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Zip lines, canopy tours take the fast track

I'm standing like a trapeze artist on a wooden platform that is so high in the air it would seem to violate FAA regulations.

Actually, it's only about 60 feet above the ground at Seven Springs Mountain Resort. The people below don't exactly look like ants, more like Barbie and Ken dolls. Still, it's a long way down for anyone who doesn't wear an "S" on his chest.

I'm getting ready to ride a zip line, a pulley-and-harness contraption that will send me hurtling down a steel cable to another wooden perch, where a guide will slow my momentum. It's one of four giddy descents in the Screaming Hawk, a 2,000-foot zip line "canopy tour," which opens Friday.

The Hawk allows people to channel their inner Tarzan. During the 90-minute aerial adventure, visitors tear along a zigzag network of stainless steel cables.

On the platform, guide Grant Rozich takes the yellow lanyard on my harness and clips it onto the cable.

"Don't worry," he says. "This can support your car."

He signals Cary Mischler, the guide on the far perch, by flapping his arms like Natalie Portman in "Black Swan."

"Clear to zip," comes the distant shout.

Then, zzzzinnnnggg!!! For a brief moment, I'm flying. Peter Parker might have felt like this on his first day as Spider-Man.

These eco-friendly roller coasters, powered by little more than gravity, are accessible to most people who are in reasonable shape. Children as young as 10 can ride the Screaming Hawk. Riders must weigh between 70 and 250 pounds, which is a common zip line standard.

"This is a family activity that doesn't really tax the environment," says Alex Moser, director of marketing and communications for Seven Springs. He says the resort plans to make photos of zip liners available for sale.

The zip line trend migrated north from Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. Today there are nearly 120 zip lines and canopy tours in the United States, according to the Association for Challenge Course Technology. States with the most tours include Hawaii, North Carolina, Tennessee and California.

The Screaming Hawk was designed and installed by Phoenix Experiential Designs of North Carolina.

"It's not couch potato and it's not extreme adventure sports," says Donny Coffey, a builder and inspector for the company, who helped train the guides at Seven Springs. "It's somewhere in between."

At Seven Springs, each participant practices on a small zip line about the length and height of your average clothesline. They climb a small cargo net to the first station. Apart from a brief instructional session, they never touch their clips -- the guides do all the necessary hookups. There's a wait at each station while other riders catch up and the guides prepare for the next zip.

Like many canopy tours, the course includes obstacles or "events." Tethered participants must cross Black Bear Bridge, a rope-and-plank bridge strung between stations 4 and 5.

Zip line canopy tours have been growing more elaborate. Julieann Eckel, co-owner of Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in Ohio, says the company has even received requests to create an urban zip line tour.

A few area examples:

• Ace Adventure Resort in Oak Hill, W.Va., has at least seven zip lines, including Rigor Mortis, which is 680 feet long and takes riders along the rim of the dramatic New River Gorge.

• Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in Ohio has a twin-cable Super Zip, where riders assume the "Superman" pose and fly side by side. Hocking Hills recently added Night Flight Zipping, where riders wear glow necklaces and guides wear LEDs.

• Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington built one of the area's first zip lines 17 years ago. It recently launched the Fatbird Flyer, a 1,060-foot zip line where riders reach speeds of up to 60 mph over a postcard vista of the Laurel Mountains. Riders range from overnight guests to kayakers and families from nearby Ohiopyle, says Matt Grober, recreation operations manager.

"There's nothing to it," he says. "There's no physical demands There's no climbing up a pole. You literally walk up, take a step up on a platform. We clip a carabineer to you, and off we go."

At 8 years, Cody Wingard of Plum already is a veteran zip line rider. This is his third summer at Plum Creek Presbyterian Church Day Camp, where one of the challenges entails riding a zip line. The camp's 40-foot tower was built by a Maryland firm.

Cody knows to check his harness and shake his head to make sure his helmet is strapped on properly, keep his shoes tied and remove chewing gum.

"The first time, it was a little creepy," Cody says. "But it was fun."

His advice to zip line riders: "Kick off with your feet."

Where to zip line

Ace Adventure Resort in Oak Hill, W.Va., is one of the most scenic of the canopy tours, with seven zip lines that offer views of the New River Gorge. Marketing manager Beth Gill says they use a gravity-based braking system, which means riders don't have to slow themselves down. "You don't have to worry about anything else except enjoying the view," she says. Ace plans to have an eighth zip line soon. Cost is $99, $89 for those younger than 17. Reservations required. Open year round. Details: www.aceraft.com .

Adventure Creek , St. Clairsville, Ohio has six zip line courses of varying difficulty, from the beginners' Bobcat to the Grizzly, the most challenging. Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. Cost: $35, $30 ages 13-17, free for age 12 and younger with paying adult. Details: 740-310-7277 or ropetrekking.com .

Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in Rockbridge, Ohio, is a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Its canopy tour is a 3,300-foot course that includes 10 zip lines and five sky bridges. Allow three hours, two for the tour and one for check-in, orientation and training. Cost: $85, $20 extra for the quarter-mile "SuperZip" ride. SuperZip rides can be purchased separately for $30 or three for $50. Open through November. Hours: 11 a.m.-dusk weekdays, 10 a.m.-dusk weekends. Reservations recommended for the canopy tour. Details: 740-385-9477 or www.hockinghillscanopytours.com .

Raystown Zip Lines in Huntingdon, Pa., has five zip lines ranging from 200 to 1,000 feet. Cost: $12 weekdays, $15 weekends, which includes entrance to the park. Additional trips are $4, $6 on weekends. Price reductions for groups of five or more. Hours: noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-6 p.m. Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays. Details: 814-643-5010 .

The Wilds animal preserve in Cumberland, Ohio, recently opened Wild Zipline Safari, a 2 12-hour tour on 10 zip lines up to 750 feet long. Cost is $84. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through October. Details: 740-638-5030 or www.thewilds.org .

Seven Springs Mountain Resort just opened their Screaming Hawk zip line tour, a six-station course that takes riders on nearly 2,000 feet of zip line. Cost: $43. Hours: 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.. Fridays-Sundays. Reservations recommended. Details: 800-452-2223 or www.7springs.com

Nemacolin Woodlands in Farmington has the Fatbird Flyer, a 1,060-foot single zip line that sends riders at speeds up to 60 mph along a course with a sweeping view of the Laurel Mountains. Cost is $30. Discounts available in three-, five- and 10-zip packages. Open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. The longer Fatbird Canopy Tour is an elevated obstacle course with tires, cargo nets, the Fatbird Flyer and two additional zip lines. Canopy tours leave at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Reservations recommended. Details: 724-329-8555 or www.nemacolin.com .

Spring Mountain Adventures in Spring Mount in eastern Pennsylvania. Their "Full Monty" zip line ride is 2 12 to 3 hours long. Cost: $75 weekdays and $89 on weekends. Night zip line rides on Fridays and Saturdays. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Details: www.springmountainadventures.com

Photo Galleries

Zipping the fast track

Zipping the fast track

As zip lines and canopy tours go up in the region, customers are discovering these eco-friendly thrill rides.

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