Photo Credit: Natalie Sanford
A half-hour drive from any large city might only get you as far as a roaring, automobile-choked suburb chockablock with chain restaurants and tire stores. We Athenians are lucky—a quick and picturesque drive brings us to rolling countryside dotted with farms and cattle ranches, which makes day tripping a fast, inexpensive way to recharge your batteries. Among the many nearby destinations is Sandbar Kayaking and Zip Line Canopy Tours, an adventure outpost near the tiny town of Bowman, only 25 miles away.
Gerald Carey loves the Broad River that runs through his family property, and he founded Sandbar in 1998 as a kayaking outpost to share his river with others. It’s one of three nearby kayaking and canoeing businesses, along with the Broad River Outpost and Big Dogs on the River. At any of them, enthusiasts can rent boats in warm weather for a leisurely paddle. Only Sandbar, though, has zip lines.
Carey’s daughter, Natalie, now manages the business, and she and her sons began to build zip lines in 2015 as a way to create a fun, year-round way to enjoy the thick forest and the river that runs through it. There are now nine lines that rise as much as 70 feet from the forest floor, most of which zip you over thrilling views of Mill Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Broad River.
For newcomers to the activity, safe zip lining involves wearing a helmet, a body harness and a “trolley” to suspend you from, and zip you along, the heavy braided, taut steel line. Two guides accompany you throughout the entire canopy tour, which, depending on the size of your group, might last up to three hours. Our very entertaining guides, Hunter Martin and Garrett Richardson, led us through the process of pulling on the harness, advising men to adjust the straps to “make sure all your furniture is in the same room.” The comedy lasts the entire tour and helps ease tense zip liners through their phobias, but the guides take safety very seriously.
You then mount a short staircase to the first landing, where the guide hooks you up to the line that runs to another tree a few hundred feet away. And then there you are, strapped in and ready to go, looking down a line of steel wire that climbs to a small deck obscured by the dense foliage where your “receiving” guide just landed. You just watched your guide zoom off into the air effortlessly, so now it’s your turn. You take a breath, and maybe another. Then you send a brief prayer up to the zip-line gods, let loose and take off into the air.
Time stops for a few moments, and there’s nothing but you and the wind in your face and the forest whizzing past you and the rush of endorphins bringing a grin to your face. Then, suddenly, you see the landing point rise in front of you, and your guide is madly tapping his head (“Slow down!”) while you use your gloved hand to brake slightly. Your guide grabs your harness and eases you on to the deck. There’s an art to landing: too fast and you may get hurt, but if you brake too much, you won’t have the momentum to get you to the landing.
Back and forth, you weave over the creek, taking in amazing views of the valley below and the trees that surround you, stopping at small decks high up in the foliage, where you swap stories with your guides, attached with your ropes and carabiners to a line secured to the tree. At the longest and fastest section of the course, which goes about a quarter mile, Hunter and Garrett ask you to let out your best Tarzan yell as you zoom into space.
Says frequent zip-liner Reynold Hartmann, “I’m an adrenaline junkie, and the rush of each trip is amazing, from the time you take off to the time you land, looking at nature from that height.”