Sugarloaf zip line course bolsters business

Posted Aug. 13, 2010, at 9:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:26 p.m.

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — It didn’t take much of a sales pitch to convince Erik McClure that he ought to swap Sugarloaf summer jobs and start working on the resort’s brand-new zip line course.

Working at Sugarloaf Golf Club was OK, mind you. As long as the local wildlife didn’t leave any surprises for you.

“Remember that time you handed me the shovel and told me to shovel the moose poop off that tee before the first group got there?” McClure asked Jim McCormack on Thursday, reminiscing about their not-so-glorious days working at the course.

This week — as they have all summer long — McCormack and McClure were tinkering with the resort’s new zip lines.

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McClure and McCormack are enthusiastic about the resort’s new recreational option with good reason: Last week’s official opener sold out, and this weekend’s sessions are already booked. Reservations for the zip lines are being taken as far in advance as October.

And McClure, the kind of boisterous, friendly character you’d expect to find working full time operating a ski lift (which he does in the winter) or willingly shoveling moose droppings, is already the resort’s top zip line fan.

He works the lines.

He loves the lines.

He even admits to a far-fetched dream of building a zip line that will carry him to his home at the bottom of the Sugarloaf access road — more than a mile — when he punches out for the night.

“Pretty slick, huh?” McClure asked after showing visitors two of the resort’s five functioning lines. “We’ve been out all morning on them. We had to do a ton of stuff. But the great thing about this job, first thing every morning, when we run for public, we get to inspect and run [the lines]. This is great, man. It’s a good time.”

First, the basics

Chances are good you’ve heard of zip lines. If you haven’t, the new rage in outdoor adventure is surprisingly simple.

A long length of cable is attached to two points (in Sugarloaf’s case, trees are generally used). Then, with the help of a harness and some hardware, zip-liners attach themselves to the cable and slide — McClure prefers the word “glide” — downhill to a platform near the end of the cable.

Trees whiz by. The ground blurs. And then, as McClure or McCormack manipulate a “friction block” that serves as a brake, the rider slows, then stops.

Speeds at Sugarloaf can approach 25 mph. Riders are attached to the cable at two points for increased safety.

Zip lines have cropped up in a number of locations in recent years, and Boyne, the corporate owners of Sugarloaf and several other resort properties, saw an opportunity to increase its summer offerings.

Boyne now has zip lines at Sunday River and Sugarloaf in Maine, as well as in Michigan, Montana and New Hampshire.

“They’re a great summertime activity,” said Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s communications manager. “They’re relatively inexpensive to put up, they’re easy to run, they’re a ton of fun, and people have a good time on them.”

Last weekend 80 riders —four daily sessions of 10 riders per session — sampled Sugarloaf’s zip lines on opening day.

Only two of the six lines were open last weekend. Five of the six will be operational today and Sunday. The final line is expected to open next week.

John Byrne, Sugarloaf’s resort retail manager, said visitors and employees are equally excited about the zip lines.

“There’s just more activities to do and it’s just added to our community,” he said. “Everybody who rode them last weekend, our first weekend, had a blast. Everybody very much enjoyed the experience. A lot of ‘em came back in and re-booked for later this summer or this fall, when we’d have more of the lines up.”

In some venues, the zip lines are (pick your own description) a bit more impressive, or frightening, than those you’ll find at Sugarloaf.

There are no extreme heights to conquer here, though you might find yourself sailing 20 or 25 feet above a brook. The lines aren’t overly long — 240 feet is the longest. Byrne said that doesn’t matter much.

“Ours aren’t going to be the longest, and they’re not going to be the scariest or tallest, but they’re going to be a lot of fun for everybody,” Byrne said.

Sugarloaf’s zip lines are designed for all riders, and the first, a 179-footer, requires that riders simply step off a platform that’s a couple feet off the ground. Then, gravity takes over for a 10-second zip to a distant platform.

The minimum height for riders is 3 feet, and riders can’t weigh more than 275 pounds. Those with health conditions that might preclude them from undertaking certain kinds of activities should talk to their physicians, Sugarloaf warns.

But for most, the zip lines are an all-inclusive family activity that resort officials picture as an ideal apres-ski adventure for teens and families alike.

“It’s another thing for people to do after the lifts close,” Austin said.

And before the snow flies, too.

All thrill, no skill

Over at Zip Line 1, McClure read from crib notes written inside his protective helmet while giving a pre-glide safety seminar.

“The guys from Boyne had a great term for [zip-lining],” McClure said. “It’s ‘No skill, all thrills.’ Anybody can do this. It’s great.”

For those who doubt that, McClure has a little trick up his sleeve.

As groups of zip-liners assemble at the first platform, he asks a simple question.

“Who’s really nervous about doing this?” he’ll ask.

Whoever raises a hand first learns a lesson: Be careful about the information you volunteer.

“[We’ll say], ‘All right, come on up, you’re going first,’” McClure said with a laugh.

The ploy works. Once an anxious rider conquers the zip line, everyone else loosens up, and everybody can have fun.

“The first time you get ’em to go across, the next time you come back around they were the first ones in line,” McClure said. “So it’s a pretty neat thing.”

The rules of riding are simple, too.

Don’t reach up for the cable (grabbing your harness or the lanyard is fine). Zip line staffers will attach you to the cable and detach you at the end of the ride. And when you approach the platform at the bottom of the cable, pick up your feet.

Other than that, just lean back — or forward — or to the side — and enjoy the ride.

“You can get the thrill without having to be a thrill-seeker,” Austin said. “It’s an amusement ride. It’s like going to an amusement park.”

That it is. Even if you’re “testing” the zip lines. Even if you’re “working.”

Like McClure.

Ever since the zip lines went in, McCormack has seen a transformation in his friend and co-worker.

Time was, McClure would trudge back and forth between work sites on the zip line course as it was under development.

Now, McCormack says, his buddy has his own public transportation system on Sugarloaf’s slopes.

“He doesn’t even walk anywhere anymore,” McCormack said. “He just rides.”

McClure grinned and laughed and quickly agreed.

But he does have that unfulfilled dream, you know: a zip line to his house. And others in the yard.

Here a line.

There a line.

Everywhere a zip line.

“I tell you guys what,” McClure told the assembled riders, all new devotees of the zip line movement. “I’ll call you guys up when I’ve got them built up around my house, like I want.”

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