Wild (life) Adventures on the French Broad River Paddle Trail

by Renee Fortner, RiverLink’s Watershed Resources Coordinator

For spring break this year, my family joined friends on a five day adventure along the French Broad River Paddle Trail. Created and maintained by RiverLink and Mountain True, the French Broad River Paddle Trail extends 140 miles from the headwaters in Rosman, N.C. to Douglas Lake in Tennessee. With the availability of campsites, the entire paddle trail can be completed in 10-13 days. We planned to start at the headwaters and float 40 miles of the trail while fishing and wildlife watching along the way.

Our trip began at Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman, NC where the North and West Forks come together to form the main stem of the French Broad River. It was difficult to believe this was the same river I drive past daily to and from my office in the River Arts District of Asheville. At its headwaters, the French Broad River is only 25 yards wide with clear water that gives a view of fish and the smooth rounded rocks of the riverbed. This is in contrast to the wide, often murky river we are accustomed to farther downstream. After taking our photo with the River Mile 0 sign and acquiring a few last minute supplies, we headed for the boat launch at Champion Park (River Mile 1).

At the put-in, we loaded three adults, three kids (ages 5-7), a dog, and enough gear for five days into two small rafts and a two-person kayak. Family members, who volunteered to drive our vehicles to the take-out in Horseshoe, N.C., waved goodbye as we floated downstream. It wasn’t long before any concerns we had about work or the kids growing restless faded with the slow pace of the river. The animal sightings, fishing, and splashing in the water, kept us all entertained for the day. Around River Mile 8.75, the take-out for Headwaters Outfitters Campground appeared. Campsites at this canoe-in only campground can be reserved in advance and are equipped with a picnic table and fire ring. As the adults set up camp and cooked dinner, the kids were free to unleash their energy racing through the nearby field. That night, we settled into the tent exhausted and fell asleep to the chatter of a pack of coyotes in the distance.

On Day 2, we ate a quick breakfast and got on the water early for our longest day of paddling. It was 15.5 miles to our next campsite. Along the way, we passed the town of Brevard and although the river does not offer a view of its popular downtown, it does pass the riverfront park known as Hap Simpson. The park offers a boat launch and nice place to break for lunch. It was here that we caught a glimpse of the white squirrels that are unique to this area. Watch out squirrels because later that day, we watched a large raptor flying high on thermals above the river. From a distance, we debated what it might be. Then, the mystery bird descended and landed in a tall Sycamore tree right in front of our boats; it was a Red-shouldered Hawk. Of course! Red-shouldered Hawks are known to frequent the tall trees along riverbanks. At this point, our campsite was getting near and we were determined not to miss it, given the long distance we had paddled that day. We were all looking for the campsite when a sign attached to a tree pointed the way. Elevated above a bend in the river, the Riverbend campsite (River Mile 24.3) was in an open field with a 180 degree view looking west towards Pisgah National Forest. We finished another great day on the French Broad River eating dinner while watching the sun set over the mountains.

The shortest paddle day of the trip, conveniently occurred after the longest. On Day 3, we had only 5.95 miles to the Little River campsite (River Mile 30.25). Knowing this, we took our time and stopped at the mouth of the Davidson River to wade and look for macroinvertebrates (a.k.a. aquatic bugs) in the cold waters. Back on the river, a pair of Wood Ducks flushed out of the bushes along the riverbank and flew low above the water in front of our boats. This was the first time most of us had seen these beautiful iridescent birds in the wild. What a treat! It was early afternoon when we arrived at our campsite where the Little River finishes its journey from its source in DuPont State Forest to its end where it meets the French Broad River. At this open grassy campsite, we were greeted by a large black rat snake on the beach beside the take-out. Being of the mindset that “we won’t bother you, if you won’t bother us,” we unloaded our gear and set up camp while the snake basked in the sun. Later, we watched as the snake disappeared up a large, gnarly river birch tree on the riverbank. Our kids decided the snake probably comes out of its tree house to greet all campers who stay at this site.

By Days 4 and 5, we had fully settled into the routine of river life. The last two days were marked by more exciting wildlife sightings, including Great Blue Heron, Otters, and a Beaver. On our last night, we camped at the picturesque Rhodes Ranch Campsite (River Mile 37.75). Situated along the edge of a large farm field, we had a view of horses grazing in the evening, followed by a flock of wild turkeys the next morning. As with any great trip, it is bittersweet when the end finally arrives. This is how we felt as we floated towards our take-out at the Horseshoe Boat Launch. As we loaded our gear, we were already planning our next adventure along the French Broad River Paddle Trail. 40 miles down…100 miles to go.

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"The French Broad River is the third oldest river in the world."

Blue Ridge Heritage National Heritage Area