Some families go to Disney World or head to the beach for vacation. Asheville’s Torgersons, however, aren’t your average crew.
Over the course of about three weeks last summer, the Torgersons — Bill, Megan and their daughters, Charlotte and Isabel — spent 12 days rafting all 149 miles of the French Broad River Paddle Trail from Rosman to Douglas Lake in Newport, Tenn. The aptly titled On the French Broad River, Bill Torgerson’s documentary chronicling the family’s adventures and the environmental issues that affect the river, screens at Grail Moviehouse on Wednesday, May 24, at 7 p.m. and both Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28, at noon.
Spurred by the sense that he and his family were missing out by not being out on the water, Torgerson bought a copy of the River Keeper’s Guide to the French Broad River by Chris Gibbs and Hartwell Carson last spring. Already on the lookout for more Asheville stories following the positive response to his documentary Christopher’s Garden, about West Asheville gardener Christopher Mello, Torgerson came up with the idea of bringing the book to life.
Spending time with his wife and daughters, whom he’d only seen in spurts for the past three years, was also foremost on his mind. Then an associate professor at St. John’s University’s Institute For Writing Studies, Torgerson typically spent a cycle of 10 days in New York City followed by four or five days at home in Asheville. He also got a month off at Christmas and 2 1/2 months of freedom each summer.
The prospect of undertaking a project as a foursome was met with enthusiasm by his family and flung Torgerson into full-on storyteller mode. Though the Torgersons are a seasoned road-trip clan who’ve gotten more into hiking as Charlotte and Isabel have grown, their prior joint aquatic experiences were limited to two or three French Broad River day trips with kayaks rented from the Asheville Outdoor Center. Going from a weekend or two on the water to his proposed plan may have been a big leap, but the director/novelist says it was necessary for a successful narrative.
“When you write, your subconscious sort of works on things even when you’re not thinking of them,” he says. “If the Torgersons raft six miles on the river one day, that’s no story. But doing the whole thing, doing the French Broad Paddle Trail, that did seem like a story.”
Torgerson used a JVC video camera on a monopod for the film’s interviews with local environmental professionals and river enthusiasts. On the water, the family used a variety of iPhones as well as a GoPro camera, which they purchased on the second day of shooting. Conscious of mixing up vantage points, Bill put the GoPro on his family members’ heads and attached it to the raft, getting shots facing the front, back and sides. He also learned fairly quickly that, despite the hours of viewing it would cost him each night, it was best to have the GoPro rolling throughout the day. The revelation came about when the Barbie boat, in which his daughters sometimes floated alongside the raft, became separated from the family’s watercraft at an inopportune time.
“We’re in the current, and the raft isn’t that maneuverable, and I’m trying to get to the side of the bank. … Something we saw lots of times that really upset my wife was snakes would be in the trees and when they would hear us come, they would drop,” Torgerson says. “So, as we’re trying to get the Barbie boat, a snake drops into the water pretty close to us, Megan freaks out, a fish jumps out of the water and lands on the side of the boat and hits my daughter in the arm and falls back in. So all that happens in about a minute or two, and we didn’t get that on film.”
Conquering the Paddle Trail taught the Torgersons a great deal about the river and conservation. It’s an experience they’ll cherish as they move this summer to the Indianapolis suburbs, where Bill will teach seventh-grade language arts and be the head girls basketball coach. Even with his relocation, Torgerson hopes that On the French Broad River isn’t his last Asheville story. Two topics that he’s been thinking about exploring on film are the River Arts District and the Asheville brewing industry.
“Now, I’m probably going to have to sleep in a tent and bring a generator in the summer if I’m going to do stuff like that,” he says, “so we’ll see.”
WHAT: On the French Broad River screening
WHERE: Grail Moviehouse, 45 S. French Broad Ave., grailmoviehouse.com
WHEN: Wednesday, May 24, 7 p.m. $7 student and senior citizen/$9 adult. Saturday, May 27 and Sunday, May 28, noon. $7