Tourists with a taste for adrenaline are getting a bird's-eye view of the Alaska rainforest in a new attraction that sends them zipping from tree to tree on a series of high-wire cables.
Alaska Canopy Adventures this season began offering tours of the network of suspended rope bridges and connecting zip lines stretching over three-fourths of a mile at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary near Ketchikan.
A nervous hush fell over the group during a recent tour as guide Jake White latched them onto their first zip line. Cautious hesitation and knots in the pit of the stomach gave way to the exhilarating feeling of flight as they stepped off the first platform.
A light rain showered tourists as they glided between towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees 135 feet above the forest floor; there's no such thing as a rain check in a place that averages 162 inches of precipitation a year.
The group was on the lookout for bald eagles, black bears and other wildlife commonly found in the nation's largest national forest, the Tongass. But sightings of other tourists zipping off in the distance also grabbed their attention.
"This gives new meaning to the phrase 'tree hugger,'" said tourist Billie Jo Cusack, standing in a tree swaying gently back and forth as the group of eight took its place on the next platform.
Cusack, 38, a former Ketchikan resident now living in Sammamish, Wash., who described herself as "the risk-taker type," said the zip tour gave her an adrenaline rush similar to skydiving.
"There's no place to go but down," said her 10-year-old son Jake Cusack.
It has been less than a decade since the timber town of Ketchikan in Alaska's southeast panhandle closed its largest pulp mill, but entrepreneurs are again looking to the forest with dollar signs in their eyes.
Cruise ship revenue in Ketchikan has more than doubled since 1997, when the Ketchikan Pulp Co., once the community's largest employer, shut down its mill and laid off more than 500 workers. Ketchikan economist Kent Miller said jobs in the wood products industry have dropped from 903 in 1996 to 139 in 2004.
Just under 850,000 cruise ship passengers visited the town of about 7,700 in 2004, according Patti Mackey, executive director of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.
"In many ways (tourism) has been kind of the glue that's held the community together after the closure of the mill," she said.
For the treetop tour, guides outfit tourists with helmets, raingear and body harnesses before sending them through the forest canopy. The tour includes seven zip lines - the longest stretching 850 feet - and three rope bridges, for a total of about 4,500 feet of high tension cable. The tour takes up to three hours and overlooks Herring Cove, where more than a million king, chum and coho salmon are released each year from a nearby hatchery.
Laurence says the tour his group has set up in Ketchikan is different from challenge courses in Alaska and the Lower 48.
Zip lines on canopy tours traverse from one tree to the next high above the forest floor, while challenge courses run participants through a variety of obstacles, including zip lines that generally end on or near the ground.
"The biggest challenge here is the 125-foot ascent to the first platform," Laurence said.
He said he and business partner Brien Salazar traveled to Puerto Vallarta and Costa Rica in 2004, where dozens of zip tour companies have opened up shop since the mid-1990s.
In April, Laurence, Salazar and co-owner Kris Singstad hired STEPS Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company that has developed ropes and challenge courses since 1991.
Michael Smith, a project director for STEPS, said the Ketchikan course is the company's first canopy tour. It recently completed a second near Austin, Texas.
Smith said construction of challenge courses and zip line tours is largely unregulated. But he believes that will change within the next five years as the industry grows.
Sylvia Dresser, executive director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, a trade association that sets minimum standards for installing and operating challenge courses, said ACCT has no formal standing in approving challenge courses or companies that build them but agrees that regulations are needed.
She said ACCT is lobbying several states to require inspections of the courses.
"To fully inspect a challenge course and zip tour, you would have to climb," she said, noting that the courses are often approved by state safety officials who do not even test the courses.
Alaska Canopy Adventures has opened the tour to locals on Saturdays but mainly caters to cruise ship tourists during the week. Laurence said there are about 35 open seats a day on the tour, but he hopes to raise that to about 100 before the end of the tour season.
And if the explosion of canopy tours in Mexico, Costa Rica and South America are any indication, the business is likely to find plenty of tourists willing to pay the $149 fee.
Canadian Darren Hreniuk claims to have invented the canopy tour concept in the late 1980s as a way to educate the public about deforestation and the environment. Hreniuk was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1988, when he came up with the canopy tour idea as a way to show the value of the forest, he said.
"I thought it would be great to get people up in those trees," he said in a telephone conversation from his home in Costa Rica.
But a short tourism season and liability issues persuaded Hreniuk to take his idea south to the Central American country.
He set up his first canopy tour in 1993. Just a few years after opening the first tour, dozens more sprung up in Costa Rica and other countries in Central and South America.
But zipping from one structure to the next on a wire and pulley system is nothing new, according to Ken Jacquot, a former ACCT board member and president of the Blue Ridge Learning Center Inc., which offers ropes and challenge courses.
Jacquot said such courses were introduced in the United States in 1963 by the Colorado Outward Bound School and were modeled after military training courses. He said they were originally used as an educational tool.
Cable systems were pioneered in the 1970s by Project Adventure, a nonprofit organization that uses challenge courses as a tool to help build self confidence and leadership skills, Jacquot said.
Cable termination systems first came into play in the early 1970s, and were later adjusted to include cable pulleys to reduce wear on the wire, he said.
If you go:
GETTING THERE: The Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary is about eight miles south of Ketchikan on the South Tongass Highway. From the highway, turn left on Wood Road. The sanctuary is less than a mile down the road.
RESTRICTIONS: The tour is designed for those in good physical condition. Participants must weigh 80 to 250 pounds and be at least 10 years old.
COST: $149 for cruise ship passengers by appointment during the week and $79 on Saturdays for all visitors.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call (907) 225-5503.