When she handed my husband Nelson the two cold beers, plus six fresh eggs from her chickens and a small bundle of firewood, I almost fell to my knees and wept. It was such a small gesture, but it came straight from her heart to ours at exactly the time we needed it. People are so good.
“I want to support what you guys are doing,” Glenda said as she unknowingly participated in what we’d started calling “river magic.”
We had pulled up to the shore of this riverside campground for the night, unsure which site was ours. Glenda, co-owner of the French Broad River Campground, just happened to zip by in her golf cart at that moment. “Can I help you folks?” When we explained who we were, she said, “You stay right there. Let me call my husband Bill and we’ll get it sorted out.”
This was day five and mile 80 of our 13-day, 149-mile adventure as we attempted to raft the entire French Broad River.
We were beat down after a brutal self-portage around the MSD dam in Asheville, NC that afternoon. Our feet were torn up and bleeding because of the sand and grit we couldn’t avoid. And the low water level basically turned this four-mile section of river into a rock garden. We did catch a small break on the lone Class III rapid; however, since it’s called “Poop Shoot,” we were unsure if this was really a “good” break or not…
Regardless, after humping 800 pounds of gear up the embankment on one side of the dam, hauling it in eight or nine loads 100 yards along the railroad tracks and down another path to the river below the dam, and navigating all the rocks, we were done. Exhausted. So when Glenda told Nelson they didn’t have any beer he could buy, I’m pretty sure she could tell by his face she’d encountered a man nearly at the end of his rope. It was her thoughtfulness sharing their beer and eggs that buoyed our spirits that day. That and her husband Bill telling us we didn’t need to move the raft. “You can stay right there at the site you’re standing on.”
Over and over on this French Broad River trip, we encountered “river magic” from people who gave to us selflessly, just to help us on our journey down the river.
This whole trip idea started last year when my husband Nelson stopped in at The Hub’s Pisgah Tavern near Brevard, NC for an after-work beer. If you knew him, you knew an after-work beer stop is nothing new or remarkable. What is remarkable, though, is that on this particular occasion a slim and colorful spiral-bound map caught his eye. The map was actually a guide: The Riverkeeper’s Guide to the French Broad River.
Curiosity piqued, he bought it.
There was a gleam in his eye as he walked into our house. “This,” he said. “Look at this. This map details the whole French Broad River. Miles, campsites, float times, even portages.” He grinned. “I think we could do this.”
We’d just bought a used Aire Super Puma and oar rig from a guy in Virginia. Nelson was itching to pack that thing up and row some miles. We’d floated a little bit of the French Broad in our kayaks but six or seven miles doesn’t really wet a man’s whistle.
And truthfully, we’d been looking for another big trip after we were lucky enough to score some seats on a private Grand Canyon trip in 2013.
See, that Grand Canyon trip changed everything. Besides being on Nelson’s bucket list, it was something we were eager to do together. I’d never done a long, remote trip like that, sleeping out under the stars with no tent, and nowhere to go except back into the raft and and down the river.
Turns out, that trip lit a fire in me. After a few days adjusting to the physical demands, and figuring out I needed to drink WAY more water, I was able to get into a satisfying rhythm. I learned my husband is an amazing oarsman. And he and I learned how to work together as a solid team.
There was river magic on Grand Canyon trip, too, as my friend Quay taught me how to make a Dutch oven cake without burning the crap out of it. Our boat-mate Erin helped Nelson with crucial details on the upcoming rapids. When we were running low on toilet paper and ice, the commercial raft guides in their huge “J” motor rig joked they were like a “floating Costco” and were happy to hand over extra supplies. Towards the end of that Grand Canyon trip, our group was running out of beer. Another group we’d been playing leap-frog with showed up, heard about our dilemma, and offered to give us some of their extras. Of course, a few of our guys had to swim for the cans, but they say it was worth it!
Nelson and I also had a lot of time to talk while we were floating through that amazing place. We discussed what we loved about our lives (our relationship) and what we hated (the town we were living in).
By the end of the trip, we were both clear about the changes we wanted to make. And change we did. Upon returning from the Grand Canyon adventure, we decided to move to the mountains, get married, and radically downsize our stuff.
All that happened in two short, fast years. Once settled in our new home in the mountains, we talked and dreamed about another big adventure. It was Nelson’s discovery of the French Broad River guide that set us on the course to raft the entire 149 miles of the French Broad River in one go.
As the idea began to take shape, Nelson laid out river miles and chose campsites using the river map as his guide. I began planning menus. We started asking people around town for suggestions on who to talk with about running the whole river. We met the French Broad Riverkeeper, Hartwell Carson, who had paddled the entire river and who, along with the non-profit RiverLink and some corporate partners, had played a significant role in creating the guide. A couple other friends shared details of their section paddle.
We reached out to a few companies to see about partnering with them for our expedition. ICON Coolers, located in Wilmington, NC, stepped up to help, as did Appalachian Coffee Company. Without our asking, Astral and Oskar Blues Brewery joined them. As the people in these companies reached out to shake our hands, listen to our wild plan, and offer their support, they were SO enthusiastic. People are good!
On our launch day, our friend Allen dropped us off, gifted us with eggs from his ducks, and drove our van back to our house. We launched from Headwaters Outfitters’ sandy beach in Rosman, North Carolina, where the North and West Forks of the French Broad come together to form this beautiful river.
Our first night, we made camp at Headwater Outfitters’ private campground. Once we got set up, we were dismayed to discover an issue with our fuel and stove. Because we weren’t that far from home, we called our pet sitter and requested some help. A few hours later, she and her boyfriend arrived with replacement fuel. Hugging them with gratitude, all I could think was, “People are so good.”
Our next three days were long as the river repeatedly wound back on itself in dramatic horseshoe turns. We spotted plenty of wildlife, including a juvenile raccoon, several otters, and numerous birds and fish. We passed folks in canoes and kayaks and talked about our adventure with them. One woman, not quite believing we had enough food for all 13 days, offered to help. “I’ve got a granola bar you can have,” she quipped.
Most people we met were concerned about our knowledge of what we were getting ourselves into. How long would the trip take us? Did we know about the dams? What about the whitewater? Where would we sleep? Did we really have enough food? Thanks to Nelson’s extensive rafting and guiding experience and our combined outdoor knowledge, plus the folks we talked to about this river and the accuracy of the map, we felt well-prepared.
Somewhere around mile 20, we took a break at a local park. We got to talking with some of the kayakers who were there waiting for their shuttle to pick them up. As we explained our journey, one of the guys exclaimed, “You deserve some beer!” He pulled two cold ones out of his cooler and handed them to us. Nelson had the biggest grin on his face as he accepted them. People are good – and generous!
At mile 31 we stopped so Nelson could walk up to a nearby store to grab some extra ice for the cooler. Black clouds were rapidly gathering overhead and that first crack of thunder definitely got our attention. When it started raining in sheets, we pulled over, set up our umbrella and hunkered down until the worst of the storm passed. Four hours and seven river miles later, we set up camp in the steamy late-afternoon sunshine. The sunset after that storm was one for the record books!
The next day as we approached Horseshoe, NC we reached out to some friends about visiting their new kayak launch. Lazy Otter Outfitters was the newest game in town. Owners Leslie and Matt were away but promised to leave us fresh water. Sure enough, we scampered up the ramp and discovered a big cooler of water and two Lazy Otter Outfitters t-shirts. We were grateful and giddy both about the clean water and the clean T-shirts! People are good!
On day four, a note from my journal becomes very apropos: “Day four is about when the tired feeling set in on the Grand Canyon trip. It’s the same for this trip. I’m tired of hauling gear up the banks or stairs to and from our boat and campsite. Gear is heavy and bulky and I am weak and puny. Our kitchen box is so heavy. I shall name the kitchen box Bertha.”
Nelson kiddingly said, “I need a vacation from our vacation,” when I shared this with him.
More adventures with downed trees, menacing thunderstorms, rocks upon rocks upon rocks, various animal sightings and long, long stretches of flatwater filled our next few days.
One piece of this adventure we had not yet planned out was how we were going to get around the two dams in Marshall, NC. They were complicated to self-portage with 800 pounds of raft and gear. Our arriving in Asheville brought more unexpected river magic that solved this dilemma.
After setting up camp at Wilson RV Park, we wandered over to Asheville Outdoor Center to see about some adult beverages (we’d heard they had a new bar). Once inside, we met the owner. “Davewave” introduced himself and we settled in to talk with him about our adventures. He took us on a tour to see his art and to explain his passion and vision for the river. We felt like we’d met a kindred spirit.
“So, what do you need?” he asked us.
Nelson explained our shuttle dilemma around the two dams in Marshall. “I got you,” Davewave said. “See you at 10 am Sunday.” True to his word, he showed up with his truck and trailer to portage us safely two miles downstream. We again learned people are so good.
Because our portage went so smoothly, we decided to skip past our reserved campsite and run the whitewater (called Section 9) that day so we could spend two days relaxing in the iconic Hot Springs, NC instead of one. As we floated, we talked with a few groups in rafts. They helped us with some beta on the rapids, which turned out to be technical and fun. As we were approaching Frank’s Bell (which, with low water, ain’t all that fun), we spotted a pair of bald eagles high up in the trees. They flew off one at a time as we got close. YES! More river magic, compliments of Mother Nature.
Arriving in Hot Springs, we were tired, sore, and filthy dirty. We gathered up our shower stuff and headed to get clean. I spotted a truck and Airstream camper which belonged to some friends from Mooresville, NC. We met for dinner and they shared more river magic with us in the form of pre-paid beers for the next day.
As we left Hot Springs after our much-needed break, we found ourselves laughing like kids as we ran a number of fun Class II and III rapids. We spotted more eagles, osprey, heron, and kingfishers. We stopped at Painted Rock to see the Native American art (or what was left of it just above all the sorry graffiti). One whole afternoon found us sitting in our chairs in the middle of a sandbar in the river enjoying the cool water flowing around our legs.
On our final night in camp, a barred owl flew so close to our tent we could hear its wings cut through the air and ruffle the rain fly of our tent. It landed on a branch overhead and then just as fast swooped down to capture some unlucky critter.
Our final 17 mile float on the last day of our trip was much easier than anticipated. As we approached the takeout, the French Broad River dumps into Douglas Lake. Our grins were as wide at the lake we found ourselves on. This accomplishment was special, earned through teamwork, hard work, and a good bit of something else…all that river magic.
Our final bit of it came compliments of our friend Joe (owner of Pura Vida Adventures in Pisgah Forest, NC) who drove all the way to Newport, Tennessee on a Friday afternoon through Asheville’s nightmare called rush hour traffic just to pick us up. Our biggest lesson on this trip was a gentle one that was repeated over and over in the form of river magic: people are so good.
Angie Mattson Stegall is a freelance writer and author of four books, including “Make Some Room: Powerful Life Lessons Inspired By an Epic 16-day Colorado River Rafting Trip Through Grand Canyon” (2016). She and her husband relish exploring new places. They live, work, and travel full-time in their motorhome. Follow their adventures at: www.YukonandBean.com.
Video below courtesy of William Torgerson’s “Torg Stories Pocast.”