Zoo visitors will be able to soar over Saluda on zip line

jholleman@thestate.comMay 1, 2013 

— The chorus of wild animal sounds emanating from Riverbanks Zoo soon will feature a new voice – the scream of sheer joy (or fright) as people zoom across the Saluda River on a zip line.

After scouting trees and mapping routes for several weeks, workers from Beanstalk Builders recently began constructing the decks and attaching the steel lines for two separate canopy tours at Riverbanks. One tour – designed to be suitable even for scaredy cats – features four short zip lines in the wooded area on the zoo side of the pedestrian bridge over the river.

Zippers who graduate from that course can head to the top of the botanical garden tram trail for the more challenging course that features two 100-foot zip lines and an Indiana Jones-type suspension bridge high up in the trees. The tour finishes with the ride kids – and adults with childlike imaginations – long have dreamed about while walking on the pedestrian bridge.

From a platform about 25 feet up on a huge white oak tree on the ridge north of the river, the initial drop will leave about 20 feet of clearance over a massive rock ledge that marks a rapid drop in terrain. A couple seconds later, the zipper will emerge from the forest canopy about 75 feet off the ground. Then, the forest scene below quickly gives way to soaring over the cool water of the river.

The 1,000-foot trip, at 30-35 mph, probably will take about 30 seconds, according to Sean Condron, project manager for Beanstalk. It’ll seem much shorter if you’re one of those joyful screamers, much longer if you’ve closed your eyes in sheer terror.

Condron, who has worked on many of the zip lines Beanstalk has built throughout the Southeast, thinks the zoo’s river section might be the company’s best yet. He especially likes the quick transformation from an almost jungle-like canopy to the wide-open river corridor.

“I can’t wait to get on this line,” Condron said. “I’ve already called shotgun.”

Satch Krantz, the zoo’s CEO, has been considering adding a canopy tour zip line for years. Initially worried about safety, he watched as hundreds of zip lines popped up all over the country without problems. Beanstalk Builders earned the contract to build the Riverbanks system, in part, because of their record for safe and environmentally friendly systems. An arborist helped select the best trees for the course.

Beanstalk owner and designer Mike Fischesser has been building ropes courses and zip lines since 1989, first with Alpine Towers and since 2005 as Beanstalk Builders. The company’s home course is Beanstalk Journey in Catawba Meadows Park in Morganton, N.C., and it has built dozens of other facilities.

Riverbanks is spending about $250,000 on its canopy tours in an effort to continue expanding the ever-growing zoo experience. The trend that began a generation ago with a carousel and a playground took off last year with the opening of the Sky High Safari ropes course.

More than 48,000 people paid the extra fee ($7 per person, with discounts for zoo society members) to try the ropes course last year. Riverbanks hasn’t settled on the fee for the zip line course. It won’t be cheap. A five-stage tour with a 1,000-foot finish at the Dollywood theme park in Tennessee costs $45.

The other zip lines built by Beanstalk typically are so popular their owners have to set up a reservation system, Condron said. There’s no hurrying through the course. Only one harness can be zipping on each section at any one time.

The zip line over the river, 100 feet or so upstream from the pedestrian bridge, will serve as the best advertisement for the course. In the time it takes to walk across the bridge, people will see three or four zippers screaming across the river. Family members will want to take videos of zippers from the bridge.

The zip line course rules – and even its name – are a work in progress as the zoo aims for a mid-summer opening. Generally, Beanstalk’s zip lines have rider weight limits of more than 70 pounds and less than 250 pounds.

A gravity braking system is used at the end of the shorter lines, but the 1,000-foot line also will have a magnetic braking system that ensures zippers make it all the way to the end of the line.

The zip line courses are in wooded sections of the zoo property. Zippers won’t be soaring over any zoo animals, though those daring enough to look down might spot wildlife in the woods and waters around the river. After a few days, the easily spooked turtles sunning on the river rocks below probably will learn to ignore the screams.

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