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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

Ohio has Midwest's 1st full-scale 'zipline'

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
A visitor sails through the treetops
on the zipline. A visitor sails through the treetops on the zipline.
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ROCKBRIDGE, Ohio - I was standing on a small but sturdy wooden platform attached to a tree some 60 feet above the ground, and I had a spectacular view of the lush forest surrounding me.

But I scarcely noticed the woodlands. Instead, my eyes were glued to the half-inch-thick steel cable that led away from my high-level perch and off into the depths of the greenery. I couldn't see the other end of the cable, but from what I'd been told, it led to another little platform a few hundred feet away.

I was connected to the cable by a harness, a pulley, and a couple of metal clips, and in just a moment, I would be expected to jump off my safe little platform and go sailing off across the upper reaches of the forest. Three other people in our group had already departed on their aerial journeys through the treetops, and I was next in line.

Our guide, a bearded, good-natured young guy named Mark, noticed me staring at the cable apprehensively.

"A little nervous?" he asked, as he checked my clips one last time.

"I'm uh, not really into heights," I replied weakly.

"Oh? So you're doing this to overcome your fear of heights?"

"No," I said, "I'm doing this because I'm an idiot."

A guide, left, shows writer Mike Kelly how to maneuver on the zipline.
A guide, left, shows writer Mike Kelly how to maneuver on the zipline.
Enlarge

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Ziplining, or canopy touring, has been around for a dozen years or more, becoming popular mostly in "adventure" vacation destinations such as Central America, Alaska, and Hawaii. In a typical layout, cables are strung between tree-mounted platforms, and riders "zip" from one spot to another, attached to a pulley device that rolls along the cables.

Hocking Hills Canopy Tours is the first full-scale, tree-to-tree zipline operation to be built in the Midwest - and one of only a handful operating in the Lower 48. The operation, which is owned by three local couples, opened here in mid-April, less than a year after two of the couples tried ziplining for the first time last summer in Alaska.

"We just thought it was a blast up in Alaska," said co-owner Jodi Burroughs, "and we started thinking, 'Boy, wouldn't it be cool to have something like this in Ohio?' "

The talk became more serious during a tailgate party last fall, she said, and since another friend already owned a small golf course surrounded by a few hundred wooded acres along the Hocking River, that seemed to be the perfect location for a treetop layout. The decision was made to go ahead with the project, and the couples brought in a Plymouth, Mich., firm that specializes in zipline courses to design and install its layout.

"Everything just fell into place," Burroughs said. "It was all built last winter, with six to eight guys working in the trees six days a week."

The course was built so the platforms and lines could be attached to the old-growth trees without damaging them. Its layout includes 10 separate ziplines, which together total about 3,300 feet in length, or nearly 2/3 of a mile. The longest single run is close to 600 feet - the length of two football fields - and participants can reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour as they hurtle along as high as 75 feet above the forest floor.

Though the cables are only a half-inch thick, they're strong enough to support a couple of automobiles, Burroughs said. Riders are connected to the cables by double safety lines at all times.

In addition to the ziplines, the 45-acre course includes four "adventure skybridges" - scary, swaying, rope-and-wood suspension bridges where Indiana Jones might feel right at home.

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Before taking to the trees, Mark had shown the members of our group how to climb into our leg and chest harnesses, and we were issued helmets and "official zipping gloves," which were really just garden gloves.

He and Burroughs, who is also trained as a guide, then led us to a short practice zipline strung a few feet off of the ground, where we could get the feel of rolling along beneath the cable and using a gloved hand to slow our momentum by reaching up behind the pulley and pressing down on the cable. We also learned to "self-rescue," or pull ourselves along the cable hand over hand, a maneuver that's necessary when a rider stops short of a platform.

Our training completed, we were driven up a steep gravel road to the top of the course, and it was time to play Tarzan. After my initial hesitancy, I worked up the courage to jump off the first platform - a true leap of faith for a confirmed acrophobic like me - and, much to my surprise, my fear vanished almost instantly in a blast of adrenaline as the forest rushed by in a green blur.

We'd been encouraged to yell during our rides, and initially I thought that would be kind of silly. But sure enough, as I sailed between two bushy trees and over a gulley, I couldn't help but let out an extended whoop.

The next 90 minutes were filled with faster and faster zipping (hint: if you curl up in a ball, you'll speed up) through thick stands of maple, beech, oak, and sycamores, past caves and along the bluffs of the Hocking River. As we paused on platforms along the way, our knowledgeable guides would tell us about the flora and fauna around us. They'd also coax us gently across the swaying suspension bridges, which for my money were the most unnerving part of the whole experience.

When we'd first donned our bright red helmets, I doubted they'd really provide much protection in the unlikely event of a fall, but I soon learned they were quite useful in another way. As I whizzed along below each zipline, I'd frequently hear a sound like the high-pitched buzz of a dentist's drill. I realized it was my helmet rubbing against the steel cable above my head.

Without the protection, the rough cable would have carved a series of neat little valleys in my skull.

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It's not as though Hocking Hills really needed another first-rate attraction to qualify it as a world-class destination. The area, which is about 50 miles southeast of Columbus, has been a nature lover's paradise for years. It's in the rugged foothills of the Appalachians, and with more than 10,000 acres of forests, caves, gorges, cliffs, and waterfalls, it's long been popular with hikers, bikers, campers, canoeists, kayakers, fishermen, horseback riders, rock climbers, rapellers, birders, golfers, and photographers.

There are less strenuous attractions as well, including dozens of art galleries, studios, and antique shops, and scarcely a week goes by when there's not a festival going on. The next one is Lilyfest (Friday, Saturday, and July 13), which will include art displays, garden tours, and lots of Appalachian music.

When you're hungry, the area's dining options range from funky - Etta's Lunchbox Caf in New Plymouth is also an old-time general store with hundreds of vintage lunchboxes lining the walls - to gourmet, such as Rhapsody in Nelsonville, which features fine regional cuisine and an extensive wine list. The Coffee Cup, also in Nelsonville, serves solid roadside meals, topped off with slabs of cake as big as barn doors.

And the area's many lodging choices are equally eclectic. Two of the best are the Glenlaurel, a Scottish inn on a 140-acre estate that features a bagpiper and misty morning walks above its eerily beautiful Camusfearna Gorge; and The Inn at Cedar Falls, a rustic compound with a main lodge and secluded cabins in the woods. Both places have spas and serve gourmet morning and evening meals.

There's always been plenty to lure visitors to Ohio's Hocking Hills, but the new zipline course will provide a different kind of experience for outdoor enthusiasts.

Mike Smith, one of the designers of the new canopy tour, has worked on similar projects in Alaska, California, New Hamphire, Ontario, and elsewhere. But he says he's particularly excited about the Ohio zipline course.

"While you're not going to see parrots or monkeys like you might on a canopy tour in Costa Rica, the Hocking River Valley offers similar thrills and spectacular views, and it's located right in America's heartland," Smith said. "It's easy to forget about the beautiful deciduous forests right in our own backyard. I can't wait for people to experience the Hocking Hills Canopy Tour and fall in love with ziplining, and Ohio, all at once."

Information on Hocking Hills is available at 1-800-HOCKING (462-5464) or www.1800hocking.com.

Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer.

Contact him at kelly.writer@yahoo.com



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