By Ben Crookshanks, Contributing Writer
Bridge Day is back!!
Well, it never really went away. A Bridge Day of sorts was held last year. But it's just not Bridge Day without being able to walk across the New River Gorge Bridge and watch the BASE jumpers leap from the bridge and gently float down to the bank of the New River.
Last year, Bridge Day took place a little over five weeks after 9/11, and the organizers, for safety's sake, thought it best not to allow the public to walk across the bridge. This year things will be back to normal. After all, we are Americans. Terrorists can wound us, but they can not permanently cripple us.
Bridge Day had been held each year since 1980. When the bridge was completed in 1977, for one day, the public was allowed to walk across. Many people who wanted to walk across were unable to make it that day. There were so many requests to do it again, three years later, it was. After that, it became an annual event.
This year for the first time, festivities will be spread out over 2 1/2 days, beginning at 4 pm on Friday, October 18. However, BASE jumping and walking across will be limited to the same 6-hour window, on Saturday, as always. Approximately 180 crafts and vendors will be on hand. Evenings, during the weekend, the Historic Fayette Theatre will present Murder by Natural Causes, a comic murder mystery. For more information, you can reach the theatre at (304) 574-4655.
At a height of 876 feet, the New River Gorge Bridge is tailor made for BASE jumpers. BASE is an acronym for Bridges, Antennas, Spans and Earth. These enthusiasts parachute off of things-earth bound things-that the law frowns on people jumping off of. It's not easy being a BASE jumper. The thrill of the jump is usually followed by the humiliation of the arrest.
After the bridge was finished in 1977, it was a foregone conclusion that someone with a parachute was going to jump off. That first bandit jump was made at night. At about 10:20 pm on Friday, August 1, 1979, Burton Ervin of Cowen made the first jump from the bridge. On the bank below, a man with a light provided a target for Burton. The jump was successful.
For BASE jumpers, Bridge Day is Christmas, the Fourth of July and their birthday all in one. It is the only day a person can legally BASE jump from the bridge. They live for that day and they come from all over the world. At one time, all you had to do was show up, register, pay your fee and you could jump. But no more; now you have to pre-register. Pre-registration begins on July 1, and the cutoff is 400 jumpers.
With only 876 feet to the water, there is not a lot of time for fancy free falling. After your chute opens, you have something like seven seconds to guide yourself to a landing in the gorge. If you do everything right, and with a little luck, you gently touch down on the gravely bank. Of course, you may wind up in the river or, worse, smack into one of the boulders along the bank. If you land in the water, the Dragan brothers (Jon, Tom and Chris) of Dragan Diversified Incorporated have four rescue boats ready and waiting to rush over and pluck you out. The jumpers are reminded that they will dry off quicker than they will heal. Every year someone winds up in a tree. They have to go up and get him down. This person usually makes the 6 o'clock news.
During the six-hour period between 9am and 3pm, you can jump as many times as you want. It's just a matter of re-packing your chute and getting a ride back up to the bridge deck. Watch from the bridge, or for a coveted spot on the river, reserve a whitewater rafting trip with AAA Adventure Outdoors to enjoy the sights from below. AAA has great packages combining Bridge Day, delicious food and rafting on the New or Gauley Rivers. Visit www.aaaAdventureOutdoors.com for details.
Bridge Day is a big event for rappelling. Participants have the opportunity to ascend or descend from a catwalk under the bridge.
Bridge Day has become a high profile, international event. It is a sad and unfortunate fact that the atrocities which took place on September 11, 2001 have made additional security necessary. Security personnel will not be out to hassle anyone. Still, a higher level of security than in years past will be in place for the event.
Law enforcement reserves the right to stop, question and screen any person attending Bridge Day. The following rules will be strictly enforced:
No backpacks, coolers, or large handbags
No dogs, bicycles, skates, skateboards or wagons
No weapons, fireworks, alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs
The two best things you can bring with you to this year's Bridge Day (besides a bottle of sunscreen) are a little patience and a lot of common sense.
Keith Spangler, chairman of the Bridge Day Commission, summed it up when he said, "The primary focus of the commission this year has been to guarantee the safety of the Bridge Day visitor without compromising the festive atmosphere of the event".