Part of a series of
occasional articles highlighting summer destinations and activities along several
GLOUCESTER – Everyone is afraid. No one bothers to pretend they’re not. The reason people wake up and decide to go to Klondike is because they want to scare themselves.
Leaping from great heights into water is an ancient thrill, and when the Cape Ann granite industry ended a century of digging deep into the earth in the 1930s, rain and springs combined to turn those pits off Route 127 into arenas for adventure, swimming holes surrounded by high cliffs where generations of youths have come to test themselves.
Quarries are dangerous. Young men have died in them as long as young men have jumped from them. The Quincy quarries were notorious until they were finally filled with dirt from the Big Dig. And such danger is the draw.
The Klondike quarry, in Lanesville, is the most notorious one on Cape Ann, the highest and therefore the big test, something youths work up to. The highest jump is about 80 feet.
It is also the only one of the three Lanesville pits that is off-limits to the public, because it is a reservoir. Police can and will come, but that hasn’t stopped people from jumping in them for as long as anyone can remember.
As Jonathan Sheehan walked up to the edge of a 70-foot drop, his first look at Klondike this summer, he felt terror all the way through.
“I don’t remember it being this high,” he said to his friend, Josh Green.
“I am so scared,” Green replied.
There were four of them, all buddies from Peabody who had been jumping from Klondike since they were teenagers. But they were in their early 20s now, the age of just starting to know better. Sheehan was starting his first real job the next week.
It was a crowded day at Klondike, filled with young men from across the North Shore, small groups from places like Danvers and Lynnfield and Rockport who woke up on a summer day and decided they wanted to test themselves at this legendary spot, where many of their own parents had jumped before them.
A few dozen guys stepped off the lip at the top. Just as many could not.
Green and Sheehan spent a long time going through the stages – racing heart, repeatedly looking over the edge, raging panic – trying to persuade their bodies to jump from the edge. It was not working.
But they had the next best thing, the key to any good group of quarry kids – they brought a “crazy kid.”
Erik Gordon, that kid, announced he was going to warm up at a lower height.
“He’s lost his touch,” Green said.
But Gordon went right to the edge of a 25-foot drop and did a backflip.
Sheehan gave him a slow clap.
Green and Sheehan spent a lot of time letting in the fear, looking over the edge and telling themselves that they could do this, they had done it before.
“I really like this place,” Green said.
“Yeah, I used to like it a lot more,” Sheehan replied.
As soon as Gordon got out of the water, he went to a 70-foot sheer drop, looked over the edge – “This is kinda scary” – then turned and did another backflip.
Green and Sheehan were freaked out. There was no way.
There are smaller quarries all around, safer quarries, legal quarries. The Steel Derrick in Rockport is private – you need to be with one of the old Rockport families that has a key to get in – and ideal for children, because kids can work their way up from just a few feet to a jump called “barge,” which is just under 30.
And in Lanesville, just down some windy overgrown paths from Klondike are Nelson’s Pit, which has a serious 60-footer, and Vernon’s Pit, where young kids from the Gloucester Museum School Project Adventure Summer Camp were testing themselves from 20 and 30 feet.
Jo-Anne Crawford, executive director of the camp, had started jumping from the quarries in college to get over her “chemical fear” of heights. She served as a sage Yoda figure to the 7- and 8-year-olds in life jackets.
“That’s what we call fear, but it’s a good thing,” she told one boy scared at a 20-foot ledge, then stopped another child who was trying to dare him with a countdown. “We don’t want anyone else counting because it’s our own fear we’re confronting. We count for ourselves.”
The boy stepped to the ledge, planted his foot, and took the leap.
“After you are in the air, you know you made the right choice,” said the boy, 8-year-old Benan Murdoch of Rockport. “The wind brushes you, and you feel so happy. You just have to believe in yourself.”
To get up the courage to jump, those who were able to do it say, you just have to jump. Take the step and let go. You can’t think about it.
“When I think, I can’t do it,” said Brynn O’Neill, a 13-year-old who was one of the few girls jumping from the lower heights at Klondike. “When it’s quiet, then I can do it.”
Green and Sheehan thought a lot about it. They paced up and back to the edge, each went off the 25-footer – “At least I did a gainer,” Green wants it noted – but they were at war with themselves atop the 70-foot sheer face, the one they had come to jump, the one their buddy had just done a backflip from.
Another group arrived, and three youths went off the 70-footer after their own periods of pacing.
One of them was Chase Davidson, a 15-year-old from Lynnfield. He had never been to Klondike, but his mother had; when he told her he was going to Good Harbor Beach, she told him not to jump at the quarries.
Two of his buddies jumped again from the 70-footer, then swam across to the highest point, an 80-footer that requires getting a running start and jumping out over a tree growing out of a crack in the granite. This is the really dangerous jump at Klondike because you can slip.
The first one up there was Sam Johnson, a 16-year-old from Lynnfield, and when he ran to the edge and jumped, that’s precisely what happened.
His wet foot slid on the dirty granite and he was tilted backward. He cleared the bush just fine, but he was waving his arms frantically – “I was trying to fly,” he said later – to push his body forward. He landed well enough, and got to the end of the ride: the moment of zero momentum, when you stop descending in the water and know you have made it.
The slip scared Johnson to death, he said, and that’s why he climbed straight back up and got set to do it again.
He wiped off the soles of his feet, got his legs in position, and thought about it. He had to do it again right away, he said, or he would never be able to. He fidgeted some more. Then he committed.
This time it was clean, his body soared through the air in a huge arc, controlled, a few long seconds of flight to the water 80 feet down, straight in and safe.
Green and Sheehan watched the whole thing, but it wasn’t happening. They were old enough to be OK with being afraid.
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