I had a friend in middle school who had a zip line through her backyard. There was always a line of screaming children waiting to try it at parties.
I never did. It was too scary. The launch platform was terrifyingly high off the ground. Kids took turns shoving each other, strung up by some feeble looking cord, into thin air.
In retrospect, the zip line was probably 10 feet off the nice green lawn, and mom or dad was always right there. I thought about this as I looked down from a platform during my first zip lining experience as an adult. I stood within the many towering trees in a forest. It was fair to say I was more than 10 feet off the ground. I wished I’d practiced on something smaller when I had the chance. I tried to smile but my loving, darling family saw right through it.
“You’re really scared, aren’t you?!” exclaimed my delighted stepdaughter.
Clearly, Alaskans and visitors to the 49th state have shaken off any incipient fears. Over the last nine years, nearly a dozen zip line tours have sprung up in Alaska from Ketchikan to Talkeetna, including a new operation in Seward that opened less than a month ago. For up to $189 per tour (less for children), they offer rides as long as 5,000 feet long that skim through treetops, offering a moveable vista.
“People who are coming to Alaska are searching for adventure,” said Ashlynn Antoni, tour manager of Alaska Canopy Adventures’ Juneau zip line tour. “You’re throwing yourself off a tree while you’re attached to a cable. It’s an adventurous thing to do. It’s not the normal beaches and sunshine.”
But Alaska is hardly alone. Commercial zip line tours have gained popularity worldwide, from South Africa to Hawaii to Ohio. Hawaii first brought commercial zip lining operation to the U.S. in 2002, but Alaska ranks as having one of the longest zip lines. The Icy Strait ZipRider in Hoonah is more than a mile long (5,330 feet).
Debuted in Alaska in 2005
Statistics helped shame me into zip lining. My fear of heights didn’t stand up to the very low odds of actually getting injured on a zip line. Sure, being high off the ground comes with its own risks. So does driving a car, where I'm far more likely to get hurt. My logic went: it pays for the zip line owners and operators to keep me safe. That’s how they stay in business.
At least, that’s what I told myself as I gazed tentatively over the side of the platform.
Luckily, quite a few people are braver than me -- the kind of people who don’t have anxiety about flying on planes, and watch a movie without reading the Rotten Tomatoes review first. These are the types of pioneers who are helping zip lining take off in Alaska. In Southeast alone, there are six different companies offering zip line experiences.
Alaska Canopy Adventures started in 2005 in Ketchikan. It was the first zip line tour in Alaska. Since then, the company has opened an additional tour in Ketchikan and one in Juneau.
Gin Anderson, co-owner of the Alaska Zipline Adventures tour at Eaglecrest, the ski area in Juneau, explained that zip lining is exploding in popularity across the country and the world. As the industry expands, zip line tours need to do more to set themselves apart in order to stay competitive. In Alaska, this isn’t such a big issue. “Our scenery speaks for itself,” Anderson said. “Our trees are just awesome.”
'As little impact as possible'
Beyond Southeast Alaska, zip line tours are also cropping up across the Southcentral, too. Mark Wildermuth started Denali Zipline Tours in Talkeetna in 2012 with his wife.
“One of the reasons I built a zip line on this property is that I have a large tract of land,” Wildermuth explained. Instead of creating a subdivision, Wildermuth decided to preserve his Talkeetna parcel while building his business. “You create as little impact as possible, so the people out there are experiencing it in its natural state. There's a learning process. People of all ages and visitors love to know something about where they're at. So we try to teach them a little bit about the boreal forest and the habitat of Alaska at the same time as giving them a ride.”
Wildermuth opened a new zip line operation in Seward about a month ago, Stoney Creek Canopy Adventures. Operations Manager Adam Kalanquin moved from a canopy tour in Sonoma, California, to help launch this tour through Seward’s Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock.
“Our highest platform is 70 feet off the ground,” Kalanquin said, confirming my deepest fears. The longest zip is more than 1,000 feet long.
Kalanquin echoed the idea that building the zip line tour is one way to preserve a landscape. When the property was first purchased, the topography was surveyed and the zip lines built along existing logging routes so no new roads needed to be cleared. No trees were cut down -- though the trees intended for zip lining were assessed to make sure they were stable (I made sure to ask).
Zipping through the rain
Guide training includes understanding and being responsible for the physical and emotional safety of guests while at the same time maintaining a sense of play and keeping things light.
“One of my favorite parts about guiding is being able to take a guest who is apprehensive or nervous and not sure if they really want to be there, and take them on the long zip. They see that they're safe coming in and they say, 'Great, I want to keep doing this,' ” Kalanquin said.
During the opening days of the new tour, Kalanquin noted that he saw more locals than tourists trying out the course. Business slowed down a bit when it rained, but according to Kalanquin, zip lining is the best thing to do in Seward in the rain.
“The best thing about Sitka spruce is that they have a good water shed, so when you're standing on the platforms you stay fairly dry."
After stepping up to the edge of the platform, I eventually had to take off. I was fully clipped in and I saw the lead guide waiting on the platform far ahead of me, with nothing between us but a precipitous drop to the ground. For some, this moment is thrilling; for me this was fully terrifying. I thought of statistics. I took deep breaths and went. I did it again for the next one. And again.
I might not end up on the installation crew for wherever the next Alaska zip line operation springs up, but I won’t be surprised if I found myself going for another ride. As an adult, I like to take advantage of the few opportunities I have to fly through the air and say “wheeeee”, even if it means facing my own irrational fears. That’s what the guides are there for -- to help people like me have fun and enjoy it.
Here are outfits offering zip line tours in Alaska:
• Icy Strait Point Zip Line, (907) 945-3141
Glacier View (Mat Su)
• The Nitro, (907) 351-7587
• Denali Zipline Tours, (907) 733-3988
• Stoney Creek Canopy Adventures, (907) 224-3662
Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.