Oh, What a Rush! Close to home adrenaline rushes and bucket list adventures
By: Doug Kaufman
Climbing Mt. Everest, rafting the Amazon and scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef are all grand dreams, but there are plenty of adventures that are closer and more affordable while still packed with adrenalin rushes.
“I’ve heard the term ‘bucket list’ so many times,” said Mark Cook, owner of Fly Free Skydiving in Festus. “Most people come out and say it’s (on) their bucket list.”
Sharing the clouds with birds while skydiving, scuba diving the crystalline water at Bonne Terre Mine and soaring through the treetops with Eco Zipline Tours or Caveman Zipline at Meramec Caverns all make the list of adventure vacations that are an easy drive from home.
Mining for adventure
Bonne Terre Mine – such a popular destination for divers that Jacques Cousteau and his crew visited and filmed there in 1983 – hosts 15,000 dives a year. The mine holds a billion gallons of clear water and has 17 miles of navigable shoreline. National Geographic named it one of America’s top 10 greatest adventures, and The History Channel has done two features on the mine.
“The mine is all about history,” said Doug Goergens, who co-owns West End Diving in St. Louis and Bonne Terre Mine in Bonne Terre with his wife, Catherine. “When they abandoned the mine, they left everything intact. So when you dive the mine, you dive the history of the mine.”
Bonne Terre Mine was the largest lead mine in the world, Goergens said, and operated from 1860 until it shut down a century later. When the mine ceased operation, everything was left behind and the pumps were shut off. So when water started seeping in, it flooded and preserved lunch rooms, a movie theater, a locomotive, geology labs, buildings, old light bulbs, iron ore carts, drills, staircases, slurry pipes, scaffolding, elevator shafts, even a water fountain.
“It grabs you,” Goergens said. “When you go into the mine, man, you’ve escaped into another world.”
There are over 50 different dive tours in the mine, plus half a million stadium lights above the water to illuminate the mine. Guides lead divers on the tours, following a numbered sequence of trails so the divers see something new with each dive. Average water temperature is 60 degrees F, average depth reached is 40 to 60 feet, visibility is always at least 100 feet and dives typically last 35 to 45 minutes.
Most divers will do a dive package, usually three to six dives.
For the less adventurous, walking or boat tours are offered every hour. The one-hour guided walking tour covers the first two levels of the mine along the “Old Mule Trail” where miners worked with picks and shovels in the 1800s.
The boat and walking tour takes visitors onto the lake where they can look down and get glimpses of elevators, submerged ore carts and more.
Whether diving or taking the boat or walking tour, Goergens recommends making reservations well in advance of your visit.
“This is a giant excavation under the earth – it’s huge,” Goergens said. “It’s like going to ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth.’”
Bonne Terre Mine is located at Hwy. 47 and North Allen Street in Bonne Terre, Mo., a little over an hour’s drive from St. Louis. For more information, call (314) 209-7200 or visit 2dive.com/btm.htm.
Jumping for joy
In their fourth year of helping people safely jump out of perfectly good planes, Fly Free Skydiving typically sees 50 or so first-time skydivers each weekend. Owner Mark Cook “fell in love” with the sport the first time he tried it in 2001.
“Until you’ve done it, words cannot describe it,” he said. “You really don’t know what to expect until you go do it.”
A lot of people, Cook said, mistakenly think it might be like a roller coaster, when you come over the top and feel that acceleration and your stomach comes up in your throat.
“It never feels like you’re falling,” he said. “It feels like you’re floating.”
First time skydivers are required to do tandem dives.
“It’s for their safety,” Cook said. “That first sky dive, you’re on sensory overload. The first three to five seconds out of the airplane, you don’t know which way is up, which way is down.”
When people return to jump, they know what to expect, Cook said.
“They know what free fall is like, so they do so much better as a student after they have experienced that first sky dive,” he said.
The minimum age to dive is 18. Fly Free, which has never had a fatality, adheres to the safety guidelines of the United States Parachute Association.
“The most dangerous thing about skydiving is your car ride to the drop zone,” Cook said, adding for students, “it’s probably one of the safest sports they could ever get into.”
Each container has a main parachute and a reserve chute. There is also an automatic activation device (AAD), which automatically deploys a reserve if the main chute hasn’t been opened by a height of 2,000 feet above the ground.
Cook, who has done 2,500 dives, owns two planes and is also a pilot. He said the thrill of jumping out of a plane never gets old.
“It gets in your blood and you want to do it all the time,” he said.
Fly Free Skydiving is located about 30 minutes south of St. Louis, at 900 Airport Road, Festus, Mo. For more information, call (314) 570-3905 or visit flyfreeskydiving.com.
Mike Seper, co-owner of Eco Zipline Tours in New Florence, Mo., was a student in Hawaii when he first tried zipline. Maui had the only zipline in the country at the time, and Seper “fell in love with” the rush.
“Just the thrill of being clipped on the line and feeling like you’re flying and not having to do any work was just a really neat experience,” he said.
When Seper decided to partner with zipline architect Robert Nickell in 2010 to create a course locally, extended ziplines were a must.
“When I had the opportunity to build mine, I built the largest one in mid-Missouri,” he said. “We have big, expansive lines. We have one line that’s a quarter-mile long, up over 200 feet high.”
Seper also wanted an ecologically friendly approach, keeping the environment intact.
“I tried to do something where we were integrated into the forest,” Seper said.
Eco Zipline has three courses: the Easy Rider is 1,000 feet long, has four lines and peaks at 25 feet high; the Super Six has six lines covering 1,800 feet with a top height of 50 feet; and the High Flyer is 10 lines spanning a mile-plus and topping out at 225 feet above the ground.
“It’s been amazing how well-received it’s been in the St. Louis area, and actually all around the Midwest,” Seper said. “People are saying it’s the best thing they’ve ever done in their life.”
Safety is emphasized, with training before the tour, and harnesses, helmets and gloves provided. Participants have two points of contact with the zipline at all times.
“We have a great crew,” Seper said. “Everybody’s out there to show people a good time and be safe.”
Eco Zipline is at 487 South Highway 19 in New Florence, Mo. For more information, call (314) 456-1444 or visit ecoziplinetours.com.
Caveman Zipline at Meramec Caverns is also in its third season zipping people over the river and through the woods.
“Everybody who does it enjoys it,” said manager Jeremey Anderson. “It’s kind of like you’re gliding through air.”
Caveman offers a four-line trip that starts with a 1,200-foot zip, followed by a bridge traverse to the next line, which is short and fast. The third line passes through another wooded section and leads to the final line, a 1,600-foot zip over the Meramec River. Top speed reached is 50 mph, and heights vary from 54- to 82-feet above the ground.
Caveman also provides helmets, harnesses, gloves and professionally certified guides. The company has a perfect safety record. Customers at Caveman practice on indoor ziplines before tackling the course, and they are clipped onto the lines at all times. A discount is offered to active military.
With or without discounts, it’s a rush well worth the price.
“Afterwards, they always say it was very exciting,” Anderson said.
Caveman Zipline is at 1135 Hwy. W, Sullivan, Mo. For more information, call (573) 468-9477 or visit cavemanzipline.com/index.php.