VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — The first step off the ledge, as your stomach plummets, is the scariest.
But, sometimes you have to trust in your harness, your helmet and your gut to bring on the adrenaline rush.
Skamania Lodge's new zip line tour features seven "zips" that descend toward the Columbia River and around the golf course.
I crowded onto a wooden deck, perched 22 feet up a Douglas fir tree, with six other journalists and two zip line guides. Then, we took turns zooming down a metal cable through the forest canopy at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson. From the parking lot, one might mistake the cables for telephone wires. The zip line tour, however, is the newest addition to the lodge's slew of outdoor recreation activities and the only tour in Southwest Washington.
It's an unconventional view of the forest that you can't experience from a trail or viewpoint.
People enjoy it because it's a controlled risk, said operation manager Shayne Large. Riders are safely secured to 1/2 inch galvanized aircraft cable the entire time. The most dangerous part, Large said, is walking to the course with all the roots and rocks in the trails.
Construction on zip lines started in the late 1980s, but exploded in the last couple of years with about 50 new courses being built annually in the U.S., Large said. Six years ago, there were about 25 public zip line tours. Today, there's around 400.
"You don't have to be a super athlete to get an adrenaline rush," Large said. The first person to sign up to take the tour when it opens to the public May 4 is a 92-year-old woman, who's looking for a thrill to celebrate her birthday, Large said.
The Columbia River Gorge resort looks to the zip line as an activity for both visiting business groups, which make up about 60 percent of their clientele, and families. The weight minimum of 75 pounds puts the youngest riders in the 8- to 10-year-old range.
Large and his crew with the Skamania Lodge Zip Line Tour picked out sites in the forest corridor where they wouldn't have to clear a bunch of timber. During the three months of winter construction, they dropped nine trees, several of which were already dead. The system, Large says, doesn't hurt the trees where the cables are suspended. Bolts, placed six-inches into the tree that support the cable and the wooden platforms, work with the tree, said zip-line guide Mark Kelly. Instead of the tree rejecting the bolts, the tree grows around them.
My advice as a first time zip line rider is to listen to everything the guides say — otherwise, you'll get called one the guides' weird monikers for zip line amateurs: Dangler, twister, dead pencil, hanging meat, Captain Morgan, the running man or (my favorite) bag of mayonnaise.
"Guide humor," Large explained.
The ground drops as the lines head toward the Columbia River, making the descents higher and higher off the ground — a way to build up riders for bigger, faster zips. The first few zips are relatively short, 100 to 250 feet in length. After the third one, if you and your stomach aren't feeling the tour, you can take a line down to the ground. Between some of the platforms, you'll have to walk across a suspension bridge.
After the fifth zip, the guides tell you to step off a ledge and fall to the ground. Don't worry — you're clipped into an auto-belay system that slowly lowers you to a soft, sandy landing. It's similar to auto belay systems you'll find in a rock climbing gym. Think, James Bond-esque rappeling from a building.
On your way to the sixth zip, you may find a group of golfers teeing off at the fifth hole. The 900-foot line takes you over a ravine and requires a push and some technique to get you to the very end. The best way to go fast is to lean back with your knees up high; being compact makes you more aerodynamic and lessens the possibility you might lose momentum and have to pull yourself in for the final 10 feet.
The last zip, with speeds up to 45 mph, is the zippiest. If you take the trip upside-down on this 500-foot line, it's an even bigger thrill.
Planting your feet firmly on the ground after the seven zips feels strange, as you look back up at the 200-foot firs you just flew between.
Large and Kelly look to build a smaller course for children who weigh less than 70 pounds for potential birthday party packages. While there isn't as much team-building on a zip line as there would be on a ropes course, it's hard not to bond and laugh as you let yourself loose.
There's some talk within the national park system, Large said, about authorizing zip line tours in parks. The idea, however, much like the zip liners and guides at Skamania, is still up in the air.
The Skamania Lodge Zip Line Tour is Southwest Washington's only operating zip line course, but it's not the first.
In 2008, a Washougal man briefly opened a zip line tour at his 83-acre farm six miles east of Washougal in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area without any permits, triggering an ongoing legal battle in Skamania County.
County officials said the zip line park violated a U.S. Forest Service conservation easement that restricts land use in the national scenic area to agriculture. Property owner Derek Hoyte then declared the tours were "creative advertising" for his U-pick pinecones business. Despite orders to stop offering zip line tours, Hoyte continued operating his business and eventually spent time in jail for various land use violations.
In 2009, Hoyte started Heritage Farms Canopy Tours and installed four zip lines on his 5 acres at 3618 S.E. 327th Ave. in Washougal, again without obtaining the needed conditional use permit — creating problems in Clark County. Hoyte argued that the zip lines were agritourism, used to transport visitors to different areas of his orchard. Hearings examiner Joe Turner determined the tours were purely commercial. Even so, agritourism is not permitted in rural residential zones like Hoyte's.
The case is still unresolved, said Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office, and Hoyte's Zip the Gorge website still says to "check back" for updates.
For more photos and video, check out The Columbian's story.