A group of restless t'weens and teens clowning around at Jean Webb Park on Riverside Drive usually means that something not-so-productive is about to happen. The isolated park — located in the shadow of the Haywood Road bridge — has a shady reputation. But this group of 19 Asheville Middle School students are members of the school's River Corps, and they have a purpose.
They've just finished floating down the French Broad in canoes accompanied by eighth-grade math teacher Jessica Carson, the Corps' faculty sponsor, and her husband Hartwell, the French Broad Riverkeeper who educates Western North Carolina students about the waterway. In 2006, Will Yeiser — then an AMS teacher and now director of the French Broad River Academy — launched River Corps. Jessica Carson has been involved since the corps' inception, and she's a lifelong paddler who took her first canoe trips as a 10-year-old with her dad in Georgia. From her standpoint, the club will help elevate the French Broad in Asheville as a more attractive recreational asset rather than just a body of water you drive over.
At the beginning of the academic year, students at AMS choose among 30 different clubs, ranging from Brain Games to the Double Dutch club. The corps is a popular choice. For one, it offers a handful of field trips as a carrot. Still, it's not easy: Last year's group toiled for a day shoveling earth to form a riverside rain garden that will collect polluted storm-water runoff. "I'm really proud of that day," says Jessica, explaining that the club is a way to introduce the students to the French Broad, its tributaries, and crucial issues, such as stream ecology, water quality, and homelessness (the group noticed a tent propped on the riverside).
In addition to paddling the river, the students have adopted a section of the stream and will study insects, perform service, and monitor the water quality. "Once they develop an appreciation for the river, they are more likely to become stewards," she adds. "They'll be more likely to volunteer, become advocates, or just make the river a part of their lives."
In fact, the French Broad watershed is a perfect venue for a group of kids to learn the value of a natural resource. What may surprise many, says Hartwell, is that the river's water quality is in decline. In 2008, the North Carolina Division of Water Quality reported that in the French Broad basin there were 293 miles of impaired streams that are no longer safe due to bacteria, sediment or some other form of pollution. That's up from the 167 miles reported in 2004. While the river is cleaner than in decades past, the students saw plenty of trash, including a submerged dryer. However, most of the increased pollution is sediment from development which diminishes oxygen in the river and makes it harder for fish and other species to thrive. And while there may be more people than ever using the river to fish, paddle, and view wildlife, the truth is that recreating on the urban stretch of river is, at best, typically a second choice, like dining at a divey late-night waffle joint when no one else is serving.
One reason for the aversion may be that river-access points, such as Jean Webb Park, can be downright seedy. "When you draw people down to the river, they start to like it and appreciate it," says Hartwell, who believes that attracting more people to Jean Webb and other river-access points will make the urban section of the French Broad safer and more welcoming, therefore expanding access.
In fact, after the float, the giddy bunch of middle-schoolers seem to give the dusty underpass new life. "It was fun and peaceful," says seventh-grader Clara, mentioning the highlight of the trip: getting a look at a great blue heron.
During a short debrief of the float, the students are overflowing with information about their trip and point out that few people pay attention to the river. And that's just it: The Corps is an opportunity to inspire a stewardship that Carson hopes will last a lifetime, while at the same time giving a handful of eager students the opportunity to experience the river from the inside looking out — a view less often taken. "It is a beginning to understand the river — that's important. I hope we create citizens who think of the river as a resource we need to protect," she says, optimistic that some of her students will one day help shepherd the ongoing revitalization of the city's river.
"We need the river to be cleaner," says River Corps member Lydia, an eighth grader. "If you see trash, pick it up. It's really not that hard."
[Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.]