Archive for September, 2012

Morrison’s Quarry

A new story exploring reader-friendly methods of transmitting information and the first-person plural. My graduate-level workshop just got this story too. Let me know what you think! This is the unformatted text. I’m also including a .doc file with the proper formatting, which does somewhat matter for the scene breaks in the story and such. I can’t be bothered to fight with the div tags today. Find it here: MorrisonsQuarry

Morrison’s Quarry

Our playground. Our stomping and proving ground. We think of it that way, but we know that it isn’t so. When we first hear about it, it calls to mind sunken caterpillars and cranes abandoned in a rush when the water came on too fast. What is actually down there is even better than that. And the water is slow, but it still wells up, freshening the quarry so that even in high summer, it’s a cold place to swim. And there have been accidents.

But first: the tour. Morrison Quarry is owned by Evelyn Morrison, and even in her seventies she is still running the place. When we arrive every year in mid-June (or at other times – August, October, even February), we give our ten dollars a day to her, and stake out picnic tables as our base of operations – as close to the two entry points as possible. Morrison Quarry is in Wakefield, Quebec, and it is still home to an operational limestone and quartz quarry, the Great Canadian Bungee – the highest bungee in Canada – and a hidden body of water that’s a couple of football-fields’ long and one hundred and twenty feet deep at its deepest.
We, by the way, are scuba divers.
From the highway, all we can see is a pile of rock. The road is crushed stone, and curves in a gentle loop to the parking area – which is mostly mud if it’s been raining. The parking lot is less of a lot and more of a wide drive-way. If there isn’t room there, a little further up the slope there is more land, and more mud. If we’re facing into the parking lot, behind us and to the right is a duck pond with a small decorative red house in the middle. To the left, there is an even smaller pond where the frogs breed. Beyond these lots, those ponds, we don’t know how far the still-operational portions of the quarry extend. We have never been too far in the other direction. From our parking lot, straight ahead and to the right is a hill about ten feet high with stairs installed straight into the hill face. Atop the hill is a green free-standing structure with two large white doors. Inside are the restrooms. On a busy day, the ladies’ room will be frequently blocked. The apparent mania for cleanliness that grips some women leads them to line the edge of the seat with toilet paper, which they then flush down into pipes that weren’t designed to accommodate fastidiousness.
To the right of the bathrooms, if we are facing the bathroom doors, is a children’s playground, complete with merry-go-round and a wooden climbing apparatus that is only nominally a jungle gym. To the left of the bathrooms, down the hill a space and down a set of white metal stairs, is Mrs. Morrison’s Chateau. From the parking lot, this area is protected by tall hedges, but we can still see the house poking through. In our eyes, it was never a shack, but the main part of the house is maybe ten feet across and twenty-five feet wide. It is made of green-painted wood, and when we first came there, it looked like a park rangers’ refuge – rustic, and full of useful clutter. On the back wall, there is a big old cast-iron stove that used to have a metal flap instead of glass on the front door and has often warmed us in fall and winter. On the wall, there used to be an aerial shot of the entire quarry, which always impressed us because it made the quarry look so big, taking it in all at once. Recently, the cabin had the good fortune of being subject to a stone-soup of renovations. One of the divers that came often to the quarry was changing the windows on his house, and since they were newer than the ones already installed at Mrs. Morrison’s, he decided to install them for her. While he was at it, he decided that the place could use some insulation, and that also meant refinishing and tiling the floors – and then he went ahead and just built some cupboards too, while he fixed the door of the stove, of course. The front deck of the cabin is also surrounded by Mrs. Morrison’s tall evergreen hedges.
In front of Mrs. Morrison’s cabin are her lawn and the beach area, which is contained between the hill that we talked about before to the right and a limestone cliff to the left. There is a stone and asphalt path winding from the parking lot behind us to the beach area. To the left of this hill but to the right of this path is a large metal cauldron that looks like it could fit about six unruly junior scuba divers into it. Atop it is a chimney standing on several spidery legs. The chimney is about fifteen feet tall. Behind the cauldron is a protected area made of stone and wood with a fire pit on the left side, and a barbecue oven on the right. This area merges into an overhanging that shelters several picnic tables and an industrial-sized metal fridge. There is also a storage shed built into this area, and a changing cabin next to it, followed by another protective overhanging and stairs that lead up to an observation deck.
To the left of the path that comes from the parking lot is a sea of about thirty picnic tables, which are lined up differently every time we come to the quarry. In front of these picnic tables, the beach proper begins. It is a sandy beach with limestone outcroppings on the left. Compared to the rest of the shoreline, the beach comes in about thirty feet. It is a miniature bay, the mouth of which is covered by a trestle bridge with a railing on the side facing outwards to the rest of the water, painted green, and covered in rubber mats. It stretches from the observation deck on the right to a second observation deck on the left. This second observation deck is also about fifteen feet high, and underneath it is another picnic table. Beside this deck is the second entry point into the water, where access is only permitted to divers and not to swimmers.
And beyond that, there is water. The water is smooth as glass, interrupted by a long plastic pier, which is where the Great Canadian Bungee jumpers are brought back to shore after their jumps. We have known some divers who have finished up a day at the Quarry with the simulacrum of a near-death experience on the bungee cord. We have pictures – some of which are very good. High above us, the bridge for the jumpers stretches out over the water, reminding us of the Montreal skyline during the construction season. Even though this giant web of girders seems so long, we know that it reaches a point above the water that is roughly two hundred feet away. Beyond all that: sheer limestone cliffs, which we know are two hundred feet high, because that is the height of the Bungee. They are mottled white and blue and grey, and they defy our sense of scale.
And that is the quarry. Except for the water. We know that the water is the main attraction. We know what’s underneath. We are scuba divers. Once a year, we come out here to certify a batch of beginner divers – the size of the group depends on the year – and for two days we live in this Quarry. Different schools come on different weekends – the place is packed from the end of May until mid-September on the weekends, although it is fairly quiet during the week. Us? We come up from Montreal. Our school is a non-profit organization run out of a sports complex. We usually show up in early to mid-June with an average of at least thirty divers – some of them instructors, some divemasters, some rescue divers, others with varying specialties, or with no experience at all.
Some unremembered amount of time ago, workers in Morrison Quarry struck a natural spring, and the quarry filled with water. The water hasn’t stopped, and this underwater spring still feeds into the quarry from its depths. Along the right side of the quarry, the old quarry road descends in a gentle spiral. Along the left, there is a shallow bottom which then drops off suddenly in levels descending all the way to one hundred feet. Somewhere under the gray plastic dock where the jumpers are picked up, there is a twenty-foot deep hole, the walls of which are lined with large rocks. There is a rubber tire there. The spring keeps the water cold, and the cold keeps the water clear. Except, of course, when those mudpuppy beginners go and kick up the bottom – but we know all too well that we were all once beginners – and the quarry is beginner-friendly.
Even after a full scuba course, most beginners still look like fish out of water on their first dives. The full cold water equipment, with a thick seven millimetre wetsuit and extra weights to compensate for it, is unfamiliar. Things that were simple in the pool seem impossible with gloves on, with a constricting hood restricting movement and vision. All that we can say for now is that it gets better.
No matter which entry point we use to get into the water, there are two approaches to diving in the quarry. We can follow the road, or push off into the abyss. If we follow the road, the first thing we see is a signpost standing in about fifteen to twenty feet of water. The signs are, from top to bottom: an arrow pointing further down the road, a Murphy Street sign, a placard announcing “Danger: Ammoniac”, and a Lajeunesse Street sign. There is a bicycle chained to the post.
About thirty feet beyond the street signs, there is a small, eight-passenger airplane in twenty-five feet of water. It is opened up, and we go inside from time to time. Sometimes, in October, we will fill pumpkins with rocks and glow sticks and place them on and near the plane. We carve out faces with our dive knives. This is Diver Halloween. One of the plane’s wingtips hangs over the edge of the abyss. The other terminates next to a large metal box and a fire hydrant. About forty to fifty feet away from the plane, there is a wood and metal boat in forty-five feet of water. The rims are pitted with rust. We swim through this boat too – all thirty feet of it. There is a temperature change – it gets pretty cold there. On our first dives – until we take advanced certification in fact, we do not go further down the road than this boat.
If we do have advanced certification, then we go down past the boat once in a blue moon. The truth is, though we love Morrison Quarry because it is beautiful and it contains interesting artefacts, our visits are usually utilitarian. We come to the Quarry to do certifications in a safe but stimulating environment. There are only a few rare certifications that would take us beyond the boat – such as getting a bit off-track during the navigation portions of advanced certification, or navigation certification. There, in eighty feet of water, is a box. It is part log cabin, part Popsicle-stick construction, and we are not sure who built it. The box is about eight feet high, made of rounded timber slotted together. We can duck inside of it, but we usually do not. Beyond this, there is the back wall of the quarry. Most of us have never touched it.
The Abyss is a little different. To get to it, new divers often look like we are stumbling down a hill underwater and trying to stop ourselves. This is because we hug the edge, and we bring up silt and kick down rocks. Later, we learn what most of us already know: to control our buoyancy and float off above the blue void, slowly descending at a controlled rate. Here, in about forty-five feet of water, there used to be Canada’s only known freshwater quarry shark. It had a particular appetite for divers who were helping out with rescue certifications. These volunteers often managed to get bitten by the freshwater quarry shark, despite the fact that it was stationary and attached to a block of cement, and, being hollow, had no teeth or stomach to speak of. Many a rescue diver candidate has proven themself a hero by rescuing these victims and bringing them back to shore. This noble creature was recently replaced with a Jet Ski and an old motorboat. We do not know where the quarry shark has moved on to, but we will miss the feel of its Plexiglas skin under our gloves. The Jet Ski is doing fine.
One level below, in sixty feet of water, is a yellow submarine. We are serious. We tell this to junior scuba divers on the way up to the quarry, and we can tell that they are pleased when they find that it is true. But sixty feet of water is cold, and some of us remember our first dive at sixty feet, and feeling that we might die with two extra atmospheres of pressure on us. That’s roughly twenty-eight extra pounds pressing on every part of our bodies. But then, the next time that we went to sixty feet, we didn’t even notice it happen. We don’t keep junior scuba divers down there very long. This submarine is designed for two people, and there are teeth painted on the front of it – an entire mouth, in fact, with black, white and red. It is a lipless, sharp-toothed grin. Resting on the front end of this submarine is a small lion statue of the kind that are found in Italian neighbourhoods, but its eyes have been repainted black and yellow. Sometimes, when we visit, it has fallen, but we pick it back up again. In the silt that has settled over the submarine, we write our names. Below the submarine, forty feet down, is a flat area that is primarily filled with nothing but brown leaves and silt. Somewhere in there – we never seem to quite find it the same way twice – is a stove with no door, and a deep freezer with a broken parasol stuck inside. Somewhere else, at one hundred feet, there are two beater cars that few of us have been to visit.

We mentioned that there have been accidents.
Scuba diving is considered an extreme sport. We know that. But the community does everything possible to ensure it is the least extreme that it can be. Standard diving practice leaves us with four options for air: our own regulator, our backup regulator, our buddy’s backup regulator, or our buddy’s regulator, shared between us and our buddy. Then, there are those who carry an extra bottle of air along with them. Most other equipment failures don’t result in a diving accident or can be controlled. If we lose our weights, we are in danger of an uncontrolled ascent – but our buddy can always help keep us down there, and if they can’t, we can empty our vest as much as possible and create as much drag as possible by spreading our limbs like starfish. If we damage our vests, our buddies can usually help us. A broken inflator, if it is stuck in the on position, will fill up our vests until our emergency purges go off, and could still result in an uncontrolled ascent. A broken inflator, if it will not inflate our vest, is not the end of the world – it just means our buddy needs to use their vest to compensate for ours, and we need to kick harder on the way up. Those are the two dangerous equipment failures that immediately come to mind. Anything else is usually the result of a decision made by a human being. This means that, with training, we try to make the right decision as instinctual as possible – knowledge is our armor, and all that. But even so, there are accidents.
Some of us are rescue divers. Our jobs, we are told, are about seventy percent prevention. We try to stop accidents before they happen. We observe the mood on the dive site. We ask friendly questions. If a diver looks nervous, or if they seem to be struggling with a piece of equipment, we talk to them about the dive, or we offer a hand. We remind people about doing a buddy check – a quick test of the purges, regulators, inflators, and other features of our buddy’s equipment before we get in the water.
There are also incidents that never turn into accidents.
They are still haunting if we let them be – we often tell ourselves, “thank goodness nothing came of it – but what if it did, and what should I have done differently?” We tell ourselves, “What would I have done differently if an accident had actually happened?” We tell ourselves not to think about it. These are the incidents where somebody panics, or there’s an equipment failure that we manage to fix. A free flow, for example, is when the air valve on a regulator or a back-up regulator (known as an octopus), gets stuck open. Air rushes out at an unmediated rate. A three-thousand PSI tank can be emptied in seconds. But it can be fixed – we shut off the tank while the diver breathes from someone else’s octopus and then we turn it back on. This usually fixes most free flows. But sometimes, we panic if we get a free flow – we may decide to boogie all the way back to the surface, or we may decide that the regulator in another diver’s mouth looks a lot better than our octopus and we may rip that regulator right out of their mouths.
We remember certifying a group of junior scuba divers. One of them was dyslexic – and we are not sure, but we think that this contributed to his stress. During the buddy breathing exercise, in fifteen feet of water, where pairs of us practice sharing our regulators and octopuses, he got a free flow. He was nervous – he wanted to go back up, but the exercise was designed exactly with this type of incident in mind, and we had him stay. We turned off his tank and fixed the problem, but he was left with one thousand pounds of air out of the three thousand he had started with, and he thought that was very little indeed. We think now that he might have thought it said one hundred instead of one thousand. We know that we had emphasized using one third of the tank getting to a dive site, one third on the dive site, and one third on the way back out, but we were not deep, and some of us instructors had a lot less air than a thousand. Some of us had four hundred, because we were doing two dives for every one dive that the junior divers did. So he showed us his gauge – urgently, several times, while we kept reassuring him that it was okay, and then he shot for the surface, ripping his mask off while still underwater and dropping it. Some of us had only heard of divers ripping their masks off while underwater before then – some of us had never seen such panic. But some of us knew that the only remedy, so long as he was okay, was to bring him straight back down.
We remember other free flows – some of them during night dives, some of them even due to faulty manufacturing of fancy new equipment (a weak spring), but we are trained for these eventualities. Nine times out of ten, we know that everything is all right. We remember that sometimes divers get tired and that rescue divers or other divers sometimes help them swim back, without which they might have been injured or lost.
We remember stories about nitrogen narcosis – about people getting l’ivresse des profondeurs – the drunkenness of the depths – and running out of air. We remember one guy tying the same knot over and over again, and his buddy trying to pull him out. We remember the martini law: that for every thirty feet we go underwater, it is as if we are drinking a dry martini on an empty stomach. Some of us have never been drunk, but we have been “narked.”
We remember hearing about famous cave divers who get stuck, and don’t make it out. We remember animal attacks. We remember mistakes. We remember Steve Irwin. We remember that all men are mortal. We remember that yes, diving is an extreme sport.
But we remember thousands of dives without incident – and we remember equally dangerous things that humans do as a matter of course that having nothing to do with being underwater: driving cars at one hundred kilometers an hour – as if anyone drives the speed limit all the time, sucking in carcinogens through their lungs, overloading their livers in creative new ways, overindulging in just about anything they can find. And we also remember moments and actions that fill us with pride, which some of us watched while the others executed them: a school of divers entering one after another in perfect time to ride a current together, divers sharing enclosed space on a boat with perfect courtesy, rescue divers performing exercises on a beach just because they want to be ready for as many eventualities as possible.
The accidents – we are happy that they are few, at our proving, stomping, and play -ground. We heard of one happening just last year – a man had a heart attack and his son dragged him out of the water where there happened to be a doctor there diving. There is only one other accident that we remember.
It’s the one that we can’t account for. We only know of two deaths in Morrison Quarry: a woman in her twenties and her dive buddy during the nineties. The details are hazy – it was not very publicized, and this was before every news item could be indexed on the internet. We have heard different stories: that she was anxious, that one of them had a pre-existing heart condition, that she lost consciousness. What we know is this: they both died in less than thirty feet of water, less than fifty feet from the shore.
We try not to think about it.

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