Sections Sports & Leisure

Zip It

Area Recreation Facilities Raise the Game for Summer Fun

By KEVIN FLANDERS

Kevin McMillan, with canopy tour manager Nina Nunes

Kevin McMillan, with canopy tour manager Nina Nunes, says Zoar Outdoor used to be one of the only such facilities in the region, but today, enterprises across New England are getting in on an increasingly popular activity.

The forest is cool and quiet, sunlight coruscating through the trees. In the distance, a high-pitched, mechanical whine tumbles down the mountain, growing steadily louder, closer, accompanied by screams of excitement. A look upward reveals a taut cable backlit by ripples of morning light, and then, moments later, a flash of color and joyful sound ripping past — another guest giddily speeding toward the next platform.

It’s a scene that plays out every day in Charlemont, a rural Franklin County town intersected by the Mohawk Trail and the Deerfield River. With a population scarcely exceeding 1,000, the town would be virtually unknown to most Massachusetts residents if not for two popular ziplining destinations that have transformed the burg into a hub of outdoor recreation.

Located almost directly across the river from each other, Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor have become two of the premier ziplining and canopy-tour businesses in New England. Boasting advanced equipment, thrilling courses, and knowledgeable staffs, they have helped thousands of families learn how to ‘zip’ while enjoying the breathtaking scenery atop Massachusetts’ northwest woods.

“Our focus is on making a connection with guests,” said Kevin McMillan, director of guided programs at Zoar Outdoor. “We carefully train our staff, and they’re always excited to share their vocation with the guests. If you have a family with young teens, coming here is a great family adventure.”

The sentiment was echoed by Gabriel Porter-Henry, director of marketing and customer relations at Berkshire East, who encourages guests to sample both facilities.

“What’s nice is that both businesses provide different experiences and cater to people with different focuses,” he said. “Both are great businesses that have created a series of outdoor activities that draw people to Charlemont.”

For this issue’s focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest zips up to Charlemont to learn about a fast-growing activity that is, quite literally, raising the game when it comes to outdoor fun.

High-flying Business

Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor vary in terms of ziplining offerings, with programs geared toward different interests, McMillan and Porter-Henry said.

For example, Zoar puts a greater emphasis on the tree-to-tree exploration component of a canopy tour, with eleven zip lines and two sky bridges. The course is essentially an aerial hike, enabling guests to explore the woods from one platform to the next and experience nature in a new way. At times, when they’re cutting through the dense wilderness at 35 mph, guests feel what it’s like for birds to fly between the trees. The course’s highest point reaches 55 feet, and the tour takes about three hours to complete.

DownHill“We’re definitely different in what we offer, and I always recommend that guests try both places,” said McMillan, who has been with Zoar Outdoor for 23 years and previously worked at Berkshire East.

Meanwhile, across the Mohawk Trail, the Berkshire East course is perfect for those in search of speed, height, and distance, Porter-Henry noted, boasting zips that exceed 50 mph and rise nearly 200 feet into the air. The course’s most extreme lines, X1 and X2, are each a half-mile long and bring guests high above the treetops and across town lines. Berkshire East also offers an introductory tour for those who aren’t quite up for the intensity of X1 and X2.

“We have some of the longest lines in North America, and it’s great to see all kinds of people come out and enjoy them,” he said, adding that staff recently guided a 94-year-old woman through the course.

Both Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East draw significant revenue from ziplining during a season that runs from spring to fall. For Berkshire East, a ski resort, the zips allow the mountain to maintain a steady stream of customers long after the snow melts.

Meanwhile, Zoar Outdoor generates revenue through a host of activities, including rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing, the latter run through a partnership between Zoar and Hadley’s Central Rock Gym, which specializes in rock climbing and rappelling.

Ziplining has flourished in the last decade, not only regionally but nationally, with hundreds of operations starting up. Many of them are run by ski resorts, as the expansive, hilly terrain is ideal for the construction of zip platforms complete with sturdy cables that can support 14,000 pounds. Other zipline businesses are operated by companies that specialize in water sports and are interested in adding another source of income.

“The zip business is going well,” said Porter-Henry. “There is excellent interest locally and from people throughout New England, which is great for the local economy.”

For Zoar Outdoor, the zipping and canopy-tour business continues to thrive, but McMillan has seen growth slow slightly in recent years, mostly due to increased competition.

“When we first started, we were one of the only places in the region offering canopy tours,” he said. “Now there are many operations in New England, which means more competition for us.”

Still, Zoar Outdoor has hosted about 50,000 people since starting its canopy-tour business six years ago, and employs about 55 canopy tour guides, most of whom are also experienced in leading rafting and kayaking excursions. Many staff members have primary jobs in teaching or other occupations that give them significant time off in the summer, and they wind up serving as guides in a part-time capacity.

“It’s nice to have staff members that can do kayaking, rafting, and zipping, which gives them variation and keeps people fresh,” McMillan said. “Because of how we do it with the part-time work, our staff tends to be a little older and more experienced in each activity.”

Hanging Around

While both Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor are constantly welcoming new zipliners to the thrill of sailing over the trees, it’s only natural that some participants arrive with a little anxiety. But Porter-Henry and McMillan both emphasized the role of their well-trained guides — and their safety equipment — in helping zippers build trust and let go of their fears.

In fact, they said, newcomers are often left speechless by the exhilarating freedom that sweeps over them while soaring through the air, suspended by just a few pieces of equipment, including harnesses, carabiners, ropes, and cables. Some guests curl their legs up tightly to maximize speed, while others spread themselves out to increase drag and prolong their views of the sprawling scenery.

As thrilling as the activity is, however, there are innate risks if the correct safety procedures aren’t used. Both Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East employ dual locking mechanisms on each line that provide a secondary failsafe in the extremely unlikely event of a break from the cables. The equipment is carefully inspected each day, and when guests are waiting for their next zip on the platforms, the staffs at both sites ensure they are secured to the decks to prevent injury in case of a stumble.

“Whenever you’re working at height, it’s all about redundancy,” McMillan said. “Redundancy will minimize your exposure to risk.”

Guides also carefully explain the safety procedures and confirm that guests are comfortable and ready prior to each jump, and no one feels rushed.

Those positive experiences with ziplining have been a boon to Zoar, especially as families try other outdoor activities after coming down from the trees. They’ve also taken advantage of Zoar’s campground and lodge.

“A lot of people will raft one day, camp overnight, and zip the next morning, which I think is the perfect way to do it,” McMillan said. “You could leave one day in the morning and be back by noon the next day.”

Berkshire East also affords guests an opportunity to try various outdoor thrills in one day or weekend. As a partner with nearby Crab Apple Whitewater, the facility offers guests discounts for zipping and then heading down the road for a few hours on the Deerfield River. In addition, Berkshire East is nearing the completion of what will be the longest mountain coaster in North America. Carrying one to two people per car, the attraction is expected to open in late summer or early fall.

“We’re really excited about it opening. This will provide another activity for people to try and help increase our exposure,” said Porter-Henry, who used to work at Crab Apple Whitewater as a raft guide, and is gratified to see people enjoying a variety of activities that have helped put sleepy Charlemont on the map.

“Personally,” he said, “it’s very rewarding to work in the area where I grew up and see these businesses continue to develop.”

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