This week on Florida Matters we’re exploring some ways to beat the summer doldrums and enjoy a “staycation” in the Tampa Bay Area.
The area is known for having some post-card perfect scenery – the bright blues of Tampa Bay, and the lush greens of palm trees and mangroves. Now imagine what it would be like to see all of that from a bird's eye view? A zip line tour gives you that chance.
Florida Matters producer Stephanie Colombini soared above the city of Oldsmar in Pinellas County.
About halfway between bustling downtown Tampa and the Gulf Coast beaches, you'll find nearly 400 acres of peace and quiet in the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve – unless you're near the area where Empower Adventures Tampa Bay has made its home, in which case you'll hear sounds more along the lines of “WOO HOO!”
The company has been offering zip line tours in Oldsmar for a little over a year now. I arrived to test the ropes early one drizzling morning still puffy-eyed but not at all anxious about the thrills that lay ahead. A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, I figured this day would be a breeze.
Outside the course I met a couple other tour mates and our guides, Joselyn DeFreest and Calvin Joustra.
"I will be your receiving guide,” Joustra said. “That means I go down the line first to get a sense of how the line is running. Joselyn will be your zip line therapist today, so if you need any words of encouragement she'll be there to provide those for you."
We ran through a brief but critical overview of equipment and safety procedures. Key lessons: trust the gear, and listen for the words "zip on" as the green light to take that nerve-wracking first step off the platform. Now the fun could begin.
Up a seemingly endless flight of stairs – you will definitely work your glutes on this trip – we made it to the first zip line.
My morning drowsiness was immediately wiped away as I soared about six stories above palms, pines and oak trees.
The guides had a fairly easy day cut out for them with a small group of young thrill seekers like myself. But Calvin Joustra insists this course isn't just for fearless flyers. He has had customers as old as 96 years old and some who were absolutely terrified to "zip on."
"Sometimes it's something that's on their bucket list that they want to accomplish, sometimes it's like, ‘I'm scared of heights, I want to get past this,’” Joustra said. “It's our job as guides to just help them find that courage that's inside of them to be able to take that step off."
The basic $69 package at Empower Adventures gets you five zip lines and a walk across a suspension bridge. But for an extra $20 you can also experience the extreme course. It includes aerial obstacles that test the mind and the muscles like a swinging long, rickety bridge and tight rope walk.
I patted myself on the back for getting through most of these smoothly, but had my ego checked on an obstacle with crisscrossed ropes known as the Hourglass.
As I crab-walked across the wire commenting on the nice views of the water, I slipped backwards and was leaning at a 90° angle from the ground clinging to the ropes for dear life. But after a few deep breaths and some encouragement from the team, I threw my weight forward and was back upright, ready to finish the task.
Safely back on the platform I gave my wobbly legs a break on another zip line that dips right through the preserve and saw an osprey eating a fish on the way.
Speaking of osprey, one of the best views of the entire course is along the 200 ft. long Flight of the Osprey suspension bridge. It gets its name from the healthy population of birds that live around the course.
We lucked out because the light rain cleared up just as we got to the bridge, so we were greeted with a cool breeze and brilliant sunlight that made Tampa Bay sparkle.
Off in the distance you can spot the skyscrapers of downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg. The Courtney Campbell Causeway is in clear view and if you squint hard, Joselyn DeFreest points out you can even see the smokestacks of the Apollo Beach power plant.
"This is our office,” DeFreest said.
“Are you hiring?” I asked enviously.
The bridge sets you up for the last zip line. At 650 ft., it's the longest one in the course and also the fastest, sending you right over Tampa Bay at whipping speeds.
Five-for-five and still alive, we all gave ourselves a round of applause – but we weren't done yet. The extreme package wraps up with the Leap of Faith. Basically you climb up a power pole, stand upright at the top and jump off it – sounded real simple to me. Until I actually had to do it.
Climbing up the pegs of the pole was nothing, but when I reached that critical point at the top where I had to commit to stepping off the pegs and onto the pole's narrow surface, panic began to set in. I took my time catching my breath, secretly stalling.
There were a couple of failed half-attempts where I'd lift my right foot off the peg, sway a little bit and immediately glue myself back to the pole. My heart raced faster and faster from the fear of falling off and insecurity about holding up the tour for what felt like an eternity.
After probably saying "okay, okay" about 30 times, I braced myself, put one foot on top of the pole and began to put my weight on it, expecting to tumble off at any moment, and then I was standing – until it was time to jump off.
When I was finally on the ground safely and disconnected from my harness I was more proud of myself than I had been in a long time. My entire body was also shaking for the next 20 minutes or so.
I wrapped up my day at Empower Adventures satisfied and surprised – I found out I am not superhuman, but that's okay, because learning that lesson was a blast.