River time: A placid day paddling the French Broad

Mariah Henley, just after her first river otter sighting. Photo by Jonathan Poston

The weather is getting just right to twirl a stick through a winter’s worth of spider webbing to clean out our kayaks.

For a relaxed paddling experience within about 10 minutes’ drive from downtown Asheville, head to the French Broad. It snakes through town, so finding a put-in is easy. With fellow paddler, Mariah Henley, we celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a plan to kayak a couple of hours, starting at Bent Creek River Park, a put-in just off Brevard Road (around the corner from the Arboretum), and finishing at Hominy Creek River Park (near Carrier Park).

Paddling works best with two or more buddies, because of the logistics involved. First, we dropped off our kayaks at the start point, crossed our fingers they wouldn’t be stolen, left a car at the finish, and then drove back to finally shove in. Going solo is much quicker, but limits the paddler to an “out and back,” inevitably involving one leg going upstream, which isn’t nearly as fun.

With mild temperatures in the 70s, I almost forgot to bathe in sunscreen. Preventing sunburn is a must on a cloudless day on the river. It’s not enough to try to stay in the tree shade at the edges of the river. If sunscreen is accidentally forgotten, at least in a kayak, it’s easy to paddle faster to escape a full sunburn assault; river tubers are plucked ducks at the gunpoint of nature’s wild aim.

The river was low, and nearly pond-still the day we went out, not high and belligerent, like the time I took my little girl out tubing and she slammed and pinned against one of the bridge columns along this route. Most of the bridges crossing the river rise high enough to forget about, but there is one bridge that connects the Biltmore properties that can nearly clothesline a kayaker when the waters are running too high. A low river is thus preferable, as long as it doesn’t force paddlers to exit and walk the boat over algae-slick, ankle breaking, river rocks until it’s deep enough to float again.

Jonathan Poston taking it slow on the French Broad.
Jonathan Poston taking it slow on the French Broad.

Paddling the French Broad does not come with Class 5 Green River adrenaline needles to the senses. It’s more a Zen-like opportunity to seize the moment and appreciate life as it happens. The sycamores and birches bow in the breeze, bleached deadwood collects along kinks in the river. A dragonfly stops in front of us mid-air, then dives and belly busts wing-deep in the water, sputters, lifts and buzzes off. A shy river otter breaks the surface with the same quick silver shimmer as a bass. A beret-sized turtle suns itself on a stump by the bank, its shell lacquered with a cracking, pale gray-white layer of mud.

There are a few rapids that are easily heard from a distance. But they are aren’t the kind of rapids that startle the fingers into white-knuckled submission. It’s pretty easy to paddle safely around the rocks, which makes the French Broad a great river for beginners.

Much of this river stretch is shallow, with good visibility. Leaning over the boat in some spots can be like looking into one of those giant aquariums at large sports shops. But the fish here aren’t so cooperative, so don’t expect them to be there looking back at you.

The river is more than just sights. It’s a ventriloquist, shattering the pulsing roll of riverside frog-family feuding into tiny droplets of invisible melody heard everywhere at once. Weave in the excited chirps of the darting birds catching flies, the passing aromas of sweet grass, silt, cow pasture and humus, and the searing fresh flaps of blistering inner thumbs — and kayaking the French Broad is more a full-body, multi-sensory experience than a mere cruise.

It’s not unusual to be joined by the company of other groups going down the river, linked together in unexpected ways. I’ve seen them going by on debris, floating furniture and oversized blow-up couches. Often beer coolers are trailing from the main ride from a length of rope. Once instead of a cooler there was a man, on his back, kicking not like a swimmer might, but like someone who was being pulled along who wanted to feel the cool flow gush through his toes.

On this day, we pass three mostly naked tourists strewn over a single inner tube. They wonder out loud how far it is to the Bywater. They’re ready for another beer. Reluctant to say that it’s probably five or six hours more the way the river’s creeping along, we reply with smiles and waves, and think how nice it would have been if we had planned to go that far too.

Jonathan Poston lives in Asheville. He publishes regularly at www.jonathanposton.com.




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