"Are you ready?" asks the Navitat Canopy Adventures tour guide.
Standing on a wooden platform 50 feet off the ground, surrounded by a lush verdant canopy, I nod, and a thrilling ride directly through the heart of the forest begins.
Flying along the 1,100-foot zip line with the wind in my face and the trees whirring by in a blur, I try to remember what the guides told me: "Be sure to check out the view of Craggy Dome." Turning slightly to the left, I look toward the horizon, where towering mountains meet clouds and blue sky. Below me is only quiet valley and forest, as far as the eye can see.
It all began simply enough. After quickly gearing up outside the newly constructed visitors center, I joined Abby Burt, Navitat's marketing director, a few other participants and two guides on a long ride up the mountain in a six-wheeled ATV. Before we knew it, we were walking up a long wooden walkway and out onto the first platform in the trees. Meanwhile, guides Jackson and Joel gave a rundown on what to expect. They explained how best to position your body for maximum speed, direction control and, most importantly, how to brake when approaching the landing platform. Within minutes we were ready to embark, one by one, on our first flight — a brief zip that helps participants get a feel for the sensation before launching into the longer, faster runs.
After a few exhilarating trial rides, we prepared to tackle a swift 300-foot run right through the forest canopy.
The deciduous forest is home to a wide variety of trees, including maples, oaks, hemlocks and tulip poplars — and zipping amid their branches is an excellent way to see them. "Canopy tours, in their truest sense, are tree-to-tree tours," noted Burt as we waited our turn to zip across to the next vantage point. "What John Walker and Bonsai Design have built for us is a world-class canopy tour."
The technology behind these excursions, she said, originated in Costa Rica as a way for biologists to study the ecosystem that thrives high off the forest floor. Wanting to observe nature without disturbing it, Navitat opted for the most tree-friendly system possible. "The course is built to protect the trees," Burt explained. "We go to great lengths to make sure the trees can grow and breathe and move the entire time we are here. If we should live here for 20 years and operate this tour, we hope that when we leave they'll feel relatively untouched — and that's important to us."
The tour's 10 zip lines explore various portions of the 242-acre forest; along the way, visitors experience other diversions as well, each affording a unique perspective. Two sky bridges provide a close-up look at some of the more unusual trees; a brief hike along the forest floor allows a more grounded perspective; there's even a series of rappels from the platforms.
"When you come to visit Navitat, what you'll see is a place where you get to know the environment; we feel like the trees are letting us into their space," said Burt. "We've kind of let nature dictate where we go instead of coming in and dictating where we want it to go."
The result is an eco-friendly playground full of fast rides, high adventure and an unparalleled experience of Southern Appalachian forest.
Navitat Canopy Adventures will hold its grand opening Saturday, May 15. The company is offering special prices this month, as well as ongoing discounts for Western North Carolina residents. For more information, visit http://Navitat.com.
[Freelance writer and adventure-sports videographer Eric Crews spends his time roaming the forests between Boone and Asheville.]