Taking a plunge: Bridge Day 2016

Famous BASE jumper Jeb Corliss once said, “It’s like a hurricane inside your head, every nerve ending is saying don’t do this. Once you take that step, there is no going back. It will change you as a human being.”

Only one day a year is it legal to intentionally throw oneself off of the New River Gorge Bridge, with a parachute of course. This year, that day fell on Saturday, Oct. 15.

The annual tradition of Bridge Day has taken its course every third Saturday of October since 1980, marking the only day foot traffic of any sort is allowed on the bridge. For many, this is just another day in the life of extreme sports; but for the loot of West Virginia natives this is a day to see Appalachia from a different point of view, maybe with a bit of an adrenaline rush.

Although the New River Gorge Bridge rises 876 feet in the air, it is among one of the safest fixed structures to BASE jump off of, giving up to 450 BASE jumpers their chance to take the leap.

“This is my ninth year as a jumper in this event,” said Marcus Ellison, native of Oak Hill and organizer of Bridge Day BASE jumpers. “My first year jumping was in 2008, and I’ve made it a point to do it every year since.”

Ellison currently lives in Fresno, California, but travels back for Bridge Day every year. “I’ve been BASE jumping for many years, but my initial force for becoming a BASE jumper comes back to this specific event,” Ellison said. “This place is my hometown. This place means something.”

As spectators gawk and gasp every time a jumper jumps, it is only assumed that this has to be scary for these athletes.

“Fear is a positive emotion behind doing this type of thing,” Ellison said. “Fear is being respectfully aware of your surroundings and what you’re about to do, so if you’re not scared something is wrong.”

Ellison continues to BASE jump in places all over the country, but as a West Virginia native, this event will always mean something.

As onlookers made their way to watch the jumpers, a slew of vendors lined the bridge’s sides offering crafts, food and giveaways.

“We’ve been setting up at Bridge Day every year for the past four years,” said Andrew Hitchcock, manager of Elevation Sports in Beckley. “Being from West Virginia myself, it is exciting to see an event like Bridge Day take place. It’s one of the biggest single-day events our state has to offer.”

For these vendors, it’s all about meeting people in a way that is personal to them; a chance for them to get their word out there.

“Being an outdoors enthusiast, it’s exciting to be involved in a day that has to do with all things outdoors,” Hitchcock said. “As a company, we cater to a wide variety of outdoor sports and activities, so Bridge Day is an opportunity for Elevation to meet and connect with people that get outside and take advantage of the beautiful state we live in.”

People travel from all over the country to come to this event, but for West Virginia natives something like this is just right up the road.

“There are so many opportunities right in our own backyard to get outside and be active, while many people have to travel for hours just to visit,” Hitchcock said.

Thousands of people attend Bridge Day each year. For some, it is reason to see the beauty of Appalachia for the first time. For others, it is simply reminding them what is still there.

Jordan Nelson can be contacted at [email protected].