Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Walking the Catwalk!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Among the tiny handful of birding events that I do every year is The New River Birding & Nature Festival in Fayette County, West Virginia. There are plenty-plenty reasons why I love this annual spring birding bacchanalia: it's run by good buddies of mine, the birding is truly incredible, Swainson's and cerulean warblers, the landscape is breathtaking, it's a small and intimate gathering of the tribe, they let me play music, there are hottubs in the cabins, and it's only a three-hour drive from the Bill of the Birds man cave. Now, there's another reason. The catwalk!

In the photo above you see a view of The New River Gorge Bridge which carries WV Route 19 across the vast, rocky, gaping maw of the New River Gorge. Do you see the horizontal line of brown steel girders running below the roadway? That's where the bridge's catwalk is located. Come along little kitty-cats and take a stroll with me. If you are acrophobic, you might want to stop reading now. I suggest you google the phrase "Rick-rolling" as an alternative way to soothe yourself.

Here is the understructure of the gorge bridge, stretching off into infinity, toward the south and the Fayetteville end of the bridge. We're climbing out onto the catwalk on the north end.

The company that owns the rights to take people on the catwalk (they market it as "BridgeWalk") has figured things out quite nicely. You are fit with a rather all-encompassing harness—the same kind that mountain climbers or bridge maintenance workers use. You are instructed to bring only items that can be lashed onto your body (see my binocs in the photo above). If you drop your precious iPhone over the edge, it's gone, dude.

The harnesses are attached to a lead which is latched via caribiner to a turnbuckle device that rolls along the safety cable. But that cable is attached to the bridge structure in about 50 places along its length. This is where the ingenious turnbuckle comes in: it ratchets through the attachment brackets, like a mini paddlewheel, while keeping you safely attached at all times. A few gentle tugs gets your line and harness past each attachment point. It's a very clever solution and much safer and more convenient than having to unhook and re-hook each bridge-walker's harness.

We walked the catwalk with six other people, plus a guide. Geoff Heeter, one of the New River Birding & Nature Festival founders and the fellow who invited me on this little adventure, wisely suggested we bring up the rear of the group. This was a very good call as we were able, after the first few sections, to lag behind a bit to take photos and do a bit of birding.

Here's our group, lined up for a photo, taken by our BridgeWalk guide Jim Smith.

And here's Geoff all harnessed up and grooving on the view. And speaking of the view: it is spectacular. I've been to the New River many times in the past 20 years, but being out over the gorge like this was a new and thrilling experience.

As you move out over the gorge, there is only the metal grate of the catwalk below your feet and two steel bands plus a top rail guarding you on the the sides. I'm not afraid of heights, but my knees did wobble a bit for the first 10 minutes or so. Once you get used to it, the thrill takes over for the chill and the experience becomes utterly enjoyable.

That's the New River way down yonder! But there are other fabbo things to see, too!

We saw at least four peregrine falcons on the bridge. These birds are from a population that was hacked on a local cliff face as part of a reintroduction program. We noted bands on the legs of two of them. And the birds seemed utterly unimpressed with the humans clanging along the catwalk—probably because there is a constant roar of traffic on the bridge just feet above, and because there is a steady stream of bridge maintenance workers, and now bridge tourists, coming along the catwalk each day.
The structure of the bridge has numerous holes, ledges, and perches perfect for peregrines. They have nested on the bridge for the past couple of years. Perhaps the birds we were seeing were adults with this year's young?

The BridgeWalk experience is going to be offered at the 10th annual New River Birding & Nature Festival next April 30 through May 5. The festival fills up really fast, so if you've been thinking about attending, don't wait! This final photo shows how close we got on our BridgeWalk to one of the peregrines—my closest look ever at a perched p-bird!

Hope to see you next spring in West Virginia, on the catwalk or elsewhere!


On November 23, 2011 at 10:42 AM Mpho Phiri said...

Hi Bill,
This looks scary

On November 23, 2011 at 10:58 AM WPgirl said...

What a rush! What spectactular views! I'll have to put this on my wish list of things to do. Thanks for sharing.
Lynda in Michigan.

On November 23, 2011 at 11:26 AM NCmountainwoman said...

I've been over that bridge. There is no way on earth I would walk that catwalk. I'll just enjoy the photographs from the brave souls who made it across.

On November 23, 2011 at 12:58 PM pambirds said...

OMG - Bill of the Brave for the catwalking! The peregrine photos are awesome!!

On November 23, 2011 at 3:02 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Why am I not surprised to hear Geoff was invovled?
What is this Rick-rolling? Canadian bashing again?

It would be a toss up, perhaps lunch, if I would go. Considering the falcons I probably would. Probably just skip lunch.

On November 23, 2011 at 4:24 PM Anonymous said...


On November 23, 2011 at 10:59 PM Unknown said...

That makes my palms sweat just thinking about it. But I'd totally do it!

On November 24, 2011 at 8:32 AM Julie Zickefoose said...

This post makes my calves twinge and my stomach lurch. Must know what camera you used for those peregrine shots--was it the little G-12, all zoomed up? Can't imagine you had your big camera rig with you!

On November 24, 2011 at 10:41 AM Chatterbirds said...

While I would love to see Swainson's and Cerulean Warblers at the New River Bird Festival, I think I will leave the catwalk to other, more arboreal birders.

On November 28, 2011 at 12:30 PM Unknown said...
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On November 30, 2011 at 2:56 PM Anonymous said...
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