Bill “Big Wheels” Walton and Emory “Swamp Donkey” Clark, were our guides during the adventure. Before heading into the treetops, they helped us get our harnesses on and explained the braking system to us. It’s basically just a pair of work gloves, one of which fits into a leather sleeve to serve as your brake hand. To control your speed, simply press the palm of your brake hand down onto the line and you’ll slow right down.
The thought of braking with the palm of her hand made Jess noticeably uneasy. Would such a primitive method of friction really work to halt a speeding human? Big Wheels assured her it would. To prove it, our guides brought us to a practice line that’s only 6 feet or so off of the ground. It’s all pretty simple — the guide clips you in, you place both hands on the pulley mechanism with your brake hand on top, then you just lean back, lift your feet, and you’re off.
The goal of this short line was to follow the hand signals of the guide who’s waiting for you to land on the next platform. The signals are pretty obvious. One means slow down, the other means speed up. I think an added goal of that bunny hill line is to prove that you can indeed stop by pressing your gloved hand onto the line, and to prove that you won’t die.
The second part — the one about surviving the course — seemed lost on Jess, who was immediately apprehensive as she stepped onto the first platform. I suppose there were good reasons for her to feel that way. For one thing, we were a good 30 feet off of the ground, and common sense dictates that’s not a height you want to fall from. Also, the platforms slightly move, and it’s completely unsettling until you get used to it. Swamp Donkey explained that the entire course was constructed in a way that won’t kill the trees responsible for holding up the platforms. Instead of using enormous bolts to secure the wood to the tree trunks, cables and wooden wedges are employed to provide stability with little impact. The result is a safe deck that feels like it's floating.
An unsteady traverse
We ascended the stairs and stepped onto the landing, where we were immediately clipped onto a line for safety. Even if we were to fall, we wouldn’t go far. Before we could ride the zip line, we had to make it to the second, higher platform. To get there, we’d have to cross a bridge made of ropes and logs.
That first step was a wobbly one. I stepped onto the first log and it shimmied left and right as I put my weight on it. I grabbed the ropes with each hand before fully committing and, like a newborn fawn taking its first steps, I unsteadily made my way toward the other platform. Jess did the same, albeit with more swearing and panting.
Time to fly
Once we were both safely on the platform, it was time to clip and zip. The guides explained the first line is the fastest to give riders a feel for braking. I like that concept — dive right in!
Big Wheels went first so he could give us hand signals to help control our landing on the opposite platform. While he was getting ready to receive us, Swamp Donkey explained that all we had to do was lean back and lift our feet up and we’d be off.
The fast take-off is actually nice for people who might be nervous because there’s no time to think about what’s happening and there’s no need to step off of the platform. Just relax and the zip line will quickly take you there.
I got going pretty fast and had to use my brake hand to control my speed. It’s easy to do — just press down on the line with your leathery palm and you’ll slow right down. As Swamp Donkey prepared Jess for her flight, Big Wheels told me each run has a rope at the landing end that the guides can use to slow an out-of-control zipper. It’s a little extra reassurance for everyone involved.
Jess took off with little hesitation and screamed like a banshee as she flew toward the landing. Her form was good, but her face told its own story of elation mixed with terror.
The good news is, after the first run the others seemed easier but no less exciting. It’s worth noting that each landing also has a name that corresponds to an interesting bit of Adirondack lore. And with Swamp Donkey and Big Wheels at the helm, the educational component felt more like playful banter with a purpose. You’ll learn about things like the Adirondacks’ biggest waterfall and the people who first explored the region.
The easy way down
It’s all in good fun until you reach the second to last platform, which requires you to do a cable traverse to the final landing. It’s definitely the most challenging portion of the course, as it requires you to sidestep along a cable that’s set at an incline. It sags and slightly steepens as you get closer to the goal, something Jess found particularly unsettling.
But even after we were both safely standing atop the landing, there was one more hurdle to get over — or perhaps get under is more appropriate. To exit the course, adventurers must rappel about 20 feet to the forest floor. There are a couple of ways to do this, but Jess and I both chose to do the lean-back leap-of-faith. You just clip in and lean back off the deck until you’re dangling from the cable and gently lowered by your helpful belayer.
On the way back to the lodge, our guides explained that they're thinking about expanding Experience ADK Outdoors to make it an adventure course. That would mean more things like wiggly log bridges and rope traverses. If that happens, I'll definitely be back.
This week in the ADK we conquer our fears: