Distanced outdoor activities in Lee County

Posted March 26, 2021 5:00 a.m. EDT

Around Sanford, outdoor recreation hubs like San-Lee Park, Deep River Sporting Clays and Shooting School, and Endor Paddle offer safe opportunities for every outdoor activity under the sun, from shooting clays and fishing to mountain biking and kayaking. (Photo Courtesy of Sanford Area Growth Alliance)

This article was written for our sponsor, the Sanford Area Growth Alliance.

With spring around the corner, Triangle-area residents will soon be searching for ways to enjoy warmer temperatures while safely distancing. Around Sanford, outdoor recreation hubs like San-Lee Park, Deep River Sporting Clays and Shooting School, and Endor Paddle offer safe opportunities for every outdoor activity under the sun, from shooting clays and fishing to mountain biking and kayaking.

Ranger Steve Godfrey, who has been taking care of the trails and wildlife around San-Lee Park since the 1980s, has noticed a marked increase in park traffic over the last year — especially on the 12.2 miles of mountain biking trails that wind around the park.

"With COVID going on, something that has really taken off at San-Lee Park is mountain biking. Every weekend, even during the winter, we see mountain bikers come in and fill our parking lots. I've had people from Germany, Australia, California, Alaska — all of them travel around and ride in different areas, and make a stop in Sanford," said Godfrey. "What makes our trails so unique is that the terrain really is a lot like the mountains. There are rocks, big hills — so many different features."

Another section of the bike trail, Gravity Park, is specifically dedicated to jumps, with hills large and small. The park also recently installed a jump park for kids, and Godfrey often sees families with children as young as five to six years old catching air on the hills.

Other family-centric activities in San-Lee Park include taking paddle boats out on the water or fishing in one of the two fully stocked reservoirs. The park even offers a rod and reel loaner program for kids, providing them with a gift bag and fishing rod to use free of charge.

"The state stocks both of our lakes [reservoirs], and my staff fills the solar-powered feeders with about 400 pounds of food a month to help the fish get big and healthy," said Godfrey. "For the last 10 years we've stocked the lakes with blue channel catfish that are raised in a hatchery down the road. When people catch those fish, they can choose to take them home and eat them. Since they're hatchery raised, they're not muddy like regular catfish from a river — they're just like flounder."

Anglers can also catch bass, brim and crappie, among other types of fish found in the park's reservoirs. For those in need of bait and equipment, Godfrey recommends Broadway Hardware in Sanford.

For Godfrey, whether biking, hiking, picnicking, or fishing, San-Lee Park offers visitors the opportunity to slow down and destress.

"It gives them the chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday stress. On top of their job, they've got this pandemic stress on them, too. Here, they can actually come out and walk around the trails and fish in the lakes and say, ‘You know what? The world's still normal, and here's the place where I can get away from that mess and just be myself and unwind,'" said Godfrey. "A lot of people bring their dogs out here — even the mountain bikers bring their dogs. You see so many people that may be cooped up all week, and they'll bring their dogs out with a little picnic lunch. You can see the smiles on their faces."

While visitors can find plenty of hiking, biking and paddling at San-Lee Park, it's far from the only place to get outside around Sanford. Endor Paddle is another great option for people looking to get outdoors and on the water and offers river tubing and kayak rentals on the Deep River. And at Deep River Sporting Clays and Shooting School, the shooting clays courses, wobble deck and shooting pavilion are available for amatuer and skilled marksman alike.

"The sporting clays range is our biggest draw. We have 13 different stations, and you move from station to station, shooting a variety of different presentations of targets. We change the course every month, and it also changes with the seasons themselves," said Ed Strickland, President and COO at Deep River Sporting Clays and Shooting School. "If somebody is brand new and they don't have the equipment, we can provide everything. From there, it's basically golf with a shotgun."

Once guests arrive, they sign in and are outfitted with the proper shotgun and ammunition for the course. Then, a staff member guides groups and individuals through the course, helping to pull targets, explain how things work, and keep them safe.

In addition to the course, Deep River also offers a shooting pavilion for members and a wobble deck that's open to the public. The latter was added in 2012 by former owner Bill Kempffer, who was familiar with the concept after an apprenticeship in England.

"It's a firm foundation, and it has a raised platform on an international wobble trap that oscillates or changes direction. There are six different presentations at the wobble deck, so sometimes if people don't have time to get on the course, it's raining, or they just want to come out and simply shoot, they can go to the wobble deck and warm up and shoot a variety of targets there," said Strickland. "A lot of groups like to come out and do that. They'll bring their friends out, and they can have fun and make it a party."

The shooting facility is also home to the Southern Side by Side tournament, the largest exhibition dedicated to side by side shotguns in the world. Every April, the four-day event draws thousands of people from across the world to buy and sell side by side shotguns, while also hosting various competitions, exhibitions and vendors.

The event started more than 20 years ago, and while this year's isn't set in stone quite yet, Strickland hopes they'll have the opportunity to host it safely.

"The Southern Side by Side is a celebration of the double barrel side-by-side shotgun, which is basically a gateway back to the early beginnings of shotgun shooting. What's cool is we bring people from all over the world who have a passion for shooting side by side shotguns, and they come to us — in Sanford — each year," said Strickland. "Some of the guns that are being shot on the course that weekend are well over 100 years old, and some of the ones on display are anywhere from $500 up to $300,000. They're really pieces of art."

Around 2,500 people, 600 shooters, and 90 vendors visit the 65-acre site in Sanford over the stretch of the tournament. While many vendors are specialty gun dealers, visitors can also find craftsmen, artists, sporting outfitters, and more. Additionally, the grounds typically host local food trucks throughout the length of the event.

In the case of both the Southern Side by Side and the shooting clays course, Strickland hopes Deep River can be seen as a place for shooters of all kinds.

"Anybody can do what we offer — you don't need to have experience or be a shooter to go out and enjoy it," said Strickland. "It's a great activity for getting outside with family and friends. Whether people want to just dip their toes in or jump all the way in, our focus is on keeping it fun."

This article was written for our sponsor, the Sanford Area Growth Alliance.

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