Exploring the great outdoors, 3,600 feet at a time

THE NEED FOR SPEED: Silas Durocher, left, and Edwin Arnaudin strike a pose during Navitat Canopy Adventures' Mountaintop Tour. Photo courtesy of Navitat

In hindsight, all five of my previous experiential articles probably should have required signing a waiver — especially the one about antiquing. But my visit to Navitat Canopy Adventures in Barnardsville to see what they’ve been up to these past 15 years officially earned that distinction. So, to everyone who’s suffered these journalistic exploits with me over the past two-plus years, please consider this acknowledgment an apology for my negligence. You deserve better; and by “you,” I of course mean professional pickleball player and Asheville Watchdog reporter John Boyle, who hasn’t invited me back to the courts since our December 2022 showdown.

For the first time, this series of ill-conceived activities on Xpress’ dime was leaving Earth’s surface, and I sought an accomplice willing to take to the friendly skies. To quote Peregrin “Pippin” Took in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, “You need people of intelligence on this mission. Quest. Thing.” And the person to answer my SMS text of “Do you like zip lining?” with “I do” was none other than Silas Durocher, vocalist/guitarist for The Get Right Band.

Much like how the fellowship’s journey to Mordor didn’t go quite as planned, our exploration of Middle Earth (aka rural Buncombe County) from above required some thoughtful maneuvering. FAQs on the Navitat website have one about what happens in the event of precipitation, noting that the business “operates rain or shine, guests regularly report that zipping in the rain is a BLAST!” But with our Mountaintop Tour date approaching faster than a pack of Uruk-hai and the forecast calling for steady downpours, Navitat guest services manager and amateur meteorologist Teresa DeCastro was kind enough to check in and see if we’d prefer to reschedule for a sunnier day. (We did.)

We couldn’t have asked for better April weather than what transpired that Tuesday afternoon. But before we could partake, Silas and I were weighed on scales at the welcome desk and informed that our totals hadn’t violated in-house rules. After confirming that we were neither drunk, high nor pregnant, our acceptance became official.

The question of wearing sunglasses on the course was then raised. Based on my FAQ perusal, I’d envisioned a scenario in which my beloved 5-year-old free pair of plastic Stone Brewing shades fell off my face and to the forest floor below — perhaps to be worn by a fashion-forward fox or rabbit — and left these prized possessions at home. But the check-in person noted that I’d be reaching speeds of 60 mph, and should I want to use my eyes later, I could purchase a colorful pair of protective gear from the nearby display for a few bucks.

Silas let me borrow one of the numerous gas-station sunnies from his Hyundai, and we returned to the welcome desk and met Teresa. She asked if I’d been zip-lining before, I mentioned my experience with another area course nearly 13 years ago and, in reply, she may as well have sung the chorus to Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” complete with badass air guitar moves.

Fear factor

Before long, we were summoned by Tolkien-certified wizard guide Greg Yost and his elf colleague Naomi Dunn, and given a basic safety spiel. Also in our group was an elf from Hendersonville, her visiting elf friend from Montana, plus a mother elf and her two elf-maidens, down from Boston to visit her parents in Hendersonville. We were each outfitted with harnesses and a helmet and handed a trolley that would be our connection to the cable, but which mostly made me think about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and got the trolley theme song stuck not unpleasantly in my head.

AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY: Edwin Arnaudin’s 10-year-old self would be proud of his current capacity for heights and adrenaline. Photo courtesy of Navitat

With Silas nervous about no access to water until the tour’s halfway point and myself hoping that two-plus hours without a bathroom break wouldn’t be a problem, this fellowship boarded a van for a rocky uphill ride, composed of approximately 937 switchbacks, that proved more jarring than anything I encountered on the pothole-riddled streets of Cuba in late February. To take our minds off the terror, Silas and I joked that it was one merely giant ploy by Navitat to convince scaredy cats that if they survived the ride up, the zips would be a cakewalk.

As the fellowship exited the van, staggering as if we’d all just stepped off a playground spinner, and made our way to the first zip line platform, the Hendersonville-based elf shared her fear of skydiving and zip-lining but noted that the Montana elf had convinced her to try it out since it was a side-by-side experience versus a solo one. I asked if she likes roller coasters, to which she replied in the affirmative, opening the door to my thesis that I love roller coasters and horror movies because they’re both controlled chaos in a safe space.

“Yes! That’s the best way I’ve heard someone put it,” she said. “I love horror movies, and it really is about experiencing fear without getting hurt.”

Silas looked my way with a wry grin. “It’s as if you have some professional experience informing that take,” he cracked wise.

Greg zipped off to welcome us at the other end of the 1,100-foot cables, which would get us to approximately 40 mph. The older of the two elf-maidens volunteered to zip first and, not wanting to let her older sister show her up in front of all these strangers, the younger elf-maiden popped up a split second later.

Silas and I went in the penultimate group, leaving Naomi and the mother elf for last. Though we launched off in unison, the zip quickly became a physics lesson as, having slightly more mass than Silas, I zoomed past him after a few seconds.

Zipping high above the ground, taking in the largely untouched forest all around us, it hit me that I was doing so with a complete lack of fear — and how, not all that long ago, the opposite would have been true. Not exactly a risk-taking youth, I avoided the zip line across the lake at Hendersonville’s own Camp Tekoa during my first few summers as a camper. But in middle school, I finally felt brave enough to try it out, part of an overall commitment to Live Más and eat less Taco Bell — and loved it. Though I never upgraded to the harness-free, drop-in-the-lake option, I looked forward to the ride over the water for the rest of my camper days.

Much like flying in airplanes and consuming milk made from tree nuts, we’ve somehow normalized recreational gliding high above ground on cables. And to this evolutionary development, I say, “Yes, please.”

The shortest of the three zips also has the most abrupt braking system, and thankfully Naomi warned us about the impact that awaited or else I may have wished I’d worn darker shorts and/or brought a change of clothes. Once Greg hauled me in with the emergency arrest device, I checked in with my fellow scary movie fan with a querying face and a hopeful thumbs-up, and received a thumbs-up back.

Beast mode

Hiking to the second zip line, Greg and Naomi enlightened the group on local flora, and after a fairly taxing trip to the top of the trail, we were rewarded with some high-quality H20, mixed on demand with organic hydrogen and oxygen by our dedicated guides. Ah, hydration…

Next up? The “Beast of the East,” a 3,600-foot zip with speeds of up to 60 mph, reaching 350 feet above the ground — or, as Greg put it, “as high as the Statue of Liberty with a school bus on top.” Silas went off in an earlier group so he could document my arrival a few minutes later and spotted my beaming smile from roughly 3,400 feet away.

None of the three zips on the Mountaintop Tour existed 15 years ago when Navitat opened with its Treetop Tour. The Mountaintop Tour followed in 2014 and now includes a nighttime option for Transylvanians and the otherwise monster-identifying. (But seriously: I want to come back and take the tour in the dark.)

“Our mission is to design courses that fit seamlessly into the natural environment,” Teresa says. “We want to leave the smallest footprint possible on the land itself so that in 50-100 years, if you took down the courses and buildings, you may not ever know we were here.”

CABLETOWN: Edwin Arnaudin arrives at the end of the “Beast of the East” as Navitat guide Naomi Dunn monitors his speed. Photo by Silas Durocher

Following a shorter, easier hike, during which such topics as ursine bowel movements were discussed almost to the extent of “oohs” and “aahs,” we reached the third and — wait, this is the final zip? Already?!? I mean, sure, we’ve averted our own calls of the wild in the name of esprit de corps, but have nearly two hours really elapsed?

And people are paying $100 per person for this? As I came to grips with the economic realities of lower/middle-class journalist types being able to afford such a jaunt, without sounding like a complete shill, it became clear that this isn’t exactly an everyday activity. Like many unusual experiences — including the enjoyment of various performing arts — a lot of people and thought went into making today’s tour happen, and it’s not like I’m going to go out in the woods, connect a 0.682-mile cable securely between two trees and feel confident zipping down it. I might as well build my own helicopter and go check out Alaska.

Gearing up for the course’s steepest line, which would take us 2,400 feet at around 60 mph, Silas and I opted to go first, in turn volunteering to be group models for the fellowship’s official photo shoots. Choosing from an array of possibilities suggested by Naomi, we went with the synchronized “one-arm wave,” looking like seasoned chorus line members as we turned to face the camera, then continued on our final descent.

Expressing our “waddaya mean it’s over???” sentiments with Greg on the other side, he noted that there’s talk (read: rumor) of adding one final zip down to the visitor center. We agreed it’s an excellent idea and sat back as the elves and elf-maidens made their descents.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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