Yesterday I did something that I have wanted to do for years. I went to the Aerial Park at Camp Fortune, just outside Ottawa, and spent a couple of hours off the ground (mostly), clambering over a man-made obstacle course and zipping down zip-lines suspended under a pulley, with nothing but my gloved hand as a brake! It was a lovely day, Carroll was away for the day at a sewing course and I was supposed to be gardening. I looked at the weather, then called my daughter Meredith and asked her if she wanted to go as well. She was working on a proposal, but she relented and off we went, about a 45-minute drive from where we live.
Finding Camp Fortune was easy, it’s well-signed from the highway. Finding the Aerial Park was remarkably difficult. You would think that since the operators of Camp Fortune are advertising it, they would make an effort to provide guidance as to where it is. No such luck. After several stops at what appeared to be promising locations, asking questions of mountain bikers getting ready to test themselves and after driving past a half-barred gate, we finally found it, a little building in the woods with a gaggle of young girls excitedly chattering, half in and half out of the door. They are a Gloucester girl’s hockey team, with a couple of their coaches, and they are all 11 to 13 years old. Noisy, excited, fun to be near.
There are several options and I propose to do the shortest one, but the guy selling the tickets tells me that it is more difficult, so I buy the 2 ½ hour options instead. Meredith and I (as well as the whole hockey team) get fitted out with a step-in harness with two carabineers and a pulley device, all on short (30 inch) straps fastened to our harness. We also get sturdy gloves. Mine are large, Meredith’s are worn. We trek off up a long uphill road through the woods in the bright sunlight, following our two guides, a girl and a guy, young people, clearly bilingual. Makes sense, we are in Quebec, after all. When we get to the start point, we get a rather cursory safety briefing. Once we start up the ladder, one of the carabineers must be hooked to a safety line at all times. It’s exactly the same rule as using a safety harness on a sailboat. Not much good if it’s not hooked to anything. The guides will not be doing the course with us; they hang around below in case anyone gets into trouble, drops a glove, anything like that. They do not explain what happens if you slip and fall, nor do they explain anything about the course itself. So up we go.
They let Meredith and me go ahead of the young ladies of Gloucester. Meredith starts up the first ladder. It’s about seven metres (20 feet) up. The ladder steps are roughly squared-off poles of wood about a half-metre (18 inches) apart, attached firmly on either side to a slack wire, so that the whole thing resembles a narrow portion of a landing net. It is hard to climb, since it sways and turns as you climb. Only one person at a time on the ladder, for obvious reasons. Once I get up to the platform, a ring around a tree trunk, there is the first obstacle run. It is a bridge, made up of short narrow planks, fastened on either side to tight wires. Above our heads are three wire lines. Two are hand-hold lines, the third centre one is coated in heavy red plastic and is our safety line. Both carabineers on the line, one from each side for additional safety. This obstacle is pretty easy … and of course, there is a little girl 60 years my junior, right on my tail!
The next several get trickier. A more difficult one has a set of single logs end to end, around 10 centimetres (4 inches) in diameter and three metres (10 feet) long, roughly squared, suspended at each end from an overhead cable and separated from each other by a gap of 15 to 20 centimetres (6 to 8 inches). There is also only one cable overhead for a handhold, plus, of course, the ubiquitous red safety cable. Another demanding one has two cables at shoulder height with slack cable loops suspended from them. The loops are about 60 centimetres (24 inches) apart and you have to step from one loop to the next.
Finally our first zip-line, pretty tame. Hook on the pulley, hook the two carabineers on the cable behind it, put one hand (your weaker hand – the one you don’t write with, they have explained) on top of the pulley device and use your other hand behind the pulley as a brake if needed. I sit on the edge of the platform, all hooked up and let myself slide off the edge. The pulley takes the weight and along the line I descend to the other end of the zip-line. On this one, no braking is needed and we end up at ground level. Then on to the next set of obstacles.
The first set was just a warm-up, it seems. The ladder is about twice as high and the obstacles are more – sometimes much more – difficult. The slack cable obstacle cables are much farther apart. The bridge logs are angled, each log in the single log traverse is also angled, so it becomes a math problem. Where do you put your feet so that the log you are on does not sway away from the log you need to get to? All of this about 10 metres (30 feet) in the air, certainly enough to seriously hurt yourself if you fall and have not clipped yourself in correctly. Talk about being in the now! Every ounce of concentration is focused on getting yourself safely and without incident or the ultimate embarrassment of falling off the obstacle, to the next safe platform.
The next zip-line is quite a bit longer, but we’ve got the hang of it now. As I approach the lower end, I realize that I am going to need some braking – either now, with my right hand or in just a few moments with my whole body, leading with my face against the tree.
We skip several more obstacles and go right to the best part – four consecutive long zip-lines that take us back to where we started well over an hour ago. Another guide comes along with us and precedes us on the zip-lines. He obviously loves it; hooks himself up then runs and leaps off the platform. He spins around and side to side as he speeds down the wire, fast enough so that he contacts a tree just off the line of the wire. Well, I won’t do that today! Meredith goes first, then once she is clear at the lower end, I step off and accelerate down the wire. She has not needed to brake much, if at all, but my heavier mass makes me go a LOT faster and I realize as I near the lower end that this could really hurt if I don’t slow down. Major pressure with the right hand – good thing we have these heavy-duty gloves – slows me down enough so that I can stand when I reach the next lower platform. She tells me that the whole platform and tree shook unpleasantly as I headed down the zip-line and asks me to confirm with her that she is ready before I step off into space.
One of the zip-lines takes us over the road that we walked up. This one, the guide warned us, is a slacker line so the last bit is uphill. If you brake too soon, you will end up having to haul yourself up to the next platform while suspended beneath the wire. Meredith gets it exactly right. Again, I don’t brake at all until, again, I realize that I am going to smack the tree with sufficient force to make me wish I hadn’t. These little physics lessons help clarify the difference between mass and weight. The weight is suspended, so is effectively zero, but the mass doesn’t change and that is what is trying to propel me at speed into the lower station.
The last zip-line is a little one that puts us on a wooden ramp right outside the building. We take off our harnesses and our gloves, drop them in the box provided and head back in the car to the city and our various obligations. It’s a great way to get away from your usual life, and it certainly makes you focus on the here and now. If you have trouble doing that, try an hour or two at an aerial park. It’s a demanding physical challenge, as well as a mental one. Good luck!