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Zipping around Oldsmar not for faint of heart (w/video)

Jennifer Jacobs of St. Petersburg zips over the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve at Oldsmar’s Bicentennial Park on Monday. Operated by Empower Adventures Tampa Bay, professional guides lead groups of about 10 through the course, which takes between two and three hours.
Published Jun. 9, 2016

OLDSMAR — As I drove along busy State Road 580 heading to the new Empower Adventures zipline course behind Bicentennial Park, I thought about how peculiar it seemed that globetrotting ecotourists in places like Maui, with its lush mountains and pristine waterfalls, might be spending their Memorial Day the same way I would be spending mine in Oldsmar — taking a canopy zipline tour.

I also was thinking about how my heart was beating double-time. It wasn't that ziplines or heights surpassing 60 feet were great fears of mine. It was more about a fear that I might have agreed to try something my body would not let me do. If I were a car, I wouldn't be a 2016 shiny sports car. I would be more a vintage oldie-but-goodie.

However, the opportunity to see a piece of Florida from a rare angle — above the treetops — as well as having an adventure on the exotic side right here in Pinellas County with my family, pushed me ahead.

As we drove across a bridge, my daughter, Sofia, spotted it first.

"Wow, I can see one of the towers. We're going to have to climb way up high," she said.

"Um, I suppose so,'' I said, still listening to my rapid heartbeat.

Oldsmar's newest recreational highlight, through Empower Adventures Tampa Bay, starts at the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve Educational Center, and it was there, at 11 a.m. sharp on Monday that we were greeted by several guides. They were handing out smiles and harnesses.

First, I met Calvin Joustra, operations manager for Empower Adventures. Before we finished shaking hands, I asked him a burning question.

"Let me just make sure of something,'' I said. "I mean, I know the answer, but just to be safe, I want to hear it from you. It is correct that you can be just a normal person, right, and you don't have to be really, really strong in order to not get stuck out there?''

Joustra nodded.

"You just follow directions, and you just sit in the harness,'' he said. "And, when you feel you need to turn a little, just steer with the handle, and you steer it like you would a bicycle handle.''

It seemed reasonable. I could do that much, I thought, sliding back in line, while guides Patrick Metzger, 24, and Jessica Gannon, 19, began detailing what the several-hour tour would involve. Included in the adventure was a 60-foot start tower, five ziplines, with one reaching 650 feet long, and two reaching over the water, as well as a 200-foot suspension bridge.

"One thing we hope you all do today is come a little bit out of your comfort zone,'' said Metzger.

"Um, no problem there,'' I thought, as a checked my daughter's harness straps, adjusting them, well, maybe just a tad on the tight side.

The Castillos, Piper, Luis, Louie and Sofia, began our ascent to the first platform, climbing winding stairs with the rest of our group, two women and one man.

"Did you know that Tampa Bay's estuary is the largest in Florida?'' asked Gannon, who will head over to the University of Central Florida at the end of the summer.

"Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes you can see manatees right over there,'' she continued, although she did not realize she was talking to one woman who had her eyes closed.

"That's good,'' I said. "But I don't think I'm going to look for any wildlife yet. I'll be more comfortable after I do this first jump, I think.''

Sofia put her hand on my shoulder.

"Mom, you're not jumping, you're zipping,'' she said.

"Promise?'' I pleaded.

Maybe it was cruel that I forced my offspring to jump, err, zip, before me, but the fact is, yes, seeing them survive did indeed help me make the leap.

The crazy thing is, once you push off from the platform, your fear goes away, and you are once again that woman who loves the adrenaline rush, loves chances like soaring with the birds.

Okay, you are also that woman in midlife who no longer has a memory. "Darn it, how did he say to turn? Do I use my weight or my arms?''

And then it was over. Click. Snap. Stop. Because of the cheering by my family, the guides' expertise and Empower Adventures' 21st century equipment (a collection of lanyards, thick straps, pulleys, carabiners and a cable brake system), I landed safe on platform No. 2 without any need for sirens.

It was then I began noticing the birds, and after zipping to the third platform, I had to speak up.

"Hey kids, isn't it funny that the birds have suddenly showed up? Look. There's a white heron flying right in front of our platform. Look there's a pelican. It's like they slept in,'' I said.

"No mom, the birds have been here the whole time,'' Louie said. "I just don't think your eyes were open.''

As we continued ziplining, our family enjoyed checking out the eclectic offerings, a treetop canopy mixed with upland species like slash pine and sand live oak to more coastal trees and plants like cabbage palm and salt bush.

All along the tour, we did that thing our family does — spar over spotting nature. "I see an eagle!'' I said. "No, it's a seagull,'' Sofia said.

"Look down there, it's an alligator,'' I said.

"No mom, it's a softshell turtle,'' Louie said.

And then we came to the bridge.

I pictured myself fainting, dangling half on, half off the bridge with emergency aircraft powering in. My son and husband began loudly humming their best rendition of the theme song from The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was Memorial Day after all.

As we gathered on the last platform, before zipping back to the home platform, we added up the birds we saw. In the air, we flew near six ibis, three pelicans, a great white heron and an osprey carrying sticks in its mouth back to its nest on a nearby power pole. Below us, the tally, along with six kayakers paddling and a fisherman, were more ibis, a blue heron and a snowy egret.

When we headed for home, I asked my daughter her opinion.

"I can imagine how amazing this would be in Maui, and it's not like I don't want to go there,'' she said. "But this was really cool. … Because since we know Tampa Bay so well, it's amazing seeing it from above.''

Joe DeRing, the president of Empower Adventures Tampa Bay, is hoping other visitors will feel the same way. He has heard from both enthusiastic residents as well as critics concerned the attraction will bring excess traffic to the area and damage the fragile environment.

"We've been working with the residents,'' DeRing said. "And we've had biologists out and studies done of environmental impact, and honestly, what is so valuable is how this will help the environment, allowing people to see this area, to see what's here. It makes people more aware.''

Contact Piper Castillo at pcastillo@tampabay.com. Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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