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Cypress Valley Canopy Tours: Zip it Up!

Canopy tour participants explore the treetops by zipping from one treetop platform to another, like Charisse Leonidas of San Francisco did last July.

TWO SECONDS after I leap off the platform, the cypress-scented air fills with the buzzing whistle of the steel zip trolley. This tune accompanies the "boom-boom-ba-boom" of the George of the Jungle theme song resonating in my head–perfect background music for my first bird's-eye view of the Texas Hill Country. I'm zipping along at 30 mph, gargantuan cypress canopies looming overhead, and a placid stream gurgling 30 feet below.

Cypress Valley Canopy Tours in Spicewood, the brainchild and handiwork of co-owner David Beilharz, is an eco-theme park consisting of steel cables, or zip-lines, installed high in the cypress-tree canopies. Here, every adventurer's dream of flying comes true. Tour-goers wear harnesses hooked to a cable as they glide from tree to tree. David, his wife and co-owner, Amy, and their four kids live on this 88-acre Hill Country haven, hosting the canopy tours and raising buffalo.

Craving thrill and nature, a few friends and I have fled the hustle-and-bustle of Austin to check out Texas' only canopy tour. Before takeoff, our group of six looks down anxiously from the top floor of the wheelhouse, stilted 25 feet above-ground, while awaiting the first zip. The wheelhouse, one of David's many architectural endeavors on the property, stands like a fortress over the electricity-generating waterwheel, facing the zip-line course on one side and a lake on the other.

When we arrived, Amy's soft voice and big smile had made us feel welcome. She then led us along the dam to the wheelhouse to meet David and our guides, Amy King and Amalea Saunders. David stood behind the desk, taking a break from the day's tractor driving and backyard maintenance.

Judging by our two guides' tans, defined biceps, and scuffed gloves, I could tell these 20-somethings had spent a lot of time in the treetops. After suiting us in our harnesses, helmets, and leather gloves, they took us to a miniature course for a practice run. If you brake too much in mid-zip, they warned, you'll stop zipping–and find yourself suspended motionless 30 feet up in the air. So they showed us how to avoid this situation and what to do if we did stop midway between platforms. Back at the wheelhouse for takeoff, our guiding "zippists," as they jokingly called themselves, promised to catch us before any accidental bungles in their jungle.

Now, as we get ready for takeoff, Amy stands at the edge of the wheelhouse's top floor, which has no walls, and tells each of us when to step up onto the designated tree stump to prepare for zipping. Waiting for the first zip-line is the scariest part for my usually-fearless friend Valerie. She goes first, and when she forces herself off the tree stump, she screams as if jumping without a harness.

But nervous butterflies do not even come near Texas Highways photography editor Mike Murphy, who zips with two giant cameras strapped over his shoulders. Having recently zipped on a canopy tour in Hawaii, I'm anxious to take the first plunge into fresh air. Amy later tells us, "I can always tell who the nervous ones are when I see their legs shake in the air."

After the initial leap from the wheelhouse, everyone feels like a bird soaring through the trees (perhaps like the endangered, but commonly-seen Golden-cheeked Warbler, which nests here). In the canopy, we easily spot woodpecker holes. Peering over the edge of one of the platforms between zip-lines, Amy and Amalea point out cypress roots stretching through the creek to drink up the water, and a cactus growing on top of a tree branch. They casually teach us new words like "cambium" (the ring of tissue inside a tree where sap flows), and tell us that carving too many love notes in one tree injures it. Our "zippists" even spot a four-foot-long water moccasin in the creek below. The dark serpent relaxes, motionless, appearing as harmless as a fallen branch.

Cypress Valley Canopy Tours take place at 1223 Paleface Ranch Rd., 30 minutes west of downtown Austin. Reservations required. Tours are available for groups, individuals, and birthday parties. Spring tours begin in Apr. (call or check Web site for opening date). In spring and fall, tours run on Sat 9-dusk, Sun 12-dusk, and during the week by special request. In the summer, tours run Tue-Sat 9-dusk, Sun 12-dusk. Group rates available to conservation organizations. Private tours may be purchased. To book tours or get more information, call 512/264-8880.

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