GRAND FALLS, New Brunswick — Put me in a climbing harness, slap a helmet on my head and point me to the nearest steel cable strung between two points, and I’ll zip-line all day.
Thanks to the folks at OAPI — Outdoor Adventure Program International — at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Zip Zag Zip Lines in Grand Falls, that’s exactly what 31 of us did last weekend over the raging waters pouring through the rocky gorge of the St. John River about 20 minutes from the U.S. border crossing in Hamlin.
Here I thought the only way to see the falls was from one of several wooden viewing platforms along the banks.
Those views having nothing on the one from above at 25 mph.
“I wanted to offer a new and exciting adventure for participants that was for all ages and abilities,” said Kim McCrea, OAPI director. “The other thing that appealed to me was the magnificence of the falls, and what better way to experience the majesty of the falls than to fly over them?”
Zip Zag opened in 2009, and according to owner-designer Eric Ouellette, it’s all about a safe and thrilling experience.
In fact, At Zip Zag the only thing more important than the thrill and the scenery is safety.
“Safety is No. 1 for obvious reasons at our site,” Ouellette said. “One error can mean an end to the fun [and] at the end of the day a zip line accident anywhere in the world is bad for business.”
Simply put, zip-lining is flying between two fixed points by way of a pulley connected to a cable.
A day at Zip Zag begins with a weigh-in at the company’s office, located within the spray zone of the falls.
Given the harness holding the zip-liner to that pulley apparatus is assigned to the individual based on that weight, this is one time when it is not a good idea to shave off a few ponds with a fib.
In case anyone may be tempted to fudge their weight, every participant is required to step on the scales in front of a discreet Zip Zag employee.
From there guides assist clients into the waist and chest harnesses and tighten the myriad straps holding it all together.
Figuring there was no such thing as too tight when it came to my zip line harness, I was more than happy to have one of those guides tighten my straps just shy of cutting off the blood flow to my legs.
“They were excellent as far as checking and double-checking every safety aspect of this ride,” said Pam McCrea, the OAPI director’s mother.
The first of the two zip lines at Zip Zag is a short walk from the office, just downstream from the falls and at the top of several flights of stairs.
One by one we clambered up three blocks, where the guide first attached our safety lines to the cable before clipping on the pulley.
Once clipped in, we got a brief orientation, which went something like this: “Sit down in your harness, step off the ramp and have fun.”
Talk about a leap of faith.
One deep breath and off the ramp I stepped, gravity immediately taking over and shooting me across the lower falls to the landing pad 500 feet away.
At the landing site a braking system on the line stops the forward progress with an impressive jerk and the Zip Zag guide grabbed me before momentum pulled back the way I had just zipped.
From there it was a short hike to the return zip line, which takes riders right over the most dramatic area of the falls at the Zip Zag office.
Not everyone made the return trip without incident.
“At the second location, due to high winds, they informed us that lighter individuals may not quite make it the other side and may have to be manually brought in,” Pam McCrea said. “Well, I was one of those lighter individuals.”
The strong headwind slowed her momentum, and just short of the landing platform gravity took hold and she found herself sliding back to the center of the gorge.
“There I was, suspended, dangling over this violently rushing body of water,” she said. “As crazy as it sounds I had this sense of feeling very safe [and] after five minutes of suspension one of the geared-up attendants rolled out to me and brought me in safely.”
As the winds picked up the Zip Zag guides ended up traversing out and rescuing a dozen or so of the riders who found themselves enjoying a swaying, bird’s-eye view of the falls.
“I didn’t reach the other side once, and as a result I lost traction and ended up hanging over the middle of Grand Falls with the water churning,” said Charles Johnson, an UMPI professor. “It was very disconcerting, to say the least. I couldn’t help to realize that all that was between me and a cold bath was a 1-inch-wide strap. Of course, there was a backup strap, but a strap nonetheless [and] I held on with a death grip until help arrived.”
Fort Kent resident Virginia Nadeau conquered similar fears.
“I wasn’t nervous except that I forgot that I could not fall,” Nadeau said. “I was holding on to the zip line much too hard.”
OAPI, Kim McCrea said, is all about encouraging people to take that step outside of their comfort zones in a safe and controlled environment.
A day at Zip Zag really is for anyone, Ouellette said, noting one of his first clients was an 87-year-old woman.
“You must be in good physical health but besides that anyone can do [it with] no skills required,” Ouellette said. “You just have to be able to let yourself roll off the first platform and the rest is taken care of by gravity.”
For safety reasons, there is a weight restriction requiring clients be between 100 and 250 pounds.
The thrills, Ouellette said, change with the season, with spring bringing the high water flowing over the falls that give zip line riders a rather refreshing misting as they fly through.
Summer and fall bring less water, but spectacular views of the gorge’s rock formations. Ouellette is considering adding lights for nocturnal zip-lining.
Ouellette recommends calling ahead for reservations to 888-4ZIPZAG, or by email to email@example.com
More information about Zip Zag is available at www.zipzag.ca
Information on OAPI activities may be found at http://www.umpi.edu/gentile-hall/oapi.