North Park to get treetop course

Visitors soon can swing through the trees

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Visitors to North Park soon will be able to swing from the trees Tarzan-style when an above-ground series of zip lines, rope ladders, swings and tree stands opens in the space between the boathouse and the tennis courts.

The treetop adventure course is expected to open by the end of the month. It is being installed by a company called Go Ape, owned by Jenny and Dan D'Agostino of Rockville, Md.

Such courses are a new trend in leisure activities, said Andrew Baechle, Allegheny County parks director.

"There are ball sports or gravity sports, and gravity sports are on the rise," he said. "A lot of folks like solitude in the parks, but a growing group of people like gravity sports -- skate boarding, downhill skiing, freeride trails, inner tube slopes, whitewater rafting and parachuting."

North Park will be Go Ape's fourth zip line course in the country.

"Welcome to my forest office," Mr. D'Agostino said during a recent interview amid trees laced with cables and nets and swinging bridges. "We're excited about creating an all-day adventure in North Park. We want to put people in the trees, giving them a new way to experience the park."

People passing by the course construction during the past month have been curious and excited, he said.

Jenna Alter, 62, of Ross said she loves the idea of a zip line, but she's worried that the trees will be affected.

"We use natural materials as much as possible, and wood keeps the coated cables off of the trees," Mr. D'Agostino said. "It's our mission to leave the forest in better shape than we found it, and that means that we must care for the trees."

He said an independent arborist looks at the health of the trees every year. The platforms, which are bolted to the trees, can be pulled out and repositioned to allow the trees grow. Go Ape provides a portion of its proceeds to stewardship services for the park.

Mrs. D'Agostino said Go Ape has served 3.2 million visitors worldwide with no serious incidents. "It's safer than walking down the street," she said, adding that the course can help people overcome a fear of heights.

After a 30-minute safety briefing and training session, participants can navigate the course, which consists of five sites and 35 obstacles. It takes two to three hours to complete. Equipped with harnesses, pulleys and carabiners, participants can swing like monkeys through the trees or just sit and observe the birds or read the educational placards.

Instructors will be stationed around the course, but participants can do what they want and spend as much time as they need to complete the course. The obstacles get increasingly more difficult as the course progresses, but bypass routes are available for those who want to opt out.

The project has created 12 jobs, and Go Ape plans to hire more. Recent college graduate Michelle Barnes, 23, of McCandless, saw the job listing on Craigslist and decided to make the leap, although her degree is in finance.

"This is my dream job," she said. "It's phenomenal to have something like this at North Park. I see huge things for this company, and I hope to move up the ladder."

Ms. Barnes had never been on a zip line before, but since she's been training to become a Go Ape instructor, she has become comfortable in the trees.

"It was scary at first, but you conquer your fears because you do feel secure when you're connected to the cables at two points of attachment," she said. "If you're following the rules, there's no way you can get hurt."

The age minimum is 10 years old, which means that Emily Chambers, 9, of McCandless, will be able to host the trendiest birthday party ever when she turns 10 in August.

"I like that it's high up, and I've never done anything like it before," she said as she fished at the lake with her dad and watched the instructors go through their paces on the course.

"More people in the park is better for the park," said her dad, Craig Chambers, 48. "I'm afraid of heights, so we will definitely do this."

The cost will be $35 for ages 10 to 17 and $55 for adults. Group discounts will be available. Reservations are recommended.

"We limit the number of people on the course to 14 during each session," Mrs. D'Agostino said. She estimates that approximately 75 people will go through the course each day.

The course will be open through November -- rain or shine, barring strong winds and thunderstorms. "It's a different experience to go through the course in the rain," Mr. D'Agostino said.

Mr. Baechle said the Go Ape course will create synergy between North Park's new restaurant and Venture Outdoors, which provides canoe rentals on the lake. All of the businesses provide funding for the county.

Go Ape will pay the county $20,000 in the first year, $27,000 in the second year and $35,000 in the third year. In years four through 10, the county will receive a guaranteed $40,000. After the 10th year, the guarantee is $45,000 or 3 percent of gross profit, whichever is greater.

Mr. Baechle said the county hopes the course will help make North Park a tourist destination and attract visitors from outside the county.

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Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer:


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