Getting a fix on the zipline [originally published 1/21/09, West Hawaii Today]

Posted: October 10, 2010 in Published Articles
Tags: , , , , ,

Wednesday, January 21, 2009 8:28 AM HST

A piercing scream sends a flock of birds into the sky, accompanied by the unmistakable sound of a zip line in use: Part giant zipper, part angry hornet. The rider becomes increasingly smaller as she travels swiftly down the line toward the landing platform. Her family applauds as she touches down on the structure.

“That was pretty awesome,” said Karyse Lee, a visitor from Alberta, Canada, as the guides unclip her harness from the line. “Can I do it again?”

That was the question on everyone’s mind that day, and for good reason — zip lining is addictive. Now, thanks to a newly opened business in North Kohala called Big Island Eco Adventures, all those adventurous, adrenaline junkies have a place to get their fix.

“It was all quite serendipitous,” said Big Island Eco Adventures office manager and co-owner Shawn Simon, when asked why, with the current economic situation, she and her partners decided to start a business of such magnitude. “We just had to trust the process. That, and we want to make people happy.”

At a time when usage rights for much of the tourism-oriented land in North Kohala, owned mainly by a large overseas company, are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, Big Island Eco Adventures, or BIEA, secured access rights through several private landowners.

“It was all based on the availability of the land. We had this venture planned for some time, but the determining factor was definitely access to the area,” Simon said.

Inspired by other zip line companies currently operating in the state, such as on Maui and Kauai, Simon and her husband, Jay, along with another couple, Randy and Elisa Andrews, decided the time had come for them to make a paradigm shift away from their day jobs and commit full-time to their new collective endeavor.

Needless to say, they hit the ground running.

Click Photo to Enlarge

Top: Adam Beckman, of Beatrice, Neb., left, receives final instructions from guide Haaheo Neves before his first zip. Bottom: Visitors are transported in a Pinzgauer, an old Swiss army vehicle that is ideal for the drive up to the site where the zip lines are located. – Photos By Anna Pacheco | Special To West Hawaii Today

At the forefront of BIEA’s philosophy toward the environment is conservation. While constructing the 150-acre course, all of the trees felled were processed, milled on-site and then used to construct landing platforms, bridges and a quaint gazebo-like structure where guests can relax and enjoy refreshments while on their zip line adventure. Because of this, the structures have an unrefined, natural look that blends in nicely with the surroundings.

Another critical component to BIEA’s philosophy is to hire directly from the area community, utilizing the knowledge of the residents to ensure that the tour retains its distinctive Kohala flavor.

Guide Haaheo Neves, said that this is the best job she has ever had.

“I still work at the King’s Shops for now, but once things get going I want to work here full time,” Neves said. “It’s so fun, I never get tired of being outdoors.”

Another guide, Justin Terry, keeps it simple — “I love my new office.”

Click Photo to Enlarge

Left: Stewart Hartfield, of Alberta, Canada, cheers for his wife, Darlene Hartfield, as she zips over the treetops. Right: Guide Justin Terry, right, is at the end platform, ensuring a safe landing for Adam Beckman, of Beatrice, Neb. – Photos By Anna Pacheco | Special To West Hawaii Today

BIEA requires their guides to be certified in first aid and puts them through a monthlong safety course ranging from dealing with apprehensive riders to midline retrieve and rescues.

The history of the zip line is one that isn’t easily defined, although many agree that the practice probably began sometime during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was utilized by Tyrolean mountaineers as a means of transporting people and goods around hard to reach, high altitude living areas.

A modern zip line is markedly superior to what was used in the past and is generally made from either galvanized or stainless steel. The cable’s diameter can vary and the thickness is used to determine the ultimate load the cable will allow. The cable is fixed at both ends, in this case to large, old-growth trees, which serve as anchors.

Riders wear a full-body harness, which the crew at BIEA painstakingly fit to each person at the base yard. Attached via carabiner to the harness is what makes the zipping possible, a heavy duty trolley, which is basically two small, steel wheels that lock onto the main zip line cable. Once the rider is clipped onto the line, it’s all down hill from there — literally. The act of braking is performed by the guide at the other end of the line, who uses a line break mechanism to slow swiftly approaching riders.

BIEA insists their policy of wearing a helmet is probably overkill considering the already stringent safety code they operate under, and the protection they offer is mainly for the six-wheel drive Pinzgauer, which transports up to 10 people to the course, which is two miles off-road from the main highway. It can get a little bumpy, but then that’s also part of the adventure.

There are eight runs at the BIEA course bordering the Kohala Forest Reserve, which range from short 200 feet long, 10 feet high “keiki” runs, to the more adrenaline surging 950-foot runs that are well over 300 feet from the ground. The size and weight of the rider ultimately determines top speed, which, no matter the size, is never slow. Waterfalls and breathtaking views are in order for those not fixated on just making it to the other end.

Darlene Hartfiled, visiting from Alberta, Canada, was enjoying her second time on a zip line, her first taking place in the jungles of the Dominican Republic.

“They were surprisingly safety oriented,” she said, of her first-time experience. “But this is much nicer. Much more to see.”

First-timers father and son, Bob and Adam Beckman, visiting from Nebraska, also plan to skydive as a family. “This is great fun. I could do this all day long. Do you think they’ll let us?”

The last run is near 1,000 feet, which takes the rider high above the forest canopy. The biggest difference between this one and most of the earlier runs is that there is no launching or landing platforms. To take off the rider is basically required to step off of a high cliff. Stopping requires the rider to do a bit of running as they make their approach.

“Make sure you scream to let the tour behind us know how much fun you’re having,” Terry told the group.

By the sound of it, everyone was having a blast.

BIEA is currently running four tours a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Capacity for each tour is 10 people, adults or children. The cost is $159 per person and the four-hour tour comes complete with light refreshments and full outfitting. BIEA is currently running a daily tour in conjunction with Paradise Helicopters, which also includes a helicopter ride. Riders are recommended to wear closed toed shoes and knee length shorts or long pants.

BIEA also offers kamaaina rates. Call the main office at 889-5111 to make reservations, or visit the Web site,

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