Empower Adventures lives up to its name

An outdoor adventure course helps people face their fears head-on.

click to enlarge Empower Adventures crossing obstacle ropes - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
Empower Adventures crossing obstacle ropes

When I first hear of the opportunity to try a zipline tour at Empower Adventures in Oldsmar, I'm thrilled. Who doesn’t love ziplining?

And then I remember: Me. I am terrified of heights.

While my apparently-recently-developed claustrophobia was only revealed to me when I tried sensory deprivation in an isolation tank, my fear of heights is something I'm much more aware of.

If there’s anything I have learned since going back to school four years ago, though, it’s this: Don’t wait for your fears to magically go away in order to try something new — they won’t. So go ahead. Be scared. And then do the damn thing anyway.

I embrace my newfound mantra and schedule my tour at Empower. Soon the big day arrives, and I show up early for the 9 a.m. zipline. After taking some deep breaths and chugging what’s left of my coffee, I grab my sunscreen and water and hope for the best. 

The first thing I notice upon entering the outdoor space is the scale. I tell myself weighing in is probably mandatory and swallow my pride. I don’t quite understand the weight limit, but I pass within range and hope the rest of the morning isn’t quite so humiliating.

Our guides Jeremy and Daniel introduce themselves and I slather on SPF 35 while they instruct us on some of the basics: Open your helmet vents here, pull your straps tighter there; try not to get too big of a wedgie, OK?

The minutes tick by and we are ready to climb. My panic escalates. I try not to think about it too much as I make my way up the rickety stairs to the first platform tower. The banister to my right doesn’t even reach my waist. 

I am out of breath before I even start the ascent, one of the beautiful side effects of nervousness and stress (you should hear me give a class presentation or try to have an awkward conversation — you’d think I was halfway through a marathon). 

Thankfully, the first platform is the tallest, 65 feet up. I reach the top of the stairs before I know it.

click to enlarge Our amazing tour guide Daniel, who stayed patient and positive throughout the day. - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
Our amazing tour guide Daniel, who stayed patient and positive throughout the day.

Being 65 feet in the air is difficult enough if you’re afraid of heights, regardless of what you’re standing on. If you happen to be standing on an open wooden platform with nothing to hold onto — and then the wind picks up, causing said platform to sway from side to side — well, let’s just say I have recurring nightmares about shit like this.

click to enlarge Standing high above the water before crossing the suspension bridge. Don't let my smile fool you; a minute after this picture was taken the breeze picked up and I was hugging the pole for dear life. - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
Standing high above the water before crossing the suspension bridge. Don't let my smile fool you; a minute after this picture was taken the breeze picked up and I was hugging the pole for dear life.

I pass my water in the general direction of my wife, Steph, though I am completely frozen and can’t bear to look and see where she is. There are nine of us in my tour group, and I have the unfortunate task of being the very last one to go. Each time the next person jumps off the platform and into the abyss, I grow closer to pissing myself. 

When it’s my turn, I cling to the wire holding my ties and creep shakily forward. Our guide Daniel moves my clips to the zipline and instructs me to jump when I’m ready. “Zip on, Resie!”

Ready I may never be, but I glance towards Steph and manage to croak out an “I love you,” voice shaking so much that both my guide and wife chuckle. I brace myself and jump.

click to enlarge The course stretches over 20 acres and includes five zip lines, four obstacles and a 200-foot suspension bridge. - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
The course stretches over 20 acres and includes five zip lines, four obstacles and a 200-foot suspension bridge.

The first few seconds I am overcome with terror and can barely see. I scream until I realize I’m not falling so much as flying. Sixty-five feet up in the air, going 30 to 40 miles an hour. Yes, this is an adrenaline rush. 

Steph’s words play over in my ears. Pretend you’re a bird. And for several glorious moments, I do just that. I am above the trees, in the trees, amongst the woodpeckers and osprey as their calls mix with the whirring of the zipline. My shrieks turn into laughter, and I lift my legs higher. OK. I can do this. I am doing this.

I soak in my surroundings and before I know it, I’ve reached the platform on the other end of the line. Guide Jeremy gives me a confident smile as he says, “Nice job! Don’t worry — I’ve got you.”

Thank goodness for guides with guts.

The next couple of zips pass in similar fashion. I dread each jump off, but once airborne, I’m exhilarated.

click to enlarge Empower Adventures crossing obstacle ropes - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
Empower Adventures crossing obstacle ropes

One hour in, we encounter the obstacle course. While walking a tightrope is not my forte, to be sure, I somehow cross an uneven ladder, a log, and two tightropes without falling off or humiliating myself too much. 

click to enlarge Just crossing a tightrope here, no big deal. - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
Just crossing a tightrope here, no big deal.

Daniel and Jeremy turn out to be perfect gentlemen; both are encouraging and neither laugh at me for my severe hyperventilation. They make a great team and share their wealth of knowledge on the 396-acre Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve, pointing out woodpecker holes in trees and anhingas drying their feathers by the waterside. 

Toward the end of the tour, we cross a 200-foot suspension bridge. This time, I get to go first and am delighted to see two ospreys perched across the way. I focus on the sea hawks as my clips are moved and I prepare to cross. Though the bridge is a bit more rickety than it looks, its beauty is not lost on me as I make my way to the other side. Because of how high up we are, I have a bird’s eye view of Tampa Bay. I can see multiple city skylines surrounding the preserve.

click to enlarge Crossing the 200-foot suspension bridge overlooking Tampa Bay. - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
Crossing the 200-foot suspension bridge overlooking Tampa Bay.

At last, we reach our final zip. It is a bittersweet moment. The tour has been incredible, but my nerves are shot, and Empower Adventures has saved what looks to be the best for last. Ziplining over the water is magnificent, and by this time I am confident enough to let go and look around. With one arm dangling off of the handlebars, I really do feel like I’m soaring.

click to enlarge Zip on! - Steph Waechter
Steph Waechter
Zip on!

I soak it all in one last time, grateful for the opportunity to have done such an exhilarating thing; grateful I didn’t let my fear prevent me from giving it a shot. 

Steph waits for me down below at our final destination, a proud smile in her eye as she lifts her camera for one last snap. Drenched in sweat and nerves fried, I rappel to the ground the same way I crossed each of the ziplines and obstacles: Beginning with a scream, ending with a laugh. 

Part of Empower Adventures’ mission is “to inspire and motivate individuals to step outside of their comfort zones into their ‘stretch’ zone — this is where greatness is born and a sense of purpose is discovered.” And the place really lives up to its name. Today has been one hell of an empowering adventure.