Gary Rylander didn’t initially build a zip line course east of Billings to get rich, attract tourists or to have a nice place to unwind.
Like a good son, he did it so his 86-year-old mother, Beulah Rylander, could finally try zipping and check off one more item on her bucket list.
“Seriously, we built it because of my grandma,” said Gary’s daughter, Shamai Rylander, one of about 30 employees at Outlaw Canyon Adventures, which opens May 17 at 4004 Yellowstone Trail.
Whatever the inspiration, the Rylanders insist they aren’t jumping into the fast-growing adventure tourism business on a lark. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build the course, which area business leaders say could give Billings a key boost to attract visitors to the area.
The six-line course is built on 40 acres of pastureland where Rylander, who runs a construction company, keeps horses. It’s near the abandoned frontier site of Coulson, full of rugged hills, pine trees and a panoramic view of the Yellowstone valley.
“We’re preserving the property,” Rylander, 55, said.
Zip lines were originally developed as tools for biologists in tropical regions to observe the plant and animal life above the tree canopy, according to the Association for Challenge Course Technology.
Now, more than 700 have been built in North America, growing about 10 percent annually, according to the trade group. In Montana, the nearest zip line is in Big Sky, and another is operating in Whitefish.
Rylander hired Minnesota-based Geronimo Construction, which specializes in building adventure courses, to build the zip lines last fall. After snow delays, four of the lines were ready for riders in April.
Experts Dave and Love Burland, who have overseen zip line development nationwide, trained the guides on proper safety so riders can feel secure and have fun.
Participants are strapped into a harness attached to a cord that’s strung between two tall posts sticking out of the landscape. Once riders are secured by a guide, they can lift their legs off the platform and let gravity take them on a scenic tour through the air.
“It’s fun to see the confidence build, and the fun grow,” Dave Burland said.
The course is limited to riders between 70 pounds and 270 pounds. The cost is $89 for adults and $69 for children. This year, the season is open through the end of September.
Depending on the size of the group, it will take two-and-a-half to three hours to complete the Outlaw Canyon course, Rylander said.
Rylander said it’s hard to predict how many customers he’ll get in the first season, but area business leaders are already buzzing about a new destination spot in Billings for visitors and residents alike.
“We’re really excited for it. The more we can put in our community treasure chest of what we have available to offer ... the better it is for the economy and for resident satisfaction,” John Brewer, CEO of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, said.
Industry experts say courses are becoming more elaborate and thrilling, which attracts more adventure seekers.
“Personally, I think the industry is growing because of the great work being done by the builders, trainers, operators, inspectors. Courses are getting bigger and better,” said James Borishale, executive director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology.
Regardless of the height or size of the course, riders should feel safe on the lines, and the harness puts no stress on joints or backs, Rylander said.
“It’s very friendly for people who have (health and conditioning) challenges,” he said.
That’s what piqued Beulah Rylander’s interest in the first place. When she saw zipliners during a recent European vacation, she figured it was an activity she could still enjoy, despite her aching knees.
So she told her son, and he started planning the course. His most important rule: Beulah, known as “Granny B,” would be the first to try it out.
On a sunny April afternoon, the octogenarian stood on the platform, a helmet on her head and harness strapped tightly on her shoulders.
After final instructions from the Burlands, Beulah stepped up on the platform and prepared to take off.
“Ok, see you all. I’m going zipping!” she said, then let go and soared through the valley.
The zip echoed through the trees. Granny B held tight until she reached the end of the line.
Was it all she expected? Too scary, or just right?
“My heart wasn’t in my mouth. It’s a delight,” Beluah said.