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Riders enjoy the Behemoth - Canada’s largest, longest, fastest and most terrifying roller coaster - at Canada's Wonderland in Toronto. (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)
Riders enjoy the Behemoth - Canada’s largest, longest, fastest and most terrifying roller coaster - at Canada's Wonderland in Toronto. (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)

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Before this correspondent can precisely relate the experience of riding the Behemoth, Canada's largest, longest, fastest and most terrifying roller coaster, a brief disquisition is necessary on the physics of the human anus.

Traditionally, the anus is the exit of the human alimentary canal. It is replete with nerves and blood vessels that make mass peristalsis, at its best, the action-packed adventure it can be. These same nerves and blood vessels are also what make the anus such a sensitive switchboard when the human body experiences fear or, say, G-forces.

As jet fighters and roller coaster riders know, G is an inertial force caused by a sudden change in speed and direction. When a person straps himself into a roller coaster that climbs 230 feet and then plunges down a near-vertical, 77-degree "slope," only to sweep abruptly upwards again seconds later, he will experience a G-force roughly equivalent to four times his actual body weight.

Hence the sensation a 55-year-old male might have, in the middle of riding the Behemoth, that his entire body is attempting to exit through his fundament.

We could see the Behemoth ( be-HE-moth , from the Hebrew for "beast") from miles away. Barely out of Toronto on the half-hour drive north to Canada's Wonderland, the highest of the Behemoth's peaks, an arcing orange and yellow tube, appeared on the horizon.

I would like to say it soared like a proud and exotic tropical bird. Alas, it was, unmistakably, a huge freaking roller coaster.

"There it is!" my 16-year-old daughter Hayley shouted. "You can see it from the highway!" She began to laugh out loud with joy, continuously.

You hear a lot of that when you actually ride the Behemoth. (Type "Behemoth" into YouTube, and you'll see what I mean.) Maybe this laughter is a form of unconscious relief at discovering oneself still alive. I'm not sure. All I know is that as we drove past the Shade-O-Matic blind factory on the way to the amusement park, I desperately wanted to stop in for a visit.

Hayley had already ridden the Behemoth six times since it opened last year. She is a coaster maniac and has a season pass to Canada's Wonderland. I, on the other hand, am nauseated by roller coasters. Yes, I go ski mountaineering, and will throw myself headfirst down most slopes; yes, I like to ride my bike fast. But roller coasters? They make me feel like I am going to die.

Not by mechanical misadventure, mind you. My concern on a roller coaster is physiological: that my heart will burst and my veins will clot, that I will arrive back at the coaster launch pad, as happened to someone recently in the U.S., dead in my seat. A hell of a ride, huh, Dad? Dad?

The safety-warning chart in the lineup to the Behemoth (which can last two hours) rated it a 5 - a double-black-diamond "aggressive thrill ride"-and said it was not suitable for anyone who had experienced heart surgery, heart troubles, high blood pressure, neck or back pain, or was pregnant.

"This ride may not accommodate guests of exceptional size," the notice predicted.

And anyone with a prosthetic limb "should not ride unless they can ensure the device is properly secured and will remain in place during the ride." Raising your arms on a roller coaster is one thing. Losing your arms is another.

The speed and height of a coaster are bad enough to begin with. Lateral vibration makes everything worse. Hayley and I rode the park's biggest (and much slower) wooden coaster, the Great Canadian Mine Buster, as a warm-up. I thought my knees and neck were going to disassemble on the spot.

Fortunately, the Behemoth, a steel "hyper-coaster" (meaning it's at least 200 feet high), is slickly smooth by comparison. Its blood-sucking and blood-rushing G-forces are the secret of the its appeal.

An average person can withstand five Gs of pull before losing consciousness (an affliction known as G-loc); a mechanical wristwatch can handle seven. A trained pilot in a pressure suit manages nine. The Behemoth pulls nearly four positive Gs (the feeling you get at the bottom of a hill, as you rise up again) and about one negative G (the weightless feeling as you crest a hill and begin to fall). Human beings have a much lower tolerance for negative G forces, which is why your eyeballs feel they are going to pop out of your head at the top of a rise.

As for positive Gs, Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR driver, absorbed 64 of them when he crashed to a stop in the 2006 Pennsylvania 500, and survived only because it lasted a mere second. A hundred Gs would have killed him instantly. A sneeze, on the other hand, snaps about three Gs, but it's all above the neck, so you don't feel much.

I must admit that I was initially inclined to reject the Behemoth as a $26-million offence against nature. People like me - who enjoy the wilderness, climbing mountains and hurtling down steeps - tend to dismiss the pleasures and thrills of the amusement park as artificial.

But the truth is that thrill rides are simply hyper-concentrated nature. You'd have to ski straight down the nib of Snowpatch in the Bugaboos to catch as much air as you do on the Behemoth. The difference is, you have to be fit and skilled enough to get up Snowpatch in the first place. The Behemoth is thrills at no personal cost, as long as your ticker doesn't blow a gasket.

No wonder it's more popular. The Behemoth can scare 1,600 people an hour, or roughly half the 35,000 souls who pay the price of admission to Canada's Wonderland on any given Saturday. And more people visit Wonderland than visit the CN Tower or any other Canadian tourist attraction, including Niagara Falls. (Most of them are 11 to 25, and the second largest cohort is 35 to 45.)

The Behemoth, in other words, is one of the great unnatural wonders of our magnificent land. It's even rather beautiful, in its way - orange and yellow track curving through space on deep blue struts through the lighter blue of the endless sky, like the flag of a strange new country that didn't exist until yesterday.

To my horror, we were in the front row. The only safety restraint was an unobtrusive lap bar. I've used automatic-teller machines with more reassuring features.

The initial climb, the overture to any rollercoaster's symphony, was daunting: I was clenching for dear life when Hayley, adjusting her headband, said casually: "Look at the suburbs."

"The what?"

"The suburbs." We were getting high and you could see almost all the way to Barrie, a town about an hour north of Toronto. "They're incredible. They go on forever. And they're so grey."

Then we went over. I remember a crowded feeling in my skull, tingling in my extremities, the aforementioned anal pulse and hanging on - a mistake, it turns out. Go with the flow, the experts insist. Put your hands up.

I remember telling myself to breathe and saying "Oh!" every time we hit a hill. After the initial rise, we hit nine more.

"You made high noises," Hayley said as we rolled to a stop, 5,318 feet and three minutes and 10 seconds after we started. She was looking at me as if she had suddenly seen me in a different light. "Higher noises than I've ever heard you make before. I thought it was a woman beside me."

Maybe I did make high noises. I'm not sure. But what I do remember is something that Hayley said to me as we climbed that awful first hill.

"Don't be scared, Dad," she'd said to me. "It's not fun if someone's scared."

I made a note to repeat that advice back to her, the next time she needs it.

Then I just watched her, feeling undeservedly proud, thinking, as we began our inevitable fall: Here we go .

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. This article, which originally appeared in Explore magazine as "Man Vs. Behemoth," won a National Magazine Award last week.

 

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