Dusk is settling into the Madison County landscape as we glide along in our double-ducky. Just ahead we spy a sharply defined line in the smooth flow, spanning the river from shore to shore. The sound of rushing water builds to a steady roar. And then we're into it, a class IV plunge into standing waves and whitewater froth that hinges the inflatable boat like a soft taco, briefly tossing the bow paddler into my lap before the boat snaps back into shape and glides into another drop. Whoops and laughter threaten to drown the cacophony of Frank Bell's Rapid for a few moments before the current flattens once more.
"Let's do it again!" my companion says.
"It's getting dark," I reply.
After a brief discussion, we decide give in to what the inexorable French Broad River has decided for us. We float on.
By the time we drift into Hot Springs 20 minutes later, night has fallen. Campfires on the eastern shore act as beacons for our pullout, and in the moonless darkness the last few rapids (all class I or II), delight us even as they catch us by surprise. We're still grinning as we drag the ducky onto a grassy bank and test our sea legs on solid ground.
The French Broad runs 219 miles from its beginnings in Transylvania County to its confluence with the Holston near Knoxville, where it empties into the Tennessee River. Ranking as the third-oldest river in the world, it has run more or less along its present course while the Appalachian Mountains rose and eroded around it, while glaciers loomed and retreated. Paleo-Indians hunted giant sloths, ancient bison and other megafauna along the banks of this river, later called "the Long Man" by their Cherokee heirs (who applied the name to the entire French Broad/Tennessee river system).
Although I've spent almost half of my 56 years in Buncombe County, I have only recently come to appreciate the magnificence and diversity of our ancient river. I first paddled the flatwater stretch from Bent Creek to Amboy Road more than 20 years ago, but it's only in the last few years that I "discovered" the whitewater runs north of Asheville, and only last month that I gained a clearer view of the entire basin.
The occasion for my recent consciousness-raising was Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson's "Tour de French Broad." Carson, who's been on the job 10 months, traveled the entire length of the river from its first navigable waters at Rosman, through four counties in North Carolina and two in Tennessee, past sod farms and pastures, working factories and abandoned warehouses, junkyards and parks, around dams and through rapids, camping all the way. I joined Carson and his travel partner, Mark Vanderhoff, for three legs of their 16-day journey and, in the process, fell in love with our river.
The adventure began in Transylvania County on Sept. 6 with the help of Headwaters Outfitters and river guide Sid Cullipher. While other members of the press interviewed Carson, I stuffed my camera and laptop computer into a dry bag and readied my canoe to join the flotilla. As a day-tripper I toted only a water bottle, a hat and my reporter's tools, but Carson and Vanderhoff barely had room for themselves in a canoe jammed with camping gear.
In Transylvania County, the river is narrow, mostly abutted by sod farms and pasture, with just a few residential developments along its shores. A common egret joined the tour for a half-mile or so, flying ahead and alighting to hunt, then taking wing again at our approach.
By the time I rejoined the expedition nine days later, the two canoeists had traveled through Henderson and Buncombe counties, negotiating the river's flattest stretch. En route, Carson had stopped off at Brevard College, RiverLink headquarters and Madison Middle School to talk about the state of the watershed as well as leading a UNCA student cleanup on the Swannanoa River, a tributary.
Dan Beck of Huck Finn Outfitters took the three of us from the Barnard Church launch point down to Hot Springs, where his company is based. This whitewater stretch, labeled "section nine," was the scene of my more recent twilight adventure, but on this visit the water was even higher. What a blast!
Along the way we took note of encroaching home sites near the ridgeline, where the French Broad Crossing development is carving as many as 100 residential lots into the steep slopes overlooking the river. Orange soil is already washing downslope, highlighting the biggest current threat to the river's health. Carson explained that while point-source pollution -- the sewage and chemicals that pour from pipes -- has been radically reduced since the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, nonpoint pollution has increased radically. Caused by runoff from developments, parking lots and roadways, it includes sediment, petroleum products and antifreeze.
It wasn't until the 11th day that rocks became visible beneath the water's surface, Carson reported. Silt from the rains that preceeded the trip was finally settling a bit. Back on day one, Cullipher had observed that the sediment has rarely settled this year and that he'd never seen the river as cloudy in his many years as a guide.
While Carson and Vanderhoff continued their journey to Knoxville, I repeated the runs closer to home, thinking about what I'd learned and wondering how to introduce others to the wonder in our midst.
As Aldo Leopold wrote back at the beginning of the modern environmental movement, "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in."
Now is as good a time as any to fall in love with the French Broad.
Get intimate with the Long Man
On the first Friday of each month, Cecil Bothwell leads hourlong paddles down the French Broad in the Asheville area, from the Amboy Road Bridge to Woodfin Riverside Park. The mellow excursions are followed by a picnic. Car-pooling to get folks back and forth to their vehicles is self-organized. This is a bring-your-own-boat affair, but contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you don't have a watercraft and want to join the fun.