. Fences were flattened, roofs torn off, and hundred-year-old trees toppled.

   The damage to the Cavendish Campground, seven-some miles away from where Frank and Vera were staying, was so bad it was closed for the rest of the year. An arc from Cavendish to Kensington to Summerside was walloped. Islanders tarped their roofs, sawed up tree limbs, and hauled away debris for days afterwards. On Sunday morning all the trails administered by Parks Canada everywhere on PEI were shut down until they could be assessed.

   After their cottage lost power, Frank and Vera packed for their drive home the next day and tidied up while there was still some light. “At least we know the mondo bridge is as sturdy as it gets,” said Vera. When it got dark, 19th century-style dark, they popped open the remains of a bottle of red wine and spent the rest of the night riding out the lashing all-out rain and gusting big ass wind.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Cooking Up the Landmark

345156-eugene-sauve-proprietaire-landmark-cafe

By Ed Staskus

There are thousands of moving parts to restaurants, from sourcing good food for the larder to wage and safety regulations to clearing the tables. Keeping the doors open is an exercise in controlling chaos. That’s why Calvin Trillin, the New York City food writer, has said he never eats in a restaurant more than one hundred feet off the ground.

It can be a way of life, a labor of love, and Dante’s Inferno all rolled up in one, especially if you are the owner and chef at the same time.

Restaurants are fine dining with a reserved atmosphere and noisy gastropubs and clam chowder shacks on the beach. All restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, need stoves and ovens and grills to prepare food. And no matter what kind of a restaurant it is, unless it’s a street takeaway or a food truck, it needs chairs, tables, and booths.

“There was a neighbor of mine up the road in Crapaud, a farmer, who had built tables for a little church fair,” said Eugene Sauve, the owner and chef of the Landmark Café in Victoria, a seacoast town on the Northumberland Strait side of Prince Edward Island. “I asked him if he would consider building tables and a whole bunch of chairs for me. A week later he said, I’ll do it for two thousand.”

A dozen some tables and forty chairs were made. It was 1988. “I didn’t have a formal plan, but it was all visually in my mind,” said Eugene. “I knew I wanted a big round one. The tables and chairs in the front and back dining rooms are still the originals. The big round table is still in the front.”

The Landmark Café, in the centuries old building that had once been Craig’s Grocery Store, opened on the day long-time Victoria resident Hope Laird drove her three-wheeled bicycle through the grand opening ceremonial ribbon. Almost everyone in town was there.

“When we were kids, we used to call Craig’s Store the Landmark,” she said. “Say meet you at the Landmark and all the kids would meet you there.”

“So, that’s what we called it,” said Eugene Sauve.

Restaurateurs open eateries because they are conversant with the business, are self-motivated, and are usually people with people skills. They are foodies who want to match a menu with what they love to do. Sometimes they are people who just like getting their hands wet and dirty, like to be on their feet all day, and like to work long, long hours.

Opening your own sit-down means pulling up your pants, pilgrim. It takes gumption and hard work the spread-out hours you are on your feet. It takes nerve, too. 50% of all restaurants go south inside of three years. After a decade more than 70% have closed their doors.

Why do friends let friends open restaurants?

“I remember having nightmares opening this place,” said Eugene. “All my friends were saying, you’re crazy, you’re wasting your money.”

What Eugene Sauve’s friends didn’t know was that he had worked in restaurants since he was 16-years-old, and had an outsize appetite, to boot. A business centering on an all-you-can-eat business plan made all the sense in the world. “Growing up I played a lot of hockey and I was always hungry,” he said.

“My father was very formal. He was a banker. He would come home from work, go upstairs, get out of his suit, come downstairs, sit down, and only then was supper served. So, I volunteered to help in the kitchen. I had three sisters, but they weren’t interested. My mom was an amazing great cook. One night, dinner would be Japanese, another Italian, another French.”

He helped her and helped himself.  “Every time my mom turned her back in the kitchen I was eating.”

In the early 1970s Euene Sauve’s father, Eugene, Sr., was transferred from Quebec to British Columbia. He was the first French-Canadian to become vice-president of a major bank in western Canada. Eugene’s sisters, as they grew up, went into banking, too, following the lead of their father.

“I was the only one who got away,” said Eugene.

Before his father was a banker, he was a football player in high school and later joined the Canadian Navy.

“After his military service he became a loan officer in a bank. Sometimes loans would only be ten or twenty dollars and he would literally hound guys for fifty cents. It was right after the war and every penny counted. Since he had also once been a boxer, he was an ideal debt collector.”

After leaving home in the mid 70s Eugene was on the road and staying in a small coastal town in Portugal. It was where he found out for himself what good food was, the kind of food he describes to this day as something that “snaps and cracks.” It was the kind of food three decades after opening the Landmark Café he continues to procure and make and serve.

“When I was in Portugal the fishermen would come in, take a little nap, get dressed up, and walk around the plaza, drinking coffee and booze. Their women would go to work, sardines on the barbeque, dipped in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, with a big crusty roll. Those are my images of good food, good simple food.”

There’s a difference between good table manners and good food. No one needs a silver spoon to eat the best food.

By the 1980s, although his wanderlust had not, and has not to this day abated, he found himself living, working, and newly married in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “Julia was from New York, performing in a modern dance company. That’s how we met.” He was soon working in the performing arts and the father of the first of two children.

But his children didn’t grow up in PEI’s capital city. Charlottetown is the province’s largest city. They grew up in Victoria. It is one of the province’s smallest communities. “Erskine Smith, the director of the theater in Victoria, phoned me in April one day, out of the blue,” said Eugene. “He said, I’d like to have you at the Victoria Playhouse, would you come out to talk?”

The seaside town that is Victoria, once known simply as Lot 29, was founded in 1819. Besides landing fish, its livelihood was shipping potatoes and eggs to Europe and the West Indies. Today there are some year-round residents, but not many more than a hundred. Summer is what animates the former seaport of family-run fine and folk-art galleries, artisan chocolate and coffee shops, and the Victoria Playhouse. The Landmark Café is kitty-corner to the theater.

The town in April is quiet wet cold.  “I had a half-hour, I walked around, and I instantly felt something here, something about this place. I got the job, and a month in someone at the theater says to me, there’s a house on the corner. I think the guy wants to sell it.” By the end of the summer Eugene Sauve and his nascent family were living in Victoria.

Two years later he approached Annie Craig about renting her grocery store to him for a new seasonal café to serve the theater’s playgoers.

“She had the post office, a bit of pension, although she wasn’t making a living at the store. But she said no,” said Eugene.

Two months later he approached her again. “This time I asked her if I could buy it. She said no, again.”

Annie Craig spent winters knitting sitting in a rocking chair in the back corner of the store. “Under our carpet you can see where she wore the floor out, rubbing her feet as she rocked,” said Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. “She wore through the tile and into the wood.”

The Craig’s Grocery Store building was almost two hundred years old. It had been gambled away in a card game and had once been sold with the bill of sale hand written on the back of a pack of cigarettes. Before it was a grocery it had a history of cobbling, butchering, and bootlegging.

Annie Craig called back the next spring. “You know what, I will sell to you,” she said.

“How much?” asked Eugene Sauve.

“Twenty thousand. I’m going to be firm on that,” she said.

“You got a deal,” he said.

“20 grand,” he thought after hanging up the phone. “Where am I going to get $20 grand?”

Entrepreneurs need capital to get going, but banks don’t like lending to start-up businesses. “They have no historical income,” said Tom Swenson, chief executive of an American bank. “If you are proposing a start-up business, you are de facto proposing something that doesn’t meet typical bank underwriting standards.”

If it’s a food-related business, they like it even less, because restaurants have high rates of default, no matter how much people like eating the food or how well known the chef might be. A healthy dose of skepticism is the default setting of most banks, or at least it should be. Many start-ups look to their families for cash. Eugene Sauve looked to his father, who was family, and a banker, too.

“My father lent me the $20 grand, since I was determined to open it for exactly that amount of money,” he said. “But I had to bring him in as a partner. It cost me 50 for 20 the six years he was my partner, which was pretty darn good for him, which explains why he was a banker.”

He stuck to his budget by buying end-of-the-roll carpeting on the cheap, cadging no cost paint that had been returned because it was the wrong color, and doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself. “A buddy of mine was an electrician. I worked with him. It was hard work, but It all fell together.”

His first stove was an old 4-burner Enterprise. The galvanized range hood came from a bakery going bankrupt. He was the dishwasher, sous chef, and chef. The kitchen had no air conditioning. “It used to be so hot in here it was unbelievable.”

The Landmark Café in Victoria opened in the summer of 1989.  In the movies they say things like, “If you build it, they will come.” In real life not everything is scripted. “The first day was really scary,” said Eugene. “I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to walk in.”

But if you build something good somebody is going to pay good money for it.

“The best Caesar salad I have ever experienced. The flavors were amazing. And the seafood pasta was melt in your mouth delicious,” said a man finishing his seafood pasta.

“I had been searching for a great seafood chowder,” said a woman in a print skirt. “After four other places this was the very best I’ve had on the island so far, just delicious.”

“I usually go with the flavorful Acadian meat pie, but yesterday I tried the special, a fish burger,” said a frequent diner. “It was delicious.”

When you’re serving people delicious food they don’t complain.

Not much beats delicious. Sunshine and fresh air are delicious. Kissing is delicious, tastier than sex. You don’t have to think about rotisserie chicken to know that it’s delicious. Authentic fresh yummy ingredients like island beef, island fish, and island produce are what make the Landmark Café a landmark when Eugene Sauve prepares and brings them to the table.

A decade-and-a-half after opening, in the mid-aughts, the family, son Oliver and daughter Rachel having joined the labor force, expanded the Landmark Café. “We lifted the whole building, since we had a problem with storage and there was no basement, which we needed to grow as a business,“ said Eugene.

“We added 40 seats and that changed everything, since we were turning people away. The air conditioning in the kitchen got done, too. I’m the chef here, anyway, and I need to stay cool. That way we serve more food and everybody’s happy.”

For all the changes and renovations, the original chairs and tables built by Crapaud farmer George Nicholson thirty years ago are still what many diners sit on and eat at in the Landmark Café. In the course of time, however, things happen, chairs and tables sometimes taking the brunt of it.

Opening the restaurant one morning after a stormy night Eugene Sauve found a note addressed to him.

Dear Eugene,

Please accept my sincere apology for the disorderly behavior I displayed last evening. Enclosed is a cheque that I hope is sufficient for the purchase of a new table. It’s been awhile since I’ve let myself loose like that and I’m only sorry it was at your expense.

Signed, Pam

The next day he wrote back.

Pam, the table is going to be fixed with a little glue. There’s no problem. You are always welcome here.

Love, Eugene

Who doesn’t want to stop and eat and drink and kick back somewhere where the chairs are time tested and sturdy and the table is always set for you?

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Jumping Stanley Bridge

Richard Moore, Emma MacIssac and Connor McVey

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 posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”