What do you do after a day or two of hard skiing or snowboarding when a change of pace is in order? Some people like to shop and while away an afternoon in the spa. Some people would prefer to get an aerobic workout in with some snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. And then there are the adrenaline junkies.
On a recent dreary and foggy afternoon after an excellent previous day skiing the classic New England trails of Smugglers’ Notch in Jeffersonville, Vt., four of us decided to spend a couple of hours flying from treetop to treetop. My son Becket, my good friend Lisa Stitt, her daughter Emily and I decided to take to the trees barely a mile down the road from Smuggs to ride the new zip lines at ArborTrek Canopy Adventures.
ArborTrek is a guided tour up in the canopy of maples, birches and hemlocks that spread out off the shoulders of Sterling Mountain. Opened in late 2010, the business offers two courses in winter, the Wild Winter Ride ($87.50), which might take up to two and a half hours to complete, and the shorter, Express course ($65), which was estimated at an hour and a half. With Becket—who had become hooked on ropes courses during a summer adventure at Gunstock Mountain in New Hampshire—along there was no question but that we would be taking the Wild Winter Ride. And wild it was…
The only requirements are that you weigh between 70 and 250 pounds, can reach up over your head fairly easily, and are at least 11 years old. We all fit the bill, so the four of us were in for a treat!
After being led out to the gear shack, we met our guides, Alex and Erin, who helped us all suit up correctly in our climbing harnesses and helmets, and fitted us with heavy leather work gloves. After adjusting harnesses, our party of eight (we were joined by two equally enthusiastic younger couples) headed outside for a safety rundown on a demonstration zip line that dangled barely seven feet above the ground. We learned how to slow down when directed by pressing down on the zip line behind us with a gloved hand and how to pull ourselves to the tree platform if we stopped too soon. ArborTrek supplies heavy and warm leather gloves to all participants.
After each of us demonstrated our zipping technique, we piled into a van for the short ride up into the woods to begin our adventure.
On the ride I had the chance to think about how ropes courses were growing in popularity at ski areas throughout the east. It was a phenomenon that seemed slow to catch on at first a decade ago, but recently had opened new opportunities for ski areas. Now, not only were ropes courses expanding in the canopy, but many areas had begun building long, high-speed zip lines that stretched down entire mountains.
At our destination, we scaled our first platform with just a few steps because it was constructed at the edge of a ravine. Each platform has a small step from which to launch, and Erin scaled it to again demonstrate the procedure. She reminded us how our trolleys would be attached to each zip line and explained how our safety line carabiners would rest on the trolleys. She explained we would then clamp our hands, one atop the other, on top of the trolley, and then she was gone, zooming down the heavy steel cable to a tree off in the distance.
After Erin reached the platform and was safely tethered to a heavy safety cable that wrapped around the destination tree, she signaled back to Alex the “all clear.” Alex asked Becket to step up onto the launching platform. Becket, eager for the first ride of the afternoon, complied and Alex fixed Becket’s trolley and safety carabiners.
“OK, Becket,” Alex said. “Remember to look for Erin’s signal on when to slow down.”
“Yup,” said Becket. He looked back at me and grinned.
“Have a great ride, buddy,” I said.
“OK, Becket,” said Alex again, “you can go whenever you wa…”
Becket jumped forward, throwing all his weight and energy into the first ride of the day and the adventure was on!
After Alex had clipped each of us onto the zip line in turn and had received a clear signal back from Erin on his walkie-talkie, he gave us the green light and we took off.
At the next platform, we were hooked into the same safety cable Erin had been attached to and practiced trusting our harnesses to lean out backward into space. At first, I was a bit hesitant to do it, facing the tree and resting the heels of my hiking boots beyond the edge of the platform to lean back. You know the heavy webbed nylon safety belts can easily hold your weight, but for some of us it takes a little mind work to get over the initial fear and fully trust the engineering.
The second zip line was longer the than the first . . . and so it went to a mixture of “yeehaws!” and “Whoohoos!” for the next couple of hours as the zip lines steadily increased in length. In between pulse-quickening rides of up to 40 mph through the air we learned a little about the surrounding flora and were treated to a Spanish version of “Happy Birthday” for Lisa, who was celebrating her year-end birthday by getting a taste of flight. We also crossed two “rope” bridges to reach a high point of 73 feet up above the forest floor.
At that staggering height we arrived at the longest zip line at about the half-mile point in the tour. It stretched almost 1,000 feet (more than three football fields) over a snow-covered forest floor and shot across a relatively clear opening before disappearing into some trees out … there … somewhere. The fog and drizzle obscured the landing platform so it looked like the zip line just disappeared into the mist.
On my long ride, I took the time to look around at the landscape and wondered whether any forest creatures watched us two-legged animals laugh like fools as we zoomed from tree to tree. What did the owls, deer and red fox think of us? Did it matter?
We arrived at the end of our journey after one more long zip across an improbable void where we got a demonstration of how to rappel off our last platform back to terra firma. Each in turn made the quick journey down back to ground and as I hung midway before easing my self-belay to glide back to Earth, I speculated each of us must have been ready to return for another trip through the trees. Back in the van for the short ride back to ArborTrek’s base of operations, the animated discussion going on confirmed for me that we had all had an exhilarating day.
Clearly, this is one of those adventures that crosses a lot of boundaries between people “types.” In skiing, the adrenaline junkies may go for a bumped-up double diamond, but the more cautious types won’t go near it (nor should they, as it could be dangerous to a less-skilled skier). But here, if you have ANY sense of adventure, you can literally take that leap into the void, overcoming your natural fear. And, if you’re a confirmed nutcase like Becket, you can jump right in and have a ball. It’s a great way to build ties among family members; an exhilarating experience can be shared regardless of skill levels. Give it a try!
If you go in winter:
- Reservations are required
- Open Wednesdays through Sundays (but call 802-644-9300 for availability other days)
- Dress warmly in water-resistant clothing you don’t mind getting dirty
- Smugglers’ Notch guests, property owners and pass holders are eligible for discounts
- Children under age 11 must weigh at least 70 pounds and must be accompanied by an adult
- The summer adventure adds two zip lines and a climbing wall ($99.95)