Who are those high-wire cats in local parks and beaches? Slackliners

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Mark McKee slowly but confidently walks an 80-foot slackwire suspended between two trees.

“Awesome,” whispered a bicyclist breezing through the bowl of Lyndale Farmstead Park in South Minneapolis last Saturday, as Mark McKee slowly but confidently walked an 80-foot slackwire suspended between two trees. McKee cut something of a Nik Wallenda figure, or a “Man On Wire” wannabe, and spectators who happen upon him often mistake him and his buddies for tightrope-walkers, zipliners, bungee-walkers, and daredevils.

They’re not; they’re slackliners, a small but growing bunch of balance enthusiasts who can regularly be spotted practicing their off-the-radar sport at the Lake Harriet Rose Gardens, Lake Calhoun’s south beach, and Lyndale Farmstead, which provides the wire warriors with a sobering view of Lakewood Cemetery’s tombstone-dotted hill.

“Tightrope walking, you walk on 2-inch high tension steel and it doesn’t really move,” said McKee, who heads up MN Slackline and encourages all curious and potential slackliners to contact him at Minnslack@gmail.com. “Slackline is either nylon or polyester one-inch webbing. When you’re walking on it, it’s like walking on a huge trampoline that’s only 1 inch wide. It bounces, it goes side-to-side, it wobbles a lot.”

Once centered, however, the slackliners report a decided calm that dovetails more with yoga than skateboarding, and has spawned groups such as Balance Community and Slackline Yoga.  

‘It’s about being calm and breathing’

“It’s not really an adrenaline sport,” said McKee. “If you’re really hyped up, you’re not going to do very well. It’s all about being calm and breathing. It’s very meditative. For people who like to meditate, this practice forces you into a deeper meditative state much faster because of the physical component.”

“It helps me focus,” said Michael Jakubic, who sported a “Slack Life” baseball cap Saturday. “When I started I just thought it would be a fun challenge to learn to balance better. And then as I did it more and more, I realized not only does it good physical things for me, but good mental things.”

Slacklines are made of 1-inch nylon or polyester webbing, and rigging kits are most readily available from the Louisville, Ky.,-based Gibbons Slacklines. Since its modest beginnings in the ‘80s, slacklining has been slowly growing in popularity as an offshoot of rock-climbing.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Slack Life, left to right: Michael Jakubic, Andrew Engel, Drew Swanson, Mark McKee

“On their rest days, rock climbers in Yosemite would set up slack webbing that they use to set up top rope climbing anchors; they would run that between trees and try and walk on it,” said McKee.

‘You can’t climb five days in a row’

“My primary sport is climbing,” said Andrew Engel. “When you go on climbing trips, you can’t climb five days in a row. Your hands and body won’t allow it. So you climb hard for two days, three days maybe, but always have a day or afternoon where you set up a line and walk. It’s a great accompanying sport to climbing, because you need balance for climbing.

“When I tried it at first, it seemed boring, and I couldn’t do it. My legs shook, but eventually the shake in your leg goes away. It’s a weird muscle memory thing. So then I just started doing it all the time, and kept going longer and higher.”

Decidedly and preferably an underground sport, slacklining is catching on – albeit slowly in Minnesota, where the winters force the likes of McKee to set up their lines inside or go west, as McKee did this winter to traverse the vast and deep gorges of Utah. But no matter where he sets up his line, the main thing on his mind is to avoid distractions.

“If you start thinking about something that’s not pleasant or calm, you start wobbling and you fall,” he said. “Music (on earbuds) helps you focus, but the view can break it. One time a cute girl rode by on her bike and we made eye contact and smiled at each other. I turned to look at her again and when I did I fell 7 feet and dislocated my shoulder.”

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