LANESBOROUGH — "It's so much more than a place to swing around in the trees. It truly is a place of education," said Luke Bloom, program director of Ramblewild, an adventure destination built on the backside of Brodie Mountain in Lanesborough. "Everything we do here is predicated on sustainability."
It's easy to lose sight of this straight-forward mission when cataloguing the activities, programs, facilities, events and products Ramblewild offers. Now in its third year, the park's unique management technique and relationship to its natural home is expanding, and impacting the community around it in the process.
Physically speaking, Ramblewild consists of a ski-style lodge, a 10-acre aerial adventure park, 6,000-tap maple sugar bush and a 10-turbine clean energy wind farm spread out over 1,400 acres of forest. Overnight camping platforms are nearing completion, and what Bloom expects to be one of the most elaborate archery ranges on the East Coast is in its design phase. But only the homey lodge can be seen from Brodie Mountain Road, wood smoke puffing from its chimney.
Ramblewild's crown jewel, Bloom said, is its aerial adventure park. Picture a high-ropes course found at a summer camp. Now expand that to include eight separate trails suspended in a pristine hemlock grove, each consisting of 15 elevated platforms and 16 to 17 climbing elements. These range from monkey bars 40 feet above the forest floor to a 30-foot vertical climbing wall suspended 30 feet in the air to four zip lines that traverse a ravine cutting the park in two. One of these zip lines features the nation's only "Skyak," a kayak rigged to zoom bold climbers 140 feet above the ravine at over 30 miles per hour.
Using a European style of sustainable aerial park construction, all platforms and other tree-bound elements are attached to the sturdy hemlocks strictly through the friction of wooden slats bound by metal cables, which can be expanded as each tree grows in girth. No trees were harmed in the making of this adventure park.
"On the entire 10-acre park, there isn't one nail or bolt that goes in any living tree," Bloom said. "We could take this entire course down and this beautiful hemlock grove would never even know that we were here."
Using Smart Valet climbing technology, climbers are free to trek through the skies alone or with friends, but unencumbered by an instructor, and are never out of sight of one of the park's trained employees, situated on the forest floor, who can get any panicked climber to the ground in under six minutes. Up to 300 climbers can occupy the elevated park at a given time.
But this isn't just a place to have physical fun and test your mettle. It's a training ground for the mind, as well as the body, said Bloom.
"What we deal with is the perception of risk, not actual risk. The most successful people can identify that, and develop situational awareness," Bloom said. "If you know that you're not going to get hurt jumping off our free fall, for example, you can focus on the things in your bag of tricks that let you focus on the task at hand and move forward. For some people, it's deep breathing. For some, it's positive self-talk. For some, it's profuse swearing."
Bloom identifies this situational awareness as a transferable skill, which is one of the reasons that groups such as SWAT teams, state police and Berkshire Search & Rescue have staged training exercises there.
"The next time you're in a fight with a teacher or your husband or girlfriend, you can look back and ask, 'Is this a critical situation, or am I perceiving it to be worse than it is?'" Bloom explained. "You find out, 'Well, deep breathing worked really well for me when standing on that platform, so maybe that'll work for me now.' It's an ah-ha moment. Once you decipher that, you're armed with a tremendous amount of knowledge. That's what we want."
A group of three climbers in their 20s from Brattleboro, Vt., walked past, beaming and sweating, scanning the sky for their next adventure. Two had been to the park five times before, and one was a first-timer.
"I'm a fairly anxious person, so I think it's really useful to be able to face all my fears in a controlled environment," said Sophia Marx, the first-timer. "It's interesting to think about what's challenging physically and what's challenging psychologically. I found that if I can push through the psychological part, the physical part is actually pretty awesome."
The aerial park, though a major draw, is a small part of Ramblewild's endeavor. Through Feronia Forward, Ramblewild's non-profit branch, its maple syrup sales help fund educational grants given to local student groups. An elaborate education program is aimed at 3rd- to 12th-grade students, and is aligned with national STEM standards, as well as state standards, making it easy for teachers to dovetail their lesson plans into a visit. Classes are available in forestry, plant life, sustainability, Japanese meditative hiking and a variety of other subjects, and teachers need only fill out a single-page application online to apply for grant money.
"If you're a physics teacher and you want to teach about bodies in motion, you can bring your class here and go zip lining, or you could easily come and study the aerodynamics of the blade design of our wind turbines," said Bloom. "This is really the largest living laboratory you could find. In the past three years, we've given close to $100,000 away just in local grants, and our goal for the next year is to get 10,000 students through here."
The aerial park, as well as hiking and snowshoeing trails, are open year-round, making this the only such attraction above the Mason-Dixon Line, and keeping educational programs available while school is in session.
"A main goal for us when building the park was to reintroduce kids to nature, to get them out there and involved and to appreciate it in an adventure-based setting," said Bloom. "That's how we really use the place — as a teaching tool."
The 10 towering wind turbines looming above Ramblewild's highest point, and owned by the Berkshire Wind Energy Co-op, provide income from land rental, educational opportunity, and, collectively, enough clean electricity to power about 10,000 Berkshire County homes a year. The energy they generate is pumped directly into the local power grid via a Pittsfield transfer station.
In partnership with Hillrock Estate Distillery in Ancram, N.Y., Ramblewild is using its 110-acre maple sap collection system and 6,000 gallon reduction tank to produce not only light, medium, and dark syrups, but also varieties aged in former bourbon, rye, and single-malt barrels. Bloom recommends using them over ice cream. Mezze Bistro in Williamstown uses the whiskey-infused syrups in desserts, and Gracie Italian restaurant in North Adams mixes cocktails with them. The Berkshires just got its own specialty hot toddy.
Additionally, The Boston Globe recently dubbed it the No. 1 recreation attraction in New England. Yankee Magazine did the same last year, and the Travel Channel's Samantha Brown paid it a recent televised visit. Just last week, an episode of Animal Planet's "Treehouse Masters" with Pete Nelson broadcasted an 11-minute feature on "The Hub," the central, multi-tiered platform from which all eight courses of the aerial park emanate.
The rest of the nation seems more hip to Ramblewild than many Berkshirites. Eighty-five percent of Ramblewild's visitors travel from Boston, Cape Cod and Rhode Island, according to Bloom. If you'd like to check the place out, it costs nothing to visit the lodge.
Those with an eye for the sky are recommended to make a reservation 24 hours in advance for daytime climbs, though on full moons during the warm season, the park is illuminated and a limited number of climbers are let loose on the course. In the past, local musicians have played. The last such event of the season comes on Saturday, Oct. 15. Though no music has been booked, the climb should be beautiful.
"To come out here and climb at night is very unique," Bloom said. "Music emanates through the forest. We'll cap the experience at around 50 people and give everybody headlamps. We'll light up The Hub with LED lights, put solar lights on each one of the platforms and light a bonfire. The place looks magical."
If you go ...
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday until Oct. 31; Friday through Sunday during the winter
Where: 110 Brodie Mountain Road, Lanesborough
Cost: Fall rates $69 adults, $59 youth; Winter rate $48 per person