Over the water and through the trees
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By Richard L. Gaw
When measured against the general population, I am a reckless free spirit, a moment junkie, lured by the unknowable and enticed by adventure.
But when it comes to floating in the air, 50 feet above a large lake, held to safety by three wires and a pulley, even I have limitations.
So when the assignment came in to write an article for this magazine about the Go Ape Adventure Course, now at Lums Pond, I jumped at the opportunity. Throughout my career, I have often been a man without a proverbial net; participatory journalism has allowed me to know what it is like to be an oceanographer off Lewes looking for blue crabs, an archeologist digging for treasures, and given me several other chances to experience the thrill of the moment.
So, on a recent Thursday afternoon, I arrived at the Go Ape location at Lums Pond and saw two dozen other kindred spirits. I saw couples who had just finished the last of their zip line rides, reflecting on the exhilaration they'd just experienced. I saw office groups on team-bonding adventures, cheering as, one by one, the head of marketing and the human resources manager landed in wood chip landing pits. I saw daredevil teenagers blowing off school for the chance to fly. The love of adventure, I found, does not discriminate.
The Go Ape Adventure Course, begun at Lums Pond two months ago, is an outdoor experience that gives adventurers the thrill of seeing a park from a bird's-eye view, through the use of four zip lines, obstacles and Tarzan swings. In addition to Lums Pond, Go Ape courses have been established at Eagle Creek Park in Indiana; Creve Pouer Park in Missouri; Freedom Park in Virginia; as well as at North Park in Allison Park, Pa., and at Rock Creek Regional Park in nearby Maryland.
Set within a 200-acre area of Lums Pond and divided into five sections, the site includes rope ladders, cross swings, Tarzan swings, and five zip lines that weave their way around the pond, with each successive zip line providing an adventurer with even more expansive views of the lake and surrounding forest. In total, there are 2,191 feet of zip lines at the lake.
I was placed in a group with three couples, and like me, none of them had ever been on a zip line swing before. Our guide, Sal, was both enthusiastic and detailed during our 30-minute safety session, carefully showing us the purpose of every latch and pulley that we had just attached in cumbersome belts on our bodies.
At Go Ape, safety is not only hammered home through repetition, it comes color-coordinated. The red latch goes on the red pulley; the blue goes through the blue. I was the first to volunteer, and as a I climbed up a tree that would take me across a plank 20 feet above the ground, the safety that protected me seemed to be a jangle of responsibilities.
Eventually, I got everything in place and began my journey. Each step was on a plank four inches wide, and there were a dozen of them to get through. I looked down; one false step and I would become a dangling idiot before my colleagues.
(A brief point here: If you are reading this article and thinking to yourself, 'I am very afraid of heights,' be forewarned. The majority of the Go Ape Adventure Course occurs high above the ground, and if you're at all queasy about relying on three safety latches in order to keep you from falling, you may want to consider passing on an invitation.)
I made it to the other side, took a bow to some applause, and then proceeded to the next adventure, a short zip line that ended with me colliding into a giant web of rope, and then climbing to the next tree top landing.
As a reporter, I carried the necessary evil of a camera with me, and by the time I had maneuvered my way from the spider web to the tree top landing, I was already feeling the side effects of man vs. nature. My body stung from having to both climb and ride and manage to remain centered in an unfamiliar setting. The largest zip lines, Sal said, were all ahead of us, and they were all over water.
I followed a man in my party to the top of the next tree, latched on and looked out. The view was spectacular but the situation I had found myself in was unlike anything I had ever in my wildest adventures in journalism. He waved at me at the landing spot across the lake, which seemed a quarter-mile away, most of which was illuminated by a single wire suspended high over the lake. One pulley down, I thought, and this story never gets written. Behind me, the others in my party were lined up, waiting to climb to the height I had just ascended – 50 feet above the ground. I checked again; every latch on my belt was fastened in its rightful place.
There have been, in the vast lexicon of famous quotes, several aimed directly toward our propensity for living a risk-free life. Leo Buscaglia, the author of books about the power of love, once wrote, “The person who risks nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.”
There was nearly a foolproof chance that Buscaglia did not write this moments before he was about to fly over a lake attached to a wire.
“You have to risk going too far to discover just how far you can really go,” wrote T.S. Eliot.
I never understood Eliot's “Wasteland,” and I certainly didn't understand this.
“Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence to take risks,” wrote Philip Andrew Adams. “Yet most people don't. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.”
Who is Philip Andrew Adams, and what's wrong with a little TV every now and then?
Sal told us never to jump when beginning a zip line ride. Rather, he said, let the zip line do the work. I looked down at him from my perch and asked him again for instructions. “Just bend down and let it rip!” he said. “Remember, Richard, you can hold the blue wire if you want to, or you can do what I do and not hold anything!”Very soon, I am submitting what Sal had just told me to Webster's Book of Quotations.
I took one last photograph. Then I bent down and let go. It was the longest 15 seconds of my life.
If you have never had the experience of zip lining across a lake, the most accurate comparison I can make is that it is like taking every fear you have ever known in your entire life and suddenly realizing that it has all been a complete waste of energy. In the time it took me to get from one side of this corner of Lums Pond to the other, I heard the 50-plus year-old chorus of self-doubt and worry and trepidation -- the garden variety of neuroses that clings to every human being -- unwrap themselves from around my neck and shear off like falling voices, splashing into the waters below.
As I saw the landing pit on the other side of the lake quickly come into focus, I spun awkwardly around in mid-air, deciding to land tailbone first, rather than run the risk of damaging my camera, or attempting to land feet first and quite possibly tearing a ligament. I landed in wood chips and, having landed safely, I let go of the blue latch, brushed off my pants, and walked away.
It takes much more than being suspended from a zip line to understand the complex machinations of who we are, and although I am far from an authority on the subject, I have always believed that the purest form of contentment, the best measure of freedom, is allowing ourselves the permission to simply let go, to willingly surrender. For 15 seconds on a warm September afternoon, flying through the air above Lums Pond, I had no other choice but to do just that.
I looked ahead at the next zip lines and crosswalks – some 1,000 feet of flying still to come – and then at my watch. I realized that I had two more story assignments still to get to that afternoon and evening. Walking back to camp to surrender my safety belt, I told a Go Ape guide that this first time was just a teaser. Next time, when there is more time, when I'm not here as a magazine writer, I'm completing the entire course, and I'm bringing others.
As I returned to my car, I felt renewed, refreshed, and lighter of negative, doubting voices. Driving to my next assignment, I thought that if everyone in the world would just spend a day zip lining, the field of psychiatry would eventually -- and most assuredly -- become obsolete.
Go Ape pricing is $55 for adults; $35 for children ages 10 to 17; and $25 for junior adventurers (children who are over 3-foot, 3-inches in height). For more information about the Lums Pond adventure, visit http://goape.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.