Chasing Thrills in Charlemont, Massachusetts
By Brian Gage
Known as the recreational capital of New England, Charlemont, Massachusetts is home to some of the most exciting outdoor activities in the entire region.
Charlemont is surrounded by the rolling Berkshire Mountains and neighbored by the Deerfield River, providing it with the important tools to become the headquarters for several adventurous companies who have settled in the area.
I recently took a trip to visit two such companies, Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East, to try and figure out what all the fuss is about for myself.
Zoar Outdoor has been providing some of the foremost outdoor adventure activities in New England since its start in 1989. They offer their guests opportunities for guided kayaking, white-water rafting, zip line canopy tours, rock climbing, and canoeing, which makes for a phenomenal time for people of all ages.
Berkshire East is predominantly a popular ski mountain and resort that provides a fantastic space for skiers, snowboarders, and snow tubers to ply their trade, however, during the off-season, they offer quite a few enticing options for those less geared towards winter sports.
Mountain Coaster Too!
When visiting Berkshire East during the summer, you should prepare yourself for white-water rafting, vigorous mountain biking, zip lining, taking a ride on the insane mountain coaster, and braving their aerial adventure course.
These two Charlemont-based ventures are literally right across the street from each other, which makes for a seriously convenient visit. Each offer campgrounds or indoor lodging options for guests.
My recent visit most definitely fed my insatiable hunger for adventure. Over a two day span, I was able to try out some of the features offered at these two awesome spots, and I honestly can't wait to go back.
Zip Lining Canopy Tour
I got to Zoar Outdoor at about 9:15 am on Thursday, approximately fifteen minutes before the reservation I had set beforehand for a guided zip line canopy tour. The facility was well marked and easy to find, and they have separate yet closeby offices for their zip lining and water activity operations.
Upon arrival, I checked in and met my tour group members and guides, we had a group of eight zippers, and two guides, which made for a bit longer of an experience setting up and getting ready to go. The gear we were given for the excursion consisted of a helmet, harness, and a couple of carabiners for strapping on to the lines.
After we were all geared up, the guides took us to a tiny zip line near the office to put us through a "zip school" of sorts. We learned commands on when to go and stop, how to stop, and other critical pieces of information that made us all ready to take on the course head on.
The three-hour course consisted of eighteen lines, each connected platform to platform, except for a select few that had repel ropes down to rope bridges or lower platforms and occasionally a hike to the next station.
The first three were relatively similar and basic for the first-timers to hone their skills at stopping before smacking into the emergency brake at the end of the line and to get used to the sensation of flying through the air at high speeds.
The longest line on the course was about 640 feet, with the highest point being about 63 feet high. On the longer lines, you could really feel your speed picking up fast, and as such, we were required to start braking early.
Throughout the whole experience, the guides were extremely helpful and understanding and managed to make the entire experience fun and easy for everyone to enjoy, no matter their prior experience.
Guided Kayaking on the Deerfield River
After lunch, I headed over to the water activities registration area and checked in for my guided kayaking journey at 1:00 pm. I was wearing a pair of Birkenstocks, but they didn't allow backless shoes so they let me use a pair of waterproof booties free of charge.
We then watched a short safety video on what to do in the event of capsizing and made our way down to the boathouse.
We got our paddles, helmets, and PFDs and then loaded up a trailer and drove about five miles up the river.
Ready to Shove Off
Once we got to what seemed like a popular unloading zone, we took the kayaks off the back of the trailer and brought them to the water to shove off.
We spent a little while at the beginning of the tour going over paddling techniques in easy flowing water and then started heading down the river.
We quickly encountered a small set of class I rapids, the easiest grade imaginable, and took a rest in an eddy after we got through.
The river was pretty crowded with other kayakers, tubers, and rafters, but everyone stayed out of each other's way and there were never any collisions or traffic jams.
After a little while, we got to the first "surf spot" where our guide explained how you could use the force of the water rushing over the front of your boat to stay in an equilibrium and stay put for as long as you'd like.
It was pretty tough to paddle upriver to get in place, but once I was able to get the nose of my boat under the fast flowing water it was surreal to just be held there by the power of the river.
There were plenty of other surf spots as we continued along, but many of them were far too advanced for anyone other than our guide to attempt.
We encountered a few more rapids, and although they only went as high as class II, being in a small boat made the experience quite exhilarating.
Back to the Boathouse
We continued along our five-mile trek down the river until we reached the boathouse where we started. We dragged our kayaks out of the water and returned all of our gear then said our farewells.
I had reserved a room in Zoar's Hawk Mountain Lodge to stay overnight so that I could easily enjoy my planned activities at Berkshire East the next day, so I went to check in at about five to change out of my wet clothes.
The Hawk Mountain Lodge offers a variety of rooms for reservation, able to accommodate parties from 2-5 people. And if you don't want to pay the cost of a room, they also rent out campsites, small cabins, and yurts for a modest fee.
Berkshire East was literally a two-minute drive from Zoar Outdoor, so it was ridiculously easy to get there for registration with time to spare.
My reservation that day was for the Deerfield River Monroe Bridge Trip, a three-hour long fight with the river through class III and IV rapids with nothing but a big rubber raft, three other visitors, and a skilled guide.
I got to the facility with time to spare and got all checked in before receiving an extensive safety talk and a rundown of the day's events. The full group was about forty-five people strong, taking up five rafts and consisting of a wide range of people.
There were about fifteen girl scouts on the trip with their troop leaders, several young couples, and a few full families.
When all of the required information had been put across, they geared everyone up with paddles, helmets, and PFDs and we hopped on a bus for about half an hour to the Monroe Bridge.
The Deerfield River is great for water sports because its dam runs on a water release schedule that the raft guides take full advantage of.
Our guide, JD, was a big man with a bigger beard, and he showed us the most efficient way to paddle in unison for our raft to travel in our desired direction.
He was a humorous fellow but really knew how to command a ship with his bellowing orders from the back of the raft.
We started off our ride down the river with some class III rapids that gave us a good taste of what was to come (and of the freezing cold water that we would be subject to for the next few hours). After clearing them, we continued along our way through seemingly more and more advanced sets of rapids.
The biggest rapids in the river were known as "Dragon's Tooth", which got us totally soaked, and the longest was known as "Terminator". However, even though they were billed like this, a lot of the others were just as thrilling and there was no shortage of adrenaline.
By the time we reached the end of our strip of the river, everyone was pretty exhausted and ready to head back to Berkshire East for a tasty barbeque style meal (which was included in the cost of the raft trip).
We walked our equipment up a small hill back to the bus and rode back in style, feeling satisfied with a hard day's rafting.
Back at Berkshire East, the guides got some food ready for the group. When everyone was satisfied, we headed downstairs to watch the slideshow of the day's trip, which definitely caught a few gems.
And after this was all finished about 3:30, I still had one more item on the agenda to top off the whole trip.
Thunderbolt Mountain Coaster
Right next to the ski lifts for the primary ski slope at Berkshire East is a massive track with attached carts that can be best described as an alpine slide mashed together with a roller coaster.
The Thunderbolt Mountain Coaster takes only the bravest of visitors up 1,580 feet via a cable propulsion system and down and around on another lightning-fast 3,870 feet propelled by body weight.
The ride has a 300-pound maximum, and getting as close to that goal as possible will provide you with the fastest and most thrilling experience possible.
Unfortunately (?) I only weigh about 175, so I wasn't able to experience the full power of the ride, however, I was still blown away by the speed at which it flung me down.
The carts that you ride in are equipped with a lever that allows you to control the braking capabilities if you're not interested in speeding down the mountain at top speed, but I would highly recommend pretending that it's not even there.
When I got to the top of the uphill section, I had no idea how quick I would accelerate on the way down, and the answer was almost immediately.
The track itself had twists, turns, and full on 360° rotations that forced a bit of a scream/cheer combination out of me at points.
When I got to the bottom my initial reaction was the intense desire to go at it again, but sadly I had to start my drive homewards.
This trip deep into the adventurous side of Charlemont had me on an extreme high for the full two days I spent there, and both Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East delivered far more than I ever could have expected.
Additional info about pricing, and hours, can be found on their respective websites at:
Brian Gage is a resident of Amherst, Massachusetts and a lover of all things outdoors. He enjoys traveling to exciting new locations, attempting to take in the most beautiful natural sites he can see. He is an avid hiker and climber and can be found at the Hadley Central Rock Gym on many of his free days.