The long July 4th weekend rolled around and once again Chet and I were looking for something interesting to do that wouldn’t keep us out in the heat for the whole day. We may both be southerners (well, since childhood in my case anyway) but we do like our air-conditioning when the temps are up in the 90s. OK, maybe that’s just me. I think farm-boy Chet is maybe not such a baby about it as I am. As usual, he came up with a brilliant suggestion – “how about that new zip line course in Lake Guntersville State Park?” Oooo – zipping through the trees would be cool, right? In both senses of the word. We’ve ziplined before on a family vacation in Costa Rica, but that was probably 10 years ago now. It was high time to give it a try again.
As we have pointed out before in our blog, the state of Alabama has a troubled history with its state park system. This despite being a state with a huge amount of support for outdoor activities. For example, in 1992 the people of Alabama approved the amendment to their constitution that created the Forever Wild program by one of the largest approval margins in the United States for environmental legislation EVER, and then followed that up in 2012 by approving a 20 year extension of the program by a 3 – 1 margin. Our legislature, however, has ignored the obvious desires of the people for state-funded public lands and has basically treated its own state parks system, actually the entire Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as their emergency fund – siphoning off $30 million over the last five years. Of this $30 million, half came directly from the state parks division. Don’t let anybody tell you the parks aren’t able to support themselves – seems to me they’d be just fine if the state wasn’t constantly appropriating their money out from under them. To that end, Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Arab, introduced a bill that proposed an amendment to the state constitution to prohibit the Legislature from taking funds collected by state parks and spending it on other programs. The bill has passed both the House and the Senate and will come before the voters in November.
The parks can’t wait that long though, so there has been an effort to come up with alternate revenue streams (that the state legislature can’t get its grubby little hands on) wherever possible. One idea is to partner with outside concessionaires that pay to construct, maintain and operate attractions at parks. The parks do “share a percentage of the business” according to State Parks Director Greg Lein, though I’ve not seen any place that says how much. At Lake Guntersville State park, they have partnered with an outfit out of Georgia called Historic Banning Mills to create a zipline adventure course called “Screaming Eagle at Lake Guntersville.” Plans are to have several different routes open, though only Level I is ready right now. Level II should be completed by the end of the year.
Having ziplined once before, we were perhaps a little overconfident. The course is described as 10 zips with 4 “adventure bridges.” Their website allows you to register for a specific time slot and then pay in advance, which we did. We opted for the 1:00 tour – thinking that would give us plenty of time to get down there, and since it was the first one after lunch, it would be less likely that things would have backed up. That’s my “always make a doctor’s appointment right after lunch” philosophy right there. The best option for any appointment is right after they open.Not being an early morning person, the next best option is right after they come back from lunch, right? They won’t have had time to get behind again. Well, that’s the theory anyway. In this case, scheduling something outdoors in the summer at 1:00 is maybe not my best idea ever. Boy, was it hot! Though since we were high above the lake and there was a little breeze it wasn’t bad. When we made our appointment, they asked us to be there at 12:30 to get checked in. We rolled up to the Lake Guntersville Lodge at 12:25 and went right to the check-in desk, which is on the left side of the lobby and well marked. You can’t miss it. The guys behind the counter were very friendly and got us checked in (basically had us fill out a waiver form that we knew the dangers involved in this activity and wouldn’t sue them) in no time. We had read that we shouldn’t bring anything with us we couldn’t bear to lose, so I decided to bring nothing – not even my cell phone for pictures. Chet strapped his good camera to him so we’d get some pictures and we just crossed our fingers that that wasn’t a terrible idea. We still had about 20 minutes to kill so we went out to the big deck across the back of the lodge to enjoy the spectacular view of the lake, and then wandered down to the start of the course to scope things out a bit. Just before 1:00 we met up with the rest of our group at the desk. There were 10 in our group: the two of us, a grandfather with his granddaughter, and a family group of 6 including everybody from an elementary aged girl up to their very spry grandmother.
We all trouped down the hill to the gear shack to get all our harnesses, safety gear, and hard hats on. We had three guides who went with us – Sebastian, Jason, and Sky. They gave us an intro to what we’d be doing, including what to do if you got stuck out in the middle of a zipline, and then had us all try out the innovative “QuickTrekker Closed Belay System,” which keeps you continuously connected to the cabling the entire time you’re on the course. I don’t remember exact numbers, but the belay system is rated for something like 5000 pounds, and then there is a second clip that you actually zip on which is rated about the same. You are not going to fall off, that’s for sure! One of the young girls was worried about safety and kept asking questions about whether it was safe or not. The guides did their best to reassure her and were very patient with any questions.
All trained up, we headed to the first platform. This one is right beside the parking lot and has a set of spiral stairs winding up to a platform. We got all 12 of us (10 plus two of the guides) up there and then it was time to go. Somehow, Chet got himself at the very front of the line, with me right behind him, so we led the way the entire time. Honestly, even having done this before, I confess that that first platform I was nervous! My stomach was doing little flips as I stood there waiting to push off into thin air. Once I started down the zip line, though, my fear vanished. This was not the case, however, for the 14 year old boy in the family group. He had a totally different picture of how ziplining was going to work, and after the first zip, he was ready to get off. He hated it. He told us all how much he hated it. Several times. He really wasn’t being obnoxious, poor guy, he really really was terrified. Unfortunately for him, once you start on the zipline, you’re on it to the end, medical emergencies excepted. He was stuck. And miserable. I’m sure it didn’t help that his uncle, his sister, and his much younger cousin were all having a blast and basically telling him to suck it up. The younger cousin was the one who was nervous at the beginning, and while she did come in to every platform yelling “somebody catch me so I don’t die!,” she was giggling while she did it so I’m pretty sure she was fine.
In some ways, I think the platforms were worse for those who were afraid than the actual ziplines. The way things worked is that they would have one guide up ahead to catch folks (and rescue them if they stopped short of the platform), one on the platform to hook you on and get you going, and one sort of swing shift kind of guy. They’d send guide 1 ahead, then send over 5 or 6 of us. Then one of the other two guides would stay with the rest of the group on the first platform, while the other would come on ahead and either pass us to be the “catcher” on the next platform, or would stay there while guide 1 went up ahead. This way, though they had the group usually spread over 3 platforms, there was a guide on each one. This system does require a good bit of standing around on platforms while you wait for the guide to be up ahead in position to catch you. I say “standing around on platforms” – really I mean squeezing onto platforms while holding on to a tree that very likely is swaying in the wind. Just so you get the complete picture. And these platforms were pretty small. Ridiculously small I think.
After the second zip line, we had a bit of excitement because “grandma” from the family group had come over as person number 6 on our platform. She quietly told guide Sebastian that she felt a little lightheaded, and then the next thing I knew, there was a clunk and she was down on the platform. I was behind the tree so I couldn’t really tell what happened, but I think she might have passed out, if only for a second. Sebastian was very calm, checked on her, told her she was probably dehydrated, and got her some water. She perked right back up and I think was more concerned with making sure the grandkids weren’t too wigged out than anything else. She continued on with us and seemed fine.
Things went along just fine for the next several platforms. We’d zip through the trees, getting better at braking just right every time, then squeeze onto the platform and listen to the kid fret about how he’d rather be shot than do this, then zip on to the next platform -all the while enjoying beautiful views of the bluff, the trees and often the lake. Then came the first of those “adventure bridges,” also called “sky bridges” by the guides. Remember when I said I was perhaps overconfident? This is what I was talking about. These things are really pretty terrifying. They are two cables strung between trees with 2×4 slats strung between them. Sort of like a ladder, only much much wobblier. There are two more cables strung for hand-holds, and a cable for the belay system so, yeah, perfectly safe, but that didn’t stop my brain from going “aeeeeeee if I miss a slat I’ll fall 70 feet straight down!” Of course, I’d really only fall like 3 inches before the belay system caught me, but somehow that knowledge didn’t quiet the screaming in my head. The first one was fairly short and only gained a little elevation. The “hand” cables stayed right where I’d want them – sort of near my elbows. Mostly.
This first bridge was followed immediately by another one that was a little longer, and a little steeper. But then, whew!, we got to just zip again. But just once I think, before we got to the dreaded third bridge. Chet and I had both noticed earlier that Sky had started to say something that sounded suspiciously like “that third bridge is the worst” only to catch herself and say nothing more. When we got to the third one I thought I understood. This one wasn’t any longer than the others, but it was steeper, and steeper in a way that meant the hand cables were actually way above my head at first. I had to stretch to reach them at all. The smaller kids in our group actually had to be clipped onto a guide and just pulled across because there was no way they’d be able to either make the steps between the slats or reach the cables. Terrified boy did not like this one bit. Sadly for him, we then discovered why Sky stopped herself before. It wasn’t because the third bridge was so bad, but because it wasn’t really the worst. The fourth one is the worst. Chet has named this one “no effing way” and while we do try to keep this blog rated G, I’m gonna have to agree with him on this one:
So yeah, it’s basically a tightrope over to the platform. This picture makes it look like it’s close to the ground, but trust me, it’s high enough that when we zipped over the road, we were well above the cars that passed below us. Sure, there are cables to hold on to and the belay system, but again – tell that to my brain! Terrifying. But we did it! Even terrified boy did it. Color me relieved.
Once we got to the platform across the road, we were almost back to the starting point. As we waited for the rest of our group, we learned that “grandma” had actually not been able to continue. Somewhere around the sky bridges, her knees were really causing her problems, so they sent folks out to get her down. I talked to her later and she said they hooked her belay clip onto something else (no idea how they got it off the cable though), and then she basically rappelled down a tree. That actually sounds pretty cool! Terrified boy was jealous. Soon enough, we were back at the start and back on solid ground.
Just so I’m clear, I enjoyed myself immensely and definitely plan on going back to try phase II. I might even try out the ziplines they’re planning on putting in at Cheaha State Park that promise to be some of the longest ziplines around. Yes, the “adventure bridges” were terrifying, but terrifying in that way that is both completely safe, and also very gratifying once you do it. It may be “Madness,”* but it’s a satisfying sort of madness.
*I couldn’t help myself. The title of this blog is a reference to a song called “One Step Beyond” by the British band Madness. It’s actually a cover of a track by Jamaican singer-songwriter Prince Buster, with lyrics added by Madness. Check it out sometime – it’s pretty catchy.