Across much of the northeast, April means school vacation, and, if your family is like ours, you don’t want your kids sitting around watching TV and playing video games all week, complaining about being bored. Moms know that coaxing a smile (or even better, a conversation) out of teen and preteens girls or boys usually takes more than just a shopping trip. So why not go whitewater rafting? And ziplining!
Whitewater rafting and ziplining in April?! Absolutely! Surprisingly, you don’t have to be as “hard core” as you might expect. The trick is to think of rafting and ziplining as options in the first place. After that, it’s easy.
At first when the idea of a zip-raft-and-stay April getaway came up, I was a little hesitant. April in New England can mean anything from 75-degrees and sunny to 35 and raining. As it turned out, it was . . . 75 degrees and sunny on the day we zipped; 35 and raining the next day when we rafted. But that didn’t stop our family, including husband Lincoln, Calli (14), and Kim Han (12), from thoroughly enjoying the fun. And, even better news, adventuring in April means no black flies!
The company we went with, Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, Massachusetts, offers all the right gear, and plenty of safety instruction to make both white water rafting and ziplining enjoyable while instilling confidence that you CAN do it.
You’ll instantly spot Zoar Outdoor as you drive through the small town of Charlemont on Route 2, also known as the Mohawk Trail. Three base buildings house a year-round outfitter’s shop, Deerfield Valley Zipline Canopy Tours HQ and the Hawk Mountain Lodge, all of which overlook a stellar view of Berkshire East Ski Area.
We drove up and received a hearty welcome from Nina, the manager of the Zipline Canopy Tours. Zoar Outdoor may be the largest and most diverse rafting, zipline, rock climbing, kayak and canoe outfitter in the area, but it’s still small and personalized enough to know who each guests is and what they’re there to do. Expect a warm welcome when you arrive, and don’t miss the climbing wall in the parking lot to get you started!
While there are other zipline and rafting providers in Western Massachusetts, Zoar is really your one-stop-shopping option, offering up a menu of thrills and spillways. In one spot you can try the zipline canopy tours, guided white water rafting tours, white water kayaking instruction, guided kayak rentals, canoeing lessons, rock climbing instruction, and various other guided tours. There are also Wilderness First Responder and swift water rescue courses. Lodging ranges from tent sites to cabin tents to the Hawk Mountain Lodge, offering casual and homey guest rooms year round. Whew, this is one complete adventure outfitter!
While adventure travel is our interest, I must admit that camping is not a common activity for our family. But, being the intrepid adventurers we are, we decided to try one of Zoar’s “Cabin Tents.” If you’re new to camping you’ll find that the cabin tents were the ideal “starter camping” accommodations, half way between “real” camping and cabins.
Though the tent cabin option requires packing less gear (no need for your own tent or sleeping pads, lights, etc.), we often refer to our family as “the Beverly Hillbillies” for our tendency to bring the bare maximum and then successfully spread it from one end of the room to the other, instantly. This trip was no exception. Within a few minutes of our arrival, you could still find a path down the middle of the tent floor, but it was narrow!
Each cabin tent comes complete with four beds, a gas lantern, a small balcony with two chairs and a small gas grill (gas provided). The girls quickly claimed their beds and went about spreading out. Later we munched on granola bars and cheese and crackers out on the balcony. Relaxed and comfortable, it’s a nice lodging option; maybe we should consider making the next step and trying car camping sometime!
During the daytime, you’ll hear the whirr of nearby ziplines and from time to time the “whoop, whoop!” of a zipliner enjoying the last of 11 zips located right behind the campground. It’s a reminder of the thrills to come.
Ziplining at Zoar (a.k.a. Deerfield Valley Canopy Tours)
If you have a fear of heights (like I do!), try any of the adventures you read about on EasternSlopes.com. Going rock climbing and ziplining with my family has forced me to face my fear of heights. Each time I step off a zip platform or rappel down a rock face, I come a little closer to overcoming that fear. I recommend the “EasternSlopes.com thrills approach” to all acrophobes. You’ll find the courage your need and you’ll be proud enough to brag after you’ve completed your adventure.
Ziplining is just the right kind of quest to help you face your trepidation about heights head-on, and Zoar provides plenty of introduction and instruction to ease the nerves. We started in the gear room where our guides, Austin and Meghan, helped us understand which strap and buckle goes where. Our group consisted of eight people, our family of four and the Lloyd family from Vermont. On a busy day in the summer, Zoar Outdoor runs as many as 20 groups of eight zippers, starting at 9 a.m; even on this April day, we saw one group return, and another group going out shortly before us.
We started on the instructional zip (referred to as “Ground School”), where each person was taught the proper right-over-left hand position and also the all-important stop technique. Our guides were always inserting an element of humor and fun into the serious instruction; the need for safety was implicit and came through loud and clear. The double-cable construction of this zipline, plus the highest of safety standards, helped ease the Mom fears (a term applied to all Moms who are genetically predisposed to worry about the safety of the kids and wonder who’d do all the driving if they get themselves hurt!). Don’t worry Moms – this adventure is totally safe, totally doable.
After the instruction, we all piled into the all-wheel-drive Ranger vehicles for the 550-foot climb up a dirt road to the top of the course. The trip was laced with plenty of humorous commentary by our guides, and we learned the various Zoar Rangers vehicles are named “Power Ranger”, “Forest Ranger”, “Ranger Rick”, and “Walker Texas Ranger”. When we got to the first zip platform we were warned to watch out for “Land Sharks!” and thus the hilarity of the ziplining began.
Enter pounding heart as I stood on the platform watching my beloved family members take off. Jill, the other Mom, and I lagged behind, hugging the tree, not in eco-observance but for fear of taking the first step off the platform. At last it was my turn and as I stood up on the steps and was told to step off, I really wondered how I could do it with my heart about to pound out of my chest. But I took the leap of faith and found the whirr of the zipline actually comforting. Meghan signaled to slow down, and I employed the stop technique, but not quite strong enough…mine was a hard landing.
Stopping is interesting. You must take your hand off the zip car and apply pressure to the lower cable to slow yourself down. While we were all given heavy protective gloves, as you might imagine the stopping technique creates friction and you can feel the heat. This scared me a little, so I didn’t apply enough pressure which made for fast and hard early landings.
Eventually, Meghan told me if I couldn’t master the stop on the next zip, I’d have to walk down (an option they tell you from the beginning is a possibility). That was enough to get me to press harder on the last few zips. Lo and behold, my hand didn’t get too hot and I nailed the landings, scoring a 9.0 from the younger, self-appointed judges.
With each zip, my fears diminished, but never entirely went away. Another heart-stopper came each time we were required to rappel down from an upper to a lower platform. Even though I was strapped in and “on belay” (a climbing term which means the guide lowered you down by ropes), leaning over the edge of the platform into oblivion never, ever came easily for me or for Jill.
Of course, all this speed and the thrill of stepping off the platform came naturally to my thrill-seeker husband and kids. The faster the better for them. And, yes, the smiles actually got bigger as we progressed through longer and longer zips.
While most zips go platform to platform, you will also take a few short hikes and experience two different skyway rope bridges. Always trying to get Mom’s goat, the girls and Lincoln tried running across the bridge behind me to make both the bridge and Mom shake, rattle and roll. I survived the pranks.
A snack of Clif Bars and water was served after the fourth zip and provided a nice break. Throughout the trip, Austin offered bonus dendrology lessons, identifying the species and interesting facts about the trees in the forest. We quickly learned that Meghan was a master of dry humor, telling us silly jokes along the way.
The biggest thrill came with the longest zip, called “Quick Step”. This 660-foot zip offers the chance to really feel the soar. It ends in a platform 70-feet off the ground, offering a great view of the Deerfield River and mountains beyond. For those who can’t get enough time on the zipline, you’ll find this last one the best.
When we finished the zip trip, there were high-fives all around. By this point, both families were comfortable and the kids were friends. We all agreed our great guides and the fun people on the trip made it extra enjoyable. The thrill was the best part for the girls and just being able to step off the platform and soar at Zoar was an accomplishment I was proud of.
Rafting on the Zoar Gap
Rafting in April can go either way. Had we rafted on the day we ziplined, we would have enjoyed 70-degree weather. However, we all know that if you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait an hour—if it takes that long. We awoke after our teaser-to-summer day to rain, wind and a 30-degree drop in temperature. We knew we were in for a chilly day on the water, but took solace knowing that Zoar Outdoor provides wet suits, splash jackets and booties. Note to rafters – gloves help, but you must bring your own. My smart husband Lincoln brought a pair of sailing gloves, which helped keep his hands warm.
While we were told to arrive by 10:45am for instruction, we were glad we arrived a half-hour early, and I’d recommend that to all rafters. This gave us time to fill out registration forms, waivers and suit up. The gear room is filled with wet suits, splash jackets and booties of all sizes. There is plenty of room to change in the campground bathhouse, located adjacent to the gear room.
Suited up and ready to go, we joined a group of 25 others, including a boy scout troop from New York state and two buddies in the Reserves, along with other couples and groups of friends. We listened intently as the raft leader, Parker, explained safety rules with the requisite humor thrown in. The instruction was followed by a trip across the street to Zoar Outdoors brand new gear barn where PFD’s , helmets and paddles were handed out along with a few more safety tips for using them (don’t clonk your fellow rafters with your paddle!).
Zoar’s new gear barn was constructed after Tropical Storm Irene wiped out the old one, along with much of the gear stored there and flooded the road and half way up the hill to the Zoar buildings. Throughout the trip, you can’t help but notice the remnants of Irene as erosion, slides and plenty of downed trees are visible along the banks of the Deerfield River. Our guide pointed out a three-story boulder, explaining that prior to Hurricane Irene the boulder wasn’t there, and that the river was actually re-routed by the rushing storm water. I thought about the power of the river and quietly paid my respects.
The whole group of 25 or so rafters jumped into a waiting school bus and were transported to the beginning of the trip. Because the water was high, this trip started below the traditional put-in.
We were split into groups and Randy and Dan from Cape Cod got the privilege of sharing the raft with our family. Rafting, like ziplining, is one of those experiences where everyone becomes friends quickly…at least you’d better. Our guide, Kim, was perky and “cool” as the kids referred to her (like all the guides at Zoar) and had five years of experience guiding trips. She carried the medical kit, which gave us the responsibility of being the last boat. Being last turned out to be an advantage when the water fights broke out; we didn’t receive the deluge of cold water in the face!
Kim explained that the water was unusually high today. On a normal summer day, the water runs about 800 to 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) but today the water was running at about 3,000 cfs. This, she explained, would be like sending 3,000 basketballs per second through a square foot. The current was strong, which made paddling downriver quite easy and even leisurely. For the most part, the current (and Kim) steered the raft.
It didn’t take long to hit the first set of rapids. We sailed over them with all smiles as Zoar’s photographer shot photos from shore. Wet and exhilarated, we looked for more rapids; with the unusually high water, some were minimized. Every day is different on the Zoar Outdoor rafting trips. While the Zoar Gap trip we were on is the most popular with Class II and III rapids, the Dryway trip with Class IV rapids provides more white knuckle splash adventure for the hard core rafter. Zoar offers a wide variety of trips for rafters from age 7 and up, with everything from the gentle family float trip to more thrilling.
We pushed Kim to steer us through every bit of white water we could find, paddling hard when necessary to hit the rapids. After the first hour or so on the water we pulled over to the shore for lunch. The guides made short order of turning an upside-down raft into a table and setting out cold cuts, rolls, salads, and thermoses of hot chili and hot water.
By this point everyone was hungry and there was plenty of food even for the vegans in the crowd. If you have special dietary needs, Zoar is happy to accommodate them, as long as they know ahead of time.
While we ate lunch, the clouds parted for a short time and the sun’s rays began warming our cold hands and feet. We all marveled at how quickly lunch was consumed, then cleaned up. Off we went for more water fights and floating down the river.
Our trip ended with a small set of rapids that were so much fun we turned around and paddled against the current in an attempt to get up and over to ride them again. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it, but we did have the chance to experience “surfing” the rapids, which brought smiles to cold faces. We all marveled at the hardy Boy Scouts who jumped off the rafts to swim in the water before ending the trip! “Not me!” shivered Kim Han.
The rafts were tied to trees along the side of the river and we scampered up the embankment. “I can’t feel my feet,” said Calli. “Well, at least there were no black flies to contend with!” On the bus ride back, we dreamed of that hot shower to come.
Once back at Zoar Outdoor, we peeled off wet suits, showered, and changed into our dry clothes, then watched a slide show of photos taken by Zoar’s photographer at that first set of rapids where we first soaked the boat.
“My favorite part?” said Calli. “The great guides! They really make the trip!”
“I can’t wait to tell my friends about this,” agreed Kim Han. Now that’s the kind of reaction guaranteed to make a parent smile!
When You Go
Ziplining: Available from April 1 – November 25. $94 per person (+ a 2% processing fee).
Rafting: Available April 15 – Columbus Day. Prices vary per trip and by age. Spring rafting on the Zoar Gap: $68 per adult, $57 per child. Summer rates: $87 per adult, $67 for children.
Spring Two day Zip and Raft Trips available, including overnight in a tent cabin: $161-$204 depending upon the choice of rafting trips.
Since 1989 Zoar Outdoor has offered white water rafting trips, kayaking clinics, canoeing instruction, rock climbing classes and kayak rents for adventure seekers of all abilities. The zip line was the first to be constructed in Southern New England and Massachusetts.
Check out the videos: