Getting wet within an hour of Asheville

Shelton Steele
The author takes his bad-ass self down the river. photo by Caleb Coaplen

Even if you’ve never been in one, no doubt you’ve noticed the fleet of boats floating around on the tops of trucks and cars here. Asheville is undeniably a boating town, and there are countless river options within striking distance of the city.

What arguably makes Asheville the best boating town in the country is the diversity of rivers nearby, providing year-round options. If you’ve just discovered your kayak roll, there are slower stretches of river to learn on, and for those boaters who have mastered the combative art of steep-creeking, there’s nothing like 300-plus days of class V rapids in the course of a year. So where can you get wet during the dog days of summer? Let’s run through the summer river options within an hour of town.

Around here, beginner boaters actually enjoy the most options. Once you’ve hammered out the roll in your neighborhood pool, the next step is bringing current, or moving water, into the equation. Face it — it’s going to be hard to convince your buddies that you’re a boater if all your gear smells like chlorine. So where is the best place to suit up and get a piece of the whitewater action? I was reared on the mighty lower Green River, so you’re going to have to put up with the author’s nostalgia for a moment.

Travel east on Interstate 26, take the Saluda exit, and turn left toward the gorge. Make another left onto Green River Cove Road, and begin a descent toward the river. At the bottom of the gorge lies the Green — and the beginning boater’s training grounds. I grew up under the tutelage of the lower Green, enduring endless hot summer afternoons in my Grumman canoe. The countless class II rapids school young boaters in the art of the ferry, as well as technical downstream navigation. Frequent summer hydro releases make the Green River one of the most reliable whitewater destinations in the area.

Other local beginning-boater options include Asheville’s own French Broad. Just minutes away down River Road (Hwy. 251), the French Broad ledges offer a short stretch of rapids where novice boaters can hone their skills. Moving outside of town, the Tuckaseegee Gorge is a dam-released, class II-III stretch of river that offers a new set of challenges for the beginning boater.

If you’ve tamed the slow-moving rivers, chances are you are now addicted to the sport. A couple of local LVM videos, time hanging out and telling stories with boating buddies in the Asheville bars, and you’re hungry for the next level. How do you step it up? Try this: Head West on Interstate 40 until you hit the Tennessee border, and you’ll discover the Pigeon River. Frequent releases throughout the week make the Pigeon a reliable option for the entire summer. With a little more gradient and volume, it offers more than a half-dozen quality rapids and numerous fun surf waves. Summer releases may vary in volume, so try both the higher and lower levels for a variation on a familiar run.

For a different spin on class III boating, head east again on I-26, and hop on the upper Green River. This section, beginning below the Tuxedo Hydro Plant, is a little more than 3.5 miles. There are a few quality drops, and the Green River Gorge scenery is spectacular. Count on earning your enjoyment at the end of the section, however, as you’ll face a steep, mile-long hike out to the takeout.

Another class III option is available on section nine of the French Broad. From the postage-stamp-size town of Barnard all the way down to the somewhat larger village of Hot Springs, section nine is a great local run. The difficulty changes quickly as the water rises, so be aware of the river level before you hop in. Average summertime flows, which run anywhere from 1,200 to 3,000 cubic feet per second, make for a challenging run.

For those advanced paddlers out there who have established themselves in the local boating scene, I can’t expect to shed much light on where you can go to ply your skills. So instead, I’ll just offer a perspective on why Asheville is home to a handful of the best boaters in the world. One reason: the Green River Narrows. With scheduled releases all summer, there is no better class V boating anywhere in the States. By mid-July, when all other rivers are bone-dry, Asheville steep-creekers are hammering their way through the Narrows a few times a week. One phone call to the good ol’ boys at the Tuxedo Hydro Plant, and you’ll know exactly how much water there’ll be as well as when you’ll get it. Many boaters have defined their lives around these releases, which means there tends to be a familiar group of faces out there day in and day out. Mention the word “Green” the next time you meet a local boater, and brace yourself for a long conversation.

There are many more rivers that make this area a paddling mecca, but I’ve stuck to the summertime sure things, as rain here can be anything but a given. Enjoy our mountain rivers, and remember — it’s up to each of us to protect our natural resources.

[Asheville resident Shelton Steele can be reached at shelton_steele@hotmail.com.]

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