The young and the trestles

Paul Jacobs, 19, of Northfield jumps the legal way: using the rope swing die-hards hung for everyone to use at the Boscawen-Canterbury trestle on the Merrimack River.
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Eternity hangs for a moment over the water before being released. The rope swings back before a 12-year-old young girl in an orange bikini grasps the rough coil between her hands, hoists it up the hill and plunges out - the moment stretching for what seems like forever - and for a second.

"You can see it in your periphery and when you're out there, just for a second you see it and it's gone," says Chris Duggan, 14, of Belmont.

All along the river made famous by transcendentalist and famous writer Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, about a boat trip he took with his brother John in 1839, people have been pushing their own boundaries without leaving the shores of Concord or Lochmere or Plymouth for that matter. Of course, up north, the river becomes the Winnipesaukee, but the change in name doesn't stop people from indulging in a delicious ritual that some, including the police, find disturbing or ridiculous.

"Gainer," yells someone from shore as 14-year-old Northfield resident Rathosme Jacobs plunges in at the Boscawen-Canterbury trestle, popular with kids from Concord to Plymouth. Mostly boys come from all over, boys in pickups or borrowed convertibles, boys who've traded the skates and pavement surfing for their own two legs and a dose of adrenaline. For those less gutsy people of all generations, rope swings dot the landscape all along the river, homemade swings or cut-off pieces of water-ski handles finding their way through some creative swimming spirit.

Seven or eight old swings of various colors and various weight ropes hang from the tree like a colorful remnant of a sail on a ship, in tatters but festive, paying testament to people's love of swinging. Watching people let go of their cares over water brings to mind the lines of Robert Frost's poem, "Birches," about just this activity but over land: "When I see birches bend to left and right/ Across the lines of straighter darker trees,/ I like to think some boy's been swinging them."

Sgt. Peter Thomas of the Concord Police Department called the trestle between Exits 15 and 16 on Interstate 93 in Concord a "hot spot" for teenage jumpers over the past few years.

"Luckily, no one has drowned this year," Thomas said. "It's a very dangerous, unpredictable area."

Lt. Paul Leger echoed that concern. "It is dangerous because you don't know what's under water. There could be submerged logs."

Leger says that jumping from trestles becomes a trespassing issue because the bridges are owned by a private company. When the police talk with trestle jumpers, the officers record who they warned by keeping notes in their computers, and, in any case, trespassing could lead to actual arrests.The river records, as well, the joyful screams and wonder of swimmers, swingers, sun-tanners, boaters, tubers, poets and dreamers alike. Undeterred, the river swirls into summer lives, ever changed, by each visit to its shores.

"We push each other, see who can do the best flip or jump the highest," says Paul Jacobs, 19, Rathosme's brother. Thoreau's book about the river was a tribute to his brother, but Paul's tribute is a living one, played out in being a role model for what he sees as a wholesome family activity.

Usually, a boy will recall being taught how to jump by a father who grew up daring or double daring the boys around him. "Peer pressure," Paul says, laughing.

For Jacobs, pushing his limits reflects a life philosophy tattooed on his chest, "Death Before Dishonor."

Like most who are die-hard lovers of jumping from rope swings or bridges, they will go up north to Lochmere, which is a famous spot, statewide, for jumping, often featured in swim guides or in online tips for swim hotspots. There, last weekend on a flawless late August day, blue-green water reflected more than sky and pines, bending low over the water. People came and went all day like the water itself - and together they made a kind of song, people's shouting mixing in with the sound of rushing and gurgling water. (next page »)

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