HENDERSON — The Sky Guides, wisely, start zip liners out on some short, low and easy routes at Kerfoot Canopy Tour near Henderson.
After zipping from tower to tower a few times, our group had the confidence in the safety of the harnesses, the professionalism of the guides and a feel for how to use a leather-covered gloved hand to slow yourself down when coming to the end of each zip line.
The confidence takes a bit of a hit after walking across a 170-foot suspension bridge and climbing a 50-foot tower where you get your first view of what's to come.
They call it "Kong."
The cable stretches from atop the tower across a very wide, very deep ravine. The other end of the cable, where you will be heading, disappears into the trees on the other side of the gorge, 900 feet away.
And while it's the highest — 175 feet above the middle of the ravine — it's not the longest of the 14 zip lines you ride at Kerfoot. The next one will take you nearly a quarter mile back across the ravine.
Best in the state
My wife Rose and I did the zip line course for the first time on a recent Saturday. We'd zip lined before in Mexico, but Kerfoot proved to be far more than expected. The length, height and number of zip lines and the beauty of the Minnesota River valley leave you in awe.
Kerfoot, started in early 2013, has a Certificate of Excellence score on TripAdvisor.com and has been voted best in Minnesota — standing out among a growing number of zip line courses being opened in Minnesota and around the country.
Six miles north of Henderson on Scenic Byway Country Road 6, the facility is owned by Lee and Eva Kerfoot.
Lee's family is legendary in the hospitality business, having owned the Gunflint Lodge in far northern Minnesota since the 1920s.
His family opened Towering Pines Canopy Tour on the Gunflint Trail in 2012 and Lee and Eva decided to look for a southern Minnesota site to open one.
"I grew up in the Boundary Waters encouraging people to get outdoors and build their confidence, feel better about their lives," Lee said. "My wife and I both come from entrepreneurial families and we knew we wanted a business that would get people outdoors and have an adventure and push them a little."
"Zip lining is exploding in popularity," Lee said. "There's 100 courses a year opening."
The couple is building another course at Mount Ski Gull called Brainerd Zip Line Tour that will open in the spring.
"We're aiming to increase the awareness that there's great zip lining in Minnesota. You don't need to go to Belize or Hawaii for it."
General Manager Ed MacHolda said there have been zip lines and other amenities added at the Henderson site since it opened and its popularity is growing.
"Our record last year was 120 people on a very busy day. Now we're getting 140 to 150 people on a Saturday."
He manages a couple dozen Sky Guides, many college students, who go through four 8-hour days of initial training for the job. In pairs, they lead groups of about a half-dozen through the course.
Lee said Kerfoot tried some winter zip lining last year and is going to be open throughout this winter.
"People say zip lining in winter? I say, well you go downhill skiing in the winter. Dress like you do for that and it'll be great," he said.
"The scenery is beautiful, pristine and private."
There's also an added thrill to winter zip lining.
"When the cables heat up in the summer they stretch and there's a bowl in the middle that slows you some," Lee said. "When it gets cold, they tighten up and become more of a straight line. You go scary fast in the winter."
Kerfoot also added kayaking trips to the menu this year. They provide the kayaks and gear and shuttle people to the Minnesota River at Henderson where people go on a three hour trip and are then picked up.
Lee said the river service has been a hit. "It's a beautiful, scenic stretch of the river. People are amazed at how secluded it seems even though you're close to the Twin Cities and Mankato."
Taking the tour
The Sky Guides are amiable and funny but above all safety-minded and professional. After ATVs take our group up the hill to start the course, our guides, Greta Wintersteen and Savannah Zippel, lead the group through "ground school," familiarizing them with the harnesses, telling them what to expect, how to slow down and a few hand signals to watch for from the guide as people come in for a landing.
At each zip line, one guide goes to the next tower to help people as they come into the end of the zip line, and to use an emergency brake if needed if people come in too fast. Through hand signals they tell people when to start braking and how hard, or when to let up if they're slowing too much.
"I get knocked around once in a while," Wintersteen said of helping people who come in too fast. "I tell people if they know they're going too fast, try to get your legs to the side or come in backwards so you don't kick me."
Once in a while, the guides have to go out on the zip line to help people who don't quite make it to the end — either because they braked too much, too early, or because a headwind slows people down — especially lighter-weight kids. (To use the zip lines, people must be at least 10 and between 70 and 250 pounds.)
Safety is a constant focus on the course and while there is plenty of heart-pounding exhilaration, there was never a moment we felt at risk.
Besides the pulley you attach to each zip line, there are two safety straps attached to you that the guides snap on the cable behind you. And the safety straps are always attached to a cable while people are standing on a tower waiting their turn. Everyone wears a helmet.
The guides are also fonts of information — part of their training includes lessons on the geological history of the river valley, the history of the course, the details of its construction and safety inspection routines.
While the guides tell people they can end their adventure anytime if they feel uncomfortable, the guides said no one has ever asked to stop short of the whole course.
While the middle section of the course has the longest and highest cables, the last part of the course — as your head down the bluff and back to the office where you started — has steeper and faster zip lines.
The entire course takes about 2 1/2 hours to complete and the time flies by.
On the second to last stop on the course — atop a new 40-foot tower added this year near the parking lot — people have two choices: You can zip down to the ground, or you can have a strap attached to you and step off the edge of the tower, free-falling for several feet before the strap gently slows you as you go to the ground where you land on a padded mat.
Our group all opted for the latter. You need to reach a little deeper to scrounge up the courage to actually step into mid-air from a four-story-high platform.
Just one more heart-stopper to end a thrilling day.