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Next Time I'll Try Skydiving

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I hit 60 this past week, and my youngest daughter turned the ripe old age of 18 on the same day. To celebrate, and in my case, to prove that I was not nearly ready to kick the bucket, I suggested that we take on the zip line in the Arcata Community Forest. To my dismay, Mei Lan agreed.

Just the thought of trusting a thin wire some 70 feet above the forest floor was enough to cause my stomach to knot and my muscles to tense. I had learned the definition of acrophobia from an early age. Yet I couldn't dare allow Mei Lan to see me hesitate, let alone back out.

I made reservations on the North Coast Adventure Center's website (www.northcoastadventurecenters.com) and hoped for a freak North Coast lightning storm. However, the weather was nothing short of spectacular as we reached Redwood Park, and I am too cheap to ever think of walking away from the $75 (per person) that I had paid.

In addition to Mei Lan and my wife, Amy, who is far more at home near the edges of things, I was joined by Philippe and "JJ." JJ was stationed with the Navy in Everett, Wash., and he and Philippe were, I came to understand later, more typical zip line patrons. Tourists.

We were all cheerfully welcomed by Samatha "Sam" Thompson, an HSU social work major and, more importantly, our risk manager and guide for this afternoon. She had piles of straps, carabiners, helmets, ropes and other paraphernalia carefully organized. Following brief introductions, she got down to the business of outfitting each of us. I had successfully kept my anxiety at bay until Sam, in a rather offhand way, indicated that it was important to position the gear correctly to avoid flipping upside down at an inopportune time.

Now it was time for ground school. This was a crucial dry run, when the only consequence could be minor embarrassment. Safety was clearly her highest priority. We learned about lobster claws, brake checks and vocalizing our actions. We practiced on three temporary ropes until the process felt comfortable. Throughout the rehearsal, I could not help but eye the miniscule platforms perched high in the redwoods, knowing that the rarified air would cause me to forget everything I had learned. I mouthed a silent prayer.

Graduation from ground school meant that we were cleared to climb up a series of heavy metal staples that had been pounded into the redwood tree that served as home to the first platform. That was no easy task. Adam Wanden, the Adventure Center's only full-time staffer, told me that one in 10 "bail before ever getting to the zip line." The shorter members of my family thought the climb could have been designed to be a little easier, but Sam commented, with a twinkle in her eye, "Adam likes challenging people."

Adam told us that the oldest to have conquered these zip lines had been a 75-year-young woman and the youngest was only 7, although he generally requires that participants be at least 12. The largest was a strapping 6-foot-8-inch fellow who weighed 340 pounds.

The three zip lines are not long. The shortest is a mere 30 feet, and the longest is 100 feet. It is not the length but that first leap of faith required to push yourself from the platform into open space that can clear your pores and make every cell in your body tingle. With each launch, it became easier to relax and enjoy the full experience. With each landing, it became easier to feel the exhilaration and appreciate this birds-eye view of the world. I will readily admit that I still found it much easier to look forward than down.

Adam has been working with the City of Arcata on a second location in the Community Forest with only a 12-foot climb and two zip lines, 270 and 300 feet long. These should be open next season.

None of our local zip lines compete with the extremes available globally. There are lines that are more than a mile long and send you flying at speeds of up to 100 mph over rivers and mountains, past volcanoes and even above the Great Wall of China. But even our more modest local zip tour is sufficient to evoke that fear-edged euphoria that only comes from pushing your personal boundaries. And what a beautiful setting. Since most of our interaction with our redwood forests occurs at ground level, there is something to be said for tasting this world from the canopy of these second growth behemoths.

Both Sam and Adam agreed that they enjoyed watching people go through the entire process. From initially "looking up at the high platforms to committing to the first jump and finishing with a real sense of accomplishment when back on the ground," said Adam.

We had to be one of their success stories. I was apprehensive through ground school and my usual cautious self until I had to let go and first fling myself into the abyss. Back on terra firma, I felt a mix of relief and satisfaction. It must have been obvious.

When my next milestone approaches, I am not sure that BASE jumping or hang gliding will be a part of my dance card. But then, I have always remembered that George H.W. Bush jumped from a plane at 13,000 feet to celebrate his 80th birthday. Maybe next time I will try skydiving. What do you think, Mei Lan?

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