Yeah, We Can Do That

By Sally Treadwell

Maybe it was the time in Nicaragua, right after the Sandinistas lost power and the country was on edge, when Robbie Oates found himself staring down the barrel of a machine gun at an improvised vehicle barricade lit by bonfires. Oh, and, of course, he was with a member of the despised new government.


Or maybe it was the time he was woken out of a deep sleep to hare off after expensive camera equipment that was about to disappear into the maw of a suddenly-spewing lava flow. He was in Hawaii that time, rigging for a film crew in the Volcanoes National Park.

Or maybe it was the time he and his son gleefully (and, it must be said, a trifle tipsy) carried a mattress they’d borrowed from a luxurious guest room for about a mile down a path carved through the jungle to their own far more Spartan quarters. In the middle of the night. Laughing like hyenas. “You don’t get too many father-son bonding opportunities like that,” he snickered.

Yep, any one of thousands of unorthodox Kodak moments could easily qualify as “most memorable” for Robbie’s working life.

On the other hand, they’re really just garnish.

Because even though any raconteur worth his salt would dine out for months on Robbie’s grab-bag of funny and hair-raising stories, the truth is that they’re not even close to being the heart of what Robbie, Tom Zartman and Alan Frye at Phoenix Experiential Designs actually do.


What comes through, loudly and clearly, is not only their vitality and quietly confident yeah-we-can-do-that attitude, but also their sheer joy in having spent years making other people say—“Wow! I can’t believe I actually did that!”

Phoenix Experiential Designs may be just a few months old, but it has a world of experience and history behind it. Be-tween them, Robbie, Tom and Alan have spent a total of 54 years building a wide variety of climbing towers, challenge courses and canopy walkways from coast to coast and across the world, working with both Canopy Construction Associates and Alpine Towers.

They’ve used all that experience to create three designs: an Aerial Teams Course, designed for large groups; the Pinnacle climbing wall; and the Family ReCreate structure, designed to get families working together. Ziplines and canopy walkways pretty much anywhere are a cinch for them—projects like a 103-foot tall bridge and tower system in Peru tend to hone your skills quite well.


Even in this dodgy economy the three had absolutely no hesitation in setting up a new company after a philosophy-driven split with Alpine Towers. Adventure and challenge courses have become a real phenomenon worldwide, with good reason. Few people want to spend an entire vacation baking on the beach anymore, and a climate change-fueled curiosity about science and the natural world is putting canopy walkways on the map—in fact, all over it.

And then there’s the transformative aspect. Schools, retreats and adventure centers are all beginning to recognize and value the way challenge courses can often dramatically change the way people think about themselves, the way they deal with obstacles.

How to Survive a Torpedoed Ship


The challenge business really started back in wartime 1941. Lawrence Holt, head of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line, discovered that, counter-intuitively, when his ships were torpedoed, younger merchant seamen were far less likely than the older men to survive in lifeboat situations or frigid ocean waters.

He enlisted the help of German educator Dr. Kurt Hahn, who quickly figured out that the young seamen were simply inexperienced and hadn’t grown up dealing with difficult situations or learning a variety of practical skills. His solution: a 26-day “shot-in-the-arm” course of intense experiences that would increase the young men’s self-confidence and ability to overcome challenges.

canopy.jpgOutward Bound, as the course became known, worked. It worked so well that once the threat of German U-boats was gone, Outward Bound continued as a pioneer in outdoor education, attracting a bunch of instructors who not only exulted in creating and supervising exhilarating physical and mental challenges but were also super-aware of safety issues.

One of those instructors was Mike Fischesser, who had a background of building monkey bridges and roads as a Boy Scout. In 1976 he helped create what was then one of the most spectacular ropes courses anywhere, “the ultimate Tarzan course,” at Table Rock, as a screening tool for instructors to check their students’ balance, coordination and strength; the course soon became an event in itself. “People would say, no way I can do it. And then they’d do it anyway and get a natural high,” he remembered.

He kept getting requests to design more courses. And eventually he did. “In 1989, Mike called some of us about building the first Alpine Tower,” recalled Tom Zartman, who’d worked with Mike at Outward Bound. He thought the idea was…um…a little crazy.


“I told Mike no WAY was it going to fly. I just had no concept of what it would become. But he was so sure that it was going to work that he wrote me a check for three jobs. Knowing Mike and his values and lifestyle, I knew it would be fun, not just all about the bottom line. And it was the best thing since sliced bread—we’d go someplace with poles and bolts and tools, and work like mad, and a few days later we’d walk away and there would be this beautiful, well-built structure that some one was going to have a great time with.”


A challenge course is often all about getting people who are apprehensive, perhaps a little insecure, to do something that they never dreamed they could do. Something that’s an adrenaline rush, but leaves steady self-confidence and renewed strength in its wake. Camp Broadstone’s Director Jude Bevan finds climbing towers absolutely in-valuable in her work with kids.


“They’re all saying, ‘Here, let me help you up’…everybody’s cheering each other on. It really opens their eyes to their peers—they’ll say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know Johnny could do this.’ They see that people all have very different talents,” she said. “It’s really helpful to talk about how this relates to the real world—at the time your mind is going crazy, but you’ve planted a seed and when you get to a roadblock you can draw on that experience to help you move past it.”

“One of the teachers told me that the kids are just different afterwards,” said Alan Frye, talking about one of his very favorite Alpine Tower projects at a YMCA camp in Hawaii. The camp not only enjoys a spectacular setting but has also touched most of the children in the islands. “As I contacted suppliers and hunted down equipment, virtually every one of them had been to camp there, and they all broke out in smiles.”


Mike, in fact, was so thrilled by the transformative effect of adventure on kids that eventually he sold the company to put full-time attention on its youth service project, now known as TAASC (The American Adventure Service Corps). It combines elements of the Peace Corps, Outward Bound and scouting, and Mike’s busy taking kids on canoe trips up by the Arctic Circle and on mountaineering trips to the Tetons and the Sierras.

Adventures in Building


Building in rural or exotic locales takes make-it-work, think-on-your-feet, outside-the-box capabilities. “One of the things I love is showing up somewhere new and having to figure it all out—take note of the environment, identify resources, find hardware stores and places to eat; all that kind of stuff,” said Alan. Crews often have to improvise, and frequently see ways to improve on the original design. “A big part of the magic is the crew; everyone has such a joie de vivre. We all come from very different backgrounds and we become a real brotherhood,” said Tom Owens, co-owner of High Country Timberframe and Gallery Woodworking. Last year he took time out to join Robbie for an Alpine Tower project for JH Ranch, geared towards increasing understanding between Jews and Christians in Ariel in the West Bank. Building a climbing wall and extensive high and low ropes courses in Ariel gave Tom “a chance to see a part of the world that most of us only get to know through politicians and the press,” he said, “although I wish we’d had the freedom to travel more. We weren’t restricted but there were places we were told we shouldn’t go. The Arab people we encountered were absolutely wonderful and showed us no animosity; we’d always stop to eat at all these little roadside Arab diners.”

“It gave us great insight into what it was like to live in a country that would have been annihilated if it had lost the war, and about the reality of living with an oppressed people,” agreed Robbie, who followed the rule of the courteous guest by avoiding any discussion of politics. Whether he was with Arabs or Israelis or both, he found that, as always, “family is the universal language.”

Why It’s Sometimes Worth Putting Up With Carnivorous Wasps

A big part of the three Phoenix owners’ experience comes from Robbie’s continuing involvement with Canopy Constructions Associates (CCA).

avery.jpgRobbie is one of the world’s natural thrill-seekers, having grown up climbing trees, hurtling into rock quarry pools and acquiring “free” tickets to high school basketball games via a route that took him up the school’s walls, across the roof and through the teachers’ lounge window. An Outward Bound course—smart parents!—gave him a glimpse of a world where he could actually make a living in a way that fit his own unique style and led to his work with Mike.

Then he ran into Bart Bouricius at a challenge course symposium at Table Rock. Along with renowned canopy biologist and author Dr. Meg Lowman, Bart was looking for expert help with canopy walkways. “Bart loves the research end of canopy science; Meg was a pioneer in the field,” Robbie explained.

Canopy walkways had an impromptu start in Malaysia, back in the 1940s, when scientists started bolting ladders and platforms to trees so that they could do research on epiphytes like the vanilla orchid. Nowadays dirigible crafts and canopy cranes can also be used for setting scientists down amidst the treetops, but the construction of canopy walkways offering different types of access has become a fine art. Ecotourism usually demands walkways that can be accessed with no supervision, while many structures designed for researchers are more like ropes courses and are, of course, significantly cheaper.


Bart, Robbie and Jim Gravely take turns to act as project coordinator and foreman of CCA whenever a job comes up. Meg, canopy ecologist Dr. Phil Whitman and builder Ed Olander all pitch in.


Three walkways for the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory in Georgia, designed so that scientists could study the way the forest relates to the watershed, served as a warm-up for Robbie.


A much bigger challenge was building a canopy walkway in Belize for the Jason Project, the ambitious brainchild of Bob Ballard.


Ballard, the man who found the Titanic and was the first to use robotics for retrieval, wanted to get kids interested in science. The Jason Project allowed schoolchildren back in the U.S. to not only watch live broadcasts of research going on in places like Belize—for that project they followed a raindrop first into the rainforest and then the river, under the canopy walkways and out into the reefs—but also to use joysticks to manipulate robotic “researchers” and cameras that Robbie and the key grip set up on a motorized track system. Meg Lowman was the host scientist with a very cool classroom in the trees, and from her perch on Canopy Construction’s walk-way she’d teach the kids about the different epiphytes they could see. Then the program followed the raindrop into the reef, where another scientist would do experiments. “Even back then (this was in 1995) you could see that the reefs were starting to die,” Robbie recalled.

eagles.jpgMore projects followed. There was the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador, built for the University of Boston in collaboration with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, in a remote corner of the Amazon rainforest that is an unparalleled smorgasbord of flora and fauna.

An Indonesian project put them in the odd position of working for a logging company—“it’s a private company, but the sole stockholders are the government”—trying to develop sustainable ways to use the forest. “It felt a little strange to be working for the premier forestry company in the country,” Robbie said, although for Alan Frye it was more memorable as the place where he learned about one of the side benefits of working over-seas when he forged a strong bond with two young Muslim men. “We didn’t share a language but somehow they let me know that I was a teacher to them—being able to experience that kind of cultural exchange is really amazing,” he recalled.

The entire project, now an eco-tourism venue, nearly burned during the disastrous fires of 1997. “The fire came really close,” said Robbie. “The only reason it was saved was because it was near an area where orangutans were being rehabilitated, and an Australian company paid for helicopters to spray water from overhead.”

But CCA doesn’t stick to exotic jungles. Visitors, over 30 percent more than usual, flocked to Myakka River. State Park near Sarasota, Fla. when the company put in a walkway there. It runs 85 feet through the live oak and palm canopy, and one tower rises 74 feet to offer visitors a spectacular view. However, it rapidly proved that it is far from being just a tourist attraction. Soon after it was built, scientists using it discovered—much to their dismay—that the devastating “Mexican weevil,” which decimates bromeliads, had arrived in the area. The walkway can now serve as a weapon in the war to document the weevil and perhaps find a fix.

confidence.jpgCCA often recruits local builders for jobs. Custom homebuilder Charles Coffey leaped at the opportunity to work at Inkaterra’s Reserva Amazónica in Peru, where CCA’s 103-foot tall system of two towers and seven hanging bridges is described by the lodge brochure as “meticulously designed” and “one of the safest canopy walkways in the world.”

“I was really excited about it—it was such a great chance to see the rainforest and do something a little different. It’s a privately owned biological reserve, and the only way they can afford to preserve it is by getting tourists there. It was hot and buggy and muggy, just like you’d imagine it, but every day monkeys would come through the trees while we were working, and we’d see different types of butter-flies.


oahu.jpgEverything had to be brought down the river on these little peca-peca boats, basically just 40-foot canoes. The thing that amazed me—apart from the racket of the birds and the monkeys—was that the river was absolutely freezing cold. It’s all snowmelt. So it would be 105 degrees and you’d get in the shower and the water would be so cold it would take your breath away,” remembered Robbie.

Each setting has its own challenges, from combating rot and difficult terrain to trying not to squish carnivorous wasps. “Working in the jungle is the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” said Robbie. “In the afternoons you might have 200 maya flies on you; if you smush one it’ll put out pheromones that will attract even more flies. It’s the same with carnivorous wasps—they’ll only bother you if you kill one, and then they’ll all start eating you at once.”

Looking Forward with Phoenix

Robbie, Tom and Alan are excited about the potential they see with Phoenix. They’ve already done work stateside and hope soon to be heading out to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where a staggering variety of unusual wildlife and flora are a draw for tourists and scientists. The three are clearly itching to start hammering together a canopy walkway in the biosphere reserve there, putting all that hard-won experience to work.

Oh, and about that unexpected road-block in Nicaragua. Robbie still cringes at the thought of what could have happened. “It, ah, wouldn’t have been good if they had realized we were with a government minister.”

But luck was on their side, sort of. “My son had a massive nose bleed. This guy with a machine gun came up to the car,took one look at him—blood everywhere—and had the tree winched out of the way.” They took the “safe,” roadblock-free way back to Managua. Maybe they had to rattle along treacherous donkey trails and maybe they had to actually push the car up a few daunting hills, but hey, the facility got built and they all got out alive. And Robbie has another story for his still-growing collection.