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Eco-Adventure Calls

Photo courtesy Bird’s Underwater

Do you want to experience nature in a way that goes beyond just looking at a scenic computer desktop? Try hugging a manatee in the wild or sailing through the treetops like Tarzan.

Eco-adventures across the United States allow religious groups to not only view a panoramic vista from a distance, but also get close and personal with God’s creation. Allow your church group to learn about nature through hands-on outdoor activities such as sea kayaking past orca whales, hiking the New Mexican wilderness with the help of a llama and scaling geologic marvels in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.

Bird’s Underwater Swim With the Manatees
Crystal River, Fla.
Imagine swimming underwater and finding yourself eye to eye with a 1,300-pound creature. Such is the norm for groups taking Bird’s Underwater Swim With the Manatees, a three-hour tour where groups can swim with these docile giants in their natural habitat.

“They will definitely make eye contact with you,” said Bill Oestreich, co-owner of Bird’s Underwater. “These are the only animals in the wild I know of that seek you out the way the manatees do. With the young ones, there are times when I can’t even videotape them, because they are hanging on me and following me everywhere I go.”

After watching a video on interacting with manatees, tour members don rented wetsuits and snorkeling gear on the pontoon boats. Participants merely have to float at the top of the water, as manatees surface for air about every five minutes and often come over to people to nuzzle, hug or investigate while the captain films a digital-quality video available for purchase after the tour.

Oestreich recommends taking the tour in winter when the gray-brown aquatic mammals travel into Kings Bay for the constant 72-degree temperatures of the water. During especially cold mornings, swimmers could float with hundreds of manatees, since anywhere from 200 to 500 come to Kings Bay during winter months.

The best time to see the most manatees is the early 6:15 a.m. tour, because some will move out of the bay later in the day due to warmer weather and crowding.

Sea Kayak the San Juan Islands
San Juan Island, Wash.
With nothing but the peaceful sound of water lapping against the sides of a sea kayak, groups can hear approaching orcas surfacing for air on a paddling tour of the San Juan Islands. Since the islands’ coastal waters are home to around 90 orcas from April through October, the protected waters have become world famous for their opportunities to closely view pods of orca whales.

Courtesy San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

“People always talk about how powerful an experience it is to be at water level in a nonmotorized boat with the orcas,” said Robin Jacobson, public relations manager for the San Juan Visitors Bureau. “You’re so close to nature that it is very moving to people. People who think nature is just something you see say that they really feel this experience.”

Marine naturalists lead kayak tours in search of one of the orca pods as well as some of the other amazing wildlife living in Washington’s coastal waters, such as bald eagles, harbor seals, sea lions and the black-and-white Dall’s porpoises, which often playfully jump out of the water in plain view of kayakers.

Kayak expeditions run with numerous outfitters who can manage group outings ranging from day trips to three-day excursions. Guides also teach participants about the local wildlife, geology and history.

After a scenic ferry ride from the mainland, most groups stay on either San Juan Island or Orcas Island for the islands’ varied accommodation and recreational offerings.

Zipline Canopy Tours
Lincoln, N.H.
It isn’t every day visitors can see New Hampshire’s White Mountains from the vantage point of the birds and squirrels. On Zipline Canopy Tours by Alpine Adventures Outdoor Recreation, groups can zip from pine to hemlock to oak to birch as they explore the state’s backcountry via the first zip line course in New England.

“We take you to the top of the course in an off-road vehicle, which starts the fun,” said Allan Guilbeault, director of marketing for Alpine Adventures. “The off-road vehicle is an adventure in itself. The ride takes you over obstacles for a bumpy ride to the top.”

Guests can choose from two zip line courses: the original 2006 Treetop Canopy Tour, which soars through the trees on six different zip lines, stretches 900 feet long and includes a 75-foot-long suspension bridge over Barron Gorge.  The course also offers a 35-mph optional freefall.

The second option is the Sky Rider Zipline Tour. Opened in 2008, this course features scenic overlooks, a 1,500-foot-long and 200-foot-high zip line, and an 80-foot plunge that sends riders falling at 50 mph. On another section, two group members can race against each other on side-by-side zip lines.

The two-hour zip line courses can be coupled with Alpine Adventure’s Snowmobile Tours, Safari Off-Road Tours and the upcoming Thrillsville Aerial Fun Park.

Wild Earth Llama Adventures
Taos, N.M.
Renting a llama in New Mexico may sound odd at first. However, the benefits of a sure-footed llama carrying hiking gear have made llama trekking a popular eco-adventure across the United States.

Courtesy Wild Earth Llama Adventures

Used in the South American highlands as a means to transport materials to difficult-to-reach locations, the domesticated llama has carried people’s wares for thousands of years. At Wild Earth Llama Adventures, groups can experience the solitude and breathtaking beauty of hiking and camping in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Rio Grande Gorge with a furry llama companion assisting. Trails range from easy day hikes to more involved camping expeditions.

All hikes come with gourmet meals carried by the llamas and prepared by wilderness certified guides. Guides will also educate hikers on local ecology, cultural history and wilderness survival skills along the way.

Groups can even choose the scenery, as the routes offered contain clear alpine lakes, meadows of wildflowers, mountain panoramas and some of America’s remaining ancient forests. Llamas continue to assist participants on the lookout for wildlife, as their keen senses help them to track herds of elk, mule deer and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure
Campton, Ky.
The gray sandstone cliffs and 100 natural sandstone arches spanning the 44-square-mile Red River Gorge Geological Area are impressive to any onlooker taking in the scenery. Others see these magnificent rock faces as a vertical challenge.

Courtesy Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure

Groups with no previous rock climbing experience can accept this call to climb at Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure, which offers the first Via Ferrata in the United States, guided climbing and guided rappeling expeditions.

Originally built in Italy to transport troops across mountains during World War I, Via Ferratas allow climbers to ascend rock walls with the help of cables, climbing gear and iron rungs drilled into the rock face. Torrent Falls’ 2001 Climbing Adventure Via Ferrata lines a horseshoe canyon with six different sections and difficulty ranging from easy to expert.

After a training session, a group can scale the 120-foot-high course all day, then traverse the course’s two suspension bridges, the 40-foot tightrope walk and a walkway under a waterfall.
“The most common thing we hear from people on the Climbing Adventure is how proud they are that they actually accomplished certain areas,” said Nicole Meyer, manager of Torrent Falls. “As exposed as they are on the cliffside, they feel a real sense of accomplishment.”

More stunning landscapes await on the guided rappeling and/or climbing tours. Participants can take on the dizzying heights with certified guides who teach rock climbing safety, knot tying, climbing techniques and information on the intriguing geology of the area.

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