Combs Bridge is a popular spot for swimmers and floaters along the Illinois River, but many people have come to grief after diving from this and other sites. Oklahoma law prohibits jumping from bridges. Photo by Betty Ridge

At age 10, Jeff Tincher jumped from the top of Combs Bridge – and lived to tell the tale.

He wouldn’t repeat that folly as an adult, Tincher, who works for Green Country Floats, said Friday as he helped a raft load of people launch for an afternoon trip.

That’s wise. Jumping from bridges, or even standing on them for recreation, is illegal in Oklahoma. Jumping from other heights, including cliffs, may be hazardous to your health, as too many people who survived the jumps found out after becoming seriously injured or paralyzed.

Still, some persist in jumping. Perhaps they’re motivated by tales of those who jumped from bridges or cliffs in years past. Many of these tales may have been embellished, like the reminiscences of grandparents who tell children about the days when they walked miles to school through snowdrifts. As the years passed and the true memories dimmed, somehow the snowdrifts became deeper, the miles longer with time.

But the dangers of indiscriminate diving are real. Just last weekend, a man died when jumping off a cliff into six feet of water at Huzzah Creek in Steelville, Mo., according to the Associated Press. The Missouri Water Patrol reported the body of Garrick Holmquest, 25, was recovered about a half hour after the jump.

“There is a law in the state of Oklahoma prohibiting people from standing on a bridge or jumping from a bridge for recreational purposes. That state law was passed because of people who were jumping from Combs Bridge. At that time there were approximately 40 individuals who had some varying degrees of physical injury or paralysis resulting from jumping from Combs Bridge,” said Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

There have been important changes in the Illinois River since people such as Tincher used to jump from Combs Bridge without major perils.

“There used to be a deep pool below Combs Bridge,” Fite said.

Depending on the river level, the water was 12 to 14 feet deep at that point. Now, because of erosion from upstream, the river has become wider and shallower.

“What used to be 12 or 14 feet deep is now three or four feet,” Fite said.

TIncher said that coincides with his memory.

“It was real deep. You could hardly touch the bottom,” he said. ‘I jumped off the top of it [Combs Bridge] once, but I wouldn’t do it again.”

Tincher watched as the floaters waded into knee-deep water, then thigh-deep, as they took their rafts into the river below Combs Bridge. He commented that a lot of gravel has filled up the bottom of the water.

The same is true below the old Oklahoma 51 bridge, where many local people also recall jumping as young people. It also had a deep pool, but a drive through the river park now shows bars of gravel just below the point they jumped from.

Barricades and dense vegetation, including poison ivy, deter casual passersby from venturing onto that old bridge, which is in extremely poor condition according to Fite.

Combs Bridge, perhaps the most picturesque manmade object remaining along the Illinois River, is slated for destruction itself in about five years, depending on funding. The modern replacement for the one-lane structure will be built to its south, between the Eagle Bluff and Peyton’s Place float operations.

Bridges don’t pose the only hazard.

“There’s a rope swing down there,” Tincher said, gazing downriver. “A couple of people have gotten hurt coming off it.”

Fite said some people have been hurt jumping from trees or on ropes suspended from trees. Recently he had to talk a young man out of jumping from a large sycamore, pointing out that the prospective jumper could not tell whether there were logs or other obstacles beneath the water’s surface. People have actually been impaled making such jumps, he said.

“Don’t jump if you can’t see what’s beneath you in the water,” he said.

Combs Bridge isn’t the only example of what lawyers would call an “attractive nuisance.” Since Lake Tenkiller was created, divers have plunged from the cliffs surrounding it. Today the two most famous, or infamous bluffs, known as Pure Hell and Big Daddy, have been fenced off.

Steve Williams, manager of Tenkiller and Greenleaf state parks, said the fences were erected in the 1990s.

“My understanding was there were a lot of people who were seriously injured or killed jumping off the big cliffs,” he said. “Since I came here in 2000, we’ve had two people who’ve sneaked over the fences and jumped off the cliffs, and did not make it.”

One smaller bluff, known as Little Hell, remains accessible. It’s about 100 yards from Pure Hell. People can continue to jump from it. The rocks extend far enough out over the lake’s deep water to minimize the chance of injury.

“A lot of people enjoy that one. It’s about a 30- to 50- foot jump,” Williams said.

The fenced-off bluffs are at least twice that high.

There also are a number of smaller drops around the lake where people jump, Williams said.

He said cliff jumping hasn’t been much of a problem in the past couple of years.

“We used to have to chase people out of the cliff area all of the time,” he said.

Williams also has heard tales from those who boast about jumping from the now-forbidden cliffs in years past.

At least one man, who stood more than six feet tall and tipped the scales at well over 200 pounds, told of a day spent drinking with friends atop the cliffs. He decided to jump and, after plunging into the depths, found himself face to face with a catfish he said was about as big as he was. That behemoth cured him from making another jump.

Williams and Fite said that, as in that man’s story, alcohol frequently plays a role when people make foolish decisions and unsafe jumps.

“Most of the time they’re associated with alcohol,” Williams said.

Fite said River Rangers most often cite people for alcohol-related offenses.

“From this summer, about 80 percent of our citations were alcohol related and 100 percent of our arrests were alcohol or drug related,” he said. “The biggest we’re seeing is public intoxication and DUI.”

But rangers also will write citations to anyone they catch jumping from a bridge, or standing on one with the intent to jump.

Williams said park rangers will do the same if they catch anyone trespassing on the cliffs.

“We have leeway about some things, but when somebody jumps off a cliff that has a sign that says so many people have died jumping off the cliffs, they’re going to get a citation,” he said.


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