Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Karin Strickland
When Sara and Tim Bell started their zipline business, they didn’t know all the hurdles they would be facing. They just knew that ziplining would be awesome.
With an eye for detail and a flair for design, Sara and Tim Bell have managed the improbable. Not only have they created a cutting-edge adventure destination, they’ve designed an enchanting outpost at the edge of a pristine Southern Appalachian forest dating back to the Ice Age.
The Green River Gorge is a rugged landscape of deep ravines, huge boulders, and old growth forest, located just off I-26 a few miles southeast of Hendersonville, near Saluda. Eighteen thousand acres of state-owned land intended for wildlife conservation and management sits across the river from The Gorge zipline outpost, which is poised on a bluff at a 2150-foot elevation. The canyon plunges 1100 feet to the piedmont below, which averages five degrees warmer.
“The Green River Gorge is like a time lapse through the seasons from the top to the bottom,” Tim says. “The green creeps upward.”
Sixteen miles of hiking trails traverse the Green River Game Lands of the Green River Gorge area. But the difficult terrain and seasonal hunting deter hikers, who are advised not to go it alone. Meanwhile, the Green River flows through the canyon, but only highly skilled kayakers attempt it. The river makes a stunning 400-foot drop within a 1 ½-mile distance, which includes a six-foot crevice known as The Narrows, a highly sought after destination offering class IV and V rapids.
The Bells’ Gorge zipline offers one of the easiest and safest ways to access this area, but “easy” is a relative term, because it’s still challenging.
Descending over a mile into the canyon via a network of 11 ziplines at up to 35 MPH is an adrenaline rush like no other. With the wind whizzing through your hair and trees flying past, be prepared to push your comfort zone. By the end of the three-hour tour, even the most ravenous adventurer should be satisfied.
Sara and Tim met at Brevard College, where they both earned degrees in wilderness leadership and experiential education. The idea for The Gorge originated during their travels together.
“We were running adventure travel trips to Costa Rica,” Sara says. “We did the zipline there and the kids loved it. We joked it would be so cool if this sport took off in the States.”
The couple now own two companies together. Green River Adventures opened in 2006 and offers kayaking trips and instruction, while The Gorge opened in 2013. “I manage the day-to-day of Green River,” Tim explains. “And Sara manages the day-to-day of The Gorge.”
But getting The Gorge up and running was one of the most challenging projects they’ve ever attempted. Michelle Tennant Nicholson of Wasabi Publicity was handling public relations for Green River Adventures, so Nicholson witnessed the “birthing” of The Gorge. “Sara called it a second baby,” Nicholson recalls. “You’ve forgotten the pain of the first one.”
Birth of a Business
In 2011 the owners of a nearby golf course approached the Bells about a partnership. They wanted to include activities to attract the whole family. It seemed like a good fit, and the Bells began working on a business plan for a zipline canopy in the Green River Gorge. But with their kayaking season already in full swing at Green River Adventures, they waited to make a final decision.
Surprisingly, the owners that approached them ended up leaving the golf community, practically disappearing overnight. As much as the Bells dodged a bullet, they gained something from the experience.
“The exercise of writing the business plan, exploring potential funding sources, and interviewing builders definitely planted the seed that this was something we could do on our own,” Sara says. “So in hindsight, I’m really happy they approached us in the first place.”
One key component for success in the zipline business is a good plot of land.
“This was not the only piece of land we looked at,” Tim says, of their selection. “But it was by far the best.” The 125-acre lot they were eyeing was left over when a huge parcel was subdivided. It was steep and unbuildable.
“It couldn’t be logged,” Sara adds. “That’s a big reason why we have an old growth forest a quarter-mile from the interstate.”
The steepness wasn’t an issue for the Bells’ project, but the lot was landlocked, meaning there was no access except at the very bottom where a road meets the property line. To build the course with an outpost at the bottom meant they would have to transport zippers to the top, maybe using some sort of ski resort-type conveyance that would have been very expensive to construct.
“We knew this was the place,” Tim says, but he admits they didn’t know how to make it work. Their break came when the 1 ½-acre parcel adjacent to the top of the land became available in the summer of 2012.
“[By then] Tim and I were in the middle of our busy season with Green River Adventures, so the thought of jumping was certainly intimidating,” Sara recalls. “When you are so swamped with operations, it’s challenging to make big decisions with long term consequences—positive or negative.”
But they already had a solid business plan, and knew it was a risk they wanted to take, so they started the due diligence process on the property.
“We got the [smaller] property on Honey Bee under contract with, I believe, a 90-day due diligence period,” Sara says. “Then we started negotiations with the owners of the larger tract of land, and faced what felt like some impossible hoops to jump through.”
The smaller lot was zoned in Henderson County for Highway Commercial, and the larger tract was zoned for Multiple Use, but the county zoning was rooted in the past. No one had envisioned this type of land usage when the ordinances were drafted decades ago. Yet these county ordinances would have to be amended for the business to move forward. “In the end, the county adopted a new use that is ‘Nature Oriented Non-Motorized Outdoor Recreation’,” Sara says.
With this huge impediment finally having been overcome, they faced another hurdle: Their access from one parcel to another via zipline needed official approval—not a standard request. Sara credits the county leadership for their forward thinking, which allowed the Bells’ fledgling business to take root. “That’s why we named it The Gorge,” Tim says. “The location is everything.”
Buoyed by the community support, the Bells applied for a Community Development Block Grant in 2012 through the North Carolina Department of Commerce. The basis of this grant is job creation. The Gorge promised to create ten full- time positions; each one was worth $25,000 in grant money, for a total of $250,000.
The grant application was due in September 2012, with decisions slated to be announced in late October. But the complications of an election year tied up the funds, and everything was on hold. The Bells weighed their options. Wait to see if they get the grant money? Or move forward without it? They decided to move forward without it.
The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) regulates the zipline industry. There are only 40 certified builders in the world. ACCT also performs annual inspections of certified courses.
“We interviewed three different builders and chose one out of Boone,” Sara says. George Howard of Challenge Innovations builds zipline courses all over the country. But The Gorge had the potential to be one of the fastest he had ever created due to the ten-percent grade, compared to an industry standard of four to six percent.
The team went through eleven different designs of the course, mainly due to the Bells’ careful selection of which trees to fit with platforms.
“Most zip courses hire a forester or arborist to certify the overall health of the area,” Sara says. “But we decided to check each tree we were considering.”
The process was an exercise in patience. They hired three arborists from Arbor Source in Greenville, North Carolina, to coordinate with Howard. They would flag a handful of trees based on the design. Then each tree was tested for fitness with the ArborSonic 3D Acoustic Tomograph, which takes a sonogram of the tree. Using what looks like a tape measure with tiny copper nails that links to a computer, each tree was tested in five-foot increments up to 20 feet above where the platform would be located. If a tree had more than seven percent decay, it failed.
“Sometimes all the trees in an area failed, and then it’s a domino affect all the way down,” Sara explains. The course would have to be altered from that point and every destination point along the way to the bottom.
“It was such an emotional rollercoaster,” Sara recalls. “At one point, the course was going to be completely in the trees.”
But in the end, they chose to have a short walk within the course to preserve more trees. They also chose to outfit trees near the ziplines with guidelines rather than remove them. The platforms were built to surround the trees without damaging them. By the end, the course included three repel stations (exit points) and a sky bridge.
As Howard completed construction, the Bells still held out hope for the Community Development Block Grant. Amidst the state delay, the grant money risked being returned to the federal government. (Sara: “This was an equally nail-biting process.”) Finally, the state took action and awarded The Gorge a $220,000 grant. Some of the funds went to pay Isothermal Planning and Development Commission for writing the grant; $5,000 was also earmarked to benefit the community that applied, which was Saluda. Sara wanted to do something significant for the community with those funds. “We were able to fund free Wi-Fi to all of downtown Saluda,” Sara says. “Pretty cool for a rural mountain town.”
The only potential drawback to flying suspended on a zipline through a twelve-foot tunnel of trees at 35 MPH is, well, stopping. Imagine reaching a gloved hand up to grab the quickly receding zip wire to slow yourself down. This is called “active braking” and has been the industry standard until recently (many places still use it). Active braking poses many hazards, however, from getting fingers tangled in gear, to extreme situations where adventurers have fainted from the adrenaline rush, leaving them unable to brake for themselves.
The invention of zipSTOP made zipping safer and opened up the sport to more entry-level enthusiasts who were wary of the risk factors. “ZipSTOP expanded the possibilities of the industry,” Tim explains. “It’s a big reason our course is accessible.”
Described as “a self-regulated magnetic braking system,” zipSTOP allows a rider to go from 35 MPH to zero without touching the zipline. The impact is also weighted so that a person who is 250 pounds experiences the same impact as someone who is 70 pounds. The rider lowers his or her hands from the handlebars onto the ropes below just before impact with the zipSTOP to avoid what Gorge guide James Smith calls “the worst high five of your life.”
Smith assists riders by waving his arms from the platform when it’s time to change hand positions. After hitting the zipSTOP, riders use their gloved hands to pull themselves a few feet toward the platform, and Smith helps hoist them up. The zipSTOP automatically resets itself for the next rider, but as an extra precaution, guides at The Gorge use a verbal checking system to be sure they have reset.
All guides at The Gorge are trained according to ACCT standards. Like the Bells, Smith and fellow guide Karin Strickland have degrees in wilderness leadership and experiential education from Brevard College. The guides work hard to make the experience safe and fun by challenging riders to scream all the way between platforms, or try the starfish pose as they repel. Strickland has a second degree in photography, which comes in handy as the guides also photograph and videotape riders. They download it all onto a nifty little USB to take home.
The Gorge has come a long way from its complicated beginnings. And the Bells have learned a lot about themselves in the process.
Secrets of Success
The Gorge has a lot of admirers, but some of them are unwelcome. The morning of the Capital at Play visit a competitor expected Sara to reveal all her hard-earned secrets—for free. “This is the fourth or fifth time other zipline course owners in the Southeast have come by to get information,” Sara says. “One came out, tried the zipline, then bought one of everything in the store.”
But designing this outpost involved far more than which items to stock in the retail store. As Michelle Nicholson observes, “Most outposts are shacks with hooks. A lot of people [looking to get into the business] aren’t taking the overall experience into consideration.”
“The whole concept of the building is that you’re going through a portal,” Tim adds. “It’s designed like walking through a gateway.”
The huge entryway is inviting, with a tasteful outdoor lounging area and mountain vistas stretching for miles. Glass-enclosed offices flank one side, with retail space and gear-up areas on the other. The Bells went the extra mile, applying for an ABC license in order to offer adventurers a post-zip cold beer. Of course, when starting a business, it can sometimes seem like everything is a hurdle. Getting the ABC license involved the usual red tape, but the Bells had an added hump: Saluda is in both Henderson County and Polk County, and the latter is a dry county. So in order to sell beer, you have to be within the city limits.
“This required the City of Saluda to approve a ‘Voluntary Annexation’ of our property on Honey Bee Drive, where the outpost is located,” Sara explains.
In the end, though, the city benefited from an increase in property taxes, and The Gorge visitors can get those cold beers.
View From The Top
Voted the 2016 Best of the Blue Ridge Zipline by Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, a ten state contest, The Gorge has come a long way from its complicated beginnings. And the Bells have learned a lot about themselves in the process.
“It’s taken several years to get to the point we are now,” Sara says, of her partnership with her husband. “If we get an email, we instinctively know who needs to pick it up.”
Their advice for other entrepreneurs? Don’t take on a business you’re not interested in. “I sold white water retail for a while and I hated it,” she admits. “When we try something and think it’s awesome, we know we’re on the right track.”
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