By Cori Urban
Matthew Cavanaugh photo
Almost a dozen years ago Bruce D. Lessels traveled with his wife and two daughters to Chile — where 22 years earlier he had trained for the U.S. Whitewater Team. When he stepped off the bus in the same town, the first person he saw called to him by name.
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but for Lessels, co-founder and co-owner with his wife, Karen J. Blom, of Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort in Charlemont, it was memorable. It was through his passion for whitewater racing that he developed connections to Chile and to people there, and it is because of that passion that he hopes to help people connect to one another and to nature at ZOAR.
There visitors can go rafting on the Deerfield River or take a three-hour, 11-line zip line tour on the 85-acre property. Try a kayaking trip or take instruction, primarily on the Deerfield, or rock climb in the area. There is camping and lodging on site and a retail store for whitewater gear.
“We were the first to do rafting and zipping” in the Charlemont area, which is becoming known as an outdoor adventure destination, Lessels said.
The ZOAR business began in 1989 after his five-year stint on the whitewater team. “I was looking for the next step and not sure of what I was going to do,” he said. Though he had thought of beginning an outdoor adventure business, he had no business experience but decided to take the plunge anyway.
Lessels grew up in Belmont in a family that enjoyed hiking and the outdoors. He began canoeing when he was 15 through his brother’s Cub Scout leader who was an active paddler in the Appalachian Mountain Club. “I liked the physical part and being outdoors on the river that had this energy,” he recalled. “I often like the solitude of it. I enjoy the lack of intrusions and noise, and I love to explore.”
A 1983 graduate of Amherst College with a bachelor’s degree in geology, he jokes that “what I do with geology now is I walk over it all the time.”
It was during college that he began closed-canoe racing with a single-bladed paddle. “It was a blast. We raced all over the world,” he said, pointing out that he was third in the 1987 slalom C-1 world whitewater championship and his team of three was first in the slalom C-1 team event.
Lessels knew the Charlemont area because he had visited to paddle on the Deerfield, and he now lives in Buckland.
He is a member of the board of the Academy at Charlemont (the school his daughters attended), of Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield and the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.
He enjoys indie/folk guitar music, playing squash and barbecues. And though he is of Scottish descent, he has no taste for haggis and because he grew up listening to his sister play the bagpipes, contends one cannot listen to unlimited bagpipe music.
Lessels, 56, stands six feet five inches tall, but laughs when he admits he is a “terrible” basketball player.
But that’s not his sport.
He’s looking to provide people — families, church and school groups, businesses, camp groups — with outdoor adventure for everyone from the least to the more adventurous.
ZOAR gets more than 20,000 visits a year and gives those visitors a place to connect with the outdoors and with one another. “Being in the quiet away from the hubbub, this is a place to have the opportunity to connect,” he said. “A lot of people’s lives are very busy and active. This is a nice way to get away from that,” Lessels said.