First Step’s a Doozy

Thrilling Times Beckon At Outdoor Adventure Parks

By Gina Gallucci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 08.20.15 – Diversions, Lifestyles

About 40 feet off the ground, a platform juts out of a tree in Rock Creek Park in Rockville. Those who make the climb to the platform will not leave the structure the same way. Their mission—should they choose to accept it—is to swing across to a waiting vertical cargo net.

Hearts race, big breaths are taken and toes barely caress the platform edge before the participants hurdle themselves off the structure. “It’s definitely the area of the course we get the loudest screams,” says Dan D’Agostino, managing director for Go Ape! Zip Line and Treetop Adventure Course, referring to the portion of the trail known as the Tarzan Swing.

While Tarzan’s yell was described as “the victory cry of a bull ape” by his author Edgar Rice Burroughs, participants’ screams at the Go Ape! course usually range from the initial fear-of-falling cry to joyful laughter after completing the challenge.

If you want to get the rush of adrenaline as you swing like a human pendulum and feel the wind in your face as you careen down a zip line, then make your way to one of the region’s many outdoor adventure parks.

There are many reasons people chose to take on these mentally and physically challenging courses. “A lot of people do it as a challenge,” says Emilie McIntosh, general manager at The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring Friends School. “It’s not something they are going to do in their everyday life. It’s something they can overcome personally. Some people come out here who say they are frightened of heights and this gives them a way they can safely work toward overcoming those fears.”

Jason Ruby, operations manager for Terrapin Adventures in Savage Mill, adds, “Some people just are here for the thrill of it. They really enjoy it. They are thrill seekers so they come out here looking for challenges.”

The course helps people get to know each other better while creating trust, confidence and better communications skills.

Go Ape! has courses across several states, but their headquarters are based in Frederick. The business has been in the city for a year and chose Frederick because many of their employees live here. “It’s a really nice fit for us as a company and for everybody’s personal life as well,” D’Agostino says. While there have been preliminary discussions about adding a course in Frederick County, there is no immediate plan to build one.

The company’s Rockville course is made up of six zip lines, multiple rope ladders and 44 crossings. D’Agostino says it takes participants about three hours to complete. The course is “an activity that is really for everyone,” he says. “We designed the course in such a way that you don’t have to be an extreme adventurer to go through the course so a lot of people come just to do something different. … It’s just a different way to enjoy the outdoors and a new and exciting way to hang out with your friends and family.”

Terrapin Adventures offers 34 elements in their aerial experiences to get your blood pumping and stomach dropping. Make the trek up the 43 foot climbing tower, test your limits during the high ropes course, careen down their 330-foot zip line or take the plunge on their giant swing. “We really just want them to have a good time,” Ruby says. “Everything else is just a bonus.  If they get down and are like ‘Wow. That really helped me get over my fear of heights,’ that’s great, but we want to make sure they had that fun part because that’s why we are here.”

The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring features 13 different color coded trails depending on your experience level –beginner, intermediate and advanced. Besides 29 zip lines and nearly 200 bridges, they also have The Monkey Grove complete with 10 trees waiting to be climbed and The Labyrinth mixing more than 40 elements of varying difficulty.

The park can be challenging but also extremely rewarding for participants, McIntosh says. “They feel really proud that they have accomplished what they have been able to do and they had fun doing it.” A favorite part of her job is “seeing people overcoming fears (and) overcoming their self doubts about what they are physically capable of and getting out and climbing and really discovering new things about themselves.”

Local fans may also want to drive across the state line to go to The Adventure Park at Harpers Ferry, which features nine courses with more than 100 different elements of varying difficulty including zip lines, rock walls, bridges, rope swings and nets. “We get guests that are trying the park for the first time as well as guests that are third-year season pass holders on any given day,” says Claire Ayers, assistant general manager of sales and marketing.

So how can you mentally prepare for something your mind may make you doubt? “What I like to get across to people is that this is actually a very, very safe thing to do,” Ruby says. “It’s even safer than being in a car. It’s a very much perceived risk instead of actual risk. When you are up there, the ropes are extremely strong. Everything is backed up—overly backed up. Everything you are walking on” is secure.

“People come out here every day who have never done these things and we give them a really great safety orientation and so they feel really comfortable,” McIntosh says. Once they start, they realize “that they know everything they need to know and they know the equipment that we provide for them is the safest they can get in the industry. … I always have said people discover something new about themselves while they are out here. They could do a little more than they ever thought they were capable of.”

Outdoor adventure parks can be fun for individuals, families and friends to take on but they also provide a great spot for team-building experiences for a variety of different groups like corporate, school, youth and scouts.

D’Agostino says team-building events are extremely popular at Go Ape! and allow participants to interact in a different way than they are used to and must work together to solve issues while also encouraging members as they perform the elements.

Every day in July but one had a team-building group scheduled at Terrapin Adventures, according to Ruby. He expects the high demand to remain until around Thanksgiving. “Each group is out [on the course] for different reasons,” he says. The course helps people get to know each other better while creating trust, confidence and better communications skills. Ruby enjoys assisting with team-building events. “I like helping people grow,” he says. “I think this is a great place for anyone from eight to 800 to come and try something new if they haven’t done it before.”