By Stan McKenzie
Jumping off bridges while strapped to monstrous rubber bands known as bungee cords requires little more than a wish for a fleeting glimpse of the hereafter and a strong adrenaline rush.
At Grave Creek Bridge northwest of Grants Pass near Galice, a somewhat sober group of men and women gathered Saturday to seek nothing else but to inch close to mortality before bouncing back to reality.
They hurled themselves off the 100-foot bridge on the Rogue River attached to four 50-foot bungee cords - a strong-hearted activity known as "bungee jumping."
"This is a safe way of pushing an extreme," said veteran bungee jumper Casey Dale of Eugene, who organizes such jumps at Grave Creek Bridge at the head of the wild section of the Rogue River.
"Part of what life is to me is pushing that side of the envelope," explained Alexis Adam, 24, of Eugene, a first-time jumper. "I like the sensation of falling."
Said another first-time jumper, Brett James, 21, of Eugene: "It's a good idea to test yourself once in a while to see if you got it. It's good to push yourself to the limits."
Despite the opinions of some spectators, bystander Dennis Lutwen, 47, of Riddle, asked: "Would anybody not want to do this? It's the concept of falling toward earth, which is against our nature, and snapping back up right at the last minute."
Similar jumping was a test of courage for men in the Bunlap tribe on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific. Known there as "land diving," tribesmen would dive headfirst for the ground from a tall platform, touching the tops of their heads on the dirt before the springy vines checked their fall.
Eventually, a group of Australians began jumping with bungee cords - which stretch twice their normal length - off bridges, according to Dale. The activity, done mostly over water, eventually caught on in the states.
The activity hinges on what is known as "perceived risk" - what people think is risk but is actually "safe," Dale said.
The 50-foot bungee cords - which are used by the military to drop tanks and jeeps from cargo planes - are certified to withstand at least 1,500 pounds of thrust apiece. Four of them together allow for 6,000 pounds of thrust.
Dale said a 160-pound person jumping from a 100-foot bridge will generate 550 pounds of thrust - leaving a lot of backup.
If that's not safe enough, each jumper is outfitted in two harnesses - in case one breaks - and each bungee cord is separately secured to the bridge railing. Dale said he's never had equipment break or experienced serious injuries.
He will not allow people to jump with bungees attached to their ankles - as on a recent Reebok television advertisement that was pulled from the air because it implied that one jumper became unattached from the cords.
Dale emphasizes physical conditioning. "You get a huge rush of blood to your head and hands, and for someone who is not in shape, that rush of blood could cause problems," he said.
Jumpers standing on a raised platform have the option of stepping off backward, falling away with their backs to the water or swan-diving into a backward landing. Some hit the water before springing back up; others just miss the water, which is 20 to 25 feet deep.
Each jump ends with several bounces, including one that puts the jumper within 10 feet of the bottom of the bridge. Jumpers are pulled back up to the platform with a rope, and may attempt a second jump.
"It's great," said Jeff Tayler, 31, of Eugene, who suffered a chipped tooth and a "bungee burn" when his face rubbed on the cord.
He felt as if he didn't have full control of the cords. "It's the biggest rush I've ever had," he said.
Saturday evening Josephine County Sheriff's Deputy Brian Anderson halted jumping on the bridge after his supervisor said it would be best that Dale had written permission from the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM has never issued written permission or a license to bungee jump off Grave Creek Bridge, which it administers. The jumping is legal unless Dale begins charging a mandatory fee, BLM officials said.
"That would be profiting off public lands," said Harold Belisle, who manages the Grants Pass resource area.
If the BLM issued a special use permit, Dale would have to be insured to resume commercial jumping.
The BLM would also make sure that it's held blameless in the event of injury. "To issue a license means we're administering the activity," said Kurt Austermann, a BLM public affairs spokesman. "That would imply sanction. . . . We don't consider it so much a sanctioned recreational pursuit as we do a nuisance."