Skamania Lodge opens new zip line tour

Finding thrills in the Gorge

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I am deathly afraid of heights. Until recently, even driving on winding roads with a drop-off was enough to nearly induce a panic attack.

So it stands to reason that I would not be standing on a wobbly, though secure, wooden platform 22 feet off the ground, preparing to jump into mid-air.

But here I am, with six other journalists from various publications in Southwest Washington. It’s a fun group, with a few of the more experienced, “zippers” cracking jokes about past experiences.

I am very nervous but doing my best not to show it. Just two days before, I went zip lining in Mazatlan, Mexico, and survived just fine, so I keep telling myself this as I watch others zip across the first line, which is 100 feet long.

Mark Kelly, a guide with Skamania Lodge Zip Line Tour, jokes that the most dangerous part of the tour is the walk there. As if to emphasize his point, I almost trip over a tree root near the first zip platform.

“See?” he says.

Kelly double checks my harness for security before I descend, something I greatly appreciate, and gives some last minute tips on how to “zip” effectively. I highly recommend listening to guide instructions, lest you be referred to as a “bag of mayonnaise,” “hanging meat,” “dead pencil,” or “Captain Morgan.”

“Are you sharing our secrets?” Kelly jokes to Shayne Large, operations manager, after I and other reporters began scribbling the terms down and trying to figure out their meanings.

The first two zips are each 100 feet long, to prepare riders for longer descents. The other zip lines measure 250 feet, 200 feet, 550 feet, 900 feet and 600 feet.

Construction took three months from beginning to end, and safety is highly emphasized. Before zipping, users are given a thorough safety orientation, and gloves, a helmet and harness to use. Guides double-check all safety gear before users begin the tour.

It’s a bit scary to jump off a platform, but don’t worry, you’ll be secured by a one-half inch galvanized aircraft cable.

“It’s the same stuff that stops airplanes,” Large says.

During the tour, which includes walking across four sky bridges and standing on platforms high above the forest floor, riders are secured by their harnesses. The lines are all gravity-fed, which means there is no braking involved in the tour, and one less thing zip line users will need to remember.

Despite my fear of heights, I keep a few things in mind: The first “official” guest when the zip line opens Saturday will be a 92-year-old woman. She wants to celebrate her birthday with something thrilling. Large said his oldest guest thus far was 84. This keeps me going. If two elderly people can get out there, then a healthy but somewhat nervous 37-year-old certainly can.

By the third zip, which is 250 feet, I have loosened up and am actually having a great time. The views are incredible, and the smell of fresh Douglas firs rush in, reminding me of what a beautiful place we live. On that note, when the zip line was constructed, the bolts used to secure the platform and lines work with the tree, instead of the tree rejecting it. That’s nice to know in a state that values nature. In addition, only nine trees were removed during zip line construction, and several of these were already dead.

The demographic of the zip line rider varies from 7 to 70. It is becoming a popular family, tourist and team-building activity, according to Large.

In the 1980s, there were only 20 zip line courses in the United States. Now, that number is closer to 400.

“It used to be only the extreme risk takers did this,” Large said. “Now, it’s a mainstream deal with a controlled risk. We start out small, and build as we go. You can get an adrenaline rush without having to be a super athlete.”

After the fifth zip, I see a drop-off. The fear of heights anxiety begins taking over again, and I take a few deep breaths.

“You’re looking awfully close at that, Danni,” Kelly said. “Don’t worry, it’s safe.”

Called, “The leap of faith,” or “big blue,” it’s an auto-belay system similar to what one would find at a rock climbing gym, which lowers users gently to the ground. Just make sure you stay in the standing position, or you’ll wind up on your behind in the sand. Thankfully, despite my inherent clumsiness, this did not happen.

By the seventh zip, I feel like an old pro, smiling and cheering on the other riders while I wait for the tour to end. I’m happy to have conquered my fear of heights, and been able to do so with a supportive group of people around. For those who are hesitant to try the zip line, I will leave you with this quote from Mark Twain.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”