My first very distinctive memory of Alaska was the visit to a small Inuit village of Hoonah, Alaska. The area is called Icy Strait Point by the cruise companies, and at the time the village was a few hundred people who lived there full time. There are no roads in and out of Hoonah, everything had to be brought in by barge, a common theme to many remote places in Alaska. Our ship had to tender out in the bay just offshore, and ferried people from our large floating city to a small stationary land based one. The water was a shade of aquamarine I had only see in photos! While it was chilly, there was no snow to be found this time of year, the beginning of August. The steep hillsides were covered in tall stand trees, water streams coursing through the rough gray granite rocks continuing the process that had made this very valley over the millenniums.
The cruise ship sort of herds you like cattle from one gathering area to another as they try to organize the chaos of two thousand or more people who are all tourists. The process tends to be efficient and gets the job done, but it isn’t pretty or elegant. We met with our group leader holding up a tour sign with the tour name on it we had on our tickets. After a few moments we were lead to our chariot that would carry us up the steep hillside to our destination, the top of the ZipRider adventure! Having never traveled outside the continental US before this trip, I wasn’t entirely prepared to be boarding the village school bus, and then driven up the hillside by the town mayor and part time bus driver. He was generous with his knowledge, told stories of his life in the village, pointed out things of interest about how the homes were built, and where they were to be built, and how normal village life worked on a daily basis. The road coursed back and forth up some rather rough terrain on the hillside, eventually becoming little more than a somewhat gravel road after the pavement gave out. The yellow school bus heaved back and forth from side to side as one set of wheels would hit a rut or pothole. The driver paid no attention, as I’m sure he did this daily, but I was sure the back end of this bus was going to be sliding down the hillside at any moment. My eyeballs had to be popping out of my head, all I could think was I wouldn’t see my dogs again! (to be clear, we were never in any real danger on the drive up, this was just a very new experience for my sheltered pampered self at the time).
Having reached the summit of where the bus could take it, we had the door opened for us, and out we hopped under the base of a large metal tower holding power lines. I remember looking around hearing this high pitched whirring. The launch platform for the ZipRider was around a forested corner and down a bit of a hill, totally hidden from view. Smart planning guys. Do not show the tourists what they are about to do while the bus is still there, they will chicken out and not get off the bus! By this point the bus had turned around and was headed down the hill to get the next round of unsuspecting tourists, the only way down was on the whirring monster I couldn’t see yet! I’m not very brave, I kind of like to think I will enjoy continuing converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, so thrill-seeker I am not. As the group shuffled down the path towards the launch pad, I got a better view of what we had REALLY signed up for on this excursion. We listened to the safety talk given by one resident employee, watched the last few people from the group ahead of us get strapped and snapped into their slings, and then CLANG of metal happens. I literally jumped at the sound, my heart sank at the sight, I think my brain just quite working for a few seconds. This wasn’t a launch pad, this was a drop zone! There was no launching happening at all!
Let me set the stage for how I was sure I was going to be a national news story of “tourist travels to Alaska and dies from stupid choice of excursion” headline. There are thick gauge metal wires maybe 15 feet above the ground. You walk up a wooden deck platform and then at your turn you step up onto a wood box structure and sit back into nothing more than a canvas sling. You are snapped in with carabeeners, given final instructions, and when everyone is ready, the metal grate floor below you is literally dropped out from beneath you and you exit the platform down and forward. Before this terrifying moment this is what you see….
Now by this point in my day I have already been firmed knocked out of my comfort zone, multiple times I might add. Usually getting motion sickness quite easily, I got on a tender from the ship, I balanced myself on a float dock after I got off the tender, I survived the school bus ride up the hillside to this point, and now here I am starring down a drop of 2000 feet at some miles per hour speed I didn’t want to think about, towards the very cruise ship I left a few hours earlier. Hearing my heartbeat thumping in my ears, I’m smiling on the outside, screaming on the inside, and hyperventilating in my chest. Several dozen people have gone before me and they all survived, or I presumed because they only sent back the empty canvas slings with no word of the condition of the bodies at the bottom. Suddenly the countdown starts…..3!……..2!……1! and the floor drops out from under your feet!
Within seconds you are approaching sixty something miles per hour, I’m pretty sure I hit Mach 1, I don’t like to gloat. All I hear is the wind whipping past my ear canals, I want to close my eyes but the beauty around me is fascinating. I glance down quickly, immediately become woozie at the realization at how high up I am, and choose to focus on the pretty water ahead of me. Since I did not put my feet up, straightening my legs, I have significantly more drag than my other canvas sling riders who were released to their death at the same time. I’m watching my spouse of 7 years at that time zing down the hillside ahead of me, smiling like a kid on Christmas. The air was cool but I never felt cold, maybe because the blood was pumping through my body so quickly it never had a chance to cool off in my extremities. Within seconds I was halfway down, in a little less than a minute I was being caught by the springs at the bottom. I survived! As soon as I was out of the canvas sling and my feet hit solid earth I felt like I had won a gold medal in the Olympics. I stared death in the face and survived! (not really, but this was by far the scariest thing I had done in my life up to this point, still ranks in the top 10 over a decade later.) My spouse and I laughed and smiled and were funneled into the visitor center to look at candid shots of us taken by motion activated cameras on the way down. No where on our island would we have experienced anything like that ever, nothing on the island was that exhilarating! This began our love affair with travel. We wanted to learn more about cultures different than our own, geography, religions, communities and sciences we never thought of all beckoned us on this day. Although physics kept the world spinning no matter where we were on the globe, on this day physics had woken up something inside us that was undeniable. We were alive on this spinning globe, but not living. We were book smart, but not world intelligent. In a little under a minute, our life experiences and choices intersected in such a way that we were in this small Alaskan village feeling what it meant to be alive. This moment is one of the great joys of my life, a defining moment if you will. I came, I saw, I conquered and I wanted more!