By TAYLOR KUYKENDALL · email@example.com
FAYETTEVILLE — One of the Mountain State's most beloved and well-attended events features hundreds of people leaping from a bridge 876 feet above the New River.
And amazingly enough, at least during Bridge Day, taking a flying leap off of one of the world's longest steel single-span arch bridges is completely legal. So is rappelling off of it and walking the length of the bridge, which carries a busy four-lane highway, U.S. Route 119 over the expansive New River Gorge.
During the celebration, held each year on the third Saturday of October to commemorate the 1977 opening of what was then the largest steel single-span arch bridge in the world, tens of thousands of people from around the world converge on southern West Virginia.
The main draw is the BASE jumpers — people who jump from buildings, antennas, structures and environment features — freefalling a few seconds before pulling their parachutes and drifting into the New River below. For many, it's a thrill to even watch the jumpers.
This year, Bridge Day will offer 20 tandem jumps, up 10 from last year in addition to solo jumpers. A catapult system also will be added to the event, as well as other new additions to the festival that are yet to be released.
Why jump into a gorge? Same reason mountaineer George Mallory wanted to scale Mount Everest — "because it's there."
"Right here, right in the middle of the Mountain State, we celebrate the outdoors with a show you've got to experience to believe," promotional material for the event states. "We've got a bridge, and we've got a gorge — plan to jump into it!"
Event organizers are expecting about 80,000 spectators to attend the 2012 event, bringing with it a major economic impact to Fayette County. Many local businesses take special care to handle the increased Bridge Day traffic.
Rappellers also will have a chance to practice their skills while dangling from the bridge.
At the 2011 event, shuttles were made available to those who wanted to experience the Gorge from below, as well.
"After last year's successful Into The Gorge Shuttles, Hometown Subaru and the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce are teaming up again to offer special bus rides into the New River Gorge on Bridge Day," wrote Cindy Dragan, Bridge Day chairwoman. "The ‘Hometown Subaru Into the Gorge Shuttles' were well received, and the Bridge Day Commission has allowed the number of spots to be increased from 300 to 400 this year."
To reserve a ride into the gorge on Bridge Day, call the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce at 800-927-0263 or 304-465-5617. Rides are available for $20 per person.
The bridge itself goes over one of North America's oldest rivers and is the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and is the second highest in the U.S.
The West Virginia commemorative quarter bears the image of the bridge on the back.
"The bridge was built aesthetically pleasing. It fits this site perfectly," Jimmy Wriston, special programs manager for the Department of Transportation told WVNS-TV in Beckley during the 2011 event.
Earlier this year, some of the original bridge builders reunited for a walk across the bridge.
They took advantage of one of the Bridge Walk tours, a look at the underside of the bridge and valley below via the Bridge's catwalk.
The Bridge Walk will be closed on Bridge Day, but a number of other activities in the area will likely attract the interest of people touring the area.
A local TV station, WOAY-TV, sponsors "Taste of Bridge Day," an event to sample some of the excellent dining options available in the Fayetteville area. The event takes place the Friday before the event at Smokey's on the Gorge. Down Under bridge tours are available.