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Taking the plunge

Bridge Day
Oct. 18, 2012 @ 01:08 PM

He may not be a "fearless" Felix Baumgartner jumping from the edge of space, but you sure can call him "Leaping" Larry Lemaster.

Since 1998, Lemaster, who for the past 12 years has owned and operated Tri-State Skydivers, has BASE jumped at every Bridge Day.

"If you want to see how beautiful West Virginia is, the New River is the place to go and skydiving over the gorge, well, it's hard to explain but it's kind of like riding on a cloud of air," said Lemaster, who is planning a plane jump of a 1,000-square-foot American flag over the bridge as a tribute to America's troops. "They always say if riding in a boat isn't swimming then riding in an airplane isn't flying -- you've got to jump."

On Saturday, Oct. 20, Lemaster will join about 450 of his BASE jumping buddies from around the world, more than 300 rappellers, 100 folks zipping down the high line and as many as 200,000 spectators for Bridge Day. Bridge Day is the state's largest one day festival and the world's largest BASE jumping event.

Located on the second highest bridge in America, Bridge Day is set to run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, as peak fall foliage descends upon "The Grand Canyon of the East."

Benjy Simpson, who coordinates the High Line Tours and the Bridge Walk, said more than 450 BASE jumpers are registered to jump off of the bridge that spans the New River Gorge.

More than 300 folks set to rappel from the catwalk of the Bridge, and the 700-foot-long high-line or zip line tour from the catwalk down to Fayette Station Road is again sold out.

Amazingly, Simpson said Tuesday that there are still some time-slots left though to do a Bridge Walk on Bridge Day during which folks get to walk out into the middle of the Bridge (25 feet under the top) and stay for 20 to 25 minutes to watch Bridge Day from the catwalk more than 850 feet above the floor of the Gorge.

"Basically they meet us and walk right past the highline and out onto the middle of the bridge," said Simpson, who runs BridgeWalk. "To the right of us is 300 rappellers, and you can see the landing for the BASE jumpers. So just 25 feet above us the BASE jumpers are jumping and flipping upside down and people don't stop taking photos. Last year was the first time we have ever done it and people loved it."

To RSVP for Bridge Walk tours, contact Simpson at 304-574-1300 or visit www.bridgewalk.com.

Whether watching from on top of the 3,030-feet-long bridge, which runs end to end with vendors, or from down below, spectators will be treated to a new twist -- about every 30 or 40 minutes a BASE jumper will be launched 50-feet out and 20-feet up in the air out and over the 876-foot-high bridge with a human catapult system.

Coordinated by Vertical Visions LLC, owned by West Virginia BASE jumper and skydiver Jason Bell assisted by his wife Jennifer, Bridge Day jumps will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Ten folks will get a tandem jump including the winner of the 2012 Tandem BASE jump contest, Erika Terranova of Lockport, N.Y., who before making her first professional BASE jump will take another leap, tying the knot with her skydiving fiancé, Patrick, before they jump off the bridge.

Although Dave Arnold loves Bridge Day, he likes to check out the world famous event from some different angles.

Arnold, a founder of Class VI River Runners, and managing partner with Adventures on the Gorge, thinks the only place for folks to be is taking a Lower New River trip where whitewater rafters get to stop, eat lunch and watch dozens and dozens of BASE jumpers before they take out right beside the landing zone on the banks of the New near Fayette Station Road.

"I'm a little biased but the only place to be is in the raft on the bottom watching those guys jump," Arnold said of rafting the New with Adventures' companies (Class VI, Rivermen and Songer). "There's plenty of room left for the companies as rafting is down a bit this year. The only thing limited is accommodations."

If taking a whitewater trip down the New seems a bit much there are more ways to explore the Gorge as Bridge Day and the last day of Gauley River fall rafting season kicks off at 5 p.m. Friday with Taste of Bridge Day, at the renowned Smokey's on the Gorge, which has been featured on the Food Network's "Best Of" show.

Running until 9 p.m., Taste of Bridge Day, hosted annually by the Oak Hill and Fayetteville Rotary Clubs, features $1 samples from ACE Adventure Center, Appalachian Coffee & More, Buffler's, Boston Beanery, Chetty's, Gumbo's, Hawks Nest Restaurant, Longpoint Grille, Maloney's, Mumsey's Iron Skillet, New River Exxon and Smokey's on the Gorge.

In addition to Smokey's, whose back porch and decks have views from downstream of the bridge, Arnold said Adventures will open up their pool area that also has a rim view of the famous bridge and the peaking foliage.

While such national television networks as FOX and CBS will be there to cover the Saturday festivities, the night roars to life as the throng of tourists hit the rafting resorts that are winding down the last big weekend of whitewater rafting.

Sunday, Oct. 21 is the last day of the seven-week fall Gauley whitewater rafting season that draws in rafters from around the world to do the Gauley, which has more than 100 named rapids in 26 miles.

Downtown Fayetteville has a chili cookoff and music by the Boatmen, while Cantrell's Rafting features a Bridge Day concert combo of jam from Vern's Pot of Chili with The Yetti (featuring Charleston hip hoppers Dinosaur Burps).

Yetti member Ben Coll, a 2003 Marshall University graduate who has been guiding the rivers since 2001, said there's no party like a Bridge Day party.

In fact, this is the eighth year in a row that The Yetti and Vern's have tag-teamed the night of frivolity.

"It's kind of a last hurrah for the rafting season and historically it's been a pretty good party because we have so many tourists coming into town -- that always helps out with the festivities," Coll said. "It's just a good time to cut loose. Fayetteville's a pretty small town, so after the rafting season it's pretty much tumbleweeds."

Arnold, whose company has hosted everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano this rafting season to a guy who came 7,489 miles from Kuwait City, to raft the Gauley, said this weekend is bittersweet as the whitewater rush is over.

"We just did the end of the year party Sunday night, and our business is kind of bittersweet because you're just working all day long hammering it and all of a sudden it comes to an end," he said. "We've got a bunch of people going to Colorado to ski and a bunch leaving to do the Grand Canyon," Arnold said. "... But we get this last weekend and if it's a day like today bluebird sky and full fall colors, there is no magical place on Earth more special than this."

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