By David Austin
Fear froze on Joe Hekker's face as he ascended to a tiny platform on a bridge 120 feet above the trickling McKenzie River.
His knees trembled as he slowly stood up straight, facing into 20 mph winds. Heavy snow pelted his bright red jacket. Hekker's dark beard quickly became dotted with the white flakes.
Five seconds later, he jumped.
What followed was a loud, primordial scream that echoed off the walls of the gorge surrounding the river. Hekker had just taken his first bungee jump.
"That was wild!" Hekker exclaimed after being hauled up from his jump.
"You think you're going to hit, but you don't. People think I'm crazy for wanting to do this, but life's too short to not take a chance. It's my thrill now forever."
Hekker and eight others braved the cold front that moved through Oregon Tuesday in a bungee-jumping extravaganza from a pedestrian bridge above the locks of the Cougar Reservoir in rural Lane County.
Bungee jumping has become the latest rage of death-defying outdoor fanatics in Oregon. Tuesday's jump, sponsored by the Eugene-based Oregon Bungee Masters, was a benefit for the United States Olympic team.
Jumpers paid $30 for one jump and $50 for two. Using 40-foot-long, stretchy cords tethered to the sides of the bridge, jumpers leapt off into the wind. The cords stretch to more than twice their slack length, and the jumpers, once they reach the bottom of their dive, bounce up and down before being hauled up.
"It's really a deep reach. When you step up onto the platform, it's a really personal thing," said Casey Dale, the founder of Oregon Bungee Masters.
"You're defying death. It's like a face-off. You make peace with yourself and then you go. I like to call it an empowering experience."
Dale started the group about 18 months ago. An avid outdoorsman, Dale saw how the bungee-jumping craze blazed through California and other parts of the country. He was sure it would do the same in Oregon.
"Everybody was doing it, " Dale said, noting that his group has had more than 500 jumpers to date. "I thought it was time for people to let go of their inhibitions. Without a doubt there will be an incredible proliferation of jumpers in Oregon."
Safety remains the most important concern. Dale said jumpers are attached to the bungee cords with two harnesses. The first is strapped over both arms and across the chest. The second harness fits around the waist.
The cords and harness combined, Dale said, can sustain more than 6,000 pounds of force. That's more than enough to hold up a small tank.
For example, a person weighing 160 pounds exerts about 400 pounds of pull, Dale said. "So unless you weigh more than a tank, you can jump" he said.
The high-flying stunt traces its roots to South Pacific islanders who made it a rite of passage 1,500 years ago.
The islanders jumped off giant bamboo structures with vines attached to their ankles, which stopped them just short of the ground. In the 1970's a group of English daredevils adapted the rite for the ultimate thrill, but substituted bungee cords.
Dale refuses to let anyone jump with ankle harnesses. That technique, he said, puts the body under too much stress because of the rush of blood to the head and arms.
Even without the ankle harnesses, jumpers receive an immense rush.
"It's like every emotion hits you all at one," said Rick Sullivan of Portland.
Karen Belshaw of Eugene appeared nervous and quiet in the hour before her first jump. But afterward, she had a different outlook.
"Oh, my gosh, that was just so amazing," Belshaw said. "You go down and everything is going so fast. The rush doesn't stop. It was so cold out but you don't really feel the elements. You drop fast."