There’s something new and wild at the Turtle Back Zoo, but it doesn’t have to do with animals and it isn’t geared towards young children. It’s about suspending yourself 35-feet above the ground and moving through a 90-minute aerial course of varied challenges, including swaying bridges, zigzagged boards, deliberate obstacles and ultimately jumping off the edge of a platform, secured only by a wire, to zip line back down. The process tests a person’s balance, trust and mostly — as I found out first-hand yesterday — nerve. But I loved every minute of the Treetop Adventure Course in West Orange, although I wasn’t always smiling.
I’m not aerophobic, and being in high places doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I find it exhilarating. I also love a good adrenaline rush. As a young woman, I always meant to skydive, or at the very least, go hot air ballooning, but never actually got to either. Then, after I became a mother, the idea of deliberately putting myself at risk for the sake of a thrill no longer seemed like a good idea. I couldn’t shake the responsible mother role long enough to do something kind of reckless. I even stopped scuba diving.
But now, having sent my youngest child off to college, I’m suddenly aware of that barely-dormant adventurous spirit that has started to kick and scream its way out from below the surface. I’m no longer very interested in sky-diving, and my awareness of mortality has only heightened as I progress into my middle age, but testing out the aerial course at the South Mountain Recreation Complex seemed like a perfect way to celebrate the 3-week mark of my empty nest. It’s adventurous and a little scary, but not actually dangerous, as you’re securely harnessed in, and are attached to a safety line that was tested against the weight of a pick-up truck.
Tucked in the wooded area at the north-east edge of the zoo, the Treetop Adventure Course will open to the public on Saturday, September 24th. To do the course, a person has to be at least 54″ tall (and weigh no more than 250 pounds). I’m about 64 inches in height, and at times I felt like my arms and legs were almost too short to reach the next step and support. I made it through just fine, though it took some added perseverance, I think. Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo — who was just ahead of me on the course — is around a foot taller than me, and was clearly able to easily walk where I had to leap.
Regardless of height, though, it seemed to empower most of the dozen of us who did the 22 different aerial challenges. There were a few who had a problem with the height, or the physical exertion, and needed the staff to help them down. They’re highly trained to deal with this type of situation, as well as real emergencies, and responded quickly and effectively.
At a few points — such as when I stepped off of the platform into the air to zip line down — I felt my heart pounding with excitement. Other times made my hands hurt from tightly gripping the ropes and my muscles burned with exertion. Once or twice I momentarily lost my balance and swayed precariously. But throughout, the staff guided me from below, applauding when I reached each platform, and calling up advice when I struggled. There was something symbolic about the experience for me, and I embraced the chance for adventure with open arms, just like I am trying to welcome this new stage of life, where parenting is no longer my primary, daily activity. That said, I look forward to bringing my kids to the course when they come home from college.
Admission is $20 (separate from the zoo entrance fee). Children under 12 must be accompanied by a parent/guardian, and children under 18 must have a consent form signed by a parent/guardian. Participants must wear athletic shoes (flip flops and sandals are not allowed).
Treetop Adventure will be open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to one hour before sunset through the Thanksgiving weekend, weather permitting (it will open daily in the spring). To make a reservation, click here.
(Photo of Joe DiVincenzo by Glen Frieson)