The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 14, 2013

Spanning the gap between adventure and education

The New River Gorge and the surrounding areas offer some of the best outdoor recreation and adventure activities found anywhere in the United States. One of the most unique of these activities is Bridge Walk, a guided stroll within the structure of the New River Gorge Bridge.

This tour of one of the world's largest and well-known man-made objects not only arouses the senses with breath-taking views and the exhilaration of being over 800 feet above the river, but it includes an educational component that separates it from so many of the other activities in the area. Bridge Walk has had participants from 10 to 95 years old to experience it so it can be said it literally has something for everyone.

Bridge Walk is a safety-oriented and low-impact adventure across the New River Gorge Bridge on the 24-inch-wide catwalk located under the deck of the bridge. The catwalk was built right into the structure to allow easy access for visual inspections of the bridge's structure. Participants must be at least 10 years old and willing and able to walk about 1.25 miles.

Guests are given a short orientation at Bridge Walk headquarters and then a shuttle takes them to the National Park Service Canyon Rim Visitor Center where they make their way to the catwalk entrance. At this point, the harnesses that were fitted to each guest during orientation are securely fastened to the longest continuous safety system in the world. Once they are attached to the cable, they cannot be removed until the guests arrive at the other end of the bridge. The tour's pace is dictated by the participants and plenty of time is allowed to take pictures and ask questions.

Bridge Walk provides one of the most remarkable and fascinating perspectives of not only the New River Gorge and the New River below but an up close and personal view of the New River Gorge Bridge. It took from 1974 through 1977 to construct this engineering marvel. The New River Gorge Bridge spans 3,030 feet across one of the oldest river gorges in the world and,  at 876 feet above the river, it is the second highest vehicle-carrying bridge in the United States. One of the focuses of the educational aspect is economics, which ties into the tour as to why the bridge was built. W.Va. 82 is the narrow road that was used for years to cross the gorge. It could take 40 minutes to navigate this steep and winding road. To help promote commerce within the state and beyond, the New River Gorge Bridge was built to speed the passage from north to south. Now it takes less than 40 seconds for a vehicle to cross this canyon.

Benjy Simpson is the managing partner and one of six investors in the Bridge Walk endeavour and he is one of the chief proponents of the educational aspect the tours have to offer. Simpson believes that changing the way our youth are educated can have a big impact on their future and he enjoys experiencing the bridge a little differently everyday through the eyes of the guests.

“We get to see a different perspective of the bridge through their eyes and behavior. They are excited and thrilled, expressing wonderment about their walk: what they did and what they got to see.”

The Plato quote “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” is one of his favorites and definitely heart-felt after 40 years in the tourism industry.

One of the focuses of the tour includes the engineering and math that was used in building this behemoth. Few guests realize that one of the most important tools used in the building of this bridge was a slide rule. Most of the students who take the tour don't even know what a slide rule is. Bridge Walk embraces the STEM educational discipline as a focus on their educational tours.

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. But this is nowhere near the limit of what can be learned during a Bridge Walk outing. The history that this area has to offer is phenomenal. From the coal mines to the Civil War to the New River Gorge Bridge itself, the catwalk tour is filled with lots of interesting pieces of history that captivate the mind of young and old. Benjy relates to me that one of the largest segments of their business has been a category the travel industry refers to as interpretive or historical tourists.

The engineering behind the bridge can encompass an entire tour of its own. On May 17, Bridge Walk played host to students from all across West Virginia as part of the West Point Bridge Design Contest. This national competition sponsored by West Point Military Academy seeks to help provide a realistic, engaging introduction to engineering in middle and high school students.

In West Virginia, the co-sponsors are the Nick J. Rahall II Appalachian Transportation Institute, WV Younger member Forum of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), WV Department of Transportation, the Huntington Society of Military Engineers and Bridge Walk. Over 750 students ages 13 through 18 submitted close to 300 virtual bridge designs this year and were able to compete on the state and national level.

The national winners, for the second year in a row, came from southern West Virginia. Aniket Zinzuwadia, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, and Nick Bartusiak, a student at Shady Spring High School, form Team Epic, the back-to-back winners.

Having students on a Bridge Walk tour is becoming old hat for Simpson and his guides.

One of the trips they do fairly frequently involves student groups. From grade school to college, students from all ages come to experience a trip tailored to topics on which the teacher or group leader wants to focus. The educational tours range from 2 to 3 hours in length and can accommodate up to 80 people. The learning environment for Bridge Walk is special and seems to command the attention of its participants.

One quote from an educator who brought a group of kids for a tour seems to reiterate this. “You know you have something when the kids stop and wait for you to tell them something; walk a few steps and they stop again and await your information.”

Bridge Walk is making its mark as one of the premier outdoor activities in an area filled with many great adventure opportunities. Not only is the tour available year round, but the view from the catwalk changes with each season. So far Bridge Walk has hosted guests from all 50 states and 42 countries overall. They have had deaf and blind participants along with guests in wheelchairs and ones with prosthetic limbs.

Groups have even braved Bridge Walk with 3 feet of snow and a day when the temperature was minus 2 degrees with the wind chill. Bridge Walk is connecting education with adventure and by spanning this gap is becoming a “destination” activity.

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