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Zip lining: An adventure for the whole family

March 29, 2013 (Photo Credit: image Credit)

10 Don’t-MISS TOURS

1. Big Island Eco Adventures II Waimea, Hawaii $169 ($25 discount with a military ID) 2. AdrenaLine Zipline Adventure Tours Victoria, British Columbia $69-$79 (Canadian) 3. Flightline Safari Escondido, Calif. $70 (plus $30 park admission) U.S. military get free admission into the Safari Park. Dependents get a 10 percent discount on admission. 4. Soaring Treetop Adventures Durango, Colo. $449 5. Lake Travis Zipline Adventures Austin, Texas $89 6. The Lodges at Historic Banning Mills Whitesburg, Ga. $49-$250 (10 percent military discount for levels 2-5) 7. Adventures on the Gorge Lansing, W.Va. $59-$109 (10 percent discount with military ID) 8. ZipQuest Fayetteville, N.C. $85 ($10 discount with a military ID) 9. Adrenaline X-treme Adventures San Vigilio di Marebbe, Italy 49 euros 10. Forest Adventure Okinawa, Japan Local base travel agents often have deals on tickets. 2,500-3,500 yen

I couldn't have been more than 4 years old when I first became an addict. Standing there, hundreds of feet above the ground, I recall the pencil-thin line of steel plunging from the treetops as it stretched across the mountainside of my neighbor's massive backyard.

The zip line's deadly dimensions likely were products of my youthful imagination, but the adrenaline — that strange, surging cocktail of terror and terrific — as I stood there on the edge, gripping the thin little handles that would carry me down: That, I can tell you with all certainty, was very real.

So many years later, here I am with my own kids, standing more than 100 feet up in the treetops, getting ready to hurl myself — and them — down the side of a very real mountain.

We're at AdrenaLine Zipline Adventure Tours, just outside of Victoria, British Columbia, a quick ferry ride from our home in Seattle. It's one of several new zip line destinations in our area alone, part of the exponential growth in this fast-moving, high-flying segment of the adventure tourism industry.

The number of commercial zip lines in the U.S. and Canada has soared from fewer than 10 facilities in 2000 to more than 300 today, says James Borishade, director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, which helps set industry standards for safety and training.

Zip liners typically jump from treetop perches and cliffside platforms sometimes connected by swaying rope bridges — think Ewok Village meets Indiana Jones. Although rules vary, most zip line operators require riders to be at least 10 years old and weigh from 70 to 250 pounds.

And as their numbers multiply, operators are getting more innovative. Some wrap in mountain-climbing or narrow gauge railroad rides. Others fly you over herds of African wildlife. Some add everything from off-roading action to moonlit and even "haunted" zip line runs. Meanwhile, mobile, or temporary, zip lines are quickly becoming favorites at festivals and street fairs.

Don't think the zip-lining season is over because summer is ending. Most operators run well into the fall, and many are now operating year-round, with winter zipping providing a high-octane alternative to skiing and snowboarding.

Did I say fast? Some will have you soaring faster than highway speed limits. Most are tamer, though still plenty exhilarating, with the heights bringing much of the heady buzz of fear.

Most operators have worked out a proven path to get you over the edge and into the air, typically showing you the ropes on short, low-to-the-ground trainer lines before heading up to the heights.

Despite our warm-up, my heart is racing as our small group gets ready for our first real run, a 200-foot snake dubbed, appropriately, Commitment. Launch from here and there's no turning back.

My wife is rock-solid, as always, ready for action. The kids, I can tell, are a little nervous. I've checked the fit of our 12-year-old Amelia's helmet and climbing harness. I've lifted Noah, my do-anything 8-year-old, up off his feet by his harness as much to give him a quick reality check of what he was getting himself into as to assuage my own concerns that he was snuggly secure.

Noah wants to go first. As he steps up to the edge of the crow's nest platform a good 40 feet up a tree and gets checked in by the guide, I realize why I'm getting this premature spasm of fear.

My son steps off, and my heart jumps as his weight is caught by the thin nylon webbing suspending him from the tiny metal wheel that hurtles him down the line. His earnest face widens into an ear-to-ear grin as he waves while picking up speed, the ground dropping off below him.

My firstborn is next. She's already smiling eagerly. My heart leaps as she does.

Whose idea was this?

The rest of the adventure goes too quickly, as the best ones usually do.

I'm not sure which was more thrilling for me: my own flights into the open air or the terrific terror of seeing my kids getting hooked on conquering their fears.

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