I tend to my roll my eyes at New Englanders who begin complaining about winter before the calendar has even turned over to February. I get it: the cold, snow, and ice can take its toll. By March I’m more than happy to embrace any hint of spring. But this time of year when the season is still new, when a snowy day still packs all the excitement of, well, a snowy day, I’m one of winter’s biggest evangelists.
The key of course is staying busy. Staying active, to be more specific. And in the last few years ski resorts across the region have done a masterful job of catering to those who don’t mind a bit of winter, but aren’t exactly enamored with the idea of strapping on a pair of skis or a snowboard.
Take Bretton Woods Ski Resort in the White Mountains town of Carroll, New Hampshire. Beyond being just about one of the most picturesque winter destinations in New England, this White Mountains mountain, which is under the ownership of the nearby Omni Mount Washington Hotel, has broadened its winter offerings to things that take visitors off the trails.
Off the ground, actually. I’m referring to the mountain’s acclaimed Canopy Tour, a multi-hour zipline experience that brings visitors down the mountain via thick cables and some securing hitches. The reward: A through the forest experience with spectacular views of the Western Whites. I know, I know, you’re thinking, zipping is a great summer activity, but in winter? Well, yes. In fact, it may be preferable. The crowds are lighter and the landscape offers a kind of pristine, bare bones beauty that is exclusive to the season. There’s quiet in them thar trees.
So, on a recent Friday I headed north with my friend, Ken, to experience the Bretton Woods Canopy Tour. A light snow fell as we buzzed up Route 93 and the sun did its best to poke through a steel grey sky. Both of us were newbie zipliners. Together Ken and I had hiked and snowshoed all over the Whites, in all kinds of weather. But hanging from a cable at 160 feet in the air while traveling at speeds of up to 35 MPH, that was something we’d somehow missed.
Maybe it’s because we’re both terrified of heights. I’ll admit we were both a little tepid about the whole experience as we stepped inside the Canopy Tour welcome center. But our tour guides Patrick McKerley and Todd Donahue immediately put us at ease. They were funny, relaxed, and their experience with the Canopy Tour goes back to its beginning in 2008.
The Tour itself is comprised of nine different lines, and descends more than 1,000 vertical feet. The distances range from just a few hundred feet, to its longest run of nearly 900 feet. The experience includes a ride up the mountain in a chairlift, a pleasant little walk through the woods to the start of the course, a series of manageable roped rappels, and a stroll along a pair of bridges that span two sets of large trees. It can take as little as two hours to complete if you’re ziplining with just one other person, or as long as three hours if you’re in a group of eight.
“Nobody has a bad day when they’re out here,” said Todd, as we walked out to the first line. “Or if they are having a bad day, when they get here, it all changes.”
To be clear, the Canopy Tour begins with a heavy focus on safety. The first couple of lines, shorter runs that are lower to the ground, are training exercises. You’re briefed on how to hold your hands on the line, how to break, and how to sit in order to maintain your momentum. The guides are also with you every step of the way. They’re the ones who snap you into place when you’re ready to take off, and unhitch the harness when you’ve finished one line and are ready to move on to the next. Typically, Todd was the one to send us on our way, and Patrick was there at the other end, signaling for us to break at the proper moment, prepared to catch one of us if we came in a little too fast.
“Okay,” announced McKerley, as we approached the third line, “the training wheels are off.”
And they really were. By the time Ken and I were hitched to that third, longer line, all the trepidation about being up so high had worn off. Twenty minutes earlier I had timidly approached the edge of the Tour’s first platform, which sat just a few feet off the ground, and nervously pushed off for the first ride of the day. And then, suddenly, we were like old pros. Both of us marveled at the surroundings, the views, the utter peacefulness that came with traveling in the canopy. Sure my heart raced a little faster if I looked down, but I rarely did, and instead gazed at a lineup of snowcapped mountains that were laid out before me.
“We’ll sometimes do larger groups with people who don’t even know each other,” said McKerley, “and by the middle of it, everyone is pulling for one another. There’s this great camaraderie that builds up among everyone. Often people end up going out to lunch with one another afterwards.”
Both McKerley and Donahue seemed to revel in the chance to witness first-hand the thrill of people riding the zipline. “I’ve heard people put together swear words in a way I’ve never thought to try,” McKerley joked. “I’ll say to myself, that’s pretty inventive.”
While the excitement meter ran pretty high for Ken and me, we never did go into full-scale swearing mode. Instead, we congratulated one another on our increasing talent at stopping without the aid of Patrick. We even talked about coming back at some point for another Canopy Tour run.
As we moved from station to station, Patrick and Todd pointed out the sights. Here was a 300-year-old Hemlock. There was the Omni Mount Washington Hotel in the distance. And then, in two quick hours it was over; a stunned Ken and I rappelling maybe 100 feet from the last platform at the final station. Later on, we did a little skiing. They were gorgeous runs, but I’ll admit, it was a little boring being back on the ground.
Single Canopy Tour tickets begin at $89. On Tuesdays Bretton Woods offers two tickets for $110. For more on Bretton Woods and its Canopy Tour, visit: brettonwoods.com