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Gorge bridge catwalk offers bird's-eye view

By Bob Downing

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- The New River Gorge Bridge is a monster.

I know because I played a very minor, very dubious and very unofficial role in the construction of the steel-arch bridge that stands 876 feet above the river in south-central West Virginia.

The bridge was constructed from 1974 to 1977. For a time, I worked days as a raft guide on the New River and floated under the bridge in progress. My co-workers and I made a few visits late at night.

We ignored the no-trespassing signs and barricades, clambering out onto the steel beams. Some went farther than others. A chain-link fence 40 feet below was the only safety net; that possibility sounded very painful. Other scenarios were even more frightening.

We survived our youth. The statute of limitations on that has expired, I've been told.

Now there's a new way to explore the New River Gorge Bridge safely and 100 percent legally: Bridge Walk LLC.

It offers a 3,030-foot walk from one end of the bridge to the other, on a catwalk 25 feet below the roadway, traversing the truss structure.

That's right: You are beneath the top of the bridge. It offers out-of-this-world aerial views from the bottom of the bridge.

It is not dangerous. It's not high adventure. But it is different and interesting. All you need to do is walk and not be nervous about heights.

Bridge Walk has created a partnership with the National Park Service and the West Virginia Department of Transportation's Division of Highways. It offered the first walks in late September 2010.

But it's less a walk than a shuffle along a catwalk that is 24 inches wide with two railings. The floor is solid metal. You can't see through it. It is normally used by workers to inspect the bridge and make repairs.

It puts participants as far as 851 feet above the swirling waters of the New River at Fayette Station Rapid. You are about 250 feet above the ground at the two ends of the bridge.

On a recent summer visit, we walked through a cloud, looked down on peregrine falcons and turkey vultures and, like most participants, simply gawked at the scenery.

The gorge itself is stunning: a wooded canyon nearly 900 feet deep, part of New River Gorge National River that stretches 53 miles and covers 73,000 acres.

We watched rafts and kayaks floating through rapids so far down they looked almost miniature.

But the surprising thing is that the underside of the bridge features a sort of mechanical engineering beauty, as beams come together with a magical and impressive symmetry. It is a world of bolts and beams that create the seldom-seen infrastructure with striking geometry.

The dominant color is red-brown. That's because the bridge was built to quickly develop a layer of rust that protects it from more severe rust problems.

Safety is big. Walkers wear a harness connected to a lanyard or leash. That goes up to a carabiner hooked to a transfastener, which runs along one of two parallel steel cables that stretch above the catwalk and are anchored overhead.

In other words, falling off is impossible.

We got radios with an earphone to hear our guide, Joel, 17, a veteran bridge guide in his third year.

At the north end of the bridge, we exited our bus in the rain on a Sunday afternoon and made our way to the underside of the bridge, near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center off U.S. 19.

That's where we were affixed to the cable and began our stop-and-start stroll. Everyone was a little nervous at first. Some got more comfortable. A few remained skittish the whole way.

It took us about 1 hour and 45 minutes to cross to the south end, where we unhooked and caught our bus back to the Bridge Walk headquarters.

That walk convinced all of us that it is a very big bridge. It is the third highest in the United States and the 13th highest in the world. It appears on the West Virginia quarter and on a postage stamp.

It is the longest single-arch bridge in the Americas and the third-longest single-arch bridge in the world. It is also the second-highest vehicle-carrying bridge in the United States.

It is a national engineering landmark. The bridge cost $37 million when it was completed in 1977, weighs about 88 million pounds, and carries about 16,500 vehicles per day.

From the catwalk, we clearly heard the traffic above. The catwalk seemed fairly stable, but sections of railing could be seen vibrating from the traffic. It felt like a mini earthquake. That made the nervous ones in our group more nervous.

The vibrations were strange. Some were stronger than others and more noticeable. Some areas had no vibrations that we could detect.

Some walkers felt more comfortable clinging to the railing or at least grabbing it occasionally. But each time you grabbed the rail, you ended up with a handful of rust particles.

Our guide's advice was: If you feel nervous, don't look down. Look out at eye-level to the surrounding countryside. But that's easier said than done with a bridge atop you.

We took lots of photographs. All the cameras were hooked to our gear with carabiners so they couldn't be dropped from the bridge.

Joel told stories. Pigeons roosting on a particular beam had produced white streaks on the rust-colored steel. But two peregrine falcons moved in and nested on the bridge. They preyed on the pigeons for food, and the pigeon droppings are no longer a concern. Peregrine falcons also nest on sandstone cliffs in the park.

Joel also pointed out mechanical features on the bridge: expansion joints and box beams. The bridge is expanding and contracting, but there is no sensation of swaying.

He explained that the catwalk at the center of the bridge is 4 1/2 feet higher than at either end.

The bridge's midpoint is actually above the south bank of the New River, rather than the river itself. The traffic noise was more pronounced there.

Joel directed our attention to the Fayette Station Bridge below us. Before the construction of the big bridge, it was the way across the New River. It took about 45 minutes to make the crossing, compared to the 45 seconds it takes today on U.S. 19.

Through Aug. 13, Bridge Walk proudly proclaimed it had led 1,845 tours across the bridge with 11,777 customers. Of that total, only 34 were unable or unwilling to complete the trek, a 99.7 percent success rate.

It is open year-round; there are no tours on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Trips may be canceled by deep snow or high winds.

Tickets are $69 plus tax. Participants must be at least 10 years old and 48 inches tall and have a waist of 52 inches or less.

For information, contact Bridge Walk 304-574-1300, www.bridgewalk.com.

The New River Gorge Bridge is closed to traffic one day a year: Bridge Day, the third Saturday in October -- this year that's Oct. 19. It's a giant party with BASE jumpers with parachutes jumping off the bridge, plus rappellers and a sort of zip line. The event typically draws 80,000 to 100,000 people. For more information, visit www.officialbridgeday.com.

For New River Gorge National River information, call 304-465-0508 or visit www.nps.gov/neri. You can get tourist information from the New River Gorge Conventions & Visitors Bureau, 800-927-0263, www.newrivergorgecvb.com.


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