Baptism by fire and water
Rites of spring and the rites of passage often collide
In Cape Breton there are two rites of spring that every redblooded Caper at one time had endure to gain acceptance — jumping clampers and lighting grass fires. This baptism by fire and water is a time-honoured tradition in these parts although what starts out as innocent fun could lead to real trouble.
Every spring, Mike and I would head for the Washbrook, of the Thanksgiving Day flood 2016 fame, to practise jumping clampers. We started in a brook because the water was shallower and the jumps required were a relatively short distance. Once we had practised enough in the brook, and being blocked by bridges and culverts, we headed for the harbour for some real championship clamper jumping. Those of you not familiar with this sport let me explain, clampers were pieces of drift ice that floated near shore and “clamped” themselves to the rocks. The event begins by finding a loose clamper that you could float on (some used a hockey stick to move the ice along) and once you have gained some speed and depth, you jumped to another piece of ice.
This manoeuvre had to be executed with the greatest of care. You had to time your jump so you landed on the new clamper at sufficient distance that it didn’t tip because, God knows, a cold dip in the harbour was no reward. You had to be watchful too that the clamper didn’t have too much water on it, making it slippery. Finally, you had to watch for the police who would drag you home by the scruff of the neck for a sure punishment from your parents.
Mike went completely under on one attempt which sent us scurrying to a nearby laundrymat to dry his clothes because God knows you didn’t want your parents finding out. It took every cent we had to dry his coat. I still remember the Old Man’s words,
“You drown jumping clampers and I will kill you!”
Not quite logical but you got the message.
The second rite of spring was the lighting of grass fires. This was not a ceremonial event but simply setting a vacant field alight then waiting for the fire department to arrive so you could play fire fighter for a few hours. Unlike jumping clampers, if you went home smelling of smoke you could just say you were helping the fire department. Ma always bought this but the Old Man was somewhat leery.
A number of years ago I was guest speaker at a fire department installation of officers. When they announced my friend, Joe L., had been chosen as firefighter of the year, I was flabbergasted because I had hard evidence that in the ’50s and ’60s he lit half the grass fires in Ashby. The proof — I lit the other 50 per cent.
Now I must stop and issue a warning — lighting grass fires is not a good idea. An out of control fire could cause lots of damage. As for jumping clampers, well I don’t think too many young people are attracted to drift ice anymore, unless it’s a video game. I’m just sayin’...
“The second rite of spring was the lighting of grass fires. This was not a ceremonial event but simply setting a vacant field alight then waiting for the fire department to arrive so you could play fire fighter for a few hours.”