Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Zipline Birding in West Virginia

Our group was put through our paces in ground school before we took the first zipline.

What IS a zipline? A zipline, typically, is a set of metal cables stretched between two platforms, one higher, one lower along which a person rolls on pulleys, suspended from a set of safety harnesses. Many bird watchers have encountered ziplines in the tropics, where canopy walkways and towers often have this extra feature for those inclined to thrill seeking.

There's a new zipline near Fayetteville, West Virginia, on property owned by Class VI, a New River rafting and adventure company. A handful of the trip leaders from the New River Birding & Nature Festival were invited to sample the new zipline one afternoon during the festival. Called TreeTops Canopy Tours, the zipline operated by Class VI is an amazing experience. Our primary guide was none other than Tiny Elliott, former rafting guide and regular birding guide for the New River Birding & Nature Festival for many years.

We arrived at the patio of Smokey's on the Gorge, the main restaurant of Class VI, and were geared up in our harnesses by Tiny and Shaun, another TreeTops guide. From there we vanned over to the start of the canopy tour course for ground school. In ground school the guides instructed us in everything we'd need to know and do to have an enjoyable and safe zipline experience. Our harness pulleys were hooked up to the twin zipline cables and we took a short run between two tree stumps, just a few feet off the ground. We learned how to speed up and slow down while moving along the cables. We learned how to stop ourselves. And we learned how to self-rescue in case we got stranded in the middle of a zipline run. Self-rescuing was reasonably easy—you just lean back and pull yourself, hand over hand to the nearest zipline platform. We were required to demonstrate all of these capabilities and skills before we were allowed onto the main part of the course.

Perhaps most importantly, we were instructed how to minimize discomfort in our harnesses, which, when holding up our bodies, put large amounts of pressure in certain unusual places. The guides told everyone—males and females—to try to "keep all of your furniture in the same room" for reasons of comfort and health. Believe me, if some of your furniture sneaked into another room before you "zipped" you knew it and wanted to get it moved back right away.

Jim McCormac in safety gear.

The first zip was a short one and not very fast—down the hill into the river valley. When my turn came, I stepped onto the stump next to the lines to be hooked up. My heart was pounding and I admit to having some butterflies. After the initial moment of adrenaline, I was quickly overtaken by the feeling of how incredibly cool it was to be "flying" through the forest. I'd seen three of my large fellow "zippers" go down the line ahead of me, so I knew the lines would not break. Still, it's a bit disconcerting to have nothing below your feet but blurry hemlocks and oaks.

That's me, Bill of the Birds, in my Devo-approved safety helmet.

Tiny Elliott, our lead guide, was our ground school drillmaster. Hey Tiny: "Ta-Daaa!"

Geoff Heeter, not Bob the Builder. Leather gloves are needed for speed management while zipping. And for coolness.

After the second and third zips, we all got much more comfortable and started video-taping the runs of others from the platforms. We also noticed that we were high in the hemlocks, getting a true bird's-eye view of the landscape. I was amazed at the diversity of plantlife living on the top sides of the hemlock branches. No wonder these woods were so full of birds! This was not something I had ever noticed from the ground, looking up at warblers in these mountain forests.

Trusting my safety gear, high above the forest floor.

The course had been designed very sensitively to minimize impact on the forest, especially the native eastern hemlocks, which are being decimated by a non-native pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid. One of the goals of the owners and designers of this canopy tour zipline course is to keep the surrounding forest healthy. Thus, ziplines were plotted so as to minimize the removal of trees and branches. Platforms are built with minimum bolts or screws drilled into trees. Cables around trees are supported by block-stabilizers to protect the bark and trunk. An arborist will make regular inspections of the entire course to monitor the health of the trees being used. I was impressed at how much of the forest seemed untouched considering that the course was only just nearing completion.
The foliage was still thin enough on the trees that we could see several platforms on the course at once.

People on the ziplines are encouraged to have fun but discouraged from making lots of noise. Nothing will clear out the forest creatures faster, or diminish the natural beauty faster than a bunch of screaming thrill-seekers. Time will tell if this course will settle in as a feature of the landscape, or will become more like a ski-lift, with an alley of nature-free clearance for its riders.
Bird's-eye view of Mill Creek far below us. A Swainson's warbler was singing as I took this photo.

I felt a few screams of joy well up in my chest as I rode the zips. And on the platforms we encountered close-up songbirds, poking their ways through the tree tops. A female Blackburnian warbler passed within eight feet of us at one point, gathering nesting material. I was sorry that I was not allowed to bring binoculars along on this initial run. I missed easy looks at Swainson's warbler and northern parula from two different platforms. Tiny thinks compact binocs may be OK if they can be secured by a harness strap. Before we started this adventure we were encouraged to leave ALL valuables behind. Finding anything that fell off the zipline would be impossible.

Sky bridge across Mill Creek.

In the middle of the zipline course there are several rope and board bridges that we walked across to get to the next zip. They were surprisingly stable and gave us a chance to soak in the beauty of the forest and the plants and birds around us. We smelled the sweet flowers of a Fraser magnolia and heard the flat chip notes of a Swainson's warbler. It was a literal and spiritual high to be moving, as we were, through the top of the forest, looking down instead of up.

Prepping for the next-to-last zip.

Standing on the tree platform frame with Mill Creek 85 feet below.

As we neared the end of the tour, several of us got more daring, letting our harnesses and safety lines do their work as we leaned out over the edge of the wall-less tree platforms. I should stress again, that at no point during the tour were we not hooked by our safety lines to a secure anchor. It's nearly physically impossible to fall and our guides were particularly focused on keeping our group both safe and relaxed.
At each platform the guides kept us hooked up to the safety lines while we waited our turn to zip.

I could write about this zipline adventure for hours more, but think I'll share a couple of videos instead. These are two of my fellow "zippers", Geoff Heeter (one of the New River Birding & Nature Festival founders and owner of Opossum Creek Retreat where many of the festival events are held) and Jim McCormac of the Ohio Ornithological Society, whom some of you may know as the good-natured target of many of my online and offline jokes.



I understand there are plans to try to incorporate a TreeTops Canopy Birding Tour into next year's New River Birding & Nature Festival. If that happens, I'll be the first in line to gear up and zip it!

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At 7:38 PM, Blogger Susan Gets Native said...

That looks utterly FANTASTIC.
I am signing up for THAT next year!

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Mary said...

No Way! I laughed nervously through this entire post. I am a person that hyperventilates when looking through the van window down the mountainside. Yikes. I have issues.


At 9:37 PM, Blogger KatDoc said...

There was not enough wine in the Farmhouse - in fact, there is not enough alcohol in the entire state of West Virginia - to induce me to do that. I got nauseated just reading the post and looking at the still photos. Watching the videos has me calling 9-1-1.

"Oooggie!" (she shudders) You crazy men can have that game all to yourselves. And, don't move the furniture.

~Kathi, sorry to have missed Tiny on this trip

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Erik said...

Why do I keep seeing that Oprah Winfrey video from the The Soup in my head? She clearly missed the part about making proper arrangements in the harness.

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Wren said...

You're a better man than I, BT3. Katdoc, Mary, and I will be on the ground watching you have all the fun.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger NCmountainwoman said...

That is definitely one of Susan's "Y'all hold my beer while I try this" activities.

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Geoff said...

I really wanted not to like this Tree Top Tour but I could not help it “I liked it” it was easy to enjoy, very comfortable, safe and FUN! Okay I really liked. So much that I book a Mother’s day trip for my wife and kids and yes my mother “she likes showing the grand children life does not end at 60 something”. We will try and work something out so it can be one of our trips options next year at the New River Birding and Nature Festival.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Heather said...

There is a similar set up going in Hocking County (OH), and we hope to try it out some time this month. Some of my co-workers did it last year, and they had a blast! Glad you made it out with all your furniture in the same room (at least a presume you did...!)

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Susan Gets Native said...

Come on, Kathi! Why let the MEN have all the fun???? I think once you actually got going, you would love it. Flying? Like a bird? Where do I sign up?

"Y'all hold my beer while I try this!"
: )

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

Geoff Heeter: beat poet.

This looks like yet another Outward Bound for Zick. Hummmm. Will I chicken out?

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got one furniture question. That's if I can stop laughing long enough to get it out.
Don't any of you guys own patio furniture?


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