Learning the Ropes

Zip lines and aerial obstacles aren’t for everyone — or so you thought


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Photographs by Cybelle Codish

 

A day at the West Bloomfield Adventure Park starts like this: Step into a climbing harness, slip on a pair of climbing gloves, and listen to your staff guide explain how you’re going to safely navigate the steel cables and wooden platforms dangling some 60 feet above you (Protip 1: Always make sure you’re attached to a rope).

Next, put the instructions to the test and try attaching and detaching your harness clips from low-hanging practice lines (Protip 2: You can’t screw this up. A double-locking harness system makes it impossible to detach both clips at the same time).

Finally, hook yourself into a short zip line, enjoy the ride, and that’s it. You’re ready to go. It’s up in the trees and onto your first aerial “trail.” (Protip 3: If you’re not sure you’re ready yet, you are. The easiest way to learn is to jump right in).

The West Bloomfield Adventure Park is an aerial obstacle course strapped, strung, and belted to 5 acres of trees adjacent to the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

The place teems with fearless 8-year-olds in ponytails and Skechers, youthful couples in fluorescent fitness garb, and eager grandchildren with wary seniors in tow.

It’s where adventure-seekers of all ages come to test their balance and nerves as they maneuver their way through the park’s system of elevated bridges, cables, and ropes hanging throughout the forest.

Not everyone here has climbing experience; most don’t. There are many first-timers — with and without a fear of heights — who are just discovering the thrill and the challenge of swinging through the trees.

 

A Welcome Challenge

Aerial adventure parks like West Bloomfield’s aren’t for those who like to keep cozy in their comfort zones. That isn’t to say that anyone who’s nervous about monkeying their way across a series of dangling wooden rings shouldn’t try their hand at it; it’s quite the opposite. It’s all about challenge, adventure, and changing the phrase “I don’t think I can do this” to “I can’t believe I just did that.” It’s a lesson in self-confidence not just for kids, but also for adults, corporate groups, and team organizations.

The idea isn’t entirely novel. High-ropes courses have long been a summer camp staple. Local organizations like the YMCA and SpringHill Camps have managed their own ropes courses for years, both as exercise tools and confidence boosters. And before the West Bloomfield Adventure Park opened in April 2014, non-summer-campers were able to get their ropes course fix in Howell, Shelby Township, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and a handful of other cities throughout the state.

But in recent years, the popularity of ropes courses and aerial adventure parks in countries like Germany and Switzerland has grown beyond Europe — a trend that Outdoor Ventures, the Connecticut-based company behind the West Bloomfield park and its Michigan counterpart in Frankenmuth, has helped facilitate.

Since 2008, Outdoor Ventures has built at least 18 aerial adventure parks in the U.S., ranging from Vermont to Montana — seven of which are operated by Outdoor Ventures, while the others belong to separate groups. The prospect of an aerial adventure park in Michigan began in 2012 after former ski instructor Gaal Karp came across an Outdoor Ventures park on a whitewater rafting excursion in West Virginia.

“I thought it was a really interesting, cool place that I would love to have near my house,” says Karp, a resident of the Birmingham/Bloomfield area.

“How often, as an adult, do you put yourself in a position you’re uncomfortable with? Almost every adult out there has some fear of heights. This is one of the few things that literally can help conquer your fear. ... It’s more in your mind than anything else.”

The adventure park is all about challenge, adventure, and changing the phrase ‘I don’t think I can do this’ to ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’

Karp got in touch with the park’s builders, and soon began scouting locations for a Michigan park as a development coordinator for Outdoor Ventures. Karp surveyed sites in Clarkston, Cranbrook, Ann Arbor, Pine Knob, Mt. Brighton, and more, but eventually found the site the park needed at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, where essentials like a parking lot and access to electricity were already in place — not to mention a healthy forest.

They were also able to enter into a revenue-share agreement with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.Karp got in touch with the park’s builders, and soon began scouting locations for a Michigan park as a development coordinator for Outdoor Ventures. Karp surveyed sites in Clarkston, Cranbrook, Ann Arbor, Pine Knob, Mt. Brighton, and more, but eventually found the site the park needed at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, where essentials like a parking lot and access to electricity were already in place — not to mention a healthy forest.

“The grounds [at the JCC] were beautiful,” Karp says. “There’s rolling hills and really nice trees, and for us it was also a really great demographic. The [Outdoor Ventures] owners looked at the comparison between the West Bloomfield area and the other parks they have that are successful, and they’re relatively similar, so they said, ‘Hey, let’s go for it.’ ”

Go for it they did, and since its spring 2014 opening, the site has gained a following, attracting more than 500 climbers a day on some weekends. Coupled with the success of the Frankenmuth location, Outdoor Ventures may add more Midwest locations. According to Karp, the draw is delicate balance of challenge and amusement for customers of all ages.

But although the sites present a welcome challenge to climbers, park designers have had to tackle their own obstacles, too.

 

Safety and Sustainability

If you’re going to build an aerial adventure park in the trees, it better be three things: safe, tree-friendly, and fun. And since 128-foot zip lines by their very nature are bound to excite, it helps to beef things up in the other departments.

No matter how height-hardened you are, your heart still skips a beat if you’re about to jump from a 30-foot tall platform or tightrope your way between a 10-foot gap in the trees, but the equipment at the park is designed to alleviate safety concerns.

The park uses German-manufactured Bornack harnesses, similar to those used by high-rise window-washers and the brave who work on skyscrapers. The end result: an always-locked-in safety system that allows anyone with a sense of adventure to participate with confidence.

“I had a lady this spring celebrate her 80th birthday on the course,” says Thomas Knuth, park manager for the West Bloomfield and Frankenmuth sites. “Even if you’re afraid of heights, you can understand the mechanics of our safety system and get through from tree to tree.”

And what happens if you don’t make it from tree to tree?

Park staff want customers to complete the course, Knuth says. “Not so much because they don’t want to go up in the trees and get them, but because they understand that that’s what people are here to do — to accomplish something.”

Staffers are on hand to help climbers who get stuck or overwhelmed, but with 10 trails ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert (or green to double black diamond, similar to ski slopes) the park allows for a self-guided experience — one where climbers can decide to push themselves, or not.

On the sustainability front, the park also sports a smart design. Builders refrain from driving any nails, bolts, or screws into the trees; instead, each course is fastened around tree trunks using a cinching system with cables wrapped around wooden slats that hug the tree, allowing it to keep growing.

“The tree can live in harmony with the course,” Knuth explains. “And people can understand that they are truly in harmony with nature because they’re not doing any harm to the forest.”

It’s a selling point for anyone who’s concerned about the course’s‑ eco-footprint, but the green attitude has a business side to it, too. As Gaal Karp puts it, “the last thing we can afford to do is have one of our main assets — a tree — get hurt.”

Safety and sustainability aside, the park’s main purpose is, “fun.” The excitement is apparent by day when the park comes to life with the whoops and hollers of what seems like a sophisticated tree-dwelling people. After dark, the park takes on a festive ap-pearance with warm LEDs strung across every trail. The effect is one that climbers and spectators alike can appreciate.

“Parents that aren’t climbing love it because it’s almost like going to Bronner’s,” Knuth says, referring to Frankenmuth’s brightly lit Christmas megastore.

The park hosts special events like glow nights where music, glow sticks, black lights, and lasers turn the forest into a climbing carnival — a lively place to be whether you’re on the ground or in the trees.

Of course, the real fun, by night or day, is hanging in the forest, and to get there, you don’t need to be a climber, nor do you need to be a fan of heights. You just need to like a challenge.

The West Bloomfield Adventure Park is open through Nov. 30. Visit westbloomfieldadventurepark.org or call 248-419-1550 for more information.

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