Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tree hugging for beginners

Well, the final shocking denouement which heralds the end of the B&B will have to wait, because I’ve been up to mad stuff again.

This escapade began with an email from my reporter pal Valerie. We met when she wrote a (surprisingly positive) review of my book for the local paper. Some wine, conversation and parties later, I am a frequent sidekick for any freebies she may be invited to write about.

The email was deceptive. Would I like to go ziplining and then on to an observatory? I had visions of a theme park somewhere, a bit Disneyish, with a little zip line and a big bouncy mattressy thing at the bottom. And I have liked a bit of stargazing ever since Ben had his astronomy phase as a kid; so I agreed to go along for a media day out and pretend I would be writing about the place for British Mensa. That’s when she sent me the webpage. And that’s when I began to panic.
‘A canopy tour that includes 8 zip lines, 2 suspension skybridges, 14 platforms and a 40-foot rappel’ eh? I’m not good with heights I can’t even step on the glass floor section of the CN Tower. While everyone else jumps up and down on it and takes photos of their feet I am the green-looking one holding on to the wall on the other side of the room. And now I’m committed to ziplining and skybridging and rappelling. Hmm, wonder what rappelling is, some piece of equipment maybe….ohmygod it’s American for abseiling. I can’t do that.

Valerie knows me well. I’m so easily manipulated by a challenge. She knew I’d not back down once committed, however frightened I might be, and she was right. We went.

It’s a fascinating place, is Long Point, Ontario. The chaps who bought the land did so to preserve it from development, since it consists of acres of threatened forest, marsh and much rare stuff. I now know that the marshes on the north shore of Lake Erie are on the migration path for all manner of unusual birds and that Carolinian deciduous forests, only to be found in Canada’s southernmost mild climate, are home to more than a third of Canada’s endangered species.
Having bought the land they spent a few years wondering how to use it. The first thing they planned was the Observatory, taking advantage of the darkest Southern skies in Ontario to tempt university researchers and public alike through the doors. The zip-lining idea came next, you arrive for the fun and have your ecology interpreted for you on the way round. The guides are as passionate about the trees as they are about helping to overcome fears like mine. Ours told us about his favourite tree…and his second favourite tree. (I am charmed by someone who can have a second favourite tree.) They scrunched leaves here and there for us to smell them and understand why they have been used in herbal remedies. They explained how the zipines and platforms had been built with minimal invasion into the trees themselves, so that none will be damaged by our passing through. The trees will still flourish, and the forest floor remains undisturbed by our shenanigans. If and when the facility is removed, there will have been no footprint. Soon there will be bees and bats and a winery, the local farmland is gradually switching from tobacco to vineyards. But for now there is zipping by day and stargazing by night.

Of course I wish I hadn’t been too scared to enjoy the view. Now it’s over, and I know it can be done, I can’t wait to go round again. And I have taken to musing on the concept of fear and safety. I watched half a dozen people stand on the little wooden platforms built around the trees and observed for myself how they didn’t fall off. So why did I feel safer hugging each tree as hard as my puny arms could manage? Hugging trees, although it did make me look most ecological, would have been no use if the platform had plummeted from under me. Intellectually I knew that, but it helped with the vertigo a bit. 

After some patient training and remarkably kind encouragement from our guides, I zipped from tree to tree perfectly safe and snug in my harness, landing relatively effortlessly on the tiny-looking stump of wood on the next platform. We were strapped into the very same harnesses when we crossed the skybridges, so why the whole new level of scared? And, of course, had it been dark and and someone told me we were six inches off the ground I’d have been fine, wobbly or not.

Each zip did get easier. Once I’d got the hang of it and knew I could slow down and land in the right spot, it almost became fun. The hardest bit was clambering up onto the little stump step to be high enough to set off. Which is daft, you know that you are in a harness that has just carried you safely from one little wooden platform up a tree to another little wooden platform up a tree, the worst that can happen is that you sit down in it again, there is no point at which you are not attached to a wire. And yet, your brain tells you that it is doing something risky, stepping onto a wobbly stump with nothing to hold onto half-way up a tree. The zips got longer and faster as we toured the forest and by the time we arrived at the longest, helpfully described as 55-60 km/h by our guides (mainly for the fun of watching my face I think) I was on the way to enjoying myself. But the worry was still there. I could zip, I’d survived the bridges, but we still had the abseil to face. I was utterly convinced that there would be tears, humiliation and failure.

We stood on the final platform. Valerie was all nonchalant and confident by then, leaning out from the platform to sit comfortably in her harness as she listened to the instructions. I was still tree hugging. The first guide, a tiny slip of a girl you could pop in your pocket if you were so minded, demonstrated the technique. Hold onto the rope and step nimbly off the platform, twirling about in mid air. Let yourself down as fast or slow as you like, passing the rope through your hands. Who wanted to go first? Well Valerie, naturally. My brain had shut down and I’d taken nothing in from the demonstration, I was going to have to see it done again. My intrepid reporter pal got it right and down she went. 

The guide with the second favourite tree grinned at me. 
‘Um, I think so.’
‘You’re doing great, it’ll be fine.’
‘I jumped out of a plane once, so I ought to be able to do this.’
‘Funny that, I’ve had skydivers up here and they say this is harder.’
‘Yes, you can’t see the ground from a plane.’

The main motivation was getting it over with. No point in hanging about up there fretting, the sooner I stepped into fresh air the sooner I’d be on the ground, one way or another. And who wants to get old anyway? So, I stepped, turned, sat, grinned and whooped with glee. I let myself down in the prescribed manner and collapsed in a heap at the bottom. ‘I want to photograph him coming down so I can show people how high it was. I can get a better picture lying down.’ It seemed convincing to me but I think Valerie knew my legs had stopped working.

It was several minutes before I could stand up again but I am determined to go back and enjoy it properly next time. There really is nothing to be scared of and I think I’m over a lifelong fear of heights. No more tree hugging for me, except the metaphorical sort.

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