On a hot and misty July morning in the woods near Savage, several kids and adults screamed with joy as they flew past treetops on a zip line.
There was joy, and probably more than a little fear, in those Tarzan yells. Zooming down the 330-foot-long cable, zip liners, the staff of Terrapin Adventures estimates, can reach speeds of up to 20 mph.
In other words, it's far from a typical day at work. Founder and owner Matt Baker, who started Terrapin Adventures six years ago in a woodsy patch of Howard County, said the courses, which combine simple fun with team-building activities, strive for "the 'Aha!' moment."
"While they're doing these things, we make them think how these fun activities might apply to home or school," he said. Seeing challenges as fun, he added, "might make them more accepting of change than … Joe, down in the hall, who's in accounting."
The facility features a mix of courses, with some, like the zip line, focused more on the thrill, and others oriented toward team building.
Marie Turner and her husband, Alex, of Reston, Va., were attempting the high-ropes course this summer day, a three-story-tall obstacle course comprising wobbly wooden logs, rope nets and single-wire bridges. The course starts out easily enough, with stable bridges and handrails available. But at the third level, the challenge ramps up: To grab the edge of a platform, you have to swing from rope nets. Crossing loose wires without falling proves difficult.
For some, at least. The course was a piece of cake for Alex, who had experience with similar obstacle courses during his time in the Navy. His wife, whom he brought to Savage for their anniversary, had no such background.
"She really did want to push herself, but it's definitely daunting for her," Alex said. "I'm kind of like a monkey and breezed over it, which is why I'm keeping my mouth shut."
Marie, who is terrified of heights, came to Terrapin Adventures knowing she might struggle, and those fears soon became evident.
"The weirdest part is that I was most scared at the beginning, crossing the shaking log," Marie said. "It's really mind over matter. I know I'm attached to a wire and I kept telling myself, 'No one's ever died here before. It's fine!' But then I got up there and saw how high up I was."
A few times, Marie refused to jump for a rope, but with Alex's persistent encouragement, she cleared each successive obstacle. After a few final tough hurdles, Marie said she came out feeling stronger than before. That boost in confidence, she said, was the highlight of her trip.
Baker said his favorite part of seeing people work through Terrapin Adventures' challenges is the teamwork that emerges as a result.
"We bring people out here from city schools, office workers, people who don't really know each other that well but just know they work down the hall," Baker said. "Then when they start working as a team and have to support each other with these challenges, it's something really cool we've developed."
Even for the adventure guides, who patiently wait for each participant to make the unnerving final 40-foot leap from the top of the high-ropes course to the ground, it's exciting to see people overcome their fears.
"In America, there's a different way of coaching and cheering people up," said guide Aga Kieronczyk, who is from Poland. "It's awesome [how] the people here push themselves to their limits, but in a good way. In America, strong personalities are a lot more common, so it makes us more vocal and confident as well."
While the confidence- and team-building aspects of a ropes course might not translate easily to everyday life, Baker believes the facility's courses inspire participants to learn how to better come together at work.
"We do a lot of business with groups — everything from corporate team building to a [Boy Scout] group, but we also do a lot of activities for Scouts and Baltimore schools," he said. "It lets them come out here and experience things they're not used to."
Now kids can get into the swing
Until this month, children 8 and younger hadn't been allowed to attempt any of Terrapin Adventures' obstacles. The facility's harnesses required participants to weigh a certain minimum amount to work correctly, which sidelined many young visitors as their parents and older siblings completed the courses without them.
In response, Terrapin Adventures founder and owner Matt Baker decided to build a new kids course called Terrapin Explorer, which opened Aug. 1 and includes three ropes courses designed for 5-to-9-year-olds.
The course's main obstacle is a two-story, 23-foot-tall ropes course with 20 obstacles, including wire bridges, ropes to swing between and nets to climb. The course also features a rock-climbing wall with two paths, and a couple of smaller zip lines.
"Our old tethered suits were hard to move if you were a small kid, but now we have these new rollers that make it much easier for them to negotiate the obstacles," Baker said. "Because the continuous belay is actually on a roller, there's much less resistance and it's easier to move between obstacles."
The new course offers hourlong guided trips. Terrapin Adventures asks visitors to reserve a time before visiting.
— Louis Krauss