Published July 05, 2012, 10:37 AM

New attraction adding 'zip' to Minnesota's Gunflint Trail (with video)

Gunflint Lodge hopes canopy tour will combine excitement and education for tourists.

By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

GUNFLINT LAKE — Zip No. 5 is the coolest: nearly 800 feet long and straight off a rock cliff that drops 75 feet straight down.

Feel free to whoop when you go. And try to keep your eyes open, because the views across Gunflint Lake, the Superior National Forest and off into the wilds of Ontario are spectacular.

Welcome to the brand-new Towering Pines Canopy Tour, the Northland’s latest tourist attraction, which opens to the public today at Gunflint Lodge.

“It’s incredibly freeing. It’s fantastic. It’s not quite like you’re flying between the trees, but almost,” said Casey Fitchett of Chesapeake, Va., who is spending her summer working at Lutsen Resort. “To be able to do this and be in the forest and see out into Canada, it’s pretty incredible.”

A series of eight zip lines stretch between 200-year-old towering white pines and a few man-made towers on the hill overlooking the lake — the latest effort of Gunflint Lodge mogul Bruce Kerfoot, whose family has owned this resort since 1929.

First, of course, a liability waiver must be signed. Then each participant is fitted snugly into a harness with not one but two safety straps. After that comes a practice session on a zip-line about 3 feet off the ground, where you must master the takeoff, braking to a stop and pulling yourself back to the starting line.

Our group learns some very good things at this point.

First, the “sky guides” who will be ushering us through the course are well-trained and ultra-serious about their job and our safety.

Second, the zip lines to which we are entrusting our lives are galvanized aircraft cable that can support 25,000 pounds. The harness we’re in can handle 5,000 pounds. (Just to be safe, however, the canopy tour is available only to people who weigh 240 or less.)

Once the sky guides feel everyone has the “hang” of it, the group is packed into big ATVs for a rough ride up the hill to the start of the course.

The canopy tour doesn’t require feats of physical strength. But if you have an ailing heart, are a complete couch potato or are terribly afraid of heights, it’s really not for you. There are several sets of steps to climb — some steep — and you need to be able to pull yourself along the zip line should you somehow stop short of the next station.

“We designed this for pretty much everyone. And I tried several others out East before we built,” said Kerfoot, 73. “I think it’s something a lot of people will love, from teenagers to baby boomers. It’s just enough excitement.”

‘You’re in control’

Indeed, hanging from a harness while zipping down a line between pines is just plain fun. Lift your feet, “weight” your harness and loosen your grip on the cable.

The cable hums as you speed away from one base to the next between what really is a series of grown up tree forts, feet dangling and sometimes brushing up against leaves from the highest branches of trees below. You decide how fast to go and when to brake, using a thick leather-palmed glove to slow down.

Go too fast and the sky guide on the other end will have to use the emergency brake to stop you hard. Go too slow and you stop short of the station, requiring some hand-over-hand work to finish the ride.

The fun part is figuring out the optimal speed so you glide into a perfect landing.

“So far, everyone has picked it up. It’s not hard, but we want people to pay attention to what they’re doing,” said Jason Merrill, the course manager and lead sky guide. “We get you started and stopped. But when you’re out there you’re in control.”

Between zips, the sky guides offer a bit of regional history and some tidbits on the flora and fauna below. Signs of the 1999 windstorm and forest blow-down and the 2007 Ham Lake fire abound. The whole tour, with groups of up to 12 people at a time, takes just over two hours. Call it an adventure-nature experience.

A Northland first

Contractors who designed and built the course specialize in canopy tours, and professional arborists used ultrasound-like imaging devices to pick the right trees and make sure they aren’t damaged in construction.

Kerfoot has about $400,000 into the latest attraction at Gunflint Lodge, which he’s already built into one of the region’s largest and most successful resorts and canoe outfitters.

But Kerfoot notes he will need more than just his guests — and more than just Gunflint Trail campers and canoeists — to make the canopy tour pay for itself.

“We need to pull people up off the North Shore; give them a chance to do something different,” Kerfoot said. “We needed another destination in our area. People want new things. And nobody else has anything like this in Minnesota.”

Zip lines aren’t new to Minnesota, with several across the state, including the Timber Flyer at Spirit Mountain in Duluth, a 90-second ride that costs $8.

But Gunflint’s appears to be the first full-fledged, multi-zip canopy tour in the Northland.

The canopy tour concept sprouted in the late 1990s as part of Costa Rica’s booming eco-tourism industry. Several big operations have grown in the U.S. in recent years, from Branson, Mo., to Atlanta to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. There are three in Wisconsin Dells and one in Lake Geneva, Wis.

Kerfoot said he wanted to avoid the highly commercialized experience of a theme park. The Gunflint course is nearly invisible from the lake or even from the resort’s waterfront area, and builders worked to minimize its impact on the forest.

“We want to accentuate what we have here, not spoil it,” Kerfoot said. “It’s really the perfect addition on the edge of the (Boundary Waters Canoe Area) wilderness. It’s non-consumptive. There are no motors. No noise. It’s not tearing up the land or polluting. Yet it’s exhilarating.”

Most people who went on recent test runs agreed.

“I expected it to be more about the zip; the speed,” said Buck Benson of Grand Marais. “But it was really more about the trees and the shared experience with the group.

“It was fun,” Benson said. “But it was the views and the conversations within the group in between (zips) and being up in the trees. What a great experience.”

Benson, who owns a hardware store in Grand Marais and is a commentator on WTIP Radio, said the new attraction will help fill a need for people who don’t want to canoe into the Boundary Waters or who don’t like to fish

“If the wind is blowing, or the fish aren’t biting, this is going to be a wonderful opportunity. I think this will bring more people up here,” he said. “We all need something new every now and then.”