According to family lore, he was conceived in a canoe on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. His grandfather was the venerable Frank Bell. With his graceful origins and an esteemed paddling heritage, it’s no exaggeration to say that water flows through Will Leverette’s veins. Whitewater, to be exact.
When you sit down to chat with Leverette, it doesn’t take long before you’re swept away to a campfire ring along a rushing stream, listening to a seasoned riverman spin tales of paddling derring-do. But Will’s yarns are different than most you’ll hear today. They reach back to the simpler days of boating, days when canoes were made of wood and canvas, and before some of our most splendid gorges were flooded in the name of progress.
Couple Leverette’s love of paddling with a storytelling skill developed through years of work at summer camps, and you get his latest project: WaterWise: A history of Whitewater Paddling in Western North Carolina (1923-1980) (History Press, forthcoming; visit www.historypress.net). On the surface, the book is a history of whitewater paddling in the region. In the deeper currents, Leverette says, “It’s a memoir of my life growing up at camp and the remarkable people I was exposed to.”
Here’s a taste of the stories inside: In 1923, a year after founding Camp Mondamin in Tuxedo, Frank Bell had the notion to take a group of campers all the way to the Mississippi River by water. Bell, who was known as “Chief” to even his grandchildren, put his group in the water on Mud Creek in Henderson County and proceeded to the French Broad River. On what is now known as section 9 of the French Broad, the group faced a river-wide class IV rapid just upstream of Hot Springs.
From his position in the canoe’s stern, Chief surveyed the rapid and decided to run it. He and the young camper in the bow navigated the rapid’s main section successfully, but once clear of it found themselves headed for the deep, frothy hole at the bottom. The eddying current swallowed the canoe and tossed it end over end, forcing Chief and his apprentice to swim to the sandy beach below the rapid. They had to acquire another canoe before they could proceed on their journey. Thirty days later, they reached the Mississippi.
“It’s a boldness and an audacity that doesn’t exist today,” Leverette says of his grandfather’s epic trip 85 years ago. The paddle his grandfather used on that trip now hangs on Leverette’s wall. And the rapid that made twigs and torn cloth of his grandpa’s canoe bears the name “Frank Bell’s Rapid” to this day.
This is just one of the many stories Leverette recounts in his part-history, part-memoir. “Paddling has saved my life,” he writes in the introduction. “In 1989 I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while living in Salt Lake City, Utah. I thought my life was over, and the one I knew was over. During the first five years with the disease, I experienced a number of what doctors called remissions and exacerbations. I’d get very sick and even be unable to drive a car, hold a fork and work, much less ski, climb and paddle.”
Leverette went as far as contemplating taking his own life, but, as he says in the book, “someone shared with me a Chinese proverb that says the single greatest challenge humans face is to take our biggest weakness and turn it into our biggest strength. Whoa! That hit me like a ton of bricks. I quit hating MS. I quit having a perpetual pity party for myself and got on with my life. I might not be able to ski and climb anymore, but I could paddle.”
Leverette soon discovered that inflatable kayaks allowed him the freedom to paddle again, and he moved back East to be closer to his support group of family and friends in Western North Carolina.
Moving home also turned his thoughts to local paddling history. He started collecting photographs from his grandmother, Cala Bell, who had been a camp photographer and captured pivotal moments in the annals of local paddling history.
“I realized if I didn’t tell this story, it wasn’t going to get told,” Leverette says. “I also realized that I have no real lasting legacy. I’ve taught thousands of people how to paddle, and that stands for something. But once those people are dead, I’m dead. My hope is that when the book is out, folks will read it and gain an appreciation for the people in it and what they achieved. This will be my legacy.”
He writes that, “We will probably never know the full truth but we can be inspired by the tales of women and men who were there many years ago pioneering the way unaware of the importance and significance of what they were doing. This is a proud and interesting history that is filled with colorful characters doing amazing things. I can only hope that I am able to tell the story with some accuracy, a lot of humility and some humor—like the way they lived their lives.”
In addition to sharing his story with a wider audience through the book, Leverette continues to inspire the next generation of paddlers through his work at Warren Wilson College, where he goes by the title “Paddling-mentor-in-residence,” or, as he prefers to be called, “The Designated Old Fart.”
Will Leverette is available for readings, talks and multimedia presentations on the history of whitewater paddling in the region. He can be reached at email@example.com.
[John Bowers is an Asheville writer and family man.]