TALKEETNA -- You stand on a small wooden platform on a swaying spruce tree staring down at the devil's club five stories below. Then you look at the steel cable, no thicker than a finger, that you're counting on to save you from a death plunge and wonder: "Is there a dignified way to back out?"
There isn't. So you step into thin air. The harness grips you snugly. The rope lifeline holds. Greenery rushes by on all sides. You're dancing in the sky to the tune of wheels whirring along the cable. Zzzzzzz!
Welcome to the world of ziplines.
Two zipline operations opened in Southcentral Alaska this summer. The cable-ride attractions have become increasingly popular in tourist venues around the world over the past few years. But the Denali Zipline Canopy Adventure Tour, in Talkeetna, and the Nitro, near the Matanuska Glacier, are the first such installations in this part of the state.
As the names suggest, the two are different but each engages riders with the great outdoors in its own thrilling way.
Compared to white-water rafting, ice climbing and other adventurous activities, ziplining is a fairly recent creation. It was developed by biologists working in rain forests about 30 years ago. Scientists wanted to observe the upper levels of jungles with as little disruption to the environment as possible. They adapted mountaineering gear to shuttle from place to place, dangling in a harness attached to a leash connected to rollers that shuttled along a cable. It proved to be an effective way to travel through the trees -- and a lot of fun.
Ecotourism followed in the wake of the scientists and used the same idea to let visitors glide through the woods.
"That's why Central America is sort of the birthplace of modern ziplining," explained Tory Korn, general manager of Alaska Canopy Adventures based in Ketchikan.
Ziplines as tourist attractions first caught on in Costa Rica, he said, and quickly spread to other tropical destinations like Hawaii and the Caribbean.
Alaska Canopy Adventures, which began operations in 2005, was the second such enterprise in the continental United States. The company has since built a course in Juneau and a second one in Ketchikan. Skagway and Hoonah also have ziplines, operated by other companies.
Today there are about 200 ziplines in North America. The most recent one, which officially opened on July 6, is the Denali Zipline Tour, or DZT.
Sitting on the porch of the cabin on Talkeetna's Main Street that serves as the company office, co-owner Mark Wildermuth said it took two years for him to get the financing together and build the course.
"I bought 40 acres in a state land auction," the Chicago native said. "But I didn't want to subdivide it or develop it. It's right next to where my house is. There's a lot of wilderness out here but it's nice to have some right out your back door."
A friend suggested that he consider a zipline. It would leave a minimal footprint, keep the land intact and provide access to the Alaska wilderness in a way that people would pay for.
"The idea of a canopy zipline appealed to me," he said.
"Canopy" or "jungle" tours are the more gentle species of ziplines, often combined with educational activities, especially when located in sensitive environments. Like DZT, the Ketchikan courses follow this format, with several stations and lines and some stations connected by suspended footbridges.
"This is the northern limit of where you can do this kind of thing," Wildermuth said. "The trees in the boreal forest are still big enough to support the cables."
DZT's customers take a van from the Talkeetna office to the site, east of town. They don helmets, leg and chest harnesses and proceed to a short, low line called "Ground School." There they practice the few basic steps they'll need for the tour, including:
• How to steer: Gripping the lanyard that connects the rider to the rollers clipped onto the cable, you can keep facing forward by manipulating your wrist.
• How to brake: A flat hand smoothly pressing down on the cable over the rider's head and behind the rollers serves as a brake; the guides discourage riders from trying to grip the cable.
• How to self-rescue: In the event that a rider stops short of the next station, he can turn backwards and pull himself overhand to reach the platform.
After the training, riders proceed to the first of a series of tree-to-tree segments. The first is the shortest but perhaps requires the greatest courage. As the runs get longer and higher off the ground, riders become more comfortable until the grand finale -- a 700-foot glide over a small lake -- seems like old hat.
At least, that's the idea. All the operators interviewed for this story acknowledged that they occasionally get clients who just can't take that first step. Stations include emergency gear for transferring the tremulous to the ground.
In addition to the zips, the course has three suspension bridges and a rappelling feature where trekkers are lowered a few feet. There's also a good view of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range, weather permitting.
For each segment, one guide goes in front to receive incoming zippers at the next platform. A second brings up the rear, carefully unclipping each rider from an anchoring spot at the station and clipping them onto the cable. At all times riders are attached to something, so it's impossible to fall, even when 10 people are crowded onto a small, swaying platform.
The DZT takes about three hours to complete; during that time clients are zipping for a total of about two minutes. Individual runs range from 10 to 25 seconds. The rest of the time is spent waiting to be clipped in or unclipped, waiting for your turn, waiting for the rest of the group to come in and admiring the scenery.
GLACIER VIEW SCREAMER
The zipline alternative to a canopy cruise is a fast, high run. This kind of screamer is the sort of zipline many ski resorts have built to bring customers to the slopes during the summer. The zipline in Hoonah, at 5,330 feet, is said to be the longest and fastest in the country, with a top speed of 60 miles an hour.
The Nitro, operated by MICA Guides in Glacier View -- the Glenn Highway locale from which visitors can access Matanuska Glacier -- isn't quite that stupendous but the idea is the same. The Nitro opened on June 10. It runs more than a quarter-mile and drops 200 feet in a single, continuous stretch.
The trip begins with a drive from the highway down to the Matanuska River. (A big "Zipline" sign tells you where to turn.) Riders don a helmet and put their legs into a harness (but no chest harness) and trek uphill to a three-story, free-standing tower. They ascend to the top by a spiral staircase. From the top, the end of the run, a steep rise of gravel, is so distant it's hard to make out the guide who's there to serve as the brake person.
Several of the people in a recent group wound up taking most of the ride backwards. Going backwards does offer a good view of the glacier.
Also, the rider doesn't do any braking on the Nitro. Instead, a block of wood slides along the bottom end of the cable. The brake person holds onto a rope attached to the block and, when she sees the rider approach, quickly judges his weight and speed, then races up the gravel hill towing the block ahead of the oncoming rollers. When the rollers contact the wood block, she pulls back like an angler with a 200-pound halibut on the line to slow the rider for an easy landing.
MICA Guides added the Nitro to its menu of adventuresome activities -- which include ice climbing, treks on the glacier and jet boat tours -- after last year's low water conditions canceled some Matanuska raft trips and made MICA cut back on its river excursions.
"It's no secret that ziplines are wildly popular right now," said MICA owner Don Wray, who teamed up with businessman
Arnie Hrncir to create the Nitro. Wray called the ride "another step in making Glacier View a destination," with more for visitors to do. And, he said, it's working.
"We've had about 500 riders with minimal advertising. It seems like it has a really big appeal for local folks. There's a lot of buzz because it's so close. People from Anchorage and the Valley who would never come out to Glacier View have come here to ride it."
From start to finish, the Nitro experience takes about one hour, about a third of the time for the DZT. It also costs one third as much, $49 compared to $149. The cost of actual air time is about the same, roughly $1 per second.
Let no one call ziplining a cheap thrill.
IS IT SAFE?
A looming question in the mind of someone preparing to entrust their life to a wire in the air is: Who made this thing and did they know what they were doing?
There is no state or federal Department of Ziplines but Alaska operators do have insurance. A million-dollar policy is standard in the industry, Korn said, but his company carries double that at the behest of tour ship companies. Liability concerns induce operators to use established engineers and contractors with expertise in the field.
Wray and Hrncir had a Boulder, Colo., company, Leahy and Associates, build the Nitro.
"They're certified zipline builders," Wray said. "For insurance reasons, you need a team that specializes in zipline and ropes course construction."
The Denali course was created by STEPS, a Michigan-based company exclusively concerned with building so-called "challenge" courses. STEPS also trained DZT's guides and other staff. The company is associated with the national trade organization, the Association for Challenge Course Technology, which sets industry guidelines for ziplines and other adventurous diversions, setting standards for installation, operation and inspection.
A strong wind can cause an operator to shut down a line but rain is not an issue. Nor is cold. Wray expects to stay open into September.
Wildermuth is considering keeping DZT open into October and perhaps longer.
Korn described the safety regimen he and other zipline operators follow. Two people go through each course daily to check for cable rips or other obvious damage. Supervisors go through on a monthly basis, checking under the platforms. Then there are annual third-party inspections during which outside experts look over everything and make recommendations.
"Nationally, the safety record has been pretty good," Korn said. He could only recall a couple of fatalities in the past few years. One occurred when a tower collapsed while a new line was being built in Hawaii; the contractor characterized the death as "a construction accident." The other involved a ladder left in a spot where a zipliner at a summer camp collided with it.
In June, again in Hawaii, a woman fractured her leg when she tried to use her feet to stop herself as she approached a tower -- not a recommended procedure.
"I would guess there are a lot more injuries from skiing than from ziplining each year," Korn said.
Riders are required to sign documents releasing operators from any injury or damages resulting from the ride, similar to the release form at ski resorts. People with certain conditions -- pregnancy or back injuries, for example -- are dissuaded from taking the ride. Each zipline has its own weight limits.
But as long as someone can climb to the first launching site, the physical demands are not strenuous. A septuagenarian made the run in Talkeetna recently. An 80-year-old former paratrooper has zipped down the Nitro.
A big part of Korn's business is senior citizens on cruises.
"The wear and tear on your body is really minor," he said.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
DENALI ZIPLINE TOURS
13572 E. Main St., Talkeetna
855-733-3988 or 907-733-3988
• Cost: $149, $119 for ages 10-14
• Restrictions: No one under 10 years old; participants must weigh between 90 and 270 pounds.
• Driving time: two hours
• Time on tour: three hours
THE NITRO (MICA)
Mile 99 Glenn Highway
800-956-6422 or 907-351-7587
• Cost: $49, $39 for ages 8-12
• Restrictions: No one under 8 years old; participants must weigh between 70 and 235 pounds.
• Driving time: one hour, 45 minutes
• Time on tour: one hour
ALASKA CANOPY TOURS (Ketchikan and Juneau), alaskacanopy.com
ALASKA ZIPLINE ADVENTURES (Juneau), alaskazip.com
GRIZZLY FALLS ZIPLINING (Skagway), alaskaexcursions.com
ADVENTURE PARK & ZIP LINES (Skagway), skagwayzip.com
(It appears that this tour can only be booked through a cruise line.)
ICY STRAIT POINT ZIPLINE (Hoonah), icystraitpoint.com, (Website features video of descent.)