It was late July of 2016 when my family and I decided we would attempt to raft 146 miles of what is called the French Broad River Paddle trail from the headwaters in Rosman, North Carolina all the way to where the river flows into Douglass Lake just northeast of Newport, Tennessee. The whole trip began with just a vague sense that my family and I were missing out by not being on the water. The year before, my wife Megan and our daughters Charlotte and Isabel had moved from New Canaan, Connecticut to the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is probably best known as home to the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate and because it is also frequently named in many of the “best of” lists released each year. Asheville is also home to lots of artists, the progressive minded, over twenty-five breweries, and all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts including climbers, kayakers, and hikers. My wife Megan first lived in Asheville as a high school senior, and I first visited the area about a year before I met Megan as a part of a program that invited teachers from Charlotte up to experience an Outward Bound Educator course. On that trip, I remember using a compass for the first time as I navigated my way around Pisgah National Forest, put iodine in water I drew from a mountain stream to drink, and that I slept on the ground without a tent at night. Except for when my daughters were born, I don’t think I’d ever felt as energized and full of life than I’d felt standing on a boulder in a mountain stream with water rushing all around me. The cold mist on my face and the thunderous sound in my ears had the effect of invigorating my spirit.
one of the many examples of boats we’d see around Asheville
There were some reasons it might not be the best idea for my family and I to attempt the rafting trip. Neither Megan or I had any experience guiding a raft. Twenty years before, Megan had participated in a family rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. I’d done a couple of day trips, but both of us had gone on our respective trips as paying customers to experienced guides. With our daughters ages eight and eleven, we certainly didn’t want to put them in any dangerous situations. Of course rafting has an element of risk but so does playing a sport or getting into a car. More practically, we didn’t even own a raft. Plus, there was Megan’s anxiety about any water not clear enough to see through, something I vaguely understood as her not wanting to swim in a lake. While Megan does pretty well snorkeling in the clear waters off Key West through large schools of fish and next to intimidating-looking barracudas and eels, I would soon find out that she totally freaks standing knee deep in muddy river water. Although I didn’t realize it until we spent our first day on the river, Megan imagines the water awash with snakes ready to strike and that each branch that overhangs the river contains a reptile in repose ready to drop down on her head. “It’s Sunday,” Megan would announce trying to calm her nerves as we were on the water. “All of the snakes are at church.”
the French Broad River from Rosman, NC to Newport, Tennessee
As my family’s first year in Asheville passed into the second, I thought about how it seemed like everywhere we went in town there were canoes and kayaks propped up on the roofs of cars or else scattered about in the grass in the parks along the river. Each time we drove over the massive bridge on Long Shoals Road near our house, we peered over to see if anyone was on the water. I remember one day I was travelling along Riverside Drive, a road that hugs the river and passes by French Broad Outfitters and the Craggy Dam, when I encountered a sign for Ledges Whitewater Park. Even from the road, I could see water rushing over boulders and several kayakers out playing on the water. I pulled into the parking lot and for the first time saw a sign for and thus became aware of what is called the French Broad River Paddle Trail. I walked over to the riverbank and looked out at the water. I saw a father standing waist deep in the water as his two kids practiced turning their boats upside down so their heads were underwater and then rolling back upright again and and again. “As you can see,” the father told me, “they’ve got it down.”
Two more kids wore life jackets and floated downstream to a big boulder where they climbed out of the water and trekked along the bank back upstream so they could float the stretch again. A man just behind me cooked bratwurst on a riverside grill while several more kids were playing along the edge of the water. I made my way to the center of the river by jumping from rock to rock and felt again that extra jolt of life that I’d first experienced on the Outward Bound Course. There was something missing I could tell as I watched the kayakers dart around on the water. I was more like a spectator at a sporting event when what I wanted was to get in the game. To accomplish that, I’d have to find a way out onto the water in a boat. If that was going to happen, I had an awful lot to learn.
Charlotte, Isabel, Megan and Bill Torgerson in a raft on the French Broad River
More of Our Story Coming Soon!