The French Broad River has come back from the dead as a recreational hub — and legions of zombies are eager to prove it.
Conceived as a creative celebration of the river’s continuing revival, organizers of the first-ever “Tube-ocalypse,” slated for Saturday, Sept. 20, are aiming to break the world record for most linked tubers on the water. Until recently, Portland, Oregon — which Asheville bested in the Beer City USA online poll several years ago — claimed the tubing crown. But Tube-ocalypse organizers are looking to do it in style, too, encouraging participants to dress as the undead.
“Seeing the growing number of people who are using the river on a daily basis these days is what this event’s about: Getting people on the water and raising awareness; raising money for the nonprofits that take care of the river,” Ben Wiggins explains. “And also having fun and trying to set a world record and dressing like zombies in the process.”
On any given hot, sunny day this summer, hundreds of tubers could be seen floating down the French Broad as it slowly flows through the heart of Asheville. And for those who’ve lived in the area for more than a few years, it was a miraculous sight.
“When I moved here 10 years ago and would ask people to go tubing, they would look at you like you’re crazy if you suggested going on the French Broad,” remembers Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of the Western North Carolina Alliance. “The perception’s changed from a dumping ground to a place that’s cool and should be utilized as a recreational resource.”
Part of that shift in perspective is based on a tangible change: As many of the manufacturing plants lining the river’s banks closed in recent decades, notes Carson, the water quality improved. But pioneering businesses like The Bywater, a bar and recreational hub on Riverside Drive that features easy water access, also played a major role. “People went down to The Bywater and it was cool — it was a destination to float to. People started doing it, and it just caught on,” he says.
Two more riverside destinations that are due to open soon are expected to further feed the trend: the Smokey Park Supper Club, a restaurant made of repurposed shipping containers, and the Salvage Station, an indoor/outdoor music venue/bar/restaurant. Although it’s still in development, the Salvage Station will host an all-day “after-party” for Tube-ocalypse. Both those projects come in addition to a wealth of public infrastructure improvements the city has planned for the River Arts District, just a tick upstream. Those enhancements will include new greenways, sidewalks, bike paths and river access points.
New Belgium Brewing Co.’s facility, now under construction along a central portion of the urban riverfront, also promises to become a major destination once it’s up and running late next year. The Smoky Mountain Adventure Center on Amboy Road will also be open by then, offering a climbing wall and other outdoor recreation opportunities.
Meanwhile, though, business is already booming, says Derek Turno, co-owner of Asheville Adventure Rentals, one of a handful of outfitters and shuttle services that have opened along the river in recent years. His business shuttled about 4,000 people up the river this summer, he reports. And though there haven’t been any comprehensive studies, Turno says their customers alone are making “a huge economic impact.”
“On any given summer Saturday,” he estimates, between 400 and 700 people are floating down the French Broad. Turno, a Tube-ocalypse sponsor and co-organizer, adds: “The river is our lifeblood. We make our living on the river, so we want to advertise it, promote it and preserve it as much as possible.”
Asheville Adventure Rentals co-owner (and fellow Tube-ocalypse organizer) Brennan Splain believes that enthusiasm for tubing will continue to grow. “Everyone who uses our service comes off the river with a big old smile on their face. We make people happy, and we bring people to town and give them a different experience,” he says.
Still, river advocates say that challenges remain.
Carson, for instance, says the No. 1 question people ask him is whether the French Broad is safe for swimming. “I don’t want to scare people off, to make them think the river’s unsafe,” he explains, “but there is some work to do to make it even cleaner.”
In early July, the WNC Alliance, an environmental nonprofit, started partnering with the national Waterkeeper Alliance to regularly measure levels of E. coli bacteria at several heavily used points along the French Broad, and they’ve launched a new website (theswimguide.org) to report the results.
“It’s still a little early to tell trends,” cautions Carson, but the findings so far have been mixed. For example, testing at Pearson Bridge, which is just upstream from The Bywater, reveals that E. coli contamination has exceeded safe levels (as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency) about 35 percent of the time.
Bacteria levels spike after rainfall, due mostly to agricultural runoff, Carson explains. “Most sites are clean 80 percent of the time, so I think that’s a success story for the French Broad. But we’d certainly like to see it clean 95 percent or more of the time. With the river being such a popular recreational resource, you want to see it as clean as possible.”
He also worries about the “catastrophic risk” posed by Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds perched just above the river in Arden. But he’s hopeful that a state law approved this summer that put them on a high priority list for cleanup will mitigate that risk in years to come.
Yet another item on Carson’s radar is the result of rapid development in the area: increased stormwater runoff and sedimentation. “Growth is very challenging for water quality,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be, but it often is if it’s not done correctly.”
Although the Tube-ocalypse float is free, proceeds from beer and merchandise sales at the after-party will go to Carson’s organization. And he has nothing but praise for the way the event is helping rally support for continuing cleanup efforts. “When you tell people to clean up something that they enjoy using, it makes it a lot easier to connect with it, and they’re more willing to do the things necessary to protect it,” he observes.
For the glory
For the zombie float organizers, though, the most immediate hurdles have been logistical rather than environmental.
In June, the Harley Owners Group Taiwan Chapter brought together 634 people in that country’s Sun Moon Lake. That broke the Guinness record for “Most People in a Floating Line” held by the Human Access Project, a Portland environmental nonprofit that had strung together 620 floaters on the Willamette River in 2013.
And although more than 2,500 people have indicated on Tube-ocalypse’s Facebook page that they’ll be taking part in the event, it’s hard to know how many will actually show up.
Meanwhile, even though Portland no longer holds the record, Asheville organizers view that city as their real rival, arguing that bobbing on a lake isn’t comparable to the challenges of trying to herd hundreds of floaters while contending with river currents. Of course, the two cities’ history of friendly rivalry also fuels the competitive spirit.
“We want to show them who’s who again,” says Wiggins. Adds Turno with a laugh: “We’re throwing down the gauntlet.”
For his part, Willie Levenson, who organized the Portland float, says: “I wish Asheville luck; I cheer them on. I think it’s great that they’re using it, like we did, to bring awareness to our river. The record attempt was just a platform to create awareness in a fun way.” Like the French Broad, the Willamette has historically had major pollution problems that are now being turned around. “I’ve seen public perception change right before my eyes: more people swam in the river this summer than ever before, says Levenson, the director of the Human Access Project.
But having previously mounted an unsuccessful effort to break the record in 2012, he also cautions that “It’s a little harder than it might seem” to get so many folks all linked up.
That’s a lesson Asheville organizers say they’ve already learned as they’ve grappled, in recent months, with issues ranging from parking to river put-in and takeout points to the documentation required by Guinness. “Logistically what we’re doing is herculean,” says Turno. In order to break the record, at least 635 individual tubers must be touching one another or connected in some way for at least 30 seconds, rather than just floating freely.
And if hordes of people get into the spirit of things and start acting like zombies, that could also present challenges. But Wiggins is confident that tubing is simple enough for even such mentally handicapped creatures. “Due to zombies’ limited motor skills and thought processes, inner tubes would probably be the only thing they can navigate waterways with,” he jokes. “That’s probably at the upper level for them mechanically.”
Splain, meanwhile, reports that organizers are already thinking of making the float an annual event, and he challenges Portland to do the same. “I’d love it if we went back and forth every year: They win one year, we win the next,” he says.
And regardless of whether the record is broken, Turno promises participants — including even the grumpiest of zombies — a good time. “If you’ve ever been on the water, you understand the glory of it,” he says. “All your stress melts away as soon as you get on your tube.”
Sept. 19 UPDATE: Calling all Tube-ocalypse participants and onlookers: Use the hashtag #zombiefloat when posting photos and dispatches from tomorrow’s event and we’ll round them up and publish them on the Xpress website.