One morning earlier this month, when Melissa Michler was testing the new zip-lines at Northwest Trek, she noticed a curious moose watching from the fence line.
“He watched for a little bit and then left,” said the manager of the wildlife park’s new Zip Wild challenge course.
Perhaps he’d seen enough or maybe he overheard that the zip-lines could hold up to 3,000 pounds and he was off to plan some after-hours shenanigans.
The appeal of zip-lines is understandable. They allow riders to experiences the sensation of flying through the treetops like a bird and the opportunity to safely face fears.
Not long ago a family zip-line trip was hard to find in Western Washington and more than likely required a trip out of state. But over the last 16 months, three canopy tours have launched in Western Washington.
Zip San Juan opened an eight-line tour in April 2011 and Canopy Tours NW opened on a Camano Island tree farm four months later. Last weekend Northwest Trek unveiled Zip Wild.
“It’s something that’s adventurous and fun that almost anybody can do, but I think people don’t want to have to travel so far to try it,” said Janelle Schumacher of Zip San Juan. “You don’t have to go to Hawaii or Costa Rica anymore.”
Mona Campbell of Canopy Tours NW says zip-line tours are appealing for reasons beyond the thrill of flight and the accomplishment of doing something a little bit scary.
“It fits well into our values of having a low (environmental) impact,” she said. “It has less impact than a hiking trail.”
Not all zip-line experiences are created equal as is evident when sampling Western Washington’s three new canopy tours.
CANOPY TOURS NW
Kristoferson Farm, Camano Island
Cost: $85 plus an “optional $5-$10” tip for your guide.
Requirements: 8 or older, 65-300 pounds.
More info: www.canopytoursnw.com.
As zip-line guides, Nina Maas and Matt Christian have perfected their screams of joy.
“We encourage you to scream so they can hear you in the office,” Maas said as she attached her zip gear to a 650-foot line. “It makes them jealous.”
Not really, of course, but Campbell loves hearing the screams and laughter coming from the trees on her family’s 231-acre property.
The Kristoferson Farm is celebrating its 100th year, but before last summer it served mostly as a family retreat and a tree and hay farm.
Looking for ways to preserve the property, the idea for a canopy tour came three years ago after family members tried zip-lining while on vacation in Hawaii. They hired Portland-based Synergo to build the course.
“We liked the idea of being able to share this incredible piece of property with the community,” Campbell said.
The farm still harvests 10 10-acre stands of trees and 72 acres of hay, Christian said.
The 2.5-hour canopy tours start with an orientation in the family’s 98-year-old barn. Participants then load into the back of a 1963 Unimog, an all-terrain military truck.
“That, in itself, is a pretty cool part of the tour,” Christian said.
The zip-line platforms are accessible by walking a short staircase and sometimes walking between zip-lines. While it’s hardly wheelchair accessible, the guides take pride in the wide range of people who’ve completed the tour.
Maas and Christian say they’ve guided participants with walkers and people from 8-86 years old. “And they all have fun,” Maas said.
Along the way, guides share the history of the farm. Midway, participants can break for a fitting refreshment, Doug Fir Tipped Tea made by co-owner Nancy O’Neal.
“It’s all natural,” Christian said. “The only two ingredients are hot water and Douglas fir tips. … Anybody could make it, but the way this is made is straight from Nancy’s heart.”
The final zip-line deposits visitors on a platform 54 feet off the ground. From the platform you can see Mount Baker in the distance and the old red barn below.
The tour concludes by repelling to the ground.
“There are very few people who come back from zip-lining who aren’t smiling,” Campbell said.
ZIP SAN JUAN
San Juan Island
Cost: $75, $65 for youth 14 and younger plus “it is customary to tip your guide 10 percent.”
Requirements: 8 or older, 65-300 pounds.
More info: www.zipsanjuan.com.
Schumacher says people started visiting from all over Western Washington soon after Zip San Juan opened last spring.
“We got a lot of day trippers,” she said. “... A lot of people from (the South Sound area) looking for something like this that was closer to home.”
Zip San Juan is located on San Juan Island about halfway between Friday and Roche Harbors. Shuttle service from both locations is included.
Like Canopy Tours NW, Zip San Juan’s course was built by Synergo. It has six zip-lines and a wobbly suspension bridge. Its two extra zip-lines are short, low-practice lines used during orientation.
Schumacher says the course is accessible to a wide variety of people.
“We get a lot of older people out here and they have a great time,” she said.
Pulley systems and platform ramps can make the course wheelchair accessible, but she says they’ve yet to have a client in a wheelchair.
The tour lasts about three hours, Schumacher said, and requires some hiking before and after and between some zip-lines.
The highest point on the course is 50 feet and the longest zip-line is 650 feet.
“We get a lot of kids and families out here having a great time,” Schmacher said. “It’s so beautiful.”
Northwest Trek, Eatonville
Cost: $40 plus admission ($8-$18).
Requirements: Participants must be 10 or older, at least 4-foot-7 and weight no more than 275 pounds.
More info: www.nwtrek.org.
About 50 feet up in the trees at Northwest Trek, a first-time Zip Wild participant was easily navigating a section of the challenge course earlier this month before Josh Barnert raised the bar.
The participant was walking between treetops via a shaky suspension bridge that offered only one plank every yard. Cables running above the bridge gave the participant something to hold on to as well as a place to clip his safety lines.
“OK,” Barnert said. “Now try it without your hands.”
The participant stopped in the middle bridge and slowly removed one hand then the other. He wobbled then tried stepping to the next plank. Almost immediately he lost his balance and grabbed the cables to avoid falling.
“That’s one of the things that’s great about this course,” said Barnert, who can cross the bridge with no hands. “You can always make it more challenging.”
The aerial obstacles at Zip Wild, a course built, paid for and operated by a French company called Deep Forest Challenge, are what set it apart from other canopy tours. It too has six zip-lines, but sometimes the trips between zip-lines can be the most enjoyable part of the tour.
Sometimes you walk rickety bridges, sometimes cable tightropes and sometimes you climb cargo nets.
The course starts with a 30-foot climbing wall and all participants must pass a training test on a much smaller and lower course. The course is designed to appeal to young, adventurous people Northwest Trek might not typically attract. Helmets are not required but they have ordered some for those who choose to use one, said Jennifer Robinson course general manager.
Instead of being guided from zip to zip, participants are trained to go it alone while Deep Forest staff members monitor from the ground and the trees.
“It is about finding the courage within yourself that you normally wouldn’t,” said Donna Powell, a 59-year-old Northwest Trek business manager who has completed the course several times. “Everybody has a piece (of the course) they don’t like. But it’s not so much a dislike as it is a healthy fear.”
And when people overcome those fears, the joy is evident on their faces, Barnert said. “It’s pretty cool to see.”