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Zipping her fears away

Times reporter leaves the safety of solid ground for a trip through the treetops

POSTED: December 27, 2011 1:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Drew Gann, office manager at Lake Lanier Canopy Tours, prepares Times reporter Brandee Thomas for her first zip lining experience Dec. 15.

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You may find this hard to believe, but I've never been much of a wild child.

My version of living on the edge consists of eating a nonbreakfast food as my first meal of the day - here's looking at you sugar cookie smeared in cream cheese icing.

I've always been the reserved and cautious type. My mom calls it introspective; on occasion, my friends call it me being a wet blanket.

I'm not against taking risks, but they have to be well thought-out risks that have more rewards than consequences.

For a while, I've been toying with the idea of indulging in something a bit extreme: zip lining.

I know, I know. "Brandee, that's crazy."

When I heard that Lake Lanier Islands Resort added an express canopy tour to this year's Magical Nights of Lights celebration, it felt as if the universe was pushing me outside of my box. These tours are open through the end of this month, but others are available all year.

The high-flying tour is facilitated by Lake Lanier Canopy Tours. There are multiple courses at the resort, some of which can take a few hours to complete and include zip lines that are more than 1,000 feet long.

Before we started, the guides asked everyone on the tour what their expectations were. Mine was simple: "I just want to live to tell about it."

They told me I was on the "perfect beginner's course." Even still, my heart thumped wildly in my chest the entire time. I'm pretty sure if you looked close enough, you would have seen a heart shape appear and disappear in time to the insistent beat.

Allegedly at the highest point, my tour was only 35 feet off the ground. I say allegedly because it felt like my feet were as far away from the ground as Mars is from Venus. Walking across the sky bridge made the height seem even worse.

I sorta prepared myself for the actual zip lining, but I wasn't prepared at all for the bridge. I didn't anticipate having to teeter my way across a narrow suspension bridge made up of steel cables and narrow, wooden boards.

I'm 28 years old, so I should be an old pro at walking, but my legs felt like jelly as I stood on the platform leading to the bridge. I had several false starts before I was able to take the first step.

Seeing the fallen leaves dozens of feet below me, and feeling the bridge sway slightly in the wind almost made me tuck tail and run. But perseverance was my friend.

"Slow and steady."

"Just relax."

"You got this."

I don't know which was racing faster, my heart or my thoughts. About halfway across the bridge, I started feeling light-headed.

"Breathe."

"BREATHE GIRL."

My inner voice can be a bit bossy, but she's almost always right.

When I finally made it to the other side, the volume of my heart beating lowered and I was finally able to hear my tour mates cheering me on.

Did I mention that they were 9 and 10 years old? Watching how easily they maneuvered the course should have made me less worried, but fear is a selfish emotion. It has a way of overriding other thoughts, even the potential shame of being outdone by individuals who still have a bedtime and homework.

My excitement at maneuvering across the bridge was short-lived because the moment of truth had arrived. Time to swing from treetop to treetop.

As much as I told myself I was ready for this moment. I really wasn't.

I watched one of the guides go first, followed by the mini zip-liners. They happily slid off the platform without hesitation, gracefully cutting through the air and calmly landing on the other side.

I can't say the same for myself. If there was a way to call it quits right then, I probably would have. What can I say? I'm a true blue scaredy cat.

Fortunately - or unfortunately, the jury's still out - once you start the course, your only option is to finish. Gravity and the angling of the overhead cables make it next to impossible to backtrack.

"You can do it," the other guide reassured me as he clicked my safety harness into place on the zip lining cable.

"All you have to do is sit down. You can do that. Just sit. You don't have to jump."

Finally, I prepared to "just sit." I timidly edged my way to the end of the platform, bent my knees, lifted my foot ... and set it back down.

I wasn't ready.

For the next three minutes I gave myself a pep talk: "Come on, Brandee. The cables will hold you. They held everyone else. You aren't the exception. There's nothing to it, but to do it."

So I did it.

I sat, put my hands on the harness like I'd been instructed and lifted my feet.

And in the blink of the eye I was soaring through the air. Screaming my head off. Fighting the urge to close my eyes because I had to watch the guide to see when I needed to brake.

It was simultaneously exhilarating and frightening.

I was scared, but I did it!

My pep talk got shorter with each line and I was able to relax a little bit more with each descent. Right there, whizzing by tree limbs and seemingly within arms reach of the clouds, I felt a moment of serene liberation.

I can't say that I've ever felt freer.

My security blanket of low risks serves me well, but apparently, so does occasionally throwing caution to the wind.

Brandee A. Thomas is The Times' features reporter and the bravest woman alive.



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