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Putting some zip into Catalina's tourism

The Catalina Zipline Eco-Tour -- a 3,671-foot-long cable ride over cactus-filled canyons -- is part of a plan to transform the struggling harbor town of Avalon into a leading Southland destination.

March 29, 2010|By Louis Sahagun

Reporting from Avalon — A few weeks before the opening of Santa Catalina Island's zipline attraction, its designer popped a question that caught a handful of local officials and visiting journalists off guard: "Want to zip?"

Bradd Morse, the president of Canopy Tours Inc., was mindful that being among the first to hurtle over rocky, cactus-filled canyons at speeds of up to 40 mph while dangling from a cable as high as 300 feet off the ground might make some people nervous.

But getting these individuals -- public safety officials, mostly -- to take a ride on the Catalina Zipline Eco-Tour is all part of the plan to transform this struggling harbor community of about 3,000 people into a more prominent Southern California destination.

At the end of the 3,671-foot-long run that starts on Hogsback Ridge will be revamped restaurants, shops, eco-adventures and hillside condominiums.

Morse's first taker was Avalon Planning Commissioner Keith Schmidt. Rightfully so, since he also is zipline project manager for the Santa Catalina Island Co., which has invested more than $1 million in the effort.

"As project manager, if I don't ride this thing, why should anyone else?" Schmidt said. Laughing nervously, he donned a hard hat and stepped into a safety harness.

The harness was connected to a small trolley running along two overhead steel cables the width of cigars. Each cable can withstand 26,000 pounds of pressure.

Standing on the edge of a wooden platform (still under construction) atop Hogsback Ridge, Schmidt took a deep breath and pushed off.

Free fall, accompanied by a high-pitched whirring sound. Wind rippling through pant legs. Quail bursting from dense brush 30 feet below. Eyes shifting from the u-shaped curve of the cables to the fast-approaching landing platform. Touchdown.

"Spectacular!" Schmidt shouted from the far side of the canyon.

Morse relished the scene. After three months of labor on some of the island's roughest terrain, the zipline -- designed to whisk 300 customers a day -- was on budget and on schedule to open April 14.

In the meantime, Schmidt has been directing work crews, training prospective staffers and focusing on details: tightening bolts, inspecting harness stitching and gauging tension in the steel cables.

The attraction is made up of five zipline segments averaging 734 feet in length and connected to platforms. One stretch is 300 feet above a canyon floor.

Riders who pay $89 per ticket will get a hawk-eye's view as they swoop down from a mountaintop to the beach. Because the ride is divided into five segments, one full trip would take about 90 minutes, according to Morse.

"It's safer than a boat ride across the Catalina Channel or tooling around this island in a golf cart," Morse said. "It only feels like you're doing something crazy and out there."

Each paying customer will be required to sign a waiver and weigh between 60 and 245 pounds. Young children will be required to ride with a parent. The attraction is insured by the Island Co.

The history of ziplining boils down to this: After entrepreneurs discovered that scientists used the technology to study tropical forest canopies in the 1970s, it boomed.

Today, there are hundreds in operation around the world. In Southern California, they are in use at Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains and at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

While showing the Catalina zipline to local officials, Morse said he received inquiries from prospective investors who wanted him to help them build zipline operations in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Ohio. Morse, who already runs his own ziplines in New Hampshire and Jamaica, said he referred them to a competitor because "I'm booked solid."

Here, the zipline is part of an effort to broaden Catalina's appeal to a younger crowd: families and baby boomers. A four-hour bus tour of the island's interior wilderness was closed earlier this year because of declining ticket sales.

Critics expressed concern that Avalon was in danger losing its charm as a timeless slice of old California.

Artist Joe Paquet, 47, was painting a favorite landscape a few yards from where a construction crew was putting finishing touches on the zipline platform at Hogsback Ridge.

"There is a certain character and romance about this island that is unique," he said. "Once you give it up to generic fads, it will only be found in books. That's sad."

Moments later, Morse put a stretch of zipline to the test with a maneuver he called "penciling in": zipping with legs extended and body horizontal to reduce wind resistance and pick up speed.

Seconds later, Morse slammed feet-first into the landing platform's rear retaining wall, buckling his legs at the knees to absorb the impact.

"That was not an experience that tourists will ever have," Morse, who was not injured, explained later. "We're still fine-tuning and testing. But it is also true that ziplining is not Disneyland."

louis.sahagun

@latimes.com

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