By Cami Swanson
Looking out over the McKenzie riverbed 95 feet below, Steve Johnson stands stiffly on the bridge railing and readies himself for the ultimate leap of faith. Nearby, his companions begin the countdown.
"Five, four, three, two, ONE!" And he disappears over the edge.
At first, there is silence. But it is soon broken by yells of joy and relief from Johnson as he swings beneath the bridge 50 miles east of Springfield. He has faced his fears and conquered them - this time.
"I think that's it for me," he says when asked if he wants to go again. "I've had the rush."
Some call bungee jumping adventurous; others foolhardy. But a growing number of thrill seekers are fast making it the chic "underground" sport of the 1990s.
In the Eugene-Springfield area, Oregon Bungee Masters provides equipment and instruction to would-be bungee jumpers at various bridges around the state. The cost is $75 for a single jump and $99 for two. Oregon Bungee Masters can be reached at (503) 520-0303.
On this day, Johnson is the first of six people who will be jumping toward - but not into - the blue McKenzie. Before there are any actual jumps, John Mayer and Casey Dale of Oregon Bungee Masters prepare the jump harnesses and tell a bit of the history of the sport.
Before people started jumping off bridges for fun and profit, the precursor of bungee jumping was a rite of passage for young Pentecost Islanders in the South Pacific.
As legend goes, a 16th century woman was the first to try the dangerous jump, tying vines around her ankles and diving from a cliff to escape her enraged husband, Dale says. The feat was adopted as a tribal ritual in the New Guinea island, and is still practiced today for young men entering adulthood.
The modern version of bungee jumping emerged in the 1970s, when a group of daredevils formed the "Dangerous Sports Club." They raced cars, skydived and set the world record for the longest bungee jump, which stood until 1989, when it was shattered by Eugene's Greg Jones in Albany, Oregon.
The first commercial bungee jumping operation opened in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1988. Although the sport has since been prohibited in California, bungee jumping is growing by leaps and bounds in other parts of the world.
Bumgarner is concerned Oregon lawmakers soon will follow California's example and ban bungee jumping. Already, jumps have been banned from two or three public bridges in the state, he said.
The Masters note that no bungee jumping fatalities have been reported in the United States, although two women died in France when they collided with a crane during a particularly hazardous "reverse" jump. About three others have died from heart attacks during the fall.
In the prelude to today's jumps, all participants sign a liability release form as Dale and Bumgarner explain the need for safety.
"I believe in safety," Dale says as he hands each person a bungee harness and helmet. Seat and chest harnesses have less "sudden jerking motions" than ankle harnesses. The helmets protect against "bungee slap," an injury caused when the highly elastic cord slaps against the face - often resulting in a bloody nose or split lip.
Four cords with a total stress capacity of 6,000 pounds are strapped to a platform attached to the bridge. A person weighing 200 pounds will drop at a speed of 65 miles per hour and apply about 550 pounds of stress to the bungee cords, Bumgarner says.
Next, the group climbs up on the inside curb of the bridge and practices two different jumps: the "swan dive" and the "elevator from hell," the latter done facing toward the bridge and stepping backward into space.
"Perceived risk is what this is all about," Dale tells the group. He says the experience is not something you easily forget.
"I actually see this as a very empowering experience for people," Dale says. "It does not get easier. It's a deep reach every time. We have people walk away feeling good that they took a risk they were able to live with."
Bumgarner, who started bungee jumping to try and ease his fear of heights, said he has done the sport about 30 to 40 times. "It still scares the crap out of me," he says.
Finally, it's time to stop looking and start leaping.
As Johnson stands on the small jumping platform, the rest of the group watches - a little nervously - and waits After the jump, they gather at the edge of the bridge.
"You know, I skydived, and I wasn't half as scared," says Susan Anderson as she glances over the edge to where Johnson is dangling.
When it is Deborah Jensen's turn, she hesitantly climbs the platform and takes a deep breath, looking forward at the valley horizon. Deciding it might be easier if she turns around, Jensen makes a move as if to jump, then stops at the last minute.
"That was just practice," she says.
She starts again. And again, she aborts.
"I don't know if I can do this," she says.
Finally, with a primal scream, she leans back into space and plummets off the bridge, still screaming as the bungee cords catch and bounce her underneath the causeway.
"That's the most frightening thing I've ever done," she says later.
Looking back on his jump, Johnson says the scariest part was the feeling of falling.
"You have the feeling. . . 'I just paid to die,'" he says. "Then the bungees catch."