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Outdoors Modern day Tarzan's adventures zip lining

Editor’s Note: We asked contributing writer Kurt Volker to check out one of the fastest growing adventure sports in Western North Carolina, zip lining. He looked at several courses and picked out two, Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours and Navitat Asheville Canopy Adventure. Here is the report on his experience.

Navitat canopy guide Bob Nicholson demonstrates rappeling from the Rich Cove platform.Move over Tarzan! Out of the way Jane! A new king and queen of the tree canopy are in town and they’re zipping through a forest near you.

As avid outdoorsmen, my wife, Sharon, and I have descended the Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon and braved the Class IV rapids of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River. So it seemed only natural that we’d challenge two of the areas better known zip line courses, Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours eight miles west of Bryson City and Navitat Canopy Adventures in Barnardsville about 20 minutes north of Asheville.

Zip lining is fast becoming one of nation’s more popular adventure sports. And what better time of the year and locale to try out this adrenalin-filled experience than fall in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.

Sharon Volker clips on during her dry run at Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours.For the uninitiated, zip lining is a modernday version of how Tarzan traveled through the trees. But today it’s a bit more sophisticated than grabbing onto a sturdy vine, letting out your best “ahh-eee-yah” yell, and plunging into the void.

Nowadays, state-of-the art equipment includes a helmet, full body harness, trolley, gloves, and twin safety lines. Flyers are given a thorough briefing on technique, safety, and procedures from two canopy guides who accompany individuals the entire way.

Top courses such as the ones we experienced typically have 10-12 zip line sections and usually take 2.5-3.5 hours to complete. Stations alternate between side slopes, trees, and elevated platforms, some of which are connected by rope and plank bridges, ladders, and rappels. Costs vary from $60- $89 depending on the day you go and whether you’re an adult, child, or in a group.

There are generally minimum age, weight, and physical condition criteria, so check each website or call for specifics.

Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours (NGCT)

Located on 20 lush acres at Falling Waters Adventure Resort an hour’s drive from Franklin, NGCT is the latest addition to the multi-faceted Wildwater Adventure Centers. They have provided outdoor adventures on the Chattooga, Ocoee, Nantahala, and Pigeon Rivers since 1971.

Nantahala Gorge canopy guide Ryan Bojanovic demonstrates zipline technique during orientation.NGCT is the first of six zip line courses now operated by Wildwater, four at their adventure centers, one in Plum Tree 14 miles north of Spruce Pine, N.C., and the latest in Asheville. In addition to zip-lining, Wildwater also offers rafting, Jeep adventures, lake kayak tours, lodging, and multi-day packages.

Sharon and I check in a recommended half hour early and are grouped with eight energetic singers, dancers, and acrobats on a brief hiatus from their jobs at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Our canopy guides Ryan Bojanovic, 25, and Mark Highsmith 22, provide a rundown on the equipment we would use and what to expect on the 11-section course.

After donning safety helmets, padded leather gloves, and full-body harness, it’s out for a dry run at ground level. We learn how to clip the sliding mechanism called a trolley onto a half-inch steel cable, regulate speed and braking, and haul ourselves backward hand over hand if we come up short. The Tarzan yell is optional.

Kurt Volker zips 650' to complete the Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tour.Next is a short hike to the first platform feet to the next stop. The first four sections are designed for two flyers side-by-side and average 200-225 feet. The remaining seven sections we do by ourselves.

Ryan attaches each of our twin safety tethers and then zips to the distant platform to assist in our arrival. Sharon and I pair off last and watch with anticipation as the other four couples clip on and fly off into the canopy.

As the moment of truth arrives, we offer words of encouragement to each other and step off.

We are Peter Pan and Wendy, flying effortlessly through the air about 30 feet off the ground, the tunnel of trees rushing by in a symphony of sound and color.

Within moments, we brake and touch down. What a rush!

And with each succeeding section our confidence soars as do our vocalizations. Tarzan would be proud!

After two more double runs, we successfully navigate three rope and plank bridges, followed by the last 200 feet double. By now, we feel like seasoned pros.

It is then on to a series of 30 feet to 100 feet singles as we soar to the Eagle’s Nest, a platform set in a massive oak nearly 50 feet off the ground. And as the finale approaches, we scream at nearly 30 mph to Pine Beetle Point, cross another bridge, walk the Green Mile, and finish with high fives after the two longest runs at 410 feet and 640 feet.

To say the experience was exhilarating is an understatement. Whether you’re six or 60-something as we are, this is definitely an adventure for the entire family. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.

For information on any of Wildwater‘ s Adventure Centers and canopy tours, go to their website www.wildwateradventurecenters.com or call toll-free 1-888-451-9972 for directions, pricing and availability. The canopy tours are open through Thanksgiving.

Navitat Canopy Adventures Asheville

USA Today calls Navitat Canopy Adventures Asheville “one of the best in the nation!” I describe the 5,800- foot course as a double espresso followed by a brandy chaser with a dash of smelling salts. With 10 zipline sections ranging from 120 feet to 1,085 feet, two 65-foot and 170-foot rope and plank bridges, two eight-foot ladder ascents, and two 25-foot and 30- foot rappel descents, there’s enough white-knuckle excitement to please even the most jaded thrill seeker.

Navitat canopy guide Patrick Ferebee demonstrates proper zipline technique.The 2008 brainchild of family members John Walker, Sam Walker, and Ken Stamps, Navitat opened its doors in May 2010 in the spectacular Moody Cove just north of Asheville. John is founder and president of Bonsai Design Inc., the leading designer/builder of canopy tours in the U.S. while his businessman father Sam focuses on financial and legal issues.

Sam’s brother-in-law Ken is CEO and brings a wealth of corporate experience to the partnership. He tells me his vision “was to do something that’s never been done before in this country.”

“We have brought together what I believe is the best property, the best budget, state of the art redundant equipment, and top trained staff,” Stamps says.

Set on 242 leased acres of historic habitat, drop-dead views, and undulating ridgelines, Navitat Asheville is the first of the company’s two courses. They opened their second facility in July 2011 on a portion of the Wrightwood Guest Ranch property in the scenic San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles. Stamps says they’re currently looking at five other locations around the country, “with a vision of possibly 10 sites in the future,“ he adds.

Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours participants zip into Eagle's Nest platform.On checking in, our canopy guides Patrick Ferebee, 25, and Bob Nicholson, 47, help our seven-member group suit-up in harnesses, helmets, and gloves.

We then board two Kubota ATVs for a five-minute ride up a steep switchback road to a staging area followed by a short hike to the course start.

Here at a platform called Vireo, Patrick demonstrates how to sit in the harness, control body movement with slight wrist corrections, brake with palm pressure on the cable, and tuck our legs for increased speed. Piece of cake for “veterans” like us!

The first three zips to platforms called Peace, Catkin, and Dewa (Cherokee for flying squirrel) are relatively short and range from 120 feet to 295 feet. Their purpose is to help first-time flyers build confidence and practice the techniques we just learned.

At Dewa now 55 feet off the ground, we soar 345 feet to the side-by-side platforms named Anders and McDarris in honor of the pioneer family who have owned this property since the 1840s. We notice a “bailout bridge” leading to the ground for anyone who might have trouble with heights.

The reason lies before us, a 936-foot zip some 210 feet above the forest floor at midpoint to Craggy View, named for the Blue Ridge Parkway milepost which we see in the distance. No wimps here ... no one bails! And what a ride it is as we take in the view, flying high above the upcoming zip to Rich Cove.

From Craggy View it’s on another 485 feet to Owl’s Nest and the first of two sky bridges, a 65-foot rope and plank jaunt to Hemlock Rest. By now, we are in the zone, feeling privileged to participate in nature’s feast for the senses. Throughout our trip, Bob and Patrick regale us with the history, flora, and fauna of Moody Cove.

Ahead some 1,085 feet lay the Rich Cove platform, the longest zip on the course. We can’t even see the end as we step off, tuck into a cannonball position for speed, and let out our best vocals yet. I’m smiling so hard when I land that my lips hurt.

Rich Cove is the first of two rappels, a 25- foot drop to the ground followed by a short hike to Ataya (Cherokee for oak) where we ascend an eight-foot ladder to the platform above. The rappel is a bit intimidating at first, but after Patrick demonstrates how to grip the line, step off with the right foot, pivot and brace on the ledge and then lower ourselves, isn’t so difficult.

After a 360-foot zip to Jewel, we arrive at the second sky bridge which stretches 170 feet to Kate. The first and last thirds of this rope bridge have steps placed 18” apart and Sharon is a bit hesitant as she begins the crossing. “I don’t want to look down,” she says, but on reaching the solid center section she lets our her best “Ta-da!”

At mid-point, Bob tells us that below lies the site of the original McDarris homestead, now an overgrown meadow complete with mountain seep as their source of water. As we reach Kate on the other side, we ascend a two-piece, notched hickory log that spirals eight feet to the platform directly above.

Ahead lay our final two zips, 700 feet to Lirio (the scientific name for poplar) and 895 feet on the fastest section to O-ni (Cherokee for the end). Sharon and I tuck into the cannonball position and reach nearly 40 mph before we brake and touch down. We rappel 30 feet to the ground, hike about 10 minutes to the welcome center, and are greeted like returning explorers.

Words can’t adequately describe our three- and-a-half-hour experience except to say, “Put it at the top of your bucket list and do it now!” Who knows, you just might be tempted to hop on a plane and try out Navitat Wrightwood. We may!

For more information on Navitat, go to their website www.navitat.com or call toll-free (828)626-3700 for directions, pricing, and availability. They are open through Thanksgiving.


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