GATLINBURG — Crazy weather and “neighborhood” bears. Those are the two elements mentioned by workers as some of the most memorable aspects of building the structures that will soon draw tourists to Anakeesta Mountain.
Set to open in mid-summer 2017, Anakeesta is the project in downtown Gatlinburg with two acres fronting on the Parkway and another 70 acres off Baskins Creek Bypass. Visitors will take a 12-minute chondola, or gondola, ride from Anakeesta’s site across from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies to the top of the mountain.
That’s where Isaac Hoff and Nick Thompson have been spending much of their time lately. Hoff serves as the director of operations for Beanstalk Builders, a North Carolina company that is constructing the Playground Treehouse Village portion of Anakeesta. Thompson is the owner of CLIMBWorks, a company with locations in Gatlinburg and Hawaii, and is a partner in Anakeesta. CLIMBWorks is responsible for the tree canopy walk and zipline features at the attraction.
Both mentioned unpredictable weather – and slightly predictable bears – as part of the territory with this particular job. “We’ve had significant wind storms,” Hoff said. “It blew some trees down. We had a bear that crawled in the back of a worker’s truck.” Hoff is accustomed to weather and nature playing a role in his work. Beanstalk Builders is part of Beanstalk Journeys, which also includes Beanstalk Ziplines within the company’s offerings.
“Working in the mountains, you always have crazy weather,” said Hoff. “You always plan for a rainstorm.” Despite its steep terrain, he classified the Anakeesta project as easier than some he has completed. “There is a back access road,” he said. “We drive. Guests will ride the chondola. We’ve had other jobs where we had to carry tools and building supplies. Absolutely, this is easier.”
The biggest test for Hoff and the other members of the Beanstalk Builders crew, other than the weather, has been working with the ground itself. “It was just a little soil,” he said. “Under the soil, there’s rock. That’s been a challenge.”
When completed, the Playground Treehouse Village will serve as an area that children can explore. “We’re creating a whimsical feel for the playground that’s in between each treehouse,” said Hoff. “There are six different treehouses interconnected with different bridges. There are different levels of challenges at each (bridge). Kids can run around and play. They don’t have to be guided or supervised by Anakeesta people.”
The CLIMBWorks portion of Anakeesta, on the other hand, involves close interactions between employees and guests for safety reasons. Thompson explained that the zipline will actually feature two sets of dual lines with free-fall drops between stations.
“You’re riding two different ziplines,” he said. “Overall, there’s about five unique activities.” The existing CLIMBWorks in Gatlinburg, which opened in 2010, offers a zipline adventure that lasts more than two hours for the rider. The Hawaii location, which has been in operation for three years, has a three-hour zipline ride. The Anakeesta zipline covers less territory, but allows guests to zip next to a companion.
For the tree canopy portion of the project, CLIMBWorks staffers have been working – literally – in the trees. “It’s all tree-based,” said Thompson. “It’s a series of 15 or 16 bridges up in the treetops. It will be available free as part of the chondola ride. ” He described it as user-friendly and suitable for both children and the elderly.
Like Hoff and the Beanstalk Builders crew, Thompson and members of the CLIMBWorks team have had memorable encounters with nature. “There are a lot of bears there,” he said. “They’re our ‘neighborhood bears.’ The biggest challenge has been the effects of the weather. Since the fires, there’s been some pretty big windstorms.
“You try to find a balance,” Thompson continued. “Help the forest recover and be safe. There are trees that have been scarred (in the November 2016 fires). It’s been a unique project in that way.”
Thompson used to travel to different locations to build ropes courses and ziplines for clients. Before opening his own business, the Nashville native led safety training on ropes courses for universities and corporations. When he decided he wanted to settle in one place and spend less time traveling, Thompson selected Gatlinburg as his CLIMBWorks location. The company’s motto is “Always climb,” and the name is an acronym for “Challenge Learn Inspire Master Believe.”
Like many who survived the November 2016 fires that burned more than 17,000 acres, Thompson looks for the positive within the disaster. “The silver lining is that it (the fire) really opened up some incredible views,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep it as natural as we can.”
The Nashville transplant sounds like a decades-long mountain resident when discussing his ties to this particular project. “It’s not just an adventure mountain,” Thompson said. “This gets people back to the reason for coming to Gatlinburg. There are so many attractions. With this, you really feel like you’re in the Smokies.”
Both Hoff and Thompson said their companies are on track to complete their work within weeks. Anakeesta officials expect a mid-summer 2017 opening.
Company leaders are in the process of hiring for positions such as adventure guide, food service representative, lift operator and ticket agent. “For the near future, we will be hiring 120 employees,” said Anakeesta marketing director Michele Canney. “Ultimately, it will be about 170.” Potential employees can send a resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org or 147 Baskins Creek Bypass, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. The online application is available at www.anakeesta.com.