Liquid Asset

S wimming in an abandoned quarry has been a favorite summer pastime as long as there have been abandoned quarries. Swimming at the old brownstone quarry in Portland, Connecticut, takes this hot-weather pleasure to new depths.

My daughter Meggie and I drove the 35 minutes to Portland one afternoon last week to check out Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park. Located just over Arrigoni Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River and connects Middletown and Portland, the quarry is located in a part-residential, part-industrial neighborhood, but from down in the water, you may as well be in another world. The quarry’s red sandstone walls rise high above you, their tops fringed with shrubs and trees that mask the buildings close behind them. Some of the rock walls are still marked with telltale vertical lines that remain from dynamite blasting.

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A marker at cliff’s edge near the lower parking lot cites the quarry as a National Historic Landmark: “The Portland quarries were the main source of the brownstone used extensively in building many American cities in the latter half of the 19th century. The use of this stone was so widespread that the period from 1850 to 1890 has been informally called the ‘Brownstone Era.’” Other quarries in the area offered up brownstone as well, including one in Fair Haven Heights and another in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, but the Portland quarry was the largest. Flooding in the 1930s ended production. The park opened in 2006.

Everyone wears a life jacket at Brownstone Park. It won’t take you long to realize this is a good thing. While there’s a small beach area for little kids with a few inflatables to climb, the park’s attractions require strength and, at times, courage. Those who lack one or both can still swim off the little beach or the docks, lounge in an Adirondack chair in the shade or claim one of several floating gazebos (for a fee of $175 or $225 per day, depending on the size). But Brownstone is really for older kids and adults who want a big splash of summer adventure.

We decided to try climbing some of the huge inflatables anchored in the middle of the quarry lake. The first, a 15-foot-tall “iceberg,” was unscalable for us. The hand and foot holds were too far apart, and we didn’t have the upper body strength to launch ourselves up to them. We floated for a moment in the cool water and squinted up at the peak of the giant white berg in the late afternoon sun. No one else was at the top, either.

We kicked over to one of several “Rockits” instead—huge contraptions that resemble the planet Saturn, with four log-shaped seats sticking out of them. These, too, were a challenge to haul ourselves onto, but once up, we had a rollicking seesaw. We bobbed up and down and watched a girl at the top of a climbing wall eyeing a little diving platform and crossing herself in prayer, while below, her friend waited on the far end of a giant, flabby inflatable called “Fat Boys.” The idea was that when she jumped, her friend would be launched high into the air. We’d seen the hilarious results earlier with other swimmers, but this time the launch never came. Apparently, it was just too scary.

From the Rockits, we swam over to what looked like an easy-to-climb inflatable known as “Summit Express.” We mounted several slippery ledges to the top of this giant slide. It looked pretty tame. But Meggie shrieked in surprise on the way down, and I was shocked by how steep it was. “You looked like a torpedo!” she shouted when I surfaced.

There’s lots more fun to be had at Brownstone: a long water slide suspended over the lake, old-fashioned jumps off the quarry wall, games of tug-of-war (with losers pulled into the water, of course), a rope swing, rock climbing, wakeboarding, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving. And the best part: zip lines criss-crossing high above, all of them with wet landings.

We hiked up a soft mulched path to the top of the highest cliff, catching a vertiginous view of the rugged quarry wall and the sparkling water far below before we entered the zip line waiting area. A staffer helped us step into harnesses, tightening them at our waists and around our legs. Then we climbed up some old brownstone blocks and stood atop the 80-foot ledge.

It’s a long way down.

Another staff member clipped us onto our zip lines and gave us the count: 3! 2! 1! We jumped.

I do not like heights. I wouldn’t even free jump off the 18-foot wall below. But secured to the safety wire and feeling it bear my weight, I soared happily all the way to the far side of the quarry. Land feet first, Meggie had warned me, but I couldn’t get turned facing the right way and barely broke my speed with my heels in the water before my backside smacked down. Even so, the ride was worth it.

Visiting Brownstone on a weekday afternoon was a good move. From prior experience, we know the park can get pretty crowded on weekends, with long waits. But at four o’clock on a Tuesday, we stepped right up to whatever we wanted to try.

“You never get tired of it,” Meggie commented, as we walked up the road to our car. (We parked in the closest lot, but a shuttle transports those who have to park farther away.) I asked her why she thought it was so much fun to keep coming back.

Her reply says all you really need to know about Brownstone Park: “Adrenaline.”

Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park
161 Brownstone Ave, Portland (map)
10am-7pm daily
Day passes: $26 (swimming); $36 (adventure sports); $46 (wakeboarding)
(866) 860-0208
www.brownstonepark.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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