The road from Chitna to McCarthy, Alaska, follows, in fact is, seventy miles of the defunct Copper River & Northwestern Railway bed that carried copper ore from the Kennecott mine near McCarthy to steamships at Cordova. The tracks are gone now and the sleepers and many spikes and nails are covered with too thin a layer of gravel. I have never made the one hundred and forty mile round trip with fewer than two flat tires.
There is a certain mind-set required to travel that road. Over the Copper River Bridge outside Chitna the road becomes single lane as it traverses up a continuously collapsing sand bank. In spite of constant maintenance the collapsing sand leaves deep scallops in the road creating many unstable sections.
Then come eighteen lulling miles of perfectly fine, two-lane dirt road that rejoins the old railroad bed near the Kuskulana River Bridge.
The bridge is a test in itself that until recently most people couldn’t pass. The ore trains rode on top of the box-girder, which was not designed for automobiles. The original upgrades to the bridge to accommodate cars were minimal. The tracks were removed and two, two-foot wide parallel boards were laid tire-width apart across the railroad ties.
The improbably narrow boards stretched several hundred feet ahead with nothing but a person’s driving skill to keep him or her from falling onto the ties and becoming stuck. And if one looked down through the ties it was a disconcerting two hundred and sixty-eight feet to the river below. There were no guardrails, no handrails, and no pedestrian walkway. Anyone walking across stuck to the driving boards or railroad-tie-hopped. Many people couldn’t walk across. Many people couldn’t drive across. Many people couldn’t even ride across with their eyes closed. I drove and walked across several times and it was giddily daunting.
Today the bridge has a proper wooden surface, but still only a low barrier to keep an errant car from going over the edge and a deceptively slack and risky hand wire to protect (I don’t know how) foot passengers who might need to lean on it.
* * *
The Kuskulana River Bridge is a bungee jumping venue.
Several years back the Vance twins and a friend sold bungee jumps from the bridge: $50 for one jump, $100 for three jumps, free if you jumped nude (no woman ever took them up on this).
I first learned about jumping of this bridge from my friend Paul. He invited me to go to Chitna with him when he learned his back flip record had been broken. He knew I loved Chitna and McCarthy and he wanted company for the daylong drive from Anchorage. We camped outside Chitna and drove the last forty minutes to the bridge the next morning.
When we arrived at the bridge it was hot and sunny. There were people from all over: Anchorage, Fairbanks, McCarthy, and visitors to the state who had come from farther still. At least a hundred people either camped at the bridge, were there for a day of jumping, or just lucky travelers who happened by.
There is usually little more than two degrees of separation between most Alaskans who ventured this far off the beaten path and when we arrived there was already a carnival of old friends. Everybody became childlike with the rare blue-sky, warm-temperature perfectness of the day. Even strangers felt like family.
But what really brought people together was a sense of shared excitement––bungee jumping! Whether you were a jumper or not the place was electric.
Paul didn’t get a chance to reclaim his record. The line of people waiting to jump was too long to take the time to add extenders to the bungee cords and haul everything up to the top of the box girder to give him the extra time and space he would need to set a record. It didn’t matter. The day was perfect.
Nearly fifty people jumped that day, and more than half of them were first-time jumpers.
The bridge was built with a see-through, grated walkway with handrails running down the bottom center of the box girder. The bungee cords were wrapped around the girders at the outside edge of the box frame. A jumper signed and initialed six pages of releases and was fitted with a waist harness and a chest harness. (Ankle cuffs were available, but I didn’t see anyone use them.) The cords––three for lighter people, four for heavier people––were attached to both harnesses and a three-foot foam sleeve was placed over the cords to keep the jumper from getting tangled between them.
Then he or she climbed over the railing and walked the horizontal diagonal girders to the edge, ducking under the vertically diagonal girders. It would be precarious even without the weight of the cords and the great space below. The jumper was told to put his or her toes over the edge and then, no really, put them over the edge. Then the crowd shouted down from ten and off they went.
The Kuskulana River’s gorge is narrow with steep walls where the bridge crosses and the twang of the bungee cords going taut echoes off the canyon walls.
After the jumper yo-yoed up and down for several minutes a line was lowered, clipped into the harness, and a gang of volunteers pulled the jumper back up. Bungee jumping at Kuskulana required a lot of teamwork and there were eager hands to help. I helped pull jumpers up all morning and noticed that every first time jumper had an expression on his or her face I had never seen before. They didn’t just look like they were surprised and pleased to be alive; they looked like they had been somewhere special––very special. Eventually, I decided I had to see where they had gone and learn what they knew.
I was ready to go. But one cord had just been removed to accommodate lighter people and I had to wait another two hours––and have time to worry.
When my turn came I signed and initialed six pages of releases. (I usually don’t read releases––as a lawyer I have more rights if I don’t––but I went through this one out of curiosity. It was well drafted, but essentially worthless as most of them are.) Malcolm put the waist and chest harness on me. Then his friend checked each connection. I climbed over the rail and headed for the edge. My heart was pounding (I never know how to evaluate the sliding scale between excitement and fear––or accurately measure the intensity of each when both are happening simultaneously) and I, too, had to be told a second time to get my toes farther over the edge.
Before the countdown began I started to think about what I was doing. I felt the thoughts coming before I could articulate them and I knew that when they arrived I was going to panic or change my mind––so I dove.
The jump was a total mental lock-up, which I only experienced after the fact. I was pleased to learn that someone had videoed my jump. It wasn’t a pretty jump. I had forgotten the proper launch technique: push out parallel from the bridge with an arched back and emulate a swan dive. With proper technique upper body weight will pull the body into a head down dive when the cords engage putting them in a straight line between the jumper and the bridge.
In my hurry I dove down instead of out and did a complete 360 degree flip. The bridge was behind me when the cords engaged and the protective sleeve whacked me in the face when they went taut, popping the lenses out of my glasses. My first memory of the jump is rebounding back up toward the bridge, blind and stunned. On the video someone can be heard saying, “Ewe, that was ugly!”
I was alive! And I was yo-yoing up and down while simultaneously swinging back and forth under the bridge. Pure magic. In the photo of me climbing back onto the bridge (I can’t find it!) I have that same expression I had seen on other jumpers. I have now been there––I can’t describe it––and I have rarely done anything that has benefited more.
The inner voice that wanted to “talk” to me when my toes went over the edge was my critical voice. My your-not-good-enough, who-do-you-think-you-are, you-will-not-succeed, you-shouldn’t-be-doing-this voice. I didn’t always obey this voice, but it was always hectoring me. This time when it started in on me I dragged it, against its will, over the edge toward what it thought was certain death.
In a sense there was a death––my critical voice’s death. The moment I jumped––against its screaming warning––and survived, my critical voice lost its power. It no longer had much influence over me. It got humility. Now if it wants to talk to me and I am busy it has to wait. There are no more ultimata. No more scolding. It talks. I consider what it said. Period. What a relief.
* * *
I went back later in the summer with two other friends to jump again. It was a nice day, but there were very few jumpers. I jumped three times. On my first jump I corrected my previous error and my form was perfect––except that even though I was in a proper head down position one of the cords wrapped around my left leg. I had only a second to wonder what this might do before the cord engaged. When it snicked taut it pulled my shoe off. There was no mental melt down on this jump and as I began to slow my shoe continued to fall and I reached out to grab it, but it was just out of reach. I also heard someone on the bridge ask, “What did he lose this time?”
My second jump that day was magic. I pushed off backwards, spread eagle, and watched the bridge recede and the cords go from a “U” shaped to and “S” shaped to straight. I felt so much faith that everything would be fine it was like falling into the arms of God. I did a forward flip as I was tossed into the air on the rebound. I lay back in the harnesses and enjoyed the up and down, yo-yoing swings under the bridge between the canyon walls until the retrieval rope was lowered.
* * *
Bungee jumping boosted my adrenalin to the max and gave me hours of residual energy. When the energy faded I felt exhausted and got an unpleasant headache. I also saw, as I was falling asleep and the headache was fading, a bright flash of orange light that was the same saffron color as a Buddhist monk’s robe.