I prefer my adventures to be relatively tame — sporting activities that provide an adrenaline rush or novel experiences that are specific to a particular location — but nothing outright dangerous. Sure, I’ve rock-climbed and heli-skied and rappelled into a Mexican cenote, but I engaged in these pursuits with forethought and without recklessness. I like excitement, but I’m not overly fond of emergency rooms. I broke far too many of my bones when I was a kid and, except for feeling the clammy confines of a wrist cast, courtesy of a mountain-biking mishap, my adulthood has been free of body plaster. I understand the need of some folks to ratchet up their dopamine dosages by trusting their lives to giant rubber bands affixed at one end to a bridge, the other to their ankles. I simply have no plan to join them anytime soon.
Which is why the parachute recently strapped to my back caused me to wonder what I was about to experience.
On the outskirts of Calgary, Alberta, sits Canada Olympic Park, an outdoor-enthusiasts’ playground that was originally built for the XV Olympic Winter Games, which was held in Calgary in 1988. One of the more memorable figures of that well-run Games was Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the English ski jumper who became a hero worldwide to working-class folks who aspire to athletic glory. As I stood where he stood on a recent late-autumn morning, I wondered whether the view from the top of the ski-jump platform might be the last vista I ever saw. Calgary, dappled with the gold-and-yellow hues of fall foliage, looked beautiful and bustling in the distance but, as much as I like the city, I wasn’t sure it was the last image I wanted imprinted on my retinas.
Okay, I admit that I’m exaggerating. I really didn’t think that I was going to die. At least not after the 80-year-old woman and the 7-year-old girl went first and, as far as I could tell from my distant vantage, the two were most likely still breathing.
The morning transpired thusly: I walked up to the counter, not far from the Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum, and asked the employee for the ticket to the Skyline at the Park that Tourism Calgary had left for me. In the past week I had walked beside two gorgeous lakes, ridden a horse, fly-fished, visited excellent museums and admired the incomparable views and the rustic campgrounds in Banff and Jasper National Parks. On other trips I had enjoyed buzzing down ziplines, so I anticipated a pleasant, mildly exciting adventure on Skyline at the Park. But when I saw the $49 ticket price, I knew something very different lay ahead. The release of liability form I had to sign confirmed my suspicion, since as I scanned the legalese I noticed the words “negligence”and “death.” It seems that if the first caused the second, my next of kin shouldn’t bother contacting a lawyer because, in essence, no one was forcing me to participate. I did anyway.
Upon walking into the Flight Centre, I was asked, “Will you be flying with us today?” I knew I was in Canada, and cultural and linguistic differences distinguish the country I was in from my own — namely, many Canadians use the word “coffee”to describe the brown liquid Tim Horton’s serves — but I was fairly certain that the airborne actions that birds and planes excel at was considered flying, not simply allowing gravity to scoot you down a cable.
A guide told the nervous-looking group how to step into our parasailing harnesses, told us how to adjust our helmets and how to carry our heavy-duty trolleys — the wheeled metal contraptions to which we were about to entrust our lives.
At the nearby practice facility, a guide revealed that riding on the Zipline wasn’t foolproof — if we did not follow the directions he was about to give us, we would get hurt. Sore necks, jaws violently snapped shut and busted kneecaps were the words that resonated with me. The guide then told us about the flying position: While sitting in the harness, dangling below the cable, we were to make like a starfish, arms and legs outstretched, wind resistance literally acting as our only brake. We were then informed of the position we were to assume when we neared the end of the line: leaning as far back as we could, arms locked, knees tucked up near the caribeeners that secured our harnesses to our trolleys, chin tucked to our chests and mouths closed. It seemed like a lot to remember while screaming bloody murder. We all, however, successfully negotiated our short practice run, which had about as much in common with the real thing as Hot Wheels have with the Indy 500.
The gasps were audible when we stepped onto the platform where The Eagle had once stood. The cable swooped down and away at such a dramatic angle, and to such a distant terminus, that I wondered if there wasn’t a book I could be reading instead. We would travel nearly 1,700 feet, while descending 360 feet, potentially generating speeds of more than 60 mph, with large people going fastest. I weigh 200 pounds, which meant my trip would be quickest and my deceleration the most jarring.
The 80-year-old lady went first, settling into position, and that’s when the guide pulled the parachute out of the pouch in her harness. The safety talk had not included mention of parachutes. Since the chutes were small, they would not prevent plummet but would provide resistance. We were to be human dragsters.
One after another, we star-fished our way down the metal arc. From launch to impact takes less than 30 seconds, and I may have held my breath. I did bang my right knee when I slammed into the brake, but my first thought after I looked back up the slope, was, “I want to do it again.”
Tourism Calgary, (800) 661-1678, www.tourismcalgary.com