10/12/2013 9:00:00 AM Zipping through the Woods eXplore Brown County
Alesia Hinson of Schererville rides zip lines through the woods at eXplore Brown County. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchieemail@example.com)
Gary Bartels talks about the work of developing his family’s 500-acre plot of woods into a destination with a man-made lake, zip lines, camping, festivals and more. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchiefirstname.lastname@example.org)
GAS TANK TRIPS
One in a periodic series of stories on attractions only a tank of gas away.
An Indiana attraction lets visitors take flight through a wooded area in Brown County, but wings aren't required for the high-flying adventure through the trees.
eXplore Brown County at Valley Branch Retreat near Nashville gives adventure seekers a birds-eye view of the Brown County landscape as they zip line from tree to tree. Owner and general manager Gary Bartels said the retreat began years ago as a family-friendly outdoor events area before he brought one of his favorite vacation activities into his own backyard.
Bartels and his family inherited 500 acres of land in Brown County in the mid-1990s. At the time, the family considered subdividing the property and selling it. Yet there also was an idea of using the land to open an outdoor adventure park, but that was going to take the whole family and then a few others to make the park a reality.
"The question was what are we going to do with it," he said.
So Bartels asked his sons, who were 8 and 12 at the time, what they wanted to do. They thought about it for two weeks, then they gave him an answer.
Both sons decided to help their dad build an adventure retreat, but they had a few demands - pay for their work and lots of ice cream.
Together dad and sons built a lake on the property in 1994 for canoes and fishing, as well as a hall and cabins from native timber harvested from the property.
Bartels, an engineer, designed the plans for the buildings himself. He helped to construct the buildings, too.
"I'm a hands-on guy," Bartels said.
The family built a paintball area on the property and also made trails through the woods for mountain biking and all-terrain vehicle tours - some of Bartels' favorite outdoor activities.
But something was still missing from the adventure park.
Over the years, Bartels visited zip line facilities throughout the world while on vacations.
"Whenever I travel, I do zip lines," he said.
Then an idea began to form to bring zip lines to Brown County. No other zip line adventures existed in the continental United States when he first started looking into options in 2004, Bartels said.
"I knew in my heart this is what I needed to complete my facility," he said.
He began to look closely and compared nearly 20 zip line adventures before building a prototype in the Brown County woods.
The zip line tours - and his retreat - continued to grow from there.
With the new changes at the retreat in September 2011, Bartels also decided to rebrand the business around the same time the zip lines opened to the public.
Brown County, which had always attracted visitors because of the arts and downtown shops, had begun to see a decline in tourism, and he hoped his business might be able to help bring tourists back to the county.
"Shops were closing up, and we were hurting," he said of the area. "I'm trying to give back to the county."
After the first zip line, Bartels continued to build other lines and landing platforms throughout the woods and over the lake at his adventure retreat.
Usually zip lines span anywhere from 100 to 300 feet long. The ziplines over the lake at eXplore Brown County are over 400 feet in length.
"Ours are over the average," Bartels said. "I wanted them long and fast."
Yet he wanted the adventures to be safe and secure. Bartels chose to make the zip lines at eXplore Brown County hands-free, meaning a line helps people come to a safe stop at the end of the zipline tours instead of hand breaks. The harness and equipment for the adventures are checked three times before getting on the zip lines.
The added details to safety allow people of all ages to take a venture on the zip lines. Bartels said anyone from 50 to 270 pounds can safely ride on the lines.
Visitors from 6 to 90 years old have enjoyed the Brown County woods from a unique view - from the treetops - since the zip lines opened over two years ago, Bartels said.
In fact, the average age of a visitor to eXplore Brown County is 50, he said, and nearly 95 percent of customers have never been on a zip line before.
Realizing not everyone might want to take a ride down the 1,220-foot zip line that can reach speeds of 45 miles-an-hour on their first attempt, Bartels installed a shorter 80-foot zipline for visitors who might want to try a shorter distance before taking a longer trip through the trees.
"I think we've had five people out of 20,000 bail (after the short ride)," he said.
Visit eXplore Brown County online at www.eXploreBrownCounty.com for more information or to make reservations.