Taking a zip through the woods

Zip line tours that send the brave hurtling through tree tops are a growing business in Southeast

Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2007

A whizzing, whirring noise cuts through the Sitka spruce tree-tops at Eaglecrest Ski Area.

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In a blink, Matt DeSpain zooms overhead, attached to a zip line. His silhouette flashes against the sky and the branches, and then he's gone.

As co-owner of Alaska Zipline Adventures, DeSpain leads tours over creeks and the rain forest on Douglas Island. It's all in the air, sometimes as high as 90 feet. Participants fly from platform to platform, learning about local animals and ecology.

Alaska Zipline Adventures is one of two zip-line companies that offers tours on Douglas. The other is Alaska Canopy Adventures.

The zip line tours are an ever-growing business in Southeast Alaska, which has seen operations sprout up in Ketchikan, Juneau and mostly recently, Hoonah. With cruise ships depositing a new supply of customers on the shore almost daily during the summer, groups such as Alaska Canopy Tours and Alaska Zipline Adventures have plenty of visitors to entertain.

For DeSpain and co-owner Rachel Fredholm, the inspiration came from similar tours in places such as Costa Rica. They had an expert build their network of cables last spring. Then they brought the builder out again about a month ago to install new cables and suspension bridges, he said.

"It was definitely a dream of ours," DeSpain said. "We've been so fortunate with everything we accomplished."

They'll kick off their season with tours on Earth Day, he said. The group ran Christmas tours, decorating the platforms with holiday lights.

"We had a zip line Santa," DeSpain said.

The first zip line came to Southeast Alaska in 2005 in Ketchikan, where Hakan Sebcioglu started Alaska Canopy Adventures. He offered zip lines, suspension bridges, off-road vehicles and tree-top wildlife watching. About a year later, he started a similar operation south of Douglas with a beach landing and visit at Treadwell Mine.

Lines of communication

For more on Juneau ziplines, check out:

Alaska Canopy Adventures: (907) 225-5503, www.alaskacanopyadventures.com.

Alaska Zipline Adventures: (907) 790-2547, www.alaskazip.com.

Icy Strait Point: (907) 945-3141, www.icystraitpoint.com.

A new facility is planned for the near future by the Icy Strait Point company near Hoonah, touted as a 5,360-foot tour. The company couldn't be reached for more information.

The tours can be nerve-wracking for people who are afraid of heights. They are generally available for people who are at least 10 years old, and weigh less than 250 pounds. Alaska Zipline Adventures has a 70-pound minimum, while Alaska Canopy Adventures has a 90-pound minimum.

"We get a lot of people that are nervous at first," DeSpain said. "By the time they get to the end, they're the most excited. They feel like they've overcome a challenge."

DeSpain said he had one visitor, Marjorie Quisenberry of Juneau, who told him she had recently turned 90. She went on a tour with a group of friends.

"That first step off was scary," Quisenberry said. "I wondered what I was doing there. But once I stepped off, it was great."

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.

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