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The Call of the Void

Cliff jumping in Humboldt's rivers



Crouching on the guardrail of a bridge 60 feet above the Trinity River, 19-year-old cliff jumper Nico Ponnekanti looked like a sprinter in the blocks. Except instead of going forward, he was going down, down dozens of feet, whirling in every direction over the blue of the river, and down he kept going, right up until he realized he had turned too many times to land feet-first. His entire upper body smacked the river with a sound like a bomb.

"I wish I had no balls," Ponnekanti said.

The other jumpers were concerned but they weren't too worried.

"You didn't cough up blood," said jumper Silas Overhalser, "so I was like, 'W, he's probably OK.'"

Ponnekanti doesn't fail often. Out of almost a dozen jumps and what looked like hundreds of flips, he only biffed the one. Although he's had some dicey experiences landing on his stomach from as high as 60 feet up, Ponnekanti has never been injured cliff jumping. It doesn't worry him too much. He only jumps in groups, and normally there's barely any time to react going down anyway. He's been practicing for years, starting in high school when he jumped for the first time, a dive of about 20 feet from a cliff in Crater Lake. Now a freshman at Cal Poly Humboldt, Ponnekanti has jumped cliffs all over the West Coast, starting in his home state of Washington, where he started cliff jumping simply because he liked doing flips on flat ground, saw people cliff jumping on YouTube and decided to give it a shot. He says his highest dive ever was 102 feet at Abiqua Falls east of Salem, Oregon, with three backflips on the way down.

"I was super scared looking down it but I just had to tell myself it was a bigger version of what I'd already jumped," Ponnekanti said. "I was really nervous but I just kind of had to know that it was something similar to what I had already done — just like a little bit bigger, a little bit more airtime, so I had to time it in the air a little bit differently, but it sort of felt the same and I definitely landed on my feet and it didn't hurt too bad. Definitely doesn't feel good, but it was a fine impact. And then I was stoked after."

A big jump in a big group is a big deal. When jumper Ale Valenti, 18, successfully hit a flip off of a 32-foot cliff deep in the Trinity River, the screaming was louder than it would've been if he'd failed it.

"Let's go!"

"Ale stomped that!"

Although they're loud, the jumpers are otherwise calm, trying to be respectful of nature and the wild spaces they depend on. Ponnekanti felt bad for ripping a plant out of the runway. They try to keep their favorite spots a secret for the same reason.

"Sharing can ruin the spot," Overhalser said. "People will go there, get hurt, and it'll get shut down. It's a lot of effort to find a place. It's more fulfilling for you if you find it."

The risk of getting hurt — broken bones, head and spinal injury — and even death is real, given the speed of the fall and the impact on the water and rocks below.

And there are plenty of spots to find, as cliff jumping is legal in both California and Oregon, though counties and municipalities set their own rules, and the California State Parks website clearly states that "Rocks, cliffs, piers, etc., are not approved for jumping and diving from." In Humboldt County, climbing on bridge railings, cables, or other parts of the bridge "not intended for public use" is a misdemeanor.

Natural Bridges in Brookings is a great spot to jump, Ponnekanti says, with options ranging from 30 feet all the way up to 90 feet, although sea conditions outside of the calmer summer months can make it dangerous. There are lots of cliffs and bridges along the Smith and Trinity rivers that he has come across, although he won't say exactly where. The group found today's 32-footer on Google Maps, simply by looking at the satellite image of the Trinity River and tracing it from the end, looking for spots where there might be cliffs. They drove out 45 minutes in an SUV and a purple BMW that should be on a highway past more signs with bullet holes than without, on a gravel road with a foot between the tires and a ravine — based on nothing more than a few pixels on a computer screen.

The traveling is a big part of the appeal. Ponnekanti is a man who likes to go places. If he's not spending a weekend jumping, he's skiing. If he's not skiing, he's camping.

"I like to be doing different things and keeping it interesting because there's so much to do around here," he said. "You couldn't do all the activities if you tried. You couldn't go to all the places."

But it is the jumping that appeals to him most: those few seconds of nothing but furious motion followed by either painful failure or glorious euphoria, the "stoke" they revere. The inherent recklessness is part of the pull, the nature-defying brilliance of feeling your own body inverted and dealing with intense force.

"I call it 'The Call of the Void,'" Overhalser said. "Imagine you're just looking over a big drop. 'What if I jumped right now?' I could try to ignore [the urge]. It could result in serious injury. It's worth it if it's fulfilling."

Despite the adrenaline junkie stereotype, few jumpers descend without a lot of legwork. There's the height measuring and then the downclimbing to make sure getting out of the river is even possible. Then comes the depth checking, when a jumper climbs down to the water with goggles and swims down to see how deep the water is, and finally, the rock tossing so a jumper can see where they'll land. Cliff jumping takes time and effort; a lot of both for a moment that only lasts two seconds. Ponnekanti, Valenti and Overhalser all said they could barely even remember what the jump normally feels or looks like. According to them, it's all animal instinct.

"I'm not cautious," Ponnekanti said. "But I definitely know my limits and the limits of what I do. And I know that everybody makes mistakes ... at least for me personally, I can't go and just jump off of any cliff I want — it has to be very calculated."

Dezmond Remington (he/him) is a freelance writer and managing editor for The Lumberjack. He can be reached at

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