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Nature education soars in Wrightwood's canopies

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Navitat Canopy Adventures

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As I soar 300 feet above the ground at more than 40 miles per hour, the thought that races through my head isn’t one of mortality. It’s of beauty.

The views of the San Gabriel Mountains and their surroundings are bewitching, so much so that I almost forget to watch my guide for the signal to begin to brake. When I do look up, he’s signally frantically. I pull down on the cable with such force that I feel the burn on the insides of my fingers. That’s gonna leave a mark.

But I land on the canopy platform with nary scratch, only a minor sensation of heat in my braking hand. “You like that view?” my guide asks. The knowing laugh in his lilt tells me he’s used to clients losing themselves in the serenity of their surroundings, even if they are blazing through the sky at speeds that would rival traffic on the 405.

Navitat’s ziplines are a short 1.5-hour drive from Los Angeles, but the landscape makes you feel as if you should have purchased a visa to get here. The mountain air, at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, is as pure as you’ll get in SoCal, and I’m already beginning to identify flora.

“Try this,” says our guide, handing my 12-year-old goddaughter and me sprigs of pine. “It tastes like oranges.” Considering our guide has helped us to fly over canyons and glens without incident, we’re game to ingest unknown vegetation.

“Tastes like citrus,” Ashla says, looking up at me. “Like a nature-made breath mint,” I respond.

Our guide points up at the towering trees around us. “Those are sugar pines,” he informs our group. “You can tell by the white tips of the branches.” We all stare upwards from the platform we’re standing on, 80 feet above the ground. In between adrenaline rushes, we’re getting schooled in ecology – a fact not lost on me since Ashla’s mother agreed she could skip a day of school for our outing.

When we learn that the highway in the distance is built on the San Andreas Fault line, Ashla makes the connection with her class studies and says she’ll share her newfound info with her classmates the next day. She feels liberated, and I feel justified in her truancy.
Ziplines are relatively new to Southern California, having appeared only in the last five years or so. Many sources point to Costa Rica as the origin of ziplines, where their popularity grew alongside the country’s reputation as an international destination for adventure travel. Since the 1990s, countries around the globe have added ziplines to their travel repertoire in the hopes of attracting thrill-seekers.

Due to the newness of the sport, industrialized countries were a little slower on the uptake of adding ziplines, mostly due to insurance reasons. But now that the activity has been around for a while and has introduced safety precautions to the guide-training regimen, ziplines are becoming as common as roadside diners – at least where the topography allows for it.

Ashla had her first ziplining experience in Costa Rica the previous year, when she and I traversed glens and valleys, but we both opted out of the “dive off a waterfall into unknown waters” opportunity. Despite Costa Rica’s reputation for safety and zipline pioneering, we still didn’t feel completely safe leaping into black-water eddies. Up in the air was another matter, and we whizzed across the lines with the confidence of CIA agents invading a rogue embassy.

The difference in our experience between our Costa Rica excursion and the one in Wrightwood was not simply one of safety, although that was of utmost importance. In California, ours is a true canopy tour, with our guides constantly pointing out facts and providing interesting trivia about the landscape we flew over. We soon learn that the mini nature lesson is no accident: Before taking their first customers into the canopy, Navitat guides are trained for several weeks on both safety and nature.

Between lines, we find ourselves either traversing short but steep slopes, rappelling from platforms, or crossing suspension bridges. Each of these interludes allows time for our guides to give us a quick breakdown of the knowledge they gleaned during their training. And the effect is evident.

As we sit with our feet dangling off a suspension bridge over a ravine that plunges at least 200 feet below us, our guides point out migrating birds and distant peaks, then quiz us on the material we learned on the hike up. We’re pleasantly surprised not only by the knowledge we’ve accumulated but also by how much that transforms our experience, especially compared to our Costa Rica excursion.

There are some similarities. As in Costa Rica, Ashla was a little intimidated when she gazed out at the first expanse of zipline that awaited her. But unlike that first time, she decided to go ahead of me, which I took as a sign of her faith in our guides, who had demonstrated their expertise before we’d even jumped in the van to transport us to the first platform. Knowing that she’s at ease helps me to enjoy my own experience that much more.

And that’s really what adventures like this are all about. I’m safe in the knowledge that my precious cargo is in capable hands, while Ashla enjoys a day’s worth of freedom from school, although her hands-on education in the canopy is just as enriching.

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