Story By Livi Welch
Photos Contributed To LIVE Lee
In the midst of Joe Wheeler State Park in Decatur, Alabama, one might expect to find a hiker or two. Many families stay in the park’s lakeside cottages or decide to face nature and pitch a tent in the campgrounds. Joe Wheeler State Park offers a waterfront lodge with a restaurant, a full-service marina, complete with overnight and permanent docking slips, an 18-hole golf course and a clubhouse. In the 2,550-acre resort park, it isn’t hard to find something to do.
If that wasn’t enough, Joe Wheeler State Park has opened The Raptor Aerial Adventures (TRAA) — a ropes course that defies gravity and expectations.
“This is our third year and we’ve just seen our popularity grow like crazy since we opened,” said Jeremy Baldwin, owner of TRAA.
Over a couple of weeks, TRAA worked with Beanstalk Builders, a company based in North Carolina to assemble the adventure park. “[We] strive to give people outdoor adventures with positive experiences, to foster an appreciation for the environment, to provide on-going injections of self-esteem … and revitalization of the human spirit,” said Mike Fischesser, the founder of Beanstalk Builders LLC. “It’s a very simple formula: When people feel good about themselves, they relate to others and the environment in a more positive way, thereby creating a powerful multiplier effect for spreading goodness.”
Fischesser said he doesn’t care if some find the message “corny” because “just watch[ing] the glow radiating from people” utilizing the structures they make is enough to change their minds.
On koa.com, a representative of TRAA wrote about working with Beanstalk Builders to create the custom park: “We can’t tell you what an awesome team they’ve been, and to top it off, they’ve created a thrilling aerial tree-top adventure park with six rope bridges, a rope tunnel, a zip-line and a captivating free-fall jump.”
“It was awesome to have [Fischesser] here,” Baldwin said. “He builds some of the largest zip-lines in the world. Also, to get insurance on parks like this, you must be certified. He was the founder of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), which concentrates on that safety certification aspect. It was mind blowing to have him come to the park.”
Participants can climb ropes and platforms, surveying the beautiful forest around them. For much faster viewing, they can strap into the zip-line, which spans a whopping 258 ft. Unlike most zip-lines that require a few seconds to increase speed, TRAA’s zip-line immediately drops participants 2.5 feet, creating a higher speed that will knock the socks off of even the most avid zip-liners.
“Our zip-line isn’t like most are,” Baldwin said. “When you first jump off, you get sent forward, then backwards, then forwards again. It’s really a cool experience.”
And of course, there is the main event — or “the big jump,” as the website nicknames it. Excitingly called the “Headrush Quickflight,” those who are more daring can climb up through the ropes tunnel before stepping out onto the 45-ft platform. There, participants will be strapped to the QuickFlight system, designed and manufactured by Head Rush Technologies, which allows them to free fall, or have a “true fall,” for up to 9.8 ft. A true fall paired with a high ground proximity awareness (GPA) creates an experience the website calls “truly unlike anything in the industry.”
For the folks that are a bit apprehensive, don’t fear. A trained instructor acts as a guide and safety manager for participants. For the zip-line and free-fall, they will strap participants into a full-body harness called the Edelrid Radialis Pro and supply Italian Kong climbing helmets. Additionally, TRAA advises wearing closed-toed shoes such as sneakers to maximize comfort and safety.
“We prioritize safety over everything,” Baldwin said. “Along with all of our protective gear, the course is routinely inspected by third-party professionals. It’s very safe.”
However, this is an adventure park after all. It’s safe, but it’s also supposed to be challenging.
“We try to convince everybody to do the free-fall,” he said. “We usually tell them that if you can get yourself to do it, it’s worth it. Obviously, we don’t want anyone to overdo it. We make certain statements of encouragement, but we allow [participants] to choose what they want to do. We don’t put too much pressure, but every time we see someone try it who didn’t want to do it, they come back super happy.”
Almost everyone can enjoy the course, Baldwin said. As long as a person has functioning legs, they are free to suit up and head right in — or up. TRAA has made it a priority to make the park accessible for as many people as possible.
“We had a child with special needs go up in the ropes,” Baldwin said. “He did absolutely fantastic. He went in a little nervous, but he went through it. His parents had signed him up to go in the park because they wanted him to build up his self confidence, and we really wanted to help him do that. At the end, he was jumping up and down, clapping his hands. It was so special to be able to experience that and see our work in action.”
Though anyone can test themselves, Baldwin said that the park enjoys having teams the most, since they are “the most fun.”
“I would say the best thing the park offers is the ability to grow individually and with a group of people,” Baldwin said. “Working with a work team or sports team and seeing everyone support and yell for each other has been so neat. Those are definitely the best groups.”
Baldwin recalled a high school women’s soccer team that came a few months ago that made an impression on him and the other workers.
“There were about 15 girls and 60 parents, siblings and friends there watching them,” he said. “Everyone was screaming, ‘Jump, jump, jump,’ as each girl jumped off the platform. They were just rooting each other on.
“Once, there was a little girl who was terrified to do the free-fall. Eventually, she decided to do it, though. She came down and begged her mom to let her go back up and do it again. It was awesome.”
But TRAA knows that there is only so much excitement one can take per day, so they encourage participants to check out some of the more relaxing amenities Wheeler State Park has, too.
“When you’re done, you can go horseback riding or relax on the beach,” Baldwin said. “You can go eat at the restaurant. You can do a lot at Wheeler [State Park.]”
But, why is it called The Raptor Aerial Adventures?
“We have a lot of hawks out in this area, and a massive eagle,” Baldwin said. “A raptor is a bird of prey, flying through the trees. In the park, you get to go up into the trees, too. We thought it was cool to name it after that.”
To make reservations to explore the park or read more about The Raptor Aerial Adventures, go to www.theraptoraerialadventures.com/.