French Broad River Story #3: Buying a Used Raft

With hopes of buying a used raft, we left Asheville on a Monday morning at 6:30 and were sitting in traffic a few miles from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia by 1:00 that afternoon. Although the town’s population was allegedly under 500 people, the place had many interesting features that drew big crowds of visitors, at least during summer months. Harpers Ferry sits in a spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses a bridge that spans the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Hikers trek right past a building that had become known as John Brown’s Fort because it was where he had holed up before eventually being stabbed and captured by a group of confederate soldiers led by Robert E. Lee. The town has many bed and breakfasts with names such as The Angler’s Inn, Laurel Lodge, and Stonehouse. There were lots of restaurants too, and I felt interested in trying out either the Potomac Grille or the Cannonball Deli. Our plan was to circle through the town to see what we thought and then head out to River Rider’s to check out the raft. We were staying open to where we would spend the night, and I could see one trip that would have us in Harpers Ferry the first night, somewhere off the Skyline Parkway the next, and then a third night near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Pulling me toward a different plan was that there was a presentation to be given that interested me at our local to Asheville REI store. There was a couple who called themselves Yukon and Bean who’d rafted the entire French Broad River Paddle Trail. One the one hand, it might be fun to extend our trip for a couple of days but on the other, I thought Yukon and Bean’s presentation would give us a better idea of how we could get started on our own explorations of the river. At this point, I hadn’t even considered we would attempt the entire paddle trail ourselves.

Yukon and Bean, French Broad River, rafting, kayaking, Brevard, Rosman, Asheville

Yukon and Bean rafted the entirety of the French Broad River Paddle Trail. Here, they are pictured with their raft at Penrose Access Area northeast of Brevard, North Carolina

We drove the three miles from Harpers Ferry back out to River Riders and saw that the rafting company was as busy and popular as the the town. Hundreds of cars were parked up the hill at the main building and more filled the large gravel parking lot and spilled across the street into a grassy field. The staff of River Riders had inflated and cleaned the raft we had come to see. It looked bigger and in better condition than I had expected. They told us they’d pumped it up the night before, and it had stayed inflated. For the same reasons I wouldn’t open up the hood on a new car I was thinking about buying–I mean, who am I kidding, can I even identify one part of an engine and explain its function?–I did not conduct much of an inspection on the raft. The different sections of material (not rubber but looked like rubber to me) were glued together and the seams where the materials were attached did seem to be coming apart. I wasn’t that worried because, after all, it was a used raft and priced $2,000 less than anything else I thought might work for us. The raft had a black rubber bumper that circled the exterior of the boat, and it didn’t look long from coming off. The person I’d been in touch with via email from River Riders had told me to expect these things and that the issues were cosmetic and wouldn’t impact the performance of the raft. 

rafts, whitewater, River Riders, West Virginia, Harpers Ferry

River Riders is located in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

I didn’t haggle over the price. After all, I’d come over 400 miles to see it. I said we’d take it, and I asked if they had any used equipment for sale. Buying a raft turned out to be a lot like buying a new camera, a set of golf clubs, or a video game system. There are always lots of unanticipated additional purchases to be made such as lights and microphones to go with the camera, buckets of range balls and greens fees with the clubs, and a set of four game controllers at $60 a pop so the whole family can play games at the same time. We bought four paddles and life jackets in addition to the raft. The bill came to over $800. The number of times we would have to successfully use the raft in order to get our money’s worth was on the rise. The staff member who showed us the raft advised us to deflate it for the trip home. I had previously thought I might try and transport it atop our van as a way to delay the purchase of the large air pump River Riders staff suggested we purchase. They used a Carlson 6 inch barrel pump that could be had locally in Asheville or on Amazon for $268.95. I noticed the pump we needed cost about half as much as our new-to-us raft. While watching several members of the River Rider crew prepare the raft for our trip home, I made the following observations:

  1. The air valves were nothing like what you’d see on an air mattress or bicycle. They looked like metal springs with little plastic Xs on the end. They were covered with something that looked like a cousin to a car gas cap. Later, I would learn these are called military valves.
  2. The raft had seven of these military valves, four around the outside and one for each of the three seats. When it came time to pump the raft up, I was to go from valve to valve inflating a little bit at a time as not to tear the walls that separated each air chamber inside the boat.
  3.   In order to deflate the raft, I could take my finger, push the valve in, and turn it to the left. Doing this, the valve would stay in the open position and the air could escape. Before I got the hang of it, it felt like when I was trying to deflate our raft I was stabbing the end of my finger with the point of a paper clip.
  4.   When using the barrel pump I would eventually buy, the air depresses the valve on the raft. The valve should be in the “out” position–turned to the right–when inflating. If I had the valve in the wrong position, each time I took a break from pumping my raft would resume deflating.
  5.   Pumping up a raft makes for a fantastic tricep workout not unlike doing dips.
  6.   The raft was to be folded not so differently than how I was taught to fold shirts when I once trained to work at the Gap. Note A: I actually never did help any customers at the Gap because I quit after two days of training to take a job as a middle school English teacher and high school basketball coach.
  7.   I was told rafts like to be inflated. Storing rafts folded over is hard on the seams.

River Riders, rafting, Asheville, kayaking, used rafts

Indy the dog, Charlotte, and Isabel with their new-used raft at River Riders in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

With the raft purchased, I inquired about the location of River Riders campground so we could check it out before paying for a camping spot. From the photos I’d seen on their website, I pictured a large open space of grass with trees right next to the river. I knew our girls would prefer a sunny mountain stream to play in, but even at this early stage of my outdoor enthusiast life, I knew there was the ideal campsite I imagined and the reality of what we could find. The actual campground–as opposed to the different ones each family member had pictured–was situated on a narrow stretch of land between a gravel road and the river. There was no room to run around, to play tag, or toss a ball. Our tent would go on gravel or hard ground right next to a couple of massive RVs. It was getting into late afternoon, buggy, and the temperature was in the 90s. I had been thinking there might be a trail where we could walk with our dog into town but the campground was further away than I had thought. The prospect of spending six or so hours before dark in the heat right under the noses of some people hanging out in their RV did not appeal to Megan and me. The girls, however, were excited about getting into their new tent and had understandably had enough of being in the car. Despite strong objections from our daughters that involved some tears, Megan and I decided to head for the Skyline Drive. A countdown timer began in my head. It was now after three o’clock. We had forty-two miles to the entrance of the Skyline Drive. We had not eaten since breakfast. I vaguely knew there were campgrounds on the Skyline, but I wasn’t sure of their locations. Not only had we never set up our tent before, it was still in its plastic packaging. Driving west away from the River Riders campground, I thought about the following potential problems: the campground would be full, Megan and the girls would find the campground unappealing and we’d be up on the Skyline Drive where there were no hotels, or we’d arrive after dark and be left setting up our new tent for the first time in the dark. With the girls ticked off at me in the backseat, I tried to explain that these things were all part of the adventure. 

French Broad River Story #2: What Kind of Boat?

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.

French Broad River, Asheville, Hot Springs, Anne Torgerson, rafting, kayaking

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?

Nantahala Outdoor Center, rafting, kayaking

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.  

girlsKaufman

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!

French Broad River Story #1: The Beginning

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.

kayaking, Asheville, North Carolina, rafting, French Broad River

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.”

French Broad River rafting Rosman, North Carolina to Newport, Tennessee

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.

French Broad River, rafting, Asheville, North Carolina

Charlotte, Isabel, Megan and Bill Torgerson in a raft on the French Broad River

 

More of Our Story Coming Soon!