Zipping above the treetops in southern Missouri
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2009 - Staring down at the treetops, 80 feet above the ground, my body made a decision: It would not jump. I literally could not move away from the tree trunk to which my back was firmly pressed. The common sense that had kept me alive for 50 years outweighed the spirit of adventure that brought me here.
"No," I insisted to my partner and the Ketchikan, Alaska, zipline guide in charge of our party of eight, perched on a platform that could not have been more than four feet by four.
"Then you'll have to rappel down," the guide informed me.
Now, if there's one activity less appealing than jumping out of a tree house with no sides while tethered only to a metal cable, it's lowering myself inch by excruciating inch. My life flashing before my eyes, I somehow willed myself to step off the ledge. Immediately, I began to zip along the cable for several hundred feet until I reached the next tree. It was fantastic -- like flying.
That was nearly three years ago. So I was an old pro when my 24-year-old daughter and I drove three and a half hours from St. Louis to Eminence, Mo., in May to check out the new Eagle Falls Ranch zipline tour.
A FOUR-HOUR WAIT
Even after stopping at a custom tie-die shack and for a quick lunch at Winfield's vintage soda fountain, we easily made the 2 p.m. zipline appointment we'd made online -- or thought we had. Owner Shawn Nye explained that while our names and payments ($30 apiece for a five-run course that lasts about an hour) had gone through, the time slot came in blank, and now the 2 p.m. was full. "Could you come back at 4?" Nye asked. "I'll give you a 5 percent discount."
When we returned, the 3 p.m. tour, which included a couple of children, was running late. (Kids and other lightweights who don't always make it to the next platform must pull themselves in, arm over arm, which takes extra time.)
After an hour's wait, Nye helped us don our harnesses, helmets and gloves and explained the rules and techniques.
Another hour went by. It was 6 p.m. before the tardy zipliners returned, and our guides weren't exactly thrilled to take another pair, noting they'd been working since 10 a.m. "without a bathroom break." But they rallied and drove us to the starting point.
After a second round of instructions, mostly about how to hold on and slow yourself down upon approaching the destination platform (grab the cable behind you with a gloved hand), I confidently leaped from the four-sided platform and glided to the first stop.
My daughter, a novice, followed without hesitation. "That was amazing!" she reported.
AN OCTOGENARIAN TAKES HIS TURN
A half-dozen swinging bridges so narrow you had to walk one foot in front of the other were the most nerve-wracking part of this operation. It's helpful to remember that you're tethered via your harness to a cable as you walk the plank. If you fall, you dangle and try to enjoy the view until a guide hoists you up. (That's only happened to one guest.)
That prospect was the only concern of 80-year-old Harold Handrahan, who trekked to Eagle Falls from the Farmington, Mo., area with four family members in July.
"The bridges were a little hairy. We got off balance a time or two," said Handrahan, who's one year younger than Eagle Fall's oldest customer.
Still wiry and fairly agile, Handrahan finds nothing unusual about towering above the trees; he worked as a tree trimmer for 25 years. Before that, he was a single engine pilot. He was happy to have a reason to soar above the vegetation once more.
"It was a very thrilling experience -- and unforgettable. But it was over too quick," Handrahan said.
GOING BACK FOR MORE
Neither Handrahan nor any others I spoke with had to wait beyond their appointment time, including the Grimm family from Memphis.
"We walked right up and were on the zipline within 15 minutes," said Alison Grimm, who came with her husband and 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth.
At 70 pounds, Elizabeth barely met the weight minimum. Small but fearless, she was undeterred when her glove got caught in the pulley on one occasion, and when she came in five to 10 feet short of the destination platform and had to pull herself in -- on all five runs.
"That was awesome -- the best thing I ever did!" Elizabeth told her parents.
So awesome, in fact, that the Grimms went back two days later, bringing their total zipline expenditures to almost $200. It was worth every penny, Alison said: "We're experts now, but the thrill never went away. It was still exciting."
ZIPLINE OWNER GETS PAID TO SPREAD JOY
Near the middle of the course is a 500-foot-long run that zips you over a clear blue pond from which spurts a fountain you could almost touch with your toes. One of the bridges traverses a man-made waterfall. Views like that aren't cheap.
Reluctant to disclose all the financial details of the conversion of his 25 acres along the Jacks Fork River, Nye only would say he spent more than $150,000 with the zipline set-up company, alone. Since our visit, he's broken the course into three different packages and upped the price: $35 for three runs, $40 for four and $45 for all five.
That makes ziplining a little pricier than other local attractions that meet your need for speed or raise you to new heights. You'll pay $31 for a one-day pass that includes Six Flags' new Wahoo Racer water slide and $17 ($10 after 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday) to ride the City Museum's rooftop ferris wheel -- next on my list.
Nye's price increase hasn't hurt business. During his busiest weeks, he suits up 165 customers. Since he opened in May, 1,600 people have zipped over his southern Missouri paradise.
Liability insurance takes a big bite out of his earnings. So far, no one's been seriously hurt at Eagle Falls. Customer Dave Burke, 60, of St. Louis was impressed by the emphasis on safety, from Nye's clear instructions to the guides' attention to detail. "They made certain that we were hooked on either the cable or the cable perch at all times," Burke said.
Eagle Falls will continue giving daredevils a safe thrill until October, when it closes for the season. Already, Nye sees his first year of operation as a success, in more ways than one.
"I think I'm going to end up making a living off it, which is the idea," Nye said. "But on top of that, it's very rewarding to make people so happy."
Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.