Although I’d seen a sign for the French Broad River Paddle Trail at the Ledges Whitewater Park just north of Asheville, I didn’t go home and look it up on the internet, didn’t look into buying a boat, and didn’t go look for books or maps at the Barnes and Noble or REI just down the street from where I lived. It took a visit from my sister Anne, who lives in Los Angeles, to finally get my family out on the river. We rented a pair of tandem sit-on-top kayaks from the Asheville Outdoor Center and paddled a seven-mile trip with my daughters that took us past the Biltmore Estate. The whole experience cost us something like $160, and I began to wonder how many paddle trips would equal the cost of some kind of craft that could accommodate the family on the river. As turned out, all of the options were more expensive than I thought.
Bill Torgerson and his sister Anne standing in the French Broad north of Hot Springs, North Carolina.
With daughters ages eight and ten who had no experience on the water, Megan and I didn’t think our girls should be in their own boats. I saw we could purchase two tandem kayaks something like we’d rented at our local REI store for $1400, or we could squeeze into a Mad River Canoe for $759. The least expensive inflatable raft from Asheville’s Southern Raft Supply could be had for $2,899. The canoe appeared to be the most affordable option, but I could tell on the day we’d been on the river with my sister that it wouldn’t take long for we Torgs to get bored with long and hot floats with no whitewater. A raft, I reasoned, would give us the most flexibility of doing different kinds of water. We could do the easy float through the town of Asheville but also some stretches of river where there was more adventure. However, just like my neighbors who spent over $5,000 on a pool table and rarely played, I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a raft only to find out we didn’t really enjoy using it.
I started my search for a used raft on Craigslist and found lots and lots of treadmills but no rafts. I wrote to several outfitters within 100 miles of Asheville, including the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City. As far as I can tell, NOC is the big dog of rafting companies in Western North Carolina, a business National Geographic called “one of the best outfitters on earth.” The place boasts three restaurants; the water is released from a dam upstream and you can watch it come rushing through, and there’s a great spot along the road to watch boaters navigate a tricky rapid that overturns plenty of craft. None of the outfitters I wrote had any rafts for sale, but at least the NOC suggested I check out their Guest Appreciation Festival during September where there would be good deals on equipment. I broadened my search and finally found a used raft at an outfitters called River Riders for $600. Again, I worked a math puzzle to see if I could get my money’s worth. If we rented two tandem kayaks or a raft from a local outfitter, we could go on a seven mile trip for $116. That meant if we bought this used raft from River Riders, we would only need to use it a mere six times to come out ahead financially. So having established, at least as far as I could tell, that I’d found a good price for a used raft, the big drawback was that River Riders was located 448 miles away from Asheville in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Was I really about to drive fourteen hours round trip to look at a raft?
The view just upstream from the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, North Carolina.
What I eventually decided to do about the raft took much longer than the fourteen hours I’d estimated. Before sharing what I did about going to look at the raft, I need to explain the circumstances of what was my work and commute life. At that time, I lived with my family in a house owned by my wife Megan’s uncle in Asheville while I also worked as a professor at St. John’s University in the borough of Queens in New York City. With the end of the spring academic semester on the way at St. John’s, my original plan was to drive to New York from Asheville on my last trip so I could bring some things home. If I took the family van to NYC, I could “stop off” at River Riders for the raft in West Virginia. The outfitter was “kind of” on the way requiring a 45 mile out and back jaunt to the east from Interstate 81. One problem with that plan was that I don’t really like to drive the van in the city, in part because our Toyota Sienna is a pretty big automobile and even a major road like the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) has narrow lanes compared to what I might drive outside of Charlotte or Indianapolis. I remember when Megan and I moved from Georgia to New York, and I was not only doing my first-ever driving in NYC–a harrowing enough experience on its own–but also doing that driving in a UHAUL. An oncoming truck came so close to me that it sheared off the side mirror on the driver’s side. That meant I did my first-ever driving in the city in a UHAUL and in a UHAUL without being able to check traffic behind me when I needed to change lanes. One more reason not to take the van to NYC: parking spots in Queens where my rented studio apartment was located are scarce. Sometimes, I’d do the twelve hour drive from Asheville to Queens only to spend another hour looking for a parking spot after midnight.
Isabel and Charlotte Torgerson outside of the The Zukor theater during the Queens International Film Festival before the screening of their film On the French Broad River.
Looking for an alternative reason to drive up to Harper’s Ferry to check out the raft, I pitched an idea to Megan and the girls that once they were out of school for the summer, we could drive up to West Virginia to see the raft and then take what is called the Skyline Drive in Virginia followed by the Blue Ridge Parkway the rest of the way home. Lots of people–went my argument–came from all over the country and even the world to experience those scenic drives. We could make a family vacation out of it, maybe even see a bear. While bear sightings were often reported in Asheville and even in our neighborhood, we’d actually only very briefly seen the butt of one bear as it hustled into the woods off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Craggy Gardens. We’d been on the Skyline Drive once before, years ago when we’d been living in Connecticut and were on our way to Asheville to visit Megan’s mom. My family was finally just starting to trust me in that some of my road-trip ideas actually turned out to be fun. Megan was up for the trip. The girls didn’t have a choice. It was decided. We would go to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia to look at a used raft.
I’ll share more of this story soon. Thanks for reading!