Zip-lining is the newest craze for thrill seekers Up North.
With a reassuring voice, Jason Merrill urged me not to jump off this rocky 80-foot cliff.
We were standing amid the pine and birch treetops of the Superior National Forest, soaking up the serene view of the slate-blue Gunflint Lake in northeastern Minnesota.
Merrill is neither my psychiatrist nor a caring friend. He is the former maintenance manager of the Gunflint Lodge, and he was relishing his new role as safety director of the latest craze for thrill seekers Up North: Gunflint Lodge's Minnesota Towering Pine Canopy Tours.
For $79, they will strap you into a harness, give you some work gloves and a helmet, snap you to a zip-line cable and send you barreling through the forest canopy at up to 30 miles per hour.
"If you jump, it will cause the slack in the line to bounce like a whip," said Merrill, a trained emergency responder, "so just walk off -- and enjoy the ride and split those birch trees like they're a goalpost."
I can't exactly call my next move a leap of faith. It was more like a few steps and a squat of faith.
I walked gingerly down a wooden platform as the harness absorbed my weight. Gravity took care of the rest. With my hands over my head, ready to apply friction for braking, I was off.
The whizzing sound of the pulley zipping down the cable filled my ears like some jet-powered kazoo. I sat back, crossed my ankles, inhaled deeply and, about 800 feet and 35 seconds later, I soared near Platform No. 5.
A gust of wind slowed me down, so I had to turn around and hand-over-hand myself into the waiting arms of Corey Wall. He gave me a hand and clipped my safety rope to a cable secured to a 300-year-old white pine.
Wall, 25, is part of a North Carolina-based family business, Challenge Design Innovators, that installs zip-line courses across the country. There are more than 40 vendors belonging to something called ACCT -- the Association of Challenge Course Technology. His nine-member crew spent months preparing the Gunflint Lodge's eight-zip, 3,000-foot course, which opens this week.
Silent way to enjoy nature
"Think of your brake hand as a taco, not a burrito -- you just want to apply some open-handed pressure instead of squeezing the cable," Wall had told me, back on the practice zip line on terra firma.
That's where Wall and Merrill teach riders the basics of zip-lining. As long as you weigh between 70 and 250 pounds, have an extra $79 in your wallet and pass the practice zips, you're good to go enjoy this bird's-eye view of the North Woods.
"I think there's some real sizzle to it," said Bruce Kerfoot, owner of the Gunflint Lodge, which backs up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and has been outfitting wilderness treks for years.
"It's so compatible with everything we do and in sync with nature," he said. "We haven't destroyed anything. There's no loud diesel engines. It's a silent, new artful way to enjoy our property."
Kerfoot and Wall brought in arborists with sonar gear to test the health of the white pines that support a few of the zip-line course's towers, some of which look like fire towers with wooden staircases to climb to the next zip line. Others are open, stand-alone platforms that give you that eagle-in-a-nest feeling.
One of the best aspects of this new attraction, and part of its steep price tag, is the lack of mental gymnastics required. Staff members clip and unclip your harness and safety lines at every juncture, so you don't need to fret about remembering anything to survive. And the course starts easy to help zippers boost their confidence before longer, faster stages.
Kerfoot heard about the zip-line craze from his adventure cohorts in the whitewater rafting business. They've added canopy tours as a second revenue stream and "have been immensely successful," he says.
He's invested nearly $400,000 to construct and insure the course, doing it in the least invasive way he could while enabling visitors to enjoy his 105-acre spread.
"It's not a pot of gold, but we hope it will be profitable," Kerfoot said. "Come October, it should be especially gorgeous."
Woods without mosquitoes
As I continued on the course, I was getting cocky. Hoping to avoid coming up short on the last couple of zips, I said to heck with the braking and zoomed in a little hot. Wall signaled me to slow down, flapping his arms in a downward motion from the next platform. With a bang, I kicked the free-standing wooden box onto which I was supposed to land gracefully.
"That's why we have the emergency brake," he explained amid the laughter of my zip-line mates. He showed me the simple emergency-stop technology, a rope line knotted at the end of the zip cable, which jams the pulleys of the harness and jolts you to a sudden stop.
In other words, there's really no way to screw up. Midway through the course, you hike between platforms, which allow an escape route back to the lodge for anyone who wants to bail. But there's another good reason to stick it out and enjoy the rides.
"Up here," Merrill points out between gusts of wind on Platform No. 7, "there are no mosquitoes."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767