Ella Kliger – Contributing Writer

“Excuse me while I kiss the sky” -Jimi Hendrix

The 1500 foot zip line in the Highlands Aerial Park is an experience like no other. Affectionately known as the Squealing Mare, I waited my turn in the fourth line of the course of seven zip lines. I was warmed up and comfortable in my gear. As I sailed out from between the trees into the openness of the valley, my senses were on stimuli overload. Looking to my left, I could see across Otto and Franklin. I was hundreds of feet in the air, the wind was swirling around, and I was all but flying. Amazing doesn’t begin to cover it. I felt invincible.

In the beginning

George and Karen Powell own Highlands Aerial Park in Scaly Mountain.  When George retired from his trucking company in September 2011, he took some time off but by May, 2012, was bored and seeking a new challenge.

“I needed a project and some stress in my life,” said George.

The Powells had had the property for about a dozen years and mostly used it for horseback riding. They wanted to do something with the land, and as they lived next to it, they didn’t want to sell it because they wouldn’t know who their neighbors might be. They thought about vacation rentals but didn’t want to do something that permanent if it didn’t turn out to be the best use of the land.

“So we decided on a zip line course. Because when it runs its course, as all things do, the next generation or the one after that can take down the cables and it’s just as good as it ever was,” said George.

“The first weekend of May 2012, I got delayed by a Warrior Dash in Mountain City. I asked what was going on and was told there were 20,000 people up here paying $80 in a torture race. I thought, well, if they can pull people up here to do that we ought to be able to generate some interest in the zip line. That weekend I started looking it up on the Internet,” he said.

George received a recommendation to contact Tree-Mendous, partly because the company had just finished creating a course at the San Diego Zoo.

“The first visit that we had was by an Austrian arborist and  a French Alpine rescuer. They walked over the property and they said, ‘Do you know what you’ve got here?’ I said, ‘What? I know we’ve got a pretty property with some nice views here.’ And they said, ‘What you’ve got here, the elevation and the feel and the smell of the alpine ropes course in Europe, and you’ve got the vegetation of Central America, so you’ve got the combination that we don’t, that we rarely see,” George said. “That’s what really got me interested in pursuing it,” he added. Once started, there was no stopping him. The park opened Oct. 5, 2012.

“We had been to Costa Rica and zip lined. It was all tree based. We were retired and looking for something we could do, could enjoy,” Karen explained. “Online, George found an association that accredited courses, and they had gear, builders, everything. We interviewed three builders who came and met with us, walked the property, and we went with one of the three.”

They chose Challenge Towers out of Boone, N.C.

“The one that we chose could have us open by leaf season,” said George. “We copied (Navitat in Asheville) shamelessly for our course because they had a great reputation.”

George credits his wife with having most of the great ideas for the specifics of the park.

Something for the grandchildren

“I said if we were going to do this, I want something for my friends’ grandchildren,” said Karen. “All the other zip lines just have the regular zip lines and that’s usually from 8 to 10 [years old] on up. We had them develop the Brave Indian,” a family-friendly adventure course. “They stay on for an hour and go around and enjoy the challenges.” There are four bridges and two zip lines on the course. One bridge is just two sets of parallel boards and people walk across it like a balance beam. The kids do it with ease, the accompanying parents and grandparents seem to have a little more trouble.

Forrest Welch and Valarie Billingsley are guides who work on the Brave Indian once a week. They started  working at the park the same day, two years ago.

“It’s a great experience for the family, bonding time,” Billingsley added.

Children as young as 5 can participate. The weight restriction on the Brave Indian is 200 pounds. Welch explained that helping the kids to get over their fear of the lines is a challenge sometimes.

“Usually once they get past the first step, they’re ok.” If a child – or adult – does not want to zip once they are up there, Billingsley said there are options.

“We back them up from where they are. They can hang out in the treehouse or get down. If they are on a platform, we can tandem zip them across and that helps them get past their fear.”

On a recent Sunday tour, there were two instances of that fear. A child walked across the first two bridges without a problem but when poised on the edge of the platform, he could not bring himself to step off the platform. No amount of cajoling and reassurances from his family on the ground would budge him. Welch came back across the zip line and took him to the other side tandem-style. At the second zip line, the boy took off without a problem.

A woman on the course realized she was afraid of heights when she reached the first zip line. It took a lot of coaxing but she was finally able to zip. She held the guide ropes tightly the rest of the way around and swore she’d never do that again. At the other end of the spectrum, one girl was flipping off the platform and doing an upside down split while flying through the trees.

Sonya Odermact of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., brought her two sons, Lukas and Olivier, to the Brave Indian. At 5 and 8, they were among the younger kids on the tour. As their mother watched them slowly make their way across the swing bridge, she had her hand on her chest. “He’s so small,” she said, looking at Lukas. As he completed the first bridge, he looked around, unsure of what to do next. Olivier came up behind him and showed him the guide rope to the first zip line. Lukas walked across with little hesitation. When it was his turn to zip, he calmly stepped off the platform and zinged across the grove.  Olivier followed suit and together they went onto the next bridge. After one loop around the course, the boys, like most of the participants, went round again. Lukas walked a bit more confidently on the bridge. Odermact said, “It’s awesome, it’s perfect for them!” with a big smile and luminous eyes.

The Nature Trail

The Powells have adapted a horse trail that winds through the property.

“I wanted the Ground-To-Air Nature Trail because I wanted it to be a botanical experience. I actually had the director of the Highlands Biological Center come down to help identify plants and flowers, and all the natural vegetation. When they first came, they found some plants that they identified that probably have been here since the ice age. They said, ‘We don’t want you tromping through this area.’ We told our builders there’s some endangered plants down there, so they came up with the wonderful idea for the swing bridge. They lived with us while they were building the park,” Karen said. “As they built, they were aware of the ecology. They only took down the branches that they needed to.” They used climbing harnesses rather than spikes in order to spare the trees any unnecessary damage.

In addition to the zip lines, the Brave Indian, and the nature trail, there is a swing that was installed last year.

“It’s a thrill ride,” said Karen. “It’s been very popular this year.”

It’s that childhood dream come to life of swinging as high as the top bar on a swing set. Three people are strapped in, winched back slowly and released. The large arc swings out over a slope, sloshing riders back and forth as on a roller coaster.

“I have a feeling in my stomach!,” cried one young rider. Her mother said, “Keep it in your stomach, please,” with a laugh. Fortunately, there is a camera to capture every expression throughout the ride, every squeal of delight or terror.

Showtime

When my companion, Jonathan Snyder, and I arrived for the zip lining experience, after checking in, signing waivers and removing everything from our pockets, we were led out to the back deck where the gear is lined up, waiting. The harnesses look like wilted butterflies against the ground. The company has a policy of, “If you don’t go, you don’t owe,” so you pay for your trip after the ride. The guides introduced themselves and explained how to get into the harnesses. While some people stepped in easily, and some people had some trouble, each rider is checked for a good fit and, if necessary, has the equipment changed for the appropriate size.

Snyder said, “It’s easier to get into my fire fighting gear than this harness.”

In order to zip line, you must weigh at least 70 pounds for gravity to pull you across the line to the end, and less than 250 pounds, for safety reasons.

The weighty metal trolley fits on top of the line. Two heavy ropes clip into the trolley, each rope being rated to 10,000 pounds. The harness is connected  to you with locking carabiners and wide straps. The built-in redundancy is required in the United States. Plus, it’s a good idea. Highlands Aerial Park is fully certified with the  Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT); all guides receive 70 hours of intensive training before they are allowed to lead a group and George gives them plenty of practice time to ensure everyone’s safety. Dan Lockwood, our guide, said, “Some people are super worried about zip lining, but statistically speaking it is extremely safe.” All the gear and lines are checked regularly. It’s a controlled environment. There is very little opportunity for unexpected elements to appear on the zip lining course.

Then we’re off to Ground School where the guides, Dan and Tristan, joke around while they show how the equipment works. They demonstrate where to put your hands, how to cross your legs to improve your aerodynamics. The ease with which they show their expertise at clipping and unclipping lines indicates the thousands of times they have done it. They show us the camera on Tristan’s head that will be capturing these moments for posterity, and for purchase after the tour.

The first three zip lines make up the Mountain Top Tour and the beginning of the World Class Canopy Tour. These tours are designed to be shorter and closer to the ground as a way for beginners to gain confidence in themselves and to increase their comfort level on the lines. They also help you to gauge how much pressure to use on the line with your braking hand. One hand, in a heavy leather glove, is around the line in an O.K. position so that it is at the ready to brake your speed. On the second zip line, as I was coming in for a landing, I gripped too tightly, my arm nearly locked, the side of my face smacked into my arm and I bent my glasses a bit. A minor glitch in an otherwise terrific ride.

At every platform there was good-natured ribbing about form. The guides agreed that women have better form while men tend to go down the line spread eagled. At the end of the third line, we came down from the trees to sit down for a few. We talked about the trees: poplar, white pine, birch, hickory, and buckeye, several varieties of maple, and we admired the lilies and ferns. This is where the Mountain Top Tour ends. Customers are offered the option to extend their tour by adding on the next four lines and swinging bridges, the World Class Canopy Tour.

The Weavers, a family of four from Kentucky, were on the tour with us. It was Lisa’s first time zip lining. Her daughters and husband had been once before at another park. They spent the trip laughing and smiling. The smiling is a constant with everyone I met on the tours; a smile you can’t pry off with a crowbar. There is something about this activity that if you’re not frightened out of your wits by leaping into thin air, by being suspended over the treetops, you’re going to love it. People I asked about the course said, “It was fun” and as they said it you could see the scenes replaying in their heads.

The bridges to travel between zip lines were each unique and intriguing. Wood and webbing made up these byways over the trees, and while they looked wobbly, and felt wobbly, I had confidence in the course. 10,000 customers a year at the Highlands Aerial Park with an impeccable safety record goes a long way toward building that confidence. At one platform, the guides had us all lean back over the edge for a group picture.

The last three lines were a blur of happy exhilaration. I allowed myself to pivot to see the trees in a 360 degree view, leaned back farther in my harness to see the sky, and felt no fear as I stepped off into space.  I know that the bright, shining eyes of everyone in the group were reflected in my own.

Nuts and bolts

Kurt Damron came up through the ranks, guiding and learning the maintenance of the lines. After nearly a year, he was promoted to Assistant Manager and a few weeks ago, he was named General Manager. He is certified by ACCT standards to perform maintenance on the course, from gear inspections to course cables, “anything that you see or touch when you’re on that course,” said Damron. There’s precise science behind the placement of the lines, the drops in the lines so that gravity can take you safely across to the end of the line. Regular inspections allow them to make decisions about major maintenance. Sept. 6 – 9, the park will be closed so that all the lines on both courses can be replaced, and an eighth zip line can be installed at the beginning of the course.

“Right now, the cables are showing very, very little wear, but it’s just a best practice in the industry, even if they’re not showing wear, to be proactive in changing them,” he said.

“People may not be aware of all the amazing views that we have,” Damron said. “We have views going back towards Pickens’ Nose, Albert Mountain, the fire tower, Wayah Bald, and the views are just phenomenal. I don’t think people are ever quite expecting what they see there. Another thing that’s really neat is taking a trip during different seasons. Leaf season offers a really unique perspective of what’s going on in the canopy, obviously the dead of winter, some people are into that, the cold, the snow, so that’s fun. In spring we go from no leaves on the trees to wide open vistas and then overnight, bam! The canopy just greens up overrnight,” he added.

The park is open year-round, by appointment in January and February.

“It’s something the whole family can do, it’s not like golf, or where everyone goes their different ways. It’s a bonding experience,” said George. “We are dedicated to not being an amusement park. We want to be fun, but we want to have an ecological, botanical benefit as well as a thrill.”

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