Authentic Zipline Canopy Tour Experience Offers Self-Exploration, Personal Challenge
by Bruce Lessels
Zoar Outdoor’s course modeled after original tours in Costa Rica, Jamaica
CHARLEMONT, MA — Rachel Maestri Hailey sees the Zoar Outdoor brand of canopy tour as an exploration—both of the outdoors and of the self.
“In the literal sense, we zip through the area, but more importantly, there is an exploration of oneself,” said Hailey, Zoar’s 35-year-old canopy tour manager. “Questions come up: Where does your comfort zone end, and your stretch zone begin? What does courage look like to you? There are multiple levels of personal discovery.”
Zoar’s guides are trained to get into that personal realm, said Bruce Lessels, the president of the adventure outfit based in Charlemont, Massachusetts.
“We take pride in the way we train our guides,” he said. “The course is progressive and designed so that guests get comfortable with it as they go.”
Zoar Outdoor has two guides for every eight guests on a zip tour. The guides are chosen for their love of people and their engaging personalities. “This makes them especially good at connecting with guests, which makes a big difference in the quality of the guided experience they offer and that sets Zoar Outdoor apart,” said Lessels.
Zoar developed the first zip tour in southern New England and one of the first in the country; it is intricate, unique and set entirely in the treetops, with 11 zip lines, two sky bridges and three rappels. The course is open from April through November for the 2018 season.
“It takes about three hours to complete our canopy tour,” Lessels said. “The whole time, our guides are offering visitors an education about the forest they’re in, its history and the trees we’re zipping through.
“It’s a complete experience that goes well beyond a simple adrenaline rush,” he added. “In fact, what people remember most about our canopy tour is how they connected with their guides and how their guides helped them overcome their initial anxiety.”
Zip lining became popular in countries such as Costa Rica and Jamaica, where it evolved as a way to study the otherwise inaccessible forest canopy. Around 2007, the first tours opened in the United States, and Zoar built its course in 2009, after Lessels and his family experienced a canopy tour in Chile while on vacation.
“Our tour follows that original model,” he said, noting other, newer courses have a few zip lines that focus entirely on adrenaline and don’t involve the participants except as passive riders.
Hailey said Zoar guides are adept at discerning the difference between someone being outside his or her comfort zone and being panicked. “If someone says they’re done, we get them down,” she said. “That interaction between guide and guest is critical.”
Hailey said two dedicated guides lead each canopy tour, often with a group of six or eight guests. One guide leads, moving to the next platform first; then the two guides together communicate with guests and lead them from one platform to the next, with one guide on the receiving end and the other sending visitors off.
The group’s movement from platform to platform allows guests to gather together, bond, discuss the experience and build relationships. “That doesn’t happen on a single line,” Hailey said.
“Also, while they’re up in the canopy, our guests are also learning about natural history,” Hailey added. “We offer factoids as we go along. We talk about the hemlock grove along the course and the trees’ intertwining root systems. We point out the 1812 home of the founder and pass through a neat, pre-Civil-War area that serves as a family memorial ground.”
Guides make all the difference
Johanna Bates took her son on the Zoar canopy tour for the first time when he was 10. Cautious by nature, he kept a positive outlook throughout the ground school experience, during which he, his mother and father, Colin Mitchell, and others were fitted for harnesses and learned how to ride the lines and brake.
Then, as the group rode up Warfield Mountain in a Polaris Ranger, Bates’ son saw the first platform and zip, lost his nerve and wanted to leave, but one of the Zoar guides helped him conquer his fear.
“She was very reassuring and calm,” said Bates. “My son was anxious and tense, but he eventually agreed to do it. He did one short zip, and he completely changed.”
Bates added, “He was thrilled that he was able to do something he was so scared to do, and his father and I were thrilled that he was able to break through that wall. It’s a really unique and well-designed experience that you are not going to have somewhere else.”