Brief No. 72

Rope Swing

Project: Essays   Location: Saco River, ME   Subject: Rope Swings

Words by Derek Stackhouse, photo (Washougal River) by Daniel Wakefield Pasley

The Saco River winds from the White Mountains of New Hampshire, through Southern Maine, emptying into the sea at Saco Bay. Behind its bucolic banks, though, lies a grim history, one that elicits whispers of an “Indian curse.” Local legend goes that in the summer of 1675, a group of white settlers tossed an Indian boy from the Sokokis tribe into the river to see if native children were in fact born able to swim “like dogs.” Enraged Sokokis chief Squandro swore that three white men would perish in the river’s waters annually for the deed. The tale is such an integral part of life in the region that in 1947, after a summer of no casualties, the front page of the local newspaper declared “Saco River Outlives Curse of Indian Chief.”

Today, on a leisurely inner tube trip down the calm stretch of the Saco between tiny Buxton and Hollis, Maine, one need only scan the shores to see the variety of human uses for such a waterway. The West Buxton Hydroelectric Plant, a mid-century monument to the desire to harness the water’s power, still operates just upriver from sprawling residential lawns and the uniform green of Salmon Falls Country Club. These manicured expanses continually interrupt vibrant green banks of forest. Here, working class families who have farmed the land or moved timber down the river for generations live alongside moneyed retirees and professionals looking for some relaxation. And finally, just across from the golf course’s ninth fairway, stands that ubiquitous totem of adolescent abandon: the rope swing.

Buxton’s most famous (see infamous) swing contains in its name both a parent’s worst fears and knowing elbow nudges exchanged by the same parent’s kids: the suicide swing. The name seems at first overblown, but it reflects the very real danger of the contraption. After all, it’s a sun-bleached, slightly frayed rope bound to a tree perched atop a small cliff. Unlike some nearby swings that carry you close to the water, or feature a wooden seat for a comfortable ride, the “suicide” towers over the scene, King Swing. No one approaches the spot without knowing full well that some cocky kid will eventually dare you to jump. Summers here are filled with heady make-outs, broken bottles and broken-up fist fights. They’re also marked by the inevitable visit from the local cops, the dispersal of jumpers, and the eventual return once the coast is clear.

There is a level of skill involved in the rope swing drop: timing is of the utmost importance and you have but a narrow window in which to let go or else risk smashing onto the shelf of rocks running along the shore.

Release in the sweet spot and you’ll drop about thirty feet and splash down without incident. We are fallible creatures and as such it is easy to believe the requisite tales and cultured rumors about so-and-so’s cousin who shattered his knees on the jagged shore after holding on too long or the out-of-towner who belly-flopped and caved in his lungs, etc. No one wants to appear chicken by not swinging, but while you wait in line to swing and then rope in hand these fables once tiny and inconsequential grow into monsters crowding out all other thoughts until you have to just let go of the unease (and the rope), and accept the void in your stomach as an essential component to the sheer thrill of the fall.

Once one has covered the basics, the swing offers a classic opportunity for self-expression and braggadocio. You want to impress your friends with a little extra something? Try swinging out there upside-down! Other wild techniques include back flips, 360s, reverse dives, and the foolhardy “tandem swing.” This last one elicits head-shakes from even the most seasoned daredevils. There’s nothing like watching a pair of young lovers fling themselves out there as the weathered rope moans under the stress of two bodies. The more brash the stunt, the more you can look forward to a chorus of hooting and clapping as you emerge from the water.

There are safer bets for those looking to jump without risking catastrophe. The nearby Salmon Falls Bridge, or the remaining abutments of a long-ago collapsed railroad trestle sit much closer to the water and will do just fine. Nonetheless, for one childhood friend, even the suicide swing wasn’t epic enough, and he launched himself from one of the massive buildings connected to the hydroelectric dam. I watched from the hood of my car as he assumed a kind of lawn chair pose in the air, hitting the water ass-first with a gunshot crack. The Saco Curse flashed immediately to mind. My pal avoided a watery grave, but did suffer a shattered vertebra and a summer spent watching TV in bed. This insane leap made the swing suddenly seem almost quaint. Yet, it didn’t feel so benign when I found myself tightening my grip on that rope the next weekend, getting pumped for yet another plunge.