Western North Carolina is pointy-headed and steep, which means that much of the surface water is white and moving downhill fast.
Consequently, most of the boating opportunities hereabouts involve sudden drops and lots of rock dodging — fun for sure, but usually ended all too soon. Moreover, a trip of any distance pretty much demands that you bring two vehicles or dedicate a recovery driver to fetch you up from the bottom of the run.
I’m not dissing the rush of whitewater adventures; in fact I spent a recent afternoon threading my way through the French Broad River rapids between Ledges Whitewater and Walnut Island (two of Buncombe County’s seven river parks). We were dumped more than once, reminding me why, despite almost 50 years of canoe experience, I should never take any river for granted. To wit: Don’t carry your wallet in your pocket, even on a putatively easy stretch of water. And the corollary: It’s OK to dry paper money in a microwave, but don’t try it with a leather wallet. Mine converted itself into a lumpy dog toy in seconds.
Most days, given a choice, I’d pick a flatwater stream over its faster cousins in a heartbeat. The velocity of mountain streams means there are few options for easy canoeing (obviously, down is less of a problem than back), so the choice really comes down to lakes.
Sadly, all of the slow water in these mountains is the result of damming, and dams managed for electric-power production and flood control tend to create ugly vistas. In April I headed to Fontana Lake and was disappointed to find the water level more than 20 feet below the high-water mark — with bare, muddy banks completely devoid of vegetation or wildlife, save for numerous toads mating in the shallows. Uh-glee — the banks, I mean, not the toads. They were singing love songs and making eyes at each other in a most seductive fashion.
So if your idea of a good time involves holding a steering paddle with one hand and a cold drink or a pair of binoculars with the other as you savor the flora and fauna on banks and bars, here are a few suggestions for a daylong or weekend canoe trip.
Nearest at hand for Ashevilleans is Beaver Lake, a short hop up Merrimon Avenue. But you’ll have to pay a launch fee, and for my money and time, it isn’t really worth it, since the lake is too small and too closely hemmed in by roads to offer much of a natural experience. (Better to avail yourself of the Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary at the south end of the lake, where paths and a boardwalk give pedestrians access to wonderful, marshy bird habitat.)
Next closest is Lake Julian, in the Buncombe County park of the same name. Located near Skyland, the park is open year round, seven days a week. Though the setting is fairly urban, with the towering smokestacks of Progress Energy’s coal-fired power plant looming overhead, there are relatively unspoiled stretches of shoreline where commercial development remains out of view, and nature chirrups and whirs the hours away. There are baby ducks, too, waddling or paddling in profusion. The county charges a $4 launch fee for all boats (or $40 for an annual permit). For more information, visit www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/parksalive or phone 684-0376.
A little farther afield, Lake Lure lives up to its name. Though the dam there is used to generate power, the guiding principle is keeping the lake full for residents and tourists. The lake is fairly clean and possessed of a sinuous shoreline. There are lots of coves to explore, and although the lakefront is getting more and more built up, it is quite green, with plenty of habitat for great blue herons and myriad smaller birds. A marina and launch site sit at the end of the lake nearest Asheville when approached via U.S. 74A. It’s 22 miles from the eastern intersection of Interstate 40 and Interstate 240 to the lake. You have to buy an annual permit ($22 for nonmotorized boats). Visit www.lakelure.com or phone (877) 386-4255 for more information.
An hour’s drive to the east, Lake James is big, often windy and usually busy with powerboats, but a committed paddler can find some relative solitude in the coves there. Lake James State Park is in Burke and McDowell counties, five miles northeast of Marion on N.C. 126. From I-40, take the Nebo/Lake James exit (exit 90) and head north. After a half-mile, turn right onto Harmony Grove Road, and follow it for two miles to a stoplight. Proceed straight across the intersection (passing Nebo Elementary School) to a stop sign. Turn right onto N.C. 126, and follow the signs to the park entrance, 2.3 miles on the left. For more information, visit www.ils.unc.edu/parkproject/ncparks or phone (828) 652-5047.
The best lake paddling in our region is found in the Nantahala National Forest, with the best of the best in the westernmost corner of the state, about three hours from downtown Asheville. Apalachia Lake is remote, smallish (1,100 acres), cool, deep and set about with some fine campsites. It’s a great place for an overnight canoe-camping venture. For more information, visit www.tva.gov/sites/apalachia.htm.
Two other lakes in Nantahala bear mention: Hiwassee, just this side of Appalachia, is accessible via Hanging Dog Recreation Area (just outside of Murphy); and Santeetlah (north of Robbinsville), a bit closer though still requiring a couple hours’ drive due to circuitous roads. The easiest launch site on Santeetlah, a gorgeously green and inviting body of water, is at Cheoah Point Recreation Area. Both recreation areas offer day use and overnight camping. For more information on Nantahala National Forest recreation sites, visit www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc or phone (828) 257-4200.
So head on out, launch it, crack a cold one, kick back and enjoy some flatwater.