Fall Foliage

Zip Lines Offer Fast Views of Foliage in Massachusetts

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

When I suggest that you not look down, it's not because I worry about your acrophobia. I offer this advice because, when you're suspended more than 180 feet in the air by a cable the width of a maiden's braid, you don't want to waste one second on views of the ground. The dirt isn't going anywhere, but the surrounding foliage is.

Zip-lining seems designed for leaf-peeping: The sport, which involves gliding through the forest while connected to a network of high wires strung between platforms, lets you play among the treetops as if you were a flying squirrel or Tarzan. And the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, known for their fireworks of color each fall, provide the perfect stage for a bit of zipping.

"You are up in the canopy, in the foliage," said Jon Schaefer, general manager of Berkshire East Canopy Tours, which runs the excursions and opened in June. "It's already a unique experience, but in the foliage it's even more unique because of all of the colors."

Added guide Gabe McFarland, who was hopping around the main lodge in his harness, raring to go: "You see miles and miles of orange, red and yellow."

In its winter-white guise, Berkshire East, on the eastern slopes of the Berkshires, is a full-service ski resort that has been owned by the Schaefer family since 1975. Last year, Jon, the youngest of four Schaefer sons, went to Costa Rica, where he zip-lined twice. He returned home enamored of the activity and proceeded to build three courses on the mountain: the Base Area Tour for beginners, the Mountain Top Tour for intermediates and the Valley Jumping Tour for the fearless.

"They get longer, faster and higher as you work your way through the first five zips," said the athletic 29-year-old, explaining that last vertiginous option, which features seven traverses, including one that stretches 2,600 feet across the valley. "On the last two, the mountain falls away and you blast out of the valley at 50 miles per hour." Hang on to your teeth.

On the chairlift ride up the mountain, we passed the novice zip line before gaining altitude toward the first platform (45 feet high and 300 feet across to the second landing) of the Valley Jumping Tour. We trekked through a dense and misty forest with no commercial structures to break the spell. Bears inhabit the area -- a staff member recently spotted a mother and cub outside the lodge -- and porcupines roost in trees, watching the crazy critters in diaper-like harnesses and wearing buckets on their heads.

Before the guides hooked me up to the cable, McFarland delivered the safety talk, which included a demonstration of the bullet (legs tucked, helps to gain speed) and the starfish (open arms and legs, used to slow down) and an admonition to go have fun.

My ride: trees, trees, trees, platform. Ta-dah! The following zips gained in difficulty, but conversely the group's mood grew sillier and the moves more daredevil. For the third crossing, I vaulted backward like a skydiver, and on the fourth, I performed the reverse, falling forward, my face nearly parallel with the valley below. At a few of the platforms, Schaefer arranged two cables side by side, allowing participants to race. I always lost, mainly because I did not want to cruise too fast. The ride lasts only seconds; why rush it?

From the start of the tour, the guides had been building up the final two zips, called X1 and X2, as if they were twin robots or genetic codes. Stepping off the wooden platform for X1, I bobbed down, then went from zero to 40 like a hot rod. Ignoring my liquefying face, I looked around at the mash of maples, oaks and pines. To reach the final ride, we hiked a short distance through a thick grove that obscured the sky and dwarfed our party. At X2, I stood on a dirt slope, regarded the big gulf nearly 180 feet below, then pushed myself off a rock outcropping. To my right, the maw of the Deerfield River Valley opened up, a carpet of trees that was flecked with red but would soon be awash in fiery colors. For that entire minute, I never looked down.

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