Thorough Training Makes for Enhanced Canopy Tour Experience
by Bruce Lessels
Zoar Outdoor’s course modeled after original tours in Costa Rica, Jamaica
CHARLEMONT, MA — Zip guide Zach Morris stood on a platform, high up under a heavy canopy of maple and beech
trees, on the first day of a week-long training for new guides at Zoar Outdoor one June afternoon.
As Morris began to lead trainee Abby Schlinger in belaying down to the ground, he noticed that each of their lanyards, which serve as their primary safety devices, were entwined. Morris didn’t panic. He taught the group a lesson on troubleshooting. “Hey, everybody,” he said, calling down to the trainees, standing below on the forest floor. “I’m going to take this moment to teach you about lanyard entanglement.”
Morris held up both his and Schlinger’s lanyards to show trainees that they were clearly crossing one another. “It’s awkward, not dangerous,” he said. “It happens all the time.” As he pulled Schlinger back toward him, Morris explained to the group that had Schlinger begun to belay, he would have gotten tugged toward her, but he would not have fallen, as his lanyard was also secured to the tree—standard procedure.
Morris used exaggerated gestures to detangle the two lanyards and then began anew the process of sending Schlinger down to the ground. “We’re good to go,” he said, adding, “We’ll go over it a million times. Don’t worry.”
Thorough training approach
This kind of spontaneous training moment played out hundreds of times the week of June 11, when Morris, zip guide Ruben Perkins, and Rachel Maestri Hailey, Zoar’s canopy tour manager, led five trainees in a thorough and rigorous 40-hour program.
The guide candidates were all recent high school or college graduates from Montague, Northampton, Athol, Heath, and Ashfield, and after acing both written and hands-on technical exams at week’s end, they were hired to lead Zoar guests on its unique and authentic canopy
At lunch the first afternoon, as the trainers and trainees made themselves cold cut sandwiches with chips and beverages, Kevin McMillan, director of guided programs, pointed out that Zoar provides guides with lunch every day and also offers flexible schedules and frequent staff activities. “Our philosophy is that if we can keep the guides happy, we can also keep the guests happy,” McMillan said.
The way in which Zoar trains its guides also enhances the guest experience. Morris, Perkins, and Hailey, for instance, reminded the trainees often that the canopy tour course is about the guests, and they offered information on how best to make the experience a superlative one.
Trainers pointed out often that zip guides must frequently check in with their guests to assess their comfort level and emotional state, and to discuss the experience they are having. Trust and good communication are essential, Hailey told them.
Other small facets that have the capacity to improve the entire guest experience were also accentuated. The first time the trainees rode down Warfield Mountain in the Polaris Ranger, for instance, the trainers instructed them in guiding guests in vehicle safety by offering them detailed
information—keep your lanyards fully inside the vehicle, use the hand grips to make the bumpy ride up the steep, winding mountain ride a safe one.
As trainee Brian Schempf role-played telling guests where the hand grips were, his trainer, Perkins, said, “Don’t just tell them. Point them out.”
Inspiration for guides in training
All of the trainees had previous experience riding a zipline, and they all also had outdoor experience that ranged from hiking to mountain climbing.
Schempf, 28, of Northampton, is poised to begin teaching eighth grade in Amherst in the fall, and he has plans to earn a master’s degree in education as well. He is a rock climber and backpacker and wanted to train for a Zoar job because he has no fear and loves being outside, up
high under the canopy of trees.
Haley Rode, a recent high school graduate from Mohawk Trail Regional High School, lives in Heath and will head to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams in the fall. She was inspired to train for a Zoar job because three older siblings have worked at Zoar; she and her
older brother Sam, 20, will get to work together.
Schlinger, 18, of Montague will attend Skidmore College in the fall. As she trained, she said, “I’m trying to be more conscience about learning the procedures—paying attention to those small details that might be overlooked as a guest.”
All the trainees said that as they trained, they felt and appreciated the responsibility that would come with being a guide.
“I’m focusing on learning how to be a good guide,” said Tynan Hewes, 18, of Ashfield. “I want to learn how to communicate with guests and ensure they have an awesome trip.”
Wrapping Up a Training Under the Canopy
Zoar currently has 43 guides for its zipline canopy tour, which was the first zip tour in southern New England; 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. Trainings occur twice a
year, in spring and fall.
Zoar uses two guides per tour of eight guests—a lead guide who sets off on the zip ahead of the group, and a sweep, who is last. On the first day of a recent training, trainers Morris and Perkins served as the lead and sweep guides, and the trainees were led through the entire course as if they
They learned about the extensive gear, for instance, which includes the lanyards as well as harnesses that are worn over the chest and around the waist, connecting together. Trainees learned how to put their gear on and take it off, and they were taught the intricate process of
clipping oneself to the zip line, and unclipping and clipping to the tree after arriving on a platform.
Guests are connected to either the zip line, a tree, or a sky bridge at all times.
Zach Morris, the 25-year-old trainer, of Dalton, said he gets as much out of training guide candidates as the guides themselves. “I learn about how people learn, how to build a rapport, how to break the experience all down into the parts.” “I love being a part of the new guide’s experience,” added trainer Ruben Perkins, 21, who lives on-site as the assistant lodging manager. “I love to see them work.” Conversely, Hailey said she enjoys watching guides like Morris and Perkins lead their first training. “Zoar is about empowering staff to take on more responsibility and empowering them
in their careers and lives,” she said. “It’s satisfying to watch them grow.”
Passing all the tests
On the last day of the training, after the written exam, the trainees were evaluated on their technical skills in a last descent down the mountain on the zip. They alternated in the lead and sweep guide roles, assisting one another as well as their trainers. “All clear on Initiation,” Schempf said, using a handheld radio to call the next “guest” down to the platform, near the top of the course. “Sending Brian on to Ridge Top,” Morris then called.
All the way down, there was the methodical call and response, as well as the meticulous clipping and unclipping of carabiners and the calls to one another as they belayed down platforms. On Sunrise, the group rappelled down a platform and then crossed a bridge in the trees to the next platform.
“We have a group of four guests behind us,” said Hailey. “We need to have an awareness of moving with a purpose.”
She noted that guides must always be mindful of the time and the flow of not only their own tour but those ahead and behind them. “It’s all the about timing,” she said, as the swishing metal sound of others zipping on the course quietly echoed under the canopy.
About 4 p.m., after all five trainees and their three mentors prepared to load into the Polaris for the final leg of the journey back down to the Zoar offices, Hailey gave them the good news that they had all passed the technical drills, in addition to the written exam. “That’s a wrap, you guys. You’re all good to go,” she said as the trainees began to cheer. “You’re all guides now.”