Friday, May 2, 2008
A Return to the Rope Swing
I am standing among the branches of a tall oak tree, fourteen feet above the North River. Below me, friends and family gather on the steep riverbank. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and we have spent the past two hours paddling downstream from the Hanover Canoe Launch. We’ve had lunch and rested a bit, and now we are ready for a refreshing swim in the river, and -- for the more adventuresome among us -- to play on the rope swing.
I am perched in the tree because it offers a great view of the meadows upstream, and because I haven’t yet decided whether I should sacrifice the comfort of dry clothing for the pleasure of a river swim. (I did not plan ahead and wear a bathing suit). But once I see the others grasp the rope swing, soar out over the river, and plunge into the water, once I see the joy in their faces as they resurface, my decision is made. It will be a soggy ride home, but a contented one.
When it’s my turn, I take the thick, knotted rope in my hands, pulling it taut as I walk up the side of a 4-foot high stump. I tuck the knot beneath me, and pause for a moment to catch my breath. Then, pushing off, I swing out over the water.
I don’t have to think about technique -- something inside of me remembers how to do it: to fly through the air with grace, to let go of the rope at just the right moment, to drop into the water with not a trace of a belly flop. My feet pound the river floor, and I spring back up to the surface. Taking a deep breath, I grin as I begin to make my way back toward shore. I am swimming in the North River. Summer has officially begun.
A few weeks ago, we had our annual family canoe trip. Fifteen of us paddled down the Indian Head River, through the tidal freshwater marsh, to "The Crotch," where the Indian Head, Herring Brook and the North River all flow together. We continued down the North from there, and after a fierce struggle with the incoming tide at the Washington Street Bridge, stopped for a picnic on the riverbank in Norwell, spreading our blankets in the shade of the Fox Hill Shipyard historic marker.
Years ago, I spent a lot of time at this site. When I was eighteen, the summer between my first and second years of college, my friends and I would visit the rope swing nearly every day at high tide. It was a different swing back then, and in order to ride it safely, I had to climb high into a tree. Wooden rungs had been nailed to its trunk, and the fourth rung, my launching spot, was about fourteen feet from the water’s surface.
The rope swing was an exhilarating ride. Seating myself on the knot, I would lean back to pull the rope slack, bend my knees, and then spring off into the air, swinging out over the river, letting go at just the right moment to drop into the water. It was always scary jumping out of the tree, but the release of the rope seemed to come automatically. (I had to let go, because if I didn’t, I’d swing back into the tree trunk). Falling to the water felt like flying. Much warmer than the ocean, the river was always refreshingly cool.
But that rope swing is long gone. Even the branch that supported it has been cut down. Other swings have been erected since then, on different branches or different trees, but none of them have offered quite as good a ride.
When, during the canoe trip, we discovered latest version of the rope swing, at first I was reluctant to try it: it could never be as fun as the original. I swim in the river every summer, but it had been eight years since I last rode the rope swing -- any rope swing. The new swing turned out to be quite tame by comparison. In a way, I was relieved. At twenty seven, I often find that I don’t have the guts to do the things I did at eighteen.
Before I had made my decision to swim in the river that day, I climbed up into the original rope swing tree. At the third rung I began to feel concerned about the height, but I was determined to get up to the fourth rung, to remember what it was like to jump from such a place. Hugging the tree trunk, I stepped up to my old perch and looked down into the water. I was frightened just standing there. I couldn’t even imagine making the jump.
In my memories, riding that swing from so far up in the tree is always an exciting event -- tense fear followed by the joy of flying through the air and splashing into the river. Looking back, I want to do it all again.
But riding that swing today would be a very different experience. I don’t think I’d have the guts to do it. I could climb the tree, but I doubt I’d be able to jump out of it. Fear -- or plain common sense -- would get in the way. Do we take fewer risks as we grow older, or just different ones?
Those original rope swing days were magical. I felt a bond to the river, to the friends with whom I rode the swing. How fortunate I am to be able to return to the river, to relive -- to some extent -- my bold, brash rope-swinging days. To realize that I can’t go back -- that even if I could it would not be the same. To wonder what part frightening, part exciting thing will come next.
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance, and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of the latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.