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Zipping Through the Sky

A group of summer campers spend an afternoon teleporting, crossing a zip line at Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education in Clifton.

At first, the group of 11 campers from Arlington appeared to be jumping rope. Upon further inspection, however, it was explained that they were standing on the surface of the moon, and the only way back to Earth was for all of them to jump through the rotating teleporter to safety.

There were, of course, obstacles to overcome: All 11 members of their group, including the two rope turners, had to jump through, without touching the rope or making it stop. Someone had to be jumping rope at all times. If those conditions were not met, the group had to start again, all over, from the beginning.

Spending a day at the plethora of obstacle and team-building challenges at Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education teaches students, campers, even corporate offices a variety of ways to address problem-solving situations and leadership opportunities, said Sue Czarnetzky, coordinator for programs geared toward students in third through 12 grades.

Funded by a partnership between George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, Hemlock Overlook is a 225 acre expanse of forests, trails and obstacle courses that combine natural exploration with ropes courses, trust-building activities and games that help teams of people learn to work together, Czarnetzky said.

On Thursday, July 27, a group of 11 students from Camp Patahontas in Arlington were assigned to a handful of obstacles, including testing their luck at space travel with the jump rope teleporter.

"We used to have summer camps here, but now we mostly have outside groups that come in from jurisdictions across Northern Virginia and Washington," Czarnetzky said.

With cabins that can accommodate up to 96 people across the camp, Czarnetzky said Hemlock Overlook is in use nearly year-round.

"We don't have our outside activities if the temperature is below 50 degrees," she said. "We'll take the groups into the lodge if it's raining, which is where we do a lot of the environmental education programs for our third and fourth graders."

Last year, through a grant from REI, Hemlock Overlook purchased a storage shed and filled it with backpacks and other equipment for the environmental education programs, Czarnetzky said.

Hemlock Overlook has become a favorite day-trip destination for summer camps, as Camp Patahontas counselor Trystan Sill said she remembered visiting the course when she was a child.

"We're trying to build teamwork and trust between the teens," Sill said, in preparation for a weeklong camping trip later this summer.

Watching her campers try to jump from the moon to the Earth, she couldn't help but laugh with camp director Kristina Loerch.

"It's very rewarding to watch them try something over and over again until they get it right," Sill said. "They're so proud of themselves when they figure it out."

Spending the day at Hemlock was "a good way to get them used to depending on each other," Loerch added.

After the campers finished teleporting with a jump rope, they were separated into boy-girl pairs. One of the campers was blindfolded, and their partner had to guide them down a narrow, winding trail, complete with trees, roots and other campers.

The facilitator for the afternoon, Hemlock Overlook employee Diana Elbirt, told the camper who was to guide their partner to be careful and clear when giving directions and to keep close together.

"This teaches the kids how to act with respect toward each other," she said. "You have to be able to trust your guide or you'll fall off the trail."

The campers, who began their trek with giggles, soon became a bit more serious. Some of the guides would gently point their blindfolded partner around obstacles with a hand on their backs, others would tell them to "rotate" or "pivot" to avoid tree branches.

Jamie McCracken and her partner, James Overbeck, were among the more successful groups, despite Jamie's initial concerns about being blindfolded.

"I sort of freaked out," she said. "I don't like to be blindfolded. I was scared I was going to run into a tree."

Halfway down the trail, the teams stopped and traded positions, and James said he shared Jamie's concern about getting too close to a low branch.

"I was nervous at first, but I got better at it along the way," he said.

The two had just met earlier that week and had to learn to trust each other, Jamie said, but they agreed they worked well together.

During another obstacle, the murky but misleadingly-named Peanut Butter Pit, the campers had to figure out a way to reach across a small water hole filled with leaves, mud and unseen creepy crawlies to grab hold of a knotted blue rope, without falling in. Elbirt warned the campers that if they fell in, not only would they smell bad for the rest of the day, "the creatures that live in the water will come up and start singing New Kids on the Block songs."

Even though the campers had no idea who Elbirt was talking about, the sludgy brown water was enough of a deterrent. After deliberating and debating the best way to reach the rope without using anything other than their arms and legs, the campers agreed to hold onto the t-shirt of the tallest camper and let him lean over the pit. After several nervous attempts, complete with shrieks from some of the girls, they grabbed the rope and shouted with joy.

The final obstacle of the day was the most anticipated: a trip across the zip line.

Ten of the 11 campers decided to put on their leg harnesses and red helmets and climb the steep ladder, brave their way across wire cables and slide off the ledge, which allowed them to soar over a 300 foot drop to the other side of the hill in less than a minute.

The only camper to decline the trip, Katie Sondheim, said her fear of heights kept her on the ground.

"I've been here before and I chickened out then too," Katie said, promising that if her friend Emily Gursky came back to Hemlock with her some other time, she'd try her luck.

"I really liked the ride," said Emily, who had been on the zip line at Hemlock before. "I've been looking forward to this all day."

The first camper up on the platform was Trevor Newton, who said he felt "like you didn't have anything under you" when he was walking across the cables to the platform. "You go so fast! It's not scary at all."

Matt Whibley took the option of crossing the "commando" line, on which he held onto a cable over his head while walking sideways on the bottom cable. The other option had two cables on either side of a wire tight rope, then crossing a narrow wooden bridge.

"The fun part was crossing the wires," he said.

Spending the day at Hemlock let the campers "see your strengths and weaknesses," said Aliya Winker. "I got to see how brave I was. I didn't think that I was scared of heights before today, but I guess I am," she said, after letting out a loud scream as she left the zip line platform.

Children and young adult groups tend to be better at the problem-solving obstacles than adults because they're more willing to try creative solutions to a problem, Elbirt said.

"Adults take more time and try to plan a solution without trying it first," she said.

She was especially impressed with how this group of campers approached the teleporter challenge.

"Most groups don't realize that the people turning the ropes have to jump across too," she said. "This group did really well."