Afield: Learning the Ropes

courtesy Go Ape USA

Finding perspective at one of Raleigh’s treetop courses

by James Hatfield

At the back of a gravel parking lot in Blue Jay Point County Park is the log-cabin headquarters of Go Ape treetop adventure course. The quaint wooden hut is about the size of a beachside frozen ice stand, and it has a drive-through style window in its front. It reminds me of refreshing cool drinks during relaxing summer days on the beach. Unbeknownst to me, it is actually the launchpad of a grand undertaking, a far cry from relaxing on the beach. I recently visited the site in search of fresh air and a bit of adventure. I found both in spades, all tucked away in the North Raleigh park.

The experience

As soon as my companions and I arrive at Go Ape, I hear the joyful cheers of children, plus a couple of pitiful wails from adults on zip lines; I knew we were in the right place.

I should mention that I’ve always been afraid of heights. My hope is that this excursion will cure my fear via overexposure. This screaming, however, does not help. I steel myself and keep moving forward.

Luckily, the attentive staff pays attention to party allegiances: If you, like me, attempt this with your friends and family, the staff will stagger your course set-off accordingly. This further assuages my fears, as at least no strangers will witness any profound lacks of balance among the trees. 

The adventure begins with a 30-minute in-depth safety briefing, during which we practice walking along a wire strung between two trees. For this demonstration the wire was only four feet off of the ground. Next up: the 50-foot course.

courtesy Go Ape USA

During the safety briefing, I had to ask: Has anyone ever fallen? Thankfully, the answer was a resounding “no.” This might be because, also thankfully, the instructors will coach you from the ground throughout the course if you need help. The security briefing is so clear and concise that you have all the tools you need to complete the course. For me, they were still moral support from below.

Primed and ready, we set out on the first of the course’s five segments, called “sites.” Each site starts with a ladder from the base of a towering tree to the starting platform. Advancing to the next tree’s platform is where the challenges lie. There are four to five different obstacles at each site, from a single tightrope style wire to traverse (much scarier than that four-foot-elevation safety demonstration), to a series of X-shaped wooden swings in a row that you must leap-lunge-hop along.

Each site’s reward is a jaunty zip line ride to the ground. After the cheers of accomplishment subsided, we dusted the wood bark out of our shoes and walked along the trail to the next site. With each new site, the route from ladder to zip line becomes increasingly more challenging.

By the time I approached Site Five, something like shimmying through a hole drilled in the middle of a suspended wooden platform, fireman’s-pole-style, felt like business as usual. I felt confident, ready to finish this course strong.

And then I saw the net. Before me, about 30 yards out, was a giant net of nylon rope hanging like a sheet on a clothesline. There was no structure bridging the gap between me and the net, only a single thick cable dangling at the end of the platform with a giant clip secured to it. A sign next to my head encouraged me to utilize the “Tarzan Swing,” and its accompanying pictorial guide showed a silhouette clipping to the single dangling cable, and then climbing the net.

Just in case I misunderstood: “How do I get to the net?” I asked our coach below.

She looked up and smiled, “Just…walk off.”

The time for conquering fear was now. I held my hands and started up to jump – and then, honestly, I clung to the rope for dear life, screaming pitifully.

I scaled up the net, pulled myself onto the next platform, and continued to the last zip line stretching across the entire parking lot.

As I glided over the parked cars I could see the entire course and its horseshoe shape, and how it doesn’t end far from where it began. I really did ease my fears by facing them, by tackling these obstacles. It might be in the name of fun and adventure, but this ropes course has solid life lessons to offer, too.