Saturday, July 2, 2016

Meandering Down the French Broad River

Generally, most of my adventures and writings relate to Hickory Nut Gorge, but occasionally I like to get out of my comfort zone and go somewhere I've never been but always wanted to go.  Recently, I was talking to my brother Sidney who lives in Brevard, North Carolina and preaches at Morningside Baptist Church.  We were discussing his recent purchase of two kayaks (one for him and one for my sister-in-law) and how much outdoor activity there is in and around Brevard.  I told him that I needed to take a day off and head his way and go kayaking down the French Broad River.  We talked about some dates and got a general plan together and finally settled on a date that would work for both of us.

On Thursday, June 30, 2016, I headed up to Brevard with my kayak strapped to the roof of my truck.  I was looking forward to the trip as I have been interested in this ancient river for a long time.  The French Broad is one of the oldest rivers in the United States and drains a large portion of western North Carolina (most of what's west of the Eastern Continental Divide).  Once neglected, polluted, and more or less considered unimportant, the French Broad, thanks to concerned citizens, has made a proper comeback and is now something that people who live in its basin are very proud of.  The French Broad offers everything from swimming holes to fishing holes.  Now considered a "blue trail" or river trail, an adventurous soul can float for 132 miles through everything from flat water to Class IV rapids.

When Sidney and I talked about taking this adventure, we discussed two options: the first was to put in at Hap Simpson Riverfront Park and float down to Pisgah Forest Road Access, a roughly two-hour paddle; the second and more interesting option was to put in at the Headwaters and float down to Hap Simpson Park.  Sidney thought it would only take us about 4 hours to complete this trip and somehow came up with a distance of 11 miles from Point A to Point B.  Now understand, Sidney had not paddled this second option and this little tidbit of information will play a major part in this story as we go along, so stay tuned.

I am a prepper by nature.  I typically research everything and usually before I begin any adventure I try to find out as much as I can about the places I'm going.  I usually have a mental itinerary and keep notes and lists of things, including maps (I love maps and yes, I can read them).  This time, for some crazy reason, I did absolutely zero research.  I don't know if I just didn't have time, was on mental overload, or just got a wild hair to be spontaneous.  Whatever the reason, I was clueless about this trip and was placing my trust in my younger brother as the "local expert" who would vehemently argue that he is not an expert nor ever claimed to be regarding this adventure.

I arrived at Sidney's house around 9:45 and we began sorting gear and loading the kayaks onto Cynthia's (my sister-in-law) vehicle.  We had decided that Cynthia could take us to the put-in and then just pick us up when we reached our destination, keeping us from having to take two vehicles.  As we discussed the options, I came to find out that Sidney had not actually done Option 2 but he seemed to believe it was doable and that we could see what the river conditions were like at the Headwaters Outfitter and decide for sure once we knew what we were up against.  So we loaded up and headed up the road to Rosman, stopping in at the Headwaters Outfitter where we asked about the river conditions and level of difficulty (again, if I had done my homework, I would have already known the answer), but I failed to ask about the distance and time it would take to reach our planned destination.  By now you can probably see where this is going.  They told us that the best place for us to put in would be at Champion Park, where there was a pretty easy path to walk down and put the boats in the water.  Champion Park is at mile marker one on the river trail.

There was a nice kiosk at the river access, but what I was seeing on the map gave me an awful uneasy feeling.  There was a whole lot of blue between Champion Park and Hap Simpson Riverfront Park that looked a whole lot longer than 11 miles.  We looked at the scale on the map which was totally wrong and contemplated what we were getting into.  Sidney confidently said we could do this so I said, "Let's do it!"  There are two favorite last phrases that all rednecks in this world know:  "Hey y'all watch this!" and "Let's do it!"  I am guilty of saying both and every time I live to regret it (but it makes for great tales around the campfire).

With confidence and a positive attitude we put our boats in the water.  It was a little shallow and our boats were already scrubbing the bottom, but the outfitter folks said that we shouldn't have a whole lot of trouble.  After a few scrubs and bumps, we were off.  The river was as calm as a lake.  The current was barely noticeable, forcing us to paddle some distance before we came to our first little riffle that could give us a little speed.
The beginning of our adventure.  This is what the river looked like most of the way.
As we paddled along we chatted about various things.  We saw a broad-winged hawk fly out of a tree.  All around we could hear the sounds of kingfishers and redwing blackbirds.  A huge osprey launched itself from a tall tree and flew down the river.  We moved slowly along, occasionally seeing fish jump as they snatched bugs off the surface.  Sometimes we would see a rather large trout cruising by and we hoped to get a glimpse of a mighty muskellunge (or muskie as most anglers refer to them).  The water was clear and cold, with lots of nice stony sections in the upper reaches of the stream.  We saw several downed trees in the water and talked about how wonderful the smallmouth fishing probably was but we didn't bring anything to catch them with.  Clearly, we were men on a mission and fishing was not part of that mission, although if I go back, it will be. 

As we floated along at a leisurely pace, I commented to Sidney that our other brothers, Cameron and Richard, and our nephew Austin would have enjoyed this trip, except we can't get Richard in a kayak.  We've got to work on that boy!  Austin is a really good fisherman and I'm getting closer to getting him convinced that he needs a kayak.  Such river trips are always more fun with several people, and when we all get together, we have a grand time, swapping stories, memories, and flat-out lies (mostly lies that others have told).
The rocky bottom was perfect for trout fishing.
 We crept up on a great blue heron that immediately flew downriver like a big pteradactyl once it realized that we were not a natural part of the river.  The French Broad supposedly has one of the largest blue heron populations in the whole state.  In fact, we got a good laugh at one particular heron that always seemed to stay ahead of us.  We would get close and he would fly about 100 yards downstream.  This went on for several minutes.  Our friend met another heron and the two flew a little farther down the river together before disappearing entirely around a bend.

The current was steady, but not swift.  Western North Carolina has been experiencing drought for a couple of years now so the volume of water that was in the river was a little lower than normal.  The farther we went, the more slack the current became.  As I said, the French Broad is an ancient river, with big wide floodplains that are the result of eons of erosion and sedimentation.  Those floodplains are the water storage areas when the French Broad tends to get a little rowdy, which happens every now and then.  According to Wikipedia, the river begins at an elevation of 3,440 feet and over its entire course drops a total of 2,375 feet as it makes its way 218 miles through western North Carolina into Tennessee to join the Holston River and become the Tennessee.  Most of the elevation loss is northwest of Asheville in Madison County where the river is swift, voluminous and choked with whitewater.  It then slacks off again before entering Douglas Reservoir in Tennessee.  The entire basin is 5,124 square miles.  As we paddled along we saw debris from past floods all around us.  The most recent flood, which occurred last spring, left debris in the trees as high as 12 feet above the current water level.  That's pretty amazing.

By hour two, my back was starting to hurt a little (actually a lot) and I needed a stretch break so we found a nice little point bar in a slight bend in the river that we pulled up on and grabbed a quick snack.  We walked around to get the kinks out of our backs and get the blood flowing in our hind-ends again.

We pushed off and got headed back downstream.  The river was beginning to change.  The number of gravel bars was decreasing and the river bottom was becoming more sandy.  We would see occasional rocks and submerged boulders, but not like what we saw farther up river.  We were surrounded on either side by farmland.  For years farming practices in the French Broad Basin have contributed significantly to sedimentation in the river, covering many of the gravel beds.  Those same practices have increased bank erosion and stormwater volumes, causing significant morphological changes in the river bed which results in more damage when big floods occur.
Sidney taking the lead for a stretch.
We passed three ladies who were tubing, but they were the only humans on the river with us and they pulled out way upstream from our final destination.  The river is an important resource for the people who live on it, particularly farmers who depend on it for agricultural uses, but recreation and quality of life are important too.  Occasionally we would see chairs or picnic tables at the top of the banks.  A lot of "No Trespassing" signs were posted on trees lining the river.  We paddled by three local fellows who were watching on the bank who seemed nice enough.  We exchanged pleasantries and kept on moving.  Sidney pointed out after we were well past the gentlemen that they were smoking marijuana.  I had to laugh as images of Deliverance popped into my head and I said as much to Sidney.  The French Broad is certainly a juncture of two different cultures: one that is local, redneck, and truly Southern Appalachian; another that is yuppie, non-local, sophisticated, and sometimes disdainful of Appalachian culture.  The interesting thing is, this cross-cultural mixture works together pretty well.  The river brings people with lifestyle differences to a place of agreement: that the river is an important resource.  They may not agree on the best way to protect it and what the best use is, but they will all agree that the river is better than it used to be because people care about it.

The river was moving pretty well here as we approached a bridge.
By hour three, we had gone about 8 miles, and I was beginning to have some doubts about the true length of this trip.  The river had almost totally slacked up and we were having to work.  It was like paddling across Lake Lure on a day with no boats.  That's how flat the water was.  Boulders had been replaced by significant numbers of fallen trees and driftwood that created interesting obstacles and were kind of fun to paddle around.  We also saw several places where the river was undergoing rehabilitation and bio-engineering practices such as j-hooks and rock vanes had been installed in the river bed.  The banks had been planted with native grasses and shrubs such as silky dogwood and elderberry.

By hour four and river mile marker 11, Sidney said that we probably ought to see where we were in relation to our destination.  I pulled out my phone and was shocked at the long blue line that we still had to cover if we wanted to reach Hap Simpson Park.  The funny thing was, we had just missed a takeout (that was not marked as a public takeout by the way), the Island Ford River Access.  That would have ended our trip at a good stopping place but we didn't realize it until we were already a mile or so down river.

We were paddling like mad to get down the river.  Sidney was supposed to be conducting a class that evening and we were already past the time frame that we had given ourselves to be on the river.  We pulled out on a sandbar to stretch and Sidney called Cynthia to let her know our progress.  He told her to meet us at Hap Simpson in 30 minutes.  I looked at the map on my phone and I told him we still had a ways to go.  Ever the optimist, Sidney kept saying, "We're almost there!" and "Oh, we'll make it."  We had no choice but to grit our teeth and keep paddling.  We had moved beyond the level of doing this for fun.  We were now working to get off the river as soon as possible because storm clouds were starting to build.
A place to stretch the aching back.
Looking upstream from our rest stop.  A small creek flows into the river here.
Sidney is a bi-vocational pastor, like a lot of pastors who preach at smaller churches.  I told him he probably ought to call his earthly boss and tell him he wasn't going to make his appointment.  He agreed and made the call.  In the meantime, I called Cynthia, who had already been waiting about an hour since we called her, to give her an update and tell her just to go back to the house and we would call her when we got off the river.  I could tell she was worried.  She said the sky was getting really black and that we needed to hurry.  About that time, I heard a cracking sound.  About 100 yards downstream, I saw a huge maple tree falling into the river.  I didn't do anything for Cynthia's anxiety as I gave her the play-by-play.  I told her I was going to have to get off the phone because it looked like we were going to have to portage around the tree.  I quit paddling and let Sidney catch up and we assessed the situation.  As we got closer to the fallen tree, we found that it hadn't entirely blocked the river, so we were able to get around the end of it without having to get out of our boats.  The path was only about four feet wide, but still better than what it could have been.  In all my times in the outdoors I have never witnessed anything like that, and I am quite thankful that we weren't under that tree when it decided to let go.

Onward we went, passing through an occasional riffle to break up the monotony and agony of continuous stroking.  We ran into a herd of cows cooling off in the river.  Once they spotted us, they beat a hasty retreat to get out, apparently not too used to seeing blue kayaks floating down the river.  We were beat, and at this point were just paddling to get off the river.  I nearly tipped my boat over laughing at Sidney when he said, "If I heard banjo music, I don't think I could paddle any faster.  I'd just have to give them what they wanted."  He was right of course.  My arms and shoulders were so tired, I knew that if I stopped I would not be able to continue.  I had quit taking photos by this time.

Sidney asked me if I needed a break and I said I did.  We got out on a quicksand-like sandbar that smelled like cow excrement to stretch our backs and shake our arms out a little.  All of a sudden there was a pop of lightning, immediately followed by a deafening crash of thunder.  There is no greater motivation to paddle faster than the knowledge that you are about to get electrocuted.  We jumped in our boats and took off.  Call it a second wind if you will.  My arms were a well-oiled machine.  I settled into a rhythm of long strong strokes that easily pushed me through the slow-moving water.  We hit a couple of faster spots to give us some relief and noticed that we had finally come parallel to Highway 276.  We were getting closer.

We knew that we had roughly about two miles left to paddle to reach Hap Simpson, but before we committed to that last haul, opportunity showed up.  Call it divine intervention or sheer luck.  Call it whatever you want.  Up ahead we saw some canoes that were tied up to a dock.  Sidney suggested that we see if there was anyone around and get off the river as the sky continued to darken.  We pulled up to the rocky shore and a nice lady came walking down an access trail.  I asked her if she would mind if we pulled our boats out and have someone pick us up.  She said she didn't mind.  Her group was camping at the site and offered to help us get our boats and gear up to the road.  How nice!  We had pulled out at a site owned by Down to Earth Outfitters at river mile 18.  Sidney called Cynthia to tell her where we were and how to get there.

We were completely and utterly exhausted.  We waited about ten minutes for Cynthia to get there and I made the comment to Sidney that just in that period of time, my arms and shoulders had already stiffened to the point that if we had to have paddled the remaining distance, I don't know if I could have done it.  He agreed and said that he would sleep well that night.  Cynthia arrived and we loaded our gear, thus ending our adventure (or misadventure as it were).  We headed back to Sidney's house where we re-sorted our gear and loaded my kayak back onto my truck as it began to rain.  At least it waited until we got off the river.  As I headed back down the road towards home, I passed through frequent downpours, a reminder of how fortunate we were to not be on the river during a storm.

What a fantastic day!  Granted, it didn't go exactly as planned and we didn't quite make it all the way to our planned destination, and certainly the last few miles of river would have surely been more exciting if we hadn't been so tired, but it was time well spent with my brother.  We had a good time, had great conversation and we knocked out 17 miles of slow-moving river in one day.  Pretty good for a couple of amateurs.  Would I do it again?  Maybe.  I would probably start earlier, knowing what I know now, and I would certainly familiarize myself with the takeouts before I go again, but would that be as adventurous?  One lesson I learned on this little trip is that sometimes being spontaneous creates the best opportunity for a true adventure.

Until Next Time!

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