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Skamania Lodge's new aerial course offers thrills in the Columbia Gorge, and our writer Jennifer Anderson gives it a try

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JENNIFER ANDERSON - The Tribune's Jennifer Anderson conquers her fear of heights with a little help from her 9-year-old son at Skamania Lodge's new aerial park, an adventure in the trees. What would you do if you had no fear? Would you try skydiving, rock climbing, alpine skiing or parkour between rooftops?

I've never before imagined doing any of those, somehow having developed in my adult years a crippling fear of heights. Yet over Labor Day weekend, a day after the Eagle Creek Fire broke out, I found myself traversing between giant Douglas firs on wobbly boards while suspended from cables about 50 feet in the air. I hadn't even had a drink.

Skamania Lodge, an hour east of Portland on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, has always been a dreamy place for a weekend escape. (The lodge remained open during the Eagle Creek Fire, which came close but did not affect it.)

The new aerial park here, which opened in mid-August, adds another element of adventure and magic for families, friends, couples or anyone looking for a few more thrills.

Designed by Shayne Large, who also designed the lodge's famous zipline tour — which opened in 2013 — the course is nestled in the trees just across from the lodge.

The trees support 19 platforms and 22 elements, including a climbing feature, bridges, tightwire walks, a cargo net and even a canoe and paddles that you must use to hopscotch and maneuver across.

For some, it may sound like a cakewalk; for others, a nightmare. But the course is brilliantly built for all skill levels (age 6 and up and at least 4 feet tall), no athleticism required. More than a physical challenge, it's a mental one.

Which is why my 9-year-old and 12-year-old sons loved it so much. They got to be their favorite American Ninja Warrior for the day. We watch the show as a family; like the Olympics, it focuses on stories of the athletes who use sport to overcome their life obstacles — figuratively and literally.

Which brings me to my situation. I tend to whoop and holler loudly and laugh and talk uncontrollably when I'm doing something scary, I suppose to distract myself.

So here I was, my stomach fluttering like a leaf in the wind, saying nonsense things to the trees like "Ohmygosh OhmygoshOhmygosh this is easy, this is not scary at all. Holy cow, I can't do this, what am I doing, help I need to get down," and so on.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JENNIFER ANDERSON - Businesses and attractions in the Columbia River Gorge need visitors' love now more than ever; Skamania Lodge and the nearby town of Cascade Locks are open for business, as are other gorge destinations. Here, my 12-year-old was my savior. As confident and self-assured as anyone I know, he stayed back to encourage me through my sweat and trepidation, through the sheer panic of climbing through a cargo net with nothing solid underfoot, 50 feet in the air. I almost cried.

But he didn't let me quit. "You can do it, Mommy," he said repeatedly, and so I did — one foot in front of the other, reaching forward until I'd crossed to the other side, hugging the tree in relief.

My 9-year-old, meanwhile, is a born engineer; he loves puzzles, and enjoyed the aspect of figuring out which lines to take for the most efficient and least-wobbly walk. He led my husband from obstacle to obstacle, determined to tackle them all — including the tallest, the 70-foot Eagle's Nest.

To reach it, you first need to pass through some of the course's stickiest obstacles, including a vertical log swing — somehow propelling your body from one swinging log to another with just a tiny foothold. Some in our 19-person group did have trouble with this; others, including several teenagers, breezed through.

But there's no falling, or failing, here.

The course managers zip around, offering tips and assistance with the equipment as needed: Put that leg over there, swing your body more, c'mon you can do it, and so on. When you're vulnerable — and I wasn't the only screamer — a little hand-holding goes a long way.

About two hours later, as most of the other guests already had finished, my boys didn't want to leave the trees.

They reluctantly came down from the Eagle's Nest, having spent time taking in the sweeping views of the gorge and the firefighting planes swooping buckets of water to douse the wildfire. Back on the ground, they had barely taken off their gear when they had just one question for me: "When can we do it again?"

The Skamania Lodge Aerial Park adventure is $69 per person; discounts available for family and group packages. For more: www.destinationhotels.com/skamania

@jenmomanderson

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