Discoveries: Up in the trees with Sonoma Canopy Tours

We are fervent and unabashed tree-huggers, the Jersey Girls and I.

We are standing – make that, slightly swaying – on a platform hammered onto a coastal redwood 90 feet above terra firma and, fortunately, there’s only a light breeze. Still, we’ve got death grips on the trunk, our fingernails digging deep into bark, as we wait our turn to shove off and zip several hundred feet along what looks like the thinnest of metal cables over to the next platform. No one dares to look down.

“It’s OK,” our bearded and burly guide, Cody Tucker, assures us. “We’ve got a lot of tree-huggers in Sonoma, so you fit in.”

The Jersey Girls – Iliana Cogollo, Adonna Stevens and Tameka Jackson-del Gavio, friends since high school in Hackensack, though Tameka now calls Elk Grove home – titter with nervous laughter. I clear my throat obsessively, my personal coping mechanism. Yes, we are securely harnessed to cables wrapped around the platform, and those stainless steel carabiners look mighty strong. But being so high and feeling that subtle motion beneath can be unnerving to ziplining novices.

We already have completed two of the seven connected zip lines along the Sonoma Canopy Tours course, but those were merely the “bunny zips,” according to Caleb Prins, our other guide. The 800-foot monster zip looms a few trees down the course, as does the rickety, shaky sky bridge and the 60-foot rappel down a redwood to complete this Tour de Adrenaline. We each have paid $89 for the fun and adventure of checking out nature from a different perspective – from above – but we all still have minor trust issues with Cody and Caleb, who hold our fates in their gloved hands.

The guides keep telling us we’re safe, that our car commutes to this verdant spot in western Sonoma County were much more dangerous than hurtling like Tarzan from tree to tree in a harness and plastic red helmet. This is something guides in “adventure” activities – be it whitewater rafting, skydiving, base-jumping, what-have-you – always tell their charges to ease apprehension. And, by now, we should be feeling pretty comfortable, having negotiated the first two zip lines like champs. All of us braked smoothly and correctly, didn’t have to resort to the backward, manual, hand-over-hand pull-up of shame if you were to come up short.

But it’s the platforms tacked onto the trunks of the coastal redwoods that had infused us with high anxiety.

Gee, if only we had a licensed psychologist here to talk us through it.

Oh, wait, Tameka is a shrink, having completed med school at UC Davis and recently hung out her shingle in Sacramento. But she seems just as freaked out as the rest of us.

Cody, though, exudes authority and security. Maybe it’s his full mountain-man beard, or his muscle-bound body with nary an ounce of flab, but he assures us we’re not going anywhere – at least until the group in the tree ahead of us shoves off so we can zip on over. In fact, Cody tells us to have a seat and dangle our feet over the edge. We look at him askance. He plops down to show us.

“Really,” he says, “you don’t feel the motion as much when you sit.”

We comply, but Tameka says, “I’m not dangling my feet.” No, she awkwardly has her legs straight out in front of her, as if preparing to do leg lifts. She keeps them in that position for a full five minutes, as if rigor mortis had set in. Meanwhile, Cody tells us to drink in the view.

It is wondrous. The view alone is worth shelling out the $89. To the north is the tree-lined ridge where, just beyond, Cody says, lies that exclusive playground for patrician Bay Area types, the Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio. To the east is a denuded hillside, where much of the forest was logged early in the 20th century to help rebuild San Francisco after the earthquake. To the south and west are the grounds for the Alliance Redwoods Christian Conference, which also owns and operates the zip line. And, directly below, are the felled trees from the cutting and the new growth that sprouted from the stumps.

Looking at those once-mighty supine trunks makes a guy think about the stability of trees chosen to serve as zip-line platforms.

Not to worry, says Caleb.

“Arborists came in and checked out all the trees and picked the strongest,” he said. “Then we (the Alliance) came up with the course.”

When the group ahead of us finally shoves off the platform, the Jersey Girls and I are happy to depart from the swaying redwood. (There are, by the way, two Douglas fir trees used as anchors; they don’t sway.) This would be our first long zip line, long enough that the cable sags in the middle and you cannot see the platform you’ll hopefully reach. It’s also the first time we’ll pick up a lot of speed and need to use the brake (essentially, just touching your gloved hand to the line itself). Cody zips ahead to the landing platform and says to look for him giving us the braking signal – hands moving in downward motion. But he also tells us to enjoy the ride, look around, yes, even down.

“A lot of people,” he would say later, “never look anywhere except right at me the whole time. It’s cool to look down.”

I can’t speak for the Jersey Girls, but I do look down, both on this zip and during the mondo 800-footer. It felt both exhilarating and vertiginous. Looking side-to-side, the trees rush by in the green blur, branches waving to you like spectators at a parade. Looking down, ever so briefly, you almost feel as if the ground is rushing up to meet you – though, of course, that’s a mere optical illusion.

Dare I say it, after the first few zips, the Jersey Girls and I get so comfortable that we exchange jocular banter with Cody and Caleb and lament that a certain zip line wasn’t long enough.

Lest you think we are becoming jaded, losing our sense of wonder and giddy fear, the spiral staircase up to near the top of a redwood, as well as two “sky bridges” to another zip line, await.

Talk about swaying anxiety. The wooden- and rope-constructed bridges swing us around as if we are trying to balance on a hammock. It is at this point that Cody decides to tell us the history of the redwood forest above which we are hovering, how the only old-growth redwood (named “Walter,” believed to be 800 years old) survived the loggers only because it has a gnarly burl bulging from the bottom that made hand-sawing too onerous a task.

Great, Cody. Fascinating. But we want to get to the platform and off the swaying bridge, pronto. Behind me, Iliana is emitting yips of anxious laughter, mostly because Caleb decides it’s fun to jump up and down.

After we zip one last time, then rappel 60 feet down from the final redwood, none of us kisses the dirt or does anything so dramatic. But, yeah, we are happy to be back on solid ground, though Tameka says the three-hour excursion seemed to go by too quickly.

“For the first three lines, I wasn’t even breathing,” she says. “Then I finally just let go. It’s nice having no concept of time up there. You were totally in the moment.”

And, fortunately, totally in the harness, too.