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Woods Working

Health Wanted


Published May 26, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Most christenings involve water or champagne, but Chip Schlegel has something else in mind. Standing in a small clearing in the woods at Bolton Valley Resort, the rock-climbing and ropes-course guru points to three long boards at our feet and several chunks of wood forming a zigzag pattern on the carpet of dried leaves. "We will be using these planks and those blocks to get across the toxic peanut-butter pit for our rite of passage," he says. "This will determine the absolute christening of the Bolton Adventure Center Challenge Course."

As we begin to wobble across the boards, inches above the imaginary toxic pit, and I'm suddenly a kid again, my thoughts emptied of everything but our mission, and the surrounding trees and twigs. The five of us -- including a few staffers from Bolton -- are halfway across the pit when my teammate Margaret tosses a plank toward the next wooden block. She looks back at us. "Oh, no," she moans. "This isn't working."

The Zigzag is part of the brand-new Bolton Adventure Center, an all-ages playground set to open June 1. Though they're still putting on finishing touches, the folks at Bolton have allowed me a sneak peek. My tour guide: Schlegel, executive director of Petra Cliffs, who partnered with Bolton and Redstone Commercial Group last January to begin assembling the Challenge Course. "Bolton has kind of a backcountry atmosphere, and this ties in with that theme," he says. "It's also very unobtrusive to the natural environment."

Set discreetly behind the resort's base area, the Challenge Course is a series of elements set high in the air and low on the ground. While tennis players thwack the ball on adjacent courts, thrill seekers can clamber up a 45-foot pole, clip into a pulley system and fly 350 feet across the Joiner Brook ravine. This Zip Line is a high element, as are the various activities clustered among a dozen poles on the other side of the ravine. "Unlike telephone poles, which are coated in creosote, these are treated to a safer level," says Schlegel, "because humans will be hugging the poles for dear life."

In winter this area around an unnamed pond is the site of a few quiet cross-country ski trails; for this summer, it's been transformed into an epicenter of action, complete with a couple of beach chairs for spectators. There's the Giant Swing where you get hoisted up in a harness between two of the poles by your teammates, then release the lanyard and fly, Superman-style, over the pond and back. (Thanks to the safety system, you won't fall in -- or fall anywhere, for that matter, despite the uncontrollable knocking in your knees.)

Then there is the ultimate jungle gym for adrenaline junkies: four poles interlaced with a canopy of cables and ropes. Here, you climb 40 feet up, pause on a platform, and then begin to wobble your way across one of the four features. Navigating the Boardwalk is like walking on train tracks -- with half the wood missing. The Catwalk is a horizontal pole that sways wildly as you move across it. The Burma Bridge and Multi-Vine recall Indiana Jones and Tarzan, with shaky spans and swinging ropes. At least 12 climbers can be up in the canopy at once, creating a circus of sorts as they pass each other on the tasks.

"Most ropes courses are up and down, but here you climb up and then stay in the poles and trees to do all the activities without ever touching down," explains Schlegel. "[With] this one you can do so much simultaneously, and your best friend can be 40 feet away up in the air and you'll be having that enjoyment with each other, but still the adventure on your own."

While you might be able to shoot the breeze on the Boardwalk or Burma Bridge, you're solo for the Leap of Faith, where you climb up a 45-foot pole, stand on the tippy-top -- and then jump for a trapeze. "We call this the Pamper Pole," says Schlegel. "It's treated for moisture in case you pee your pants."

For fans of "Fear Factor" and MTV's "Real World/Road Rules Challenge," in which contestants are almost always about to wet themselves -- or punch each other -- much of this may seem familiar. "Disclaimer!" says Bolton's marketing manager, Milissa O'Brien. "There is no $50,000 kitty at the end of any of this, no treasure chest buried in the pond." (And no creepy-crawlies to choke down, either.)

Instead, the rewards for tackling the Challenge Course, and other components of the Bolton Adventure Center, are a bit more touchy-feely.

"The whole concept behind these courses is challenging yourself to your ultimate level and learning from that," says Schlegel, who has been working in the field of experiential education for 12 years. While activities like the Zip Line and Pamper Pole are high-energy adrenaline rushes that can help conquer fears, he designed the low elements to foster team building among corporate groups, schoolchildren and families. On the Whale Watch, a tippy platform, teams must determine how to all board the "ship" without it touching the water. For the Wild Woozy, pairs must somehow cross cables set inches off the ground to two opposite poles. (Hint: teamwork is involved.)

"After a group is either successful or not successful, you get to come away from the activity and you talk about how you solved that problem," says Schlegel. "So for the Whale Watch it would be about balance: 'Is there balance in your life?' We talk about the metaphors related to home, school, work."

Schlegel plans to spend three to four days a week at the Bolton Adventure Center this summer. He's also offering a free training course June 12-13 for ropes-course-experienced "facilitators" who can initiate these types of discussions while also teaching climbing techniques and ensuring safety.

In addition to the Challenge Course, Adventure Center staffers supervise an enormous menu of indoor and outdoor options. "Adventure packages" offer mock search-and-rescues, scavenger hunts and treasure quests that foster the same types of teamwork and self-examination developed out on the course. "People who don't want to go high can still be involved in a mountain adventure," says Schlegel. "It's all play for purpose, really fun stuff that has meaning."

Sound corny? Sure, at first, admits O'Brien. "But it's presented in a way where it's OK that we're talking about this... I sit on the board for Make a Wish, and have learned that in the conference room, people may be quiet or just nod, but put them outside of their element and they act very differently. It's amazing what you learn about the people in your group."

En route to figuring out the toxic peanut butter pit, we learn that Margaret is comfortable leading, Milissa's comfortable talking, and I'm comfortable, well, just watching. "That's good -- you're able to see things before others recognize it," Schelgel reassures me. (Actually, I was just thinking about peanut butter.) He congratulates us on completing the Zigzag, and I feel a sense of overwhelming accomplishment.

"The discovery, the eureka moment, that's why I do this work; it's really exciting to introduce a seemingly impossible challenge and have a group work through the solution and be happy with their end result," says Schlegel. "And being outside is critical to its success as well. There's just magic in the woods."