It started with the field work of a California grad student who pioneered new methods for climbing into and moving around the rain forest canopy, the world’s most complex living community.
It led to the invention of the canopy tour — a billion-dollar industry that would delight, thrill and terrify millions of tourists worldwide for decades to come.
And it all started in Costa Rica.
I give you … the zipline.
It’s a simple concept: You string a cable (or in the old days, a rope) from one tree to another, at an angle, and you can slide things and/or people down the cable on a pulley. Variants of this technology have been used for centuries to transport cargo across rivers or ravines in places as far away as China and Australia.
Costa Rica did not invent the technology that allows a heavy thing to slide down a rope. But Costa Rica figured out how to make it fun.
So I set out to discover the origins of recreational ziplining in Costa Rica, and the outcome of all the litigation about who invented it.
And therein lies a tale.
Donald Perry, a graduate student at California State University, Northridge, climbed his first tree in Costa Rica in 1974, using a crossbow to shoot a rope into the branches of a 120-foot espavel in the Osa Peninsula, and then climbing it using mountaineering ascenders.
Perry pioneered the study of what he calls the “main level” of the rain forest, the canopy, where upwards of 40 percent of all life on earth exists.
“The canopy holds the most complex communities of life that have ever existed on this planet,” Perry writes in his 1986 book, “Life Above the Jungle Floor.”
“Limbs can sway or break, and they conceal a variety of poisonous animals such as spiders, wasps, vipers, scorpions, and ants,” Perry writes. “To make matters worse, the trees themselves are weak and can often by heard crashing to the ground during heavy winds.”
So on top of all the dangerous creepy-crawlies, there was the constant concern that his ropes would fail and he would fall 30 meters to the jungle floor with a splat.
“In 1974-76 … they called me Hombre Mono [Monkey Man], as at the time, I was the only person climbing into the canopy,” Perry wrote in an email. “I developed the first effective rope-climbing method for gaining access to tree crowns and used it to study forest tree reproduction.”
Not only did Perry figure out how to climb the trees and build observation platforms in them, but also how to move between them at the canopy level, without returning to the ground — something no other scientist on the planet was doing.
“In 1979 I used three emergent trees to build the world’s first canopy zipline at Finca La Selva,” he wrote. “It was made with a thousand feet of rope.”
Perry’s book describes it like this:
“In front of me was a system of 1,200 feet of white polyester rope suspended above the canopy; it looked much like a piece of abstract art. A rope several feet to my left traveled in a long, gentle arc from the monkey pot tree to one of the almendros a hundred yards away. There it made a sharp turn over a pulley and spanned a hundred yards to another emergent tree. At this tree the rope made a final bend over a pulley and traveled back a hundred yards to the monkey pot tree, where it was tied off to a limb on the right side of the platform. From above, the rope formed a huge equilateral triangle between the domed tops of three towering emergents.”
Perry was nervous as he prepared to test his system, feeling like a “guinea pig,” but at the same time he was exhilarated. “The web ropes were taut and motionless and I felt a growing thrill, like at the beginning of a roller-coaster ride,” he writes.
“The limb snapped up violently as I jumped off, narrowly missing me as I plunged earthward several feet. The web drooped under my weight, causing a wave to speed along the rope in front of me. The wave caught a resting puffbird unaware and hurled it off the line. I shot from the crown of the monkey pot at a rate of about three and a half yards per second.”
So how was the world’s first canopy tour?
“I watched the platform recede and felt a sense of ecstatic joy as I glided past branch tips, where only the lightest of jungle animals could venture, and into the airways of butterflies and birds.”
Perry’s innovation soon became news, leading to cover stories in Scientific American and Smithsonian magazines. Geo, Germany’s National Geographic, came to Costa Rica to photograph Perry using a rope zipline over a waterfall.
Perry hit the jackpot in 1984 when he won a Rolex Award for enterprise, which came with a prize of 50,000 Swiss francs. Perry and a friend, engineer John Williams, used this money to build the radio-controlled Automated Web for Canopy Exploration at Rara Avis, an aerial tram that traveled a 1,000-foot (300-meter) cable strung over a forested canyon and waterfall.
In 1986, Simon & Schuster published “Life Above the Jungle Floor,” a compulsively readable narrative about Perry’s adventures climbing trees in Costa Rica and an intensely scientific book about what he discovered there.
The book caught the attention of Hollywood, and Perry became a primary consultant for the 1992 movie “Medicine Man,” starring Sean Connery, who was shown roping through the canopy on ziplines collecting plant specimens to cure cancer.
“The cat was out of the bag,” Perry said, meaning it was only a matter of time before entrepreneurs would see the tourism potential in opening up ziplines to the public.
The business model
Enter Darren Hreniuk, a Canadian who approached Perry with the idea of putting in ziplines at Rara Avis around 1994. But Perry, focused on more sophisticated ways of moving people through the canopy, wasn’t interested in building more ziplines.
“We talked about doing ziplines,” said Owen Hyams, a longtime partner of Perry’s who lives in Heredia, “and he’s like, ‘Ah, that’s stupid, ziplines.’ ”
So Hreniuk went off to Monteverde and built his own ziplines at a place he would come to call the Original Canopy Tour, which is still operating today. It opened in 1997, according to a 2005 Washington Post article, and in 1998 Hreniuk managed to patent his zipline technology, which he termed his invention. But when he sued other zipline operators for infringement, Perry was called as a witness.
“Darren was there, saying, ‘I invented them,’” Perry recalled. “I said, ‘You didn’t invent them, I invented them. And they’re in the public domain.’”
Victor Gallo, 53, who has built several ziplines in Costa Rica and other countries, confirmed that Hreniuk’s Original Canopy Tour was the first zipline canopy tour open to the public.
“I can give him credit that he commercialized the (zipline) for tourism,” Gallo said. “He didn’t invent ziplines, they’ve been around for many years, but what he did was commercialize it and adapt it to tourism.”
But then to enforce his patent, Hreniuk filed lawsuits claiming that all the other zipline operators that had sprung up in his wake were infringing his patent and should be shut down or else required to pay him a healthy percentage of their proceeds. Hreniuk actually succeeded in getting a court order authorizing the shutdown of several canopy tours in Costa Rica and the confiscation of their equipment.
Both Gallo and Hyams told me that around 2002, Hreniuk started going onto other people’s properties and cutting their zipline cables, accompanied by a woman from the International Property Rights Registry who had granted his patent.
Hreniuk even took on the former president (1978-82) of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Carazo Odio.
“Rodrigo Carazo, who was the ex-president, he had a hotel called Villa Blanca in San Ramón and he had a zipline built,” said Hyams. Hreniuk tried to get him shut down, too, Hyams said. “Here’s a guy from Canada and he’s trying to give a hard time to an ex-president of the country that he’s trying to do business in. That kind of like sealed his fate.”
Gallo made similar observations separately.
“Carazo’s sons are all lawyers, so he picked an uphill fight,” Gallo said.
On Dec. 17, 2004, the court annulled Hreniuk’s patent for the second time, effectively putting zipline technology into the public domain. The industry never looked back.
Hreniuk’s website, http://www.canopytour.com, still stresses that his was the first.
“We are the outfit that invented this activity; hence the name ‘The Original Canopy Tour,’” the introduction says. “We started in Costa Rica and now export this technology around the world. Beware of Imitations! … Over 1.5 million of our guests have SAFELY ‘soared’ from tree to tree by sliding along our Patent Pending cables that make steel ‘Zip Lines’ obsolete. Caveat Emptor!”
Several attempts to reach Hreniuk for comment on the origins of recreational ziplining were unsuccessful.
I spent three hours driving to Heredia and back to buy a copy of Perry’s book and talk to Owen Hyams, a 55-year-old expat who has been working with Perry for 20 years.
“He wanted access to the canopy to be his legacy,” Hyams said, summarizing Perry’s life’s work.
I asked him if Perry’s ziplines were ever used by other people just for fun. Hyams shook his head.
“They were just for his personal use, maybe some other scientists in La Selva in Sarapiquí. I don’t think too many people got on it. At that time, that was pretty scary. Nobody had the confidence. You had to be pretty ballsy to do that.”
So I could eliminate Perry as a candidate for inventor of recreational ziplining. Perry invented the jungle canopy zipline, but he never tried to turn it into a business.
Hreniuk did, and it caught on like wildfire and spawned many imitators. So it’s Hreniuk who appears to have a genuine claim to be the first person in the world to open a zipline tour to the public in a rain forest.
“I think ziplines have been around for many, many years before Donald Perry, but canopy ziplines, that’s a new twist to an old idea,” said Hyams. “So he put them between trees and that made it a little bit different, but he never tried to patent anything. Darren saw the idea and he says, I’m going to patent this.”
Hreniuk’s main innovation appeared to be the fact that he brought the last zipline all the way down to the ground, Perry said on the phone from the United States.
“I think he came up with the idea that it could be used for tourism, and that you put one end to the ground,” Perry said. “That was being done for years on challenge courses. The only thing he really did was realize that people would pay to be in the forest and zipline in the canopy like I was doing, but down to the ground.”
And so the zipline industry was born. Today you can soar 1,590 meters, almost a mile, in a Superman flight at 100% Aventura in Monteverde. In the same town you can find the Original Canopy Tour, but it’s said to be small and tame by comparison.
“There are places in the world that become melting pots and cooking zones for something new,” Perry said. “We were making a new industry of tourism, all of us. We were all feeding off of each other. We were making Costa Rica the leader in adventure and nature tourism in the world. Darren was part of it, we’re both equally big parts of the zipline craze. And then all the people who copied him.”
Perry called the entire phenomenon a “cauldron of creation,” in which Costa Rica vaulted seemingly overnight into one of the top ecotourism destinations in the world.
Road not taken
In 1994, Perry built the Rain Forest Aerial Tram, a system that resembled a ski lift in Braulio Carrillo National Park, the vast wilderness north of San José.
Then he proposed putting in a zipline to bypass the “rough, muddy road,” and he suggested making it free.
“I had implemented ground-level ziplines to cross rampaging creeks to reach my jungle cabin at the site,” Perry said, “so I proposed a one-kilometer zipline that would have provided access to the tramway through the canopy. This idea was way ahead of its time and would have been the longest commercial zipline in the world when not even short canopy ziplines were in existence. …
“However, my own board of directors rejected the idea and their short-sighted decision deprived the company of becoming the leader of the zipline industry before anyone knew what a zipline was,” Perry wrote.
“Unhappily, it reminds me of Xerox, which invented the personal computer but did nothing with it,” he wrote. “OOPS!”
Perry is focused now on his next innovation, the EcoTram, a self-driven electric cable car that will allow people to explore the canopy at their own pace, stopping when they want to. He has built a small prototype in New York and hopes to bring the concept to Costa Rica this year. Just this week, the invention was chosen as a semifinalist in the business idea competition of 43 North, which gives out $5 million in prizes to inventors and startups.
Whatever Perry’s future holds, his legacy as pioneer of access to the canopy appears to be secure.
Here’s how I score it: Perry invented the jungle canopy zipline. Hreniuk invented the jungle canopy zipline tour. And the world would never be the same.
Perry is happy just to have blazed a trail into the trees.
“How lucky am I?” he said. “I’m the first person to really explore the rain forest canopy. I’ve had a charmed life.”
Contact Karl Kahler at [email protected].