Going With The Flow.
Often, people think of trails as winding routes across terra firma. Yet the truth is, rivers are the original trails – carved by Mother Nature over eons, they journey across the land following the path of least resistance, resulting in surprises around just about every bend. As we celebrate North Carolina’s Year of the Trail, we want to honor Transylvania County’s first trail: the French Broad River, third oldest river in the world, and its many tributaries. To take us on this journey, we caught up with Jack Henderson, MountainTrue’s French Broad Paddle Trail Manager. Enjoy this Q & A with a passionate advocate for the French Broad River.
(Editor’s note: We have paraphrased and edited this interview for brevity.)
Tell us a little about yourself, Jack.
I’ve been living in western North Carolina since 2010 and have worked for a variety of recreation and conservation groups with focus upon public access and natural resource protection. Prior to joining MountainTrue, I was with RiverLink. Along with Hartwell Carson, who is the Riverkeeper for the French Broad, I help manage the French Broad River Paddle Trail.
What makes the French Broad River such a significant,
meaningful body of water?
It flows from its headwaters within Transylvania County to the confluence with the Holston River where it forms the Tennessee River. It covers a wide variety of ecological, cultural, geological and topographical components in a relatively small physical space.
What makes the French Broad River so important to the ecology of Transylvania County?
It connects a lot of special and unique places. It drains a lot of small but very significant tributaries – the Swannanoa, the Little, the Davidson, in addition to the North, West and East Forks of the French Broad. These tributaries represent a great variety of elevations and as a result are rich in plant and animal diversity. The French Broad River ties it all together in a really neat way.
What kind of biodiversity exists in the French Broad River watershed?
The Southern Appalachians were not glaciated during the ice age, and thus biodiversity remained strong during that time. With the variety of elevations plus our true four season climate and you have a perfect environment for really rich biodiversity.
For example, common aquatic life includes large- and small-mouth bass, walleye, crappie, muskie, brown trout, and rainbow trout, salamanders, crayfish, beaver, and river otter. If you spend any time on the water, you’ll see great blue heron, osprey, kingfisher, cormorant, bald eagles, and mallard and wood ducks, plus a wide variety of other bird life.
Much of the river has a strong riparian buffer. A wide and healthy riparian buffer helps create strong riverbanks, lessens erosion and serves as a kind of filter to maintain water quality. In terms of the riparian flora, you’ll see sycamore, dogwood, elderberry, blackberry, tulip poplar, hemlock and willow.
What makes the headwaters of the French Broad River different
from other parts of it?
The headwaters are mostly within protected public lands, and are generally steeper and more forested. This results in abundant biodiversity and cooler temperatures. You have a lot of talented white water kayakers who enjoy taking on the cascading sections of tributaries like the North Fork of the French Broad. Once you get beyond the confluence, the river is shallow and meandering and very intimate — before it gets wider and more open. Personally, I like the headwaters, it’s the cleanest and the earliest in its journey.
How is the French Broad River being protected?
There are a variety of land management protections in place for the French Broad River and its tributaries. Most of the tributaries are part of public lands that inherently provide protection for water quality. Below the tributaries and along the French Broad River, there is farmland that has mixed levels of protection, including some conservation easements. So, it really is a patchwork of protection. I’d say that over the years a lot of progress has been made with multiple organizations contributing to remediation of the river as we move into its post-industrial use.
The Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority’s “Transylvania Always” Sustainability Committee recently funded the Strategic Master Plan for the French Broad River Blueway in Transylvania County which is guiding improvements to information, access, and stewardship of the French Broad River in Transylvania County. MountainTrue’s French Broad Paddle Trail program is taking a lead role in implementation of that plan.
How can visitors enjoy the French Broad River safely?
When you look at the river as a whole, there are all kinds of sections, difficulty wise. In Transylvania County, we are fortunate to have safe, slow, relatively shallow water. My advice is pretty straightforward. First, know where you’re going. We produce a map and guide that shows the entire river and all the put-ins, take-outs, campsites and other amenities. Second, know your own abilities. If you’ve never floated the French Broad, it’s worthwhile to go with a guide the first time out to familiarize yourself with the river and its hazards. Third, practice leave no trace principles. Take out what you bring in and encourage others to do the same. I always bring a garbage bag with me. Finally, be kind and respectful of other users around you and respect the wildlife.
What is a good one-day paddle on the French Broad River Paddle Trail
that you’d recommend?
Here are three put-Ins/take-outs that I like with estimated mileage: Champion Park (in Rosman) to Island Ford River Access, 10 miles; Island Ford River Access to Hap Simpson Park, 10 miles; Pisgah Forest River Access to Penrose Boating Access, 5 miles.
Where can I learn more about the French Broad River Paddle Trail?
It’s easy. Click this link. You can find our French Broad River Keepers Guide at Headwaters Outfitters and and other regional businesses.