By Steve Keenan
It’s that time once again to sharpen your elbows and head out to West Virginia’s most famous bridge to visit with old friends and perhaps make some new ones.
The Southern West Virginia area is bracing for the influx of visitors who make the annual pilgrimage here for Bridge Day weekend.
The annual event, during which the New River Gorge Bridge is shut down on the third Saturday in October to allow people to walk across or jump and dangle from, will have its 33rd anniversary this Saturday, Oct. 20 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Preparations have been going great,” said Cindy Dragan, Bridge Day Commission chair.
The uniqueness of the bridge and the event itself, as well as the lure of West Virginia’s fall foliage and the friendliness of local folks, have always been Bridge Day drawing cards, helping the event annually draw crowds in excess of 75,000.
And, Dragan says a recent upsurge in interest can also be credited to social media, which has “made the event explode as far as people knowing about it.”
The event actually begins Friday with the WOAY Taste of Bridge Day — hosted from 5 to 9 p.m. by the Fayetteville and Oak Hill Rotary Clubs at Smokey’s on the Gorge on Ames Heights Road.
While organizers, law enforcement and safety personnel, BASE jumpers and rappellers, volunteers and vendors will be up and at it very early Saturday morning, walkers won’t be allowed on the 876-foot-high span until 9 a.m. That will start the clock on a six-hour window during which individuals can traverse the bridge at whatever pace they choose, watch some of the 450 BASE jumpers leap from the bridge (and even see some use a special catapult this year for the first time), peruse the multitude of offerings from the various vendors, or maybe stop and snag a corn dog or funnel cake.
A wedding is also planned for about 10 a.m. Saturday, as Lockport, N.Y. residents Erika Terranova and Patrick Steiner will exchange their vows on the bridge right before they take the plunge off it. Afterwards, the couple’s wedding reception will be hosted at the Subaru Igloo on the bridge.
Terranova is also this year’s tandem BASE jump winner.
Fayette County’s tourism radio station, WQAZ 98.5 FM, will broadcast all day Saturday from the bridge. The broadcast will simulcast on 101.5 FM, and also can be heard in the Upper Kanawha Valley on Suddenlink TV channel 17 and the Fayette Plateau on Suddenlink TV Channel 4.
According to WQAZ’s Tom Syner, the coverage will include interviews with jumpers, vendors, festival-goers and others, as well as a wide range of historical packages relating the history of the New River, discussing the construction of the bridge, etc.
After Bridge Day officially ends at 3 p.m., the fourth annual Bridge Day Chili Cook Off will be staged from 3 to 6 p.m. in downtown Fayetteville, accompanied by live music from The Boatmen. For an entry form and/or other information concerning the Bridge Day Chili Cook-off, contact the Fayetteville CVB at 304-574-1500 or visit www.VisitFayettevilleWV.com.
For more information on Bridge Day, visit www.officialbridgeday.com or call 304-465-5617 or 1-800-927-0263.
About 450 BASE jumpers hailing from 41 states and 10 countries will take the leap off the bridge Saturday, says organizer Jason Bell. Some of them will utilize a specially-designed catapult to propel them into the gorge.
Underneath the bridge, 22 teams of rappellers from several states and Canada — boasting about 300 combined members — will descend from and ascend to fixed locations on the catwalk, and a high line will once again be set up so participants can take a 600- to-700-foot slide down from the bridge to the north side of Fayette Station Road. According to Benjy Simpson, who is in his 21st year of organizing the Bridge Day rappel, high line spots are all already taken.
For the second year, however, a limited number of Bridge Walk spots will be available to the general public on Saturday, Simpson said. For a $79 fee, participants will be walked halfway out the bridge catwalk and allowed to spend 20 minutes or so watching BASE jumpers and rappellers before returning. They are allowed to take their cameras for a round-trip that takes about 90 minutes.
“It gives them a unique and different perspective,” Simpson said.
Call 304-574-1300 for further details on the Bridge Walk activity.
The New River Gorge Bridge is easily accessible from major interstates. It is within a day’s drive of 2/3 of America’s population. Download the PDF map from www.officialbridgeday.com to see the traffic plan for Bridge Day as well as major interstate routes.
The bridge is closed to vehicular traffic for the day, except for travel by pre-approved buses and other vehicles involved with the event’s operation.
For commercial traffic, the detours for I-79 and I-64/77 are in place at 5:30 a.m. on the third Saturday in October. The bridge itself closes at 7 a.m. on Saturday. Rte. 19 is open to local traffic from Ames Heights Road on the north and Rte. 16 on the south side of the bridge.
WVU plays a home football game this Saturday, so Bridge Day organizers urge those who plan to drive to Morgantown from the southern part of the state on game day to adjust their travel patterns accordingly via Charleston or another route.
Once again this year, spectators who planned ahead and were willing to plunk down some cash will be able to view the BASE jumpers and rappellers from a great vantage point underneath the span.
Since the roads heading down into the gorge are closed to all but necessary traffic on Bridge Day, there are two ways for spectators to be down on the canyon floor, aside from walking or riding a bike down (and back up).
The Bridge Day Down Under Tours will take participants into the gorge to watch the action at two different times that day. Reservations were required, and spots no longer remain with those tours for this year.
And, the Hometown Subaru Into the Gorge Shuttles will transport a limited number of people to a designated viewing area under the bridge. Reservations are a must, and tickets cost $20. Bridge Day officials say those shuttles will most likely sell out before Saturday. To check on their availability, visit www.officialbridgeday.com or call 800-927-0263 or 304-465-5617.
“(The shuttles and tours) allow you to see Bridge Day from a different perspective,” Dragan said.
Those who have purchased the Subaru $20 tickets must pick them up at the Bridge Day booth on the south side of the bridge.
Looking ahead, Dragan urges those planning a trip to Bridge Day 2013 and wishing to take advantage of the opportunities to watch from underneath the bridge to make reservations well ahead of time.
While volunteers are the nuts and bolts of year-round Bridge Day planning, sponsors are a huge asset, too.
“Bridge Day wouldn’t be possible without the support of our great team of sponsors,” said Dragan.
The presenting sponsor is Subaru.
Other main sponsors are Red Bull, Sony, Little General, Hometown Subaru, Mardi Gras Casino & Resort, Sustain U and BB&T.
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