By Erik VanEaton
A tiny platform clings to the side of the bridge, supporting the man over empty air. More than 15 stories below lies still, dark water. When the man is ready, the people standing on the bridge will count down from five, and the man will jump.
The jumper wears two harnesses, one around his waist and legs, and the other around his shoulders and chest. Secured to his harness system are four cords of bungee. The 50-foot cords of elastic rope are tied to the bridge, ready to break the man's fall. When the jumper reaches the end of the cords they stretch, gradually slowing the falling man to a stop.
Then, like a stretched spring suddenly released, the cords contract. The man is pulled back up toward the bridge, but gravity stops him, and he dangles in midair for a split second before falling again.
The jumper bounces about three times before he comes to rest at the bottom. From the bridge, a rope is lowered which the jumper hooks to his harness, and then he is pulled back to the bridge.
All of this is popularly known as bungee jumping, and though it's still hard to find, it is rapidly gaining popularity. Casey Dale runs Oregon Bungee Masters, the first commercial bungee group in Oregon. They jumper at various locations around the state, the most popular site being Graves Creek on the Rogue River. Dale said they will be jumping until December of this year.
At $50 for one jump or $95 for three, Oregon Bungee Masters offers the most affordable bungee jumping opportunities on the West Coast. Alex Johanson and Tom Bell, after checking all over the western United States, found Oregon Bungee Masters and drove 12 hours from Ketchum, Idaho to jump off a bridge three times each.
Dale still wonders what it is about bungee jumping that inspires so many people to jump 14 stories. To stand on that tiny platform and trust their lives to the bungee sounds extreme, even to him.
"People like to feel like they're a little different," he said.
In spite of the growing demand for bungee jumping, bungee groups are very scarce. There are two reasons for the tiny number of bungee groups in the United States, Dale said. The main problem with starting a group is the difficulty involved with obtaining the bungee cords.
The cords are military issue items and are seldom available to the general public. At $20 per foot of cord, the cost for enough bungee to safely jump 14 stories is $4,000.
Another problem is insurance. Although there has never been a death in the United States from bungee jumping, the concept keeps most insurance companies skeptical.
"It is so new that people don't see how safe it is," Dale said. He has led kayaking expeditions and is a certified diver. He said he could find insurance coverage for those types of activities, but not for bungee jumping. For now, jumpers sign a release and go at their own risk. Dale hopes to obtain insurance in the future by perhaps forming an outdoor club and obtaining an umbrella policy to cover the club's activities.
The state of Oregon is not eager to support bungee jumpers either. A representative of Oregon Department of Transportation District Four said they do not want people jumping off their bridges with bungee cords. Most jumpers look for bridges in state parks or out of the way places where the bridge owners do not mind and the traffic is not heavy.
Dale sought several permits when he began his business. General use permits for activities on government land allow people to rock climb, kayak and camp in some areas.
So far, this type of permit allows bungee jumpers to operated in much the same way as other outdoor groups. The state attorney general's office told Dale that it is not illegal to bungee jump in Oregon, but Dale said that does not mean it's a sanctioned sport.
Bungee began decades ago on the Pentecost Islands, 1500 miles northwest of Australia. A legend there claims that a woman running from her husband was chased up a tree. Trapped, she could only climb down to her husband, or jump. When the villagers saw her jump out of the tree they thought she had turned to suicide. Then they saw the woman had tied springy vines called lianas to her ankles. The vines broke her fall just as her head touched the ground. She untied the vines and escaped unhurt.
The men of the village felt that anything a woman could do, they could do better. They began building towers 70 feet tall, and jumping off of them. Now, it is a rite of passage into manhood; complicated collapsible towers and precisely measured vines let the men drop to earth, catching them just as their heads hit the softened dirt.
Modern bungee is a bit safer. Oregon Bungee Masters uses a dual harness system designed to orient the jumper in a sitting position when the bottom of the cord is reached. Dale prefers this system because it prevents a rush of blood to the head and hands.
The cords themselves are constantly watched; a bow in the cord indicates internal breakage and time for that cord to be retired, Dale said. He usually uses a cord for 300 to 400 jumps, or until the measured length becomes 12 to 15 percent longer than the cord's original length.
The jumpers also are checked for safety. Dale does not allow drugs or alcohol to be used at the jump site, nor will he allow anyone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol to come and jump.
"I've had hundreds of jumpers. My safety record is great," Dale said. The only injuries Dale has encountered are bungee burns, which are scrapes caused by the bungee cords rubbing on bare skin. To prevent this Dale urges pants and long sleeve shirts. He provides goggles to jumpers to prevent injury.
Most jumpers cannot describe what it is about bungee that draws them to jumping. They all seem to agree that it's the adrenaline rush that makes jumping so much fun. Bungee jumping never gets boring, and it never gets easier.
"We're fighting 3 1/2 million years of evolution," Dale said. "Those (fear) synapses firing were meant to be firing."
Dale calls Oregon Bungee Masters "dealers of adrenaline" - the helpless feeling of falling that shakes us awake at night is the commodity.
"After you've jumped, the sky is a little bluer, the flowers smell a little sweeter," Dale said. But the tiny platform never feels even a little more reassuring.