Rock me on the water

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.

— Loren Eiseley
The Immense Journey

For some people, a kind of magic begins as soon as a paddle breaks the surface of a stream. Whether it’s the rushing white waters flowing down Nantahala Gorge or a pastoral setting along the New River, for these folks, just being on the water is what it’s all about.

And such zeal often begins at an early age. Outfitter David Donnell reports that his life-long passion for paddling stems from childhood ramblings in Northern Michigan. And according to paddle sport enthusiast Matt Mittan, one trip down a river can lead to a lifelong appreciation and understanding of the intricacies of both water and life.

Donnell and Mittan had planned to stage the Second Annual Asheville Amateur Canoe Race on Saturday, Sept.14, but the event was cancelled as Xpress went to press. The organizers now hope to reschedule the event in October.

From raft guide to entrepreneur

While WNC’s reputation as a world-class whitewater paddling destination has grown over the years, David, and his wife Melanie Donnell, have been patiently crafting a living showcasing the quiet waters along the Asheville section of the French Broad. In the mid-eighties, while working on his outdoor recreation degree at North Michigan University, Donnell came to WNC to work as a raft guide and quickly fell in love with the endless diversity of whitewater streams. He also met Melanie, who had grown up in WNC. After years of canoeing together, they started a paddling business of their own.

In 1991, the Donnells opened Southern Waterways, a licensed professional river outfitter and a member of both the Professional Paddlesports Association and the American Canoe Association. (The business is also a corporate member of RiverLink and the Sierra Club). Combining a passion for paddling with a dedicated professional service, they’ve carved out a creative niche in the sometimes unforgiving paddle-sport industry.

Donnell admitted that it’s had its ups and downs, but said, “We’re having fun with it now!”

About 90 percent of Southern Waterway’s business is from out-of-town tourists. While Donnell commented that he would like to see more locals canoeing the river, he was quick to point out that visitors who ply the French Broad are lodging at local motels, dining at downtown restaurants, and visiting area attractions.

Donnell agrees with Mittan concerning the benefits of having more people enjoy the river. “It’s been exciting to see both the recreational usage and the community involvement along the river,” he muses. “When we invest in the river with parks, greenways, clean-ups and recreational events, we naturally develop an awareness and appreciation for it.”

A race for all levels

Both men emphasized the participatory element of the planned canoe race. Donnell, who has supported other competitions including the Mountain Sports Festival’s 16-Mile Challenge and the RiverLink Triathlon, described the amateur event as a “family-friendly introduction to the river with a racing format.”

Last year’s inaugural event included a wide range of participants varying in age from 17- to 62-years old. Mittan pointed out that a few competitors had never been canoeing. With team names like the “Flying Dutchmen” and “Sink or Swim,” the fun factor seems to supplant the competitive focus of other paddling competitions. However, for those who love to compete, last year’s champions, David Ponder and Dan Fisher (of “Company C, 161st”), plan on returning to defend their title and their unofficial course record of 1 hr and 30 minutes.

Mittan’s goals for the event are straight-forward. “First of all, we want to see people enjoy the river. Chances are if you experience the river long enough, sooner or later you’ll develop a healthy relationship with it.” Mittan continued, “This can inspire a certain responsibility that ultimately results into an improved stewardship of our local river.”

Another of Mittan’s personal goals grew directly from his teenage paddling in Maine. He explained that it provided a focal point which allowed him to “stay on task” and, more importantly, “stay out of trouble.” Now having a child of his own, Mittan hopes that his son and others might benefit from similarly positive experiences. He would like to see the Asheville Amateur Canoe Race build on these same principles and, ultimately, develop into a fund-raising event that helps support local outdoor-based youth programs.

Whether you’re an experienced boater, or a motorist whose only river miles have been logged crossing a bridge during your daily commute, you can join in the fun any day on the French Broad. There may be a little bit of river magic waiting for you.

Big Sweep Community Wide Stream Clean-up

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

— Mahatma Gandhi

Some changes start right in our own neighborhood. Flowing through eight WNC counties, the French Broad River and her tributaries will be the focus of change at this year’s WNC Big Sweep. The Big Sweep stream clean-up day is an annual statewide effort on the third Saturday of September to clean up streams, waterways and beaches using community volunteers.

Buncombe County’s Quality Forward and the Environmental and Conservation Organization (ECO) of Henderson County are coordinating a Big Sweep in the French Broad basin area. Over the years, both organizations have been partnering with community groups, churches and Scout troops to enhance the quality of our rivers and streams. Quality Forward will be directing the program in Buncombe County.

ECO’s Water Quality Committee will partner with the Mud Creek Watershed Restoration Council to organize volunteers along Mud Creek in Henderson County. Come out, pitch in and join in the fun for the annual WNC Big Sweep, Saturday, Sept. 21, 9 a.m.-noon.

For more info, call Quality Forward at 828-254-1776 or e-mail: Phone the ECO office at 692-0395 for details on clean-ups in Henderson, Polk and Transylvania Counties.

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