Written by Toni Sherwood
From the Nolichucky to the French Broad, with businesses offering access throughout Western North Carolina, the rivers of our region have become renowned destinations for tourists and locals alike.
Summer in the South, with its humidity and endless sun, brings tourists, vacationers, sports enthusiasts, and locals flocking to the renowned Western North Carolina rivers for fun and refreshment. The French Broad River is the third oldest river in the world; beginning from headwaters in Rosman, North Carolina, this wide, shallow river winds its way north, traversing four counties and passing through Asheville and Hot Springs, en route to Tennessee. The Green River, which runs through The Green Gorge in Saluda, boasts level-V rapids that attract expert kayakers from around the globe. And there’s also the region’s Nolichucky River, which runs through both Tennessee and North Carolina, and is considered a top-notch white water rafting destination. So whether you’re a rafter, tuber, or kayaker; whether you’re into fishing, canoeing, or caving; or if you’re just looking for some solid, simple family fun involving the cool, clean waters of the region’s pristine network of waterways: There are plenty of opportunities to learn new skills and enjoy favorite pastimes.
An outdoor river activity is available for every age, every disposition, and every fitness level, from guided trips to going with the flow alone—literally, whatever floats your boat. Water temperatures on the French Broad reach into the 70s in July, making for a refreshing plunge. And don’t be surprised when, on any given day (particularly weekends), you find yourself accompanied by scores of other fellow enthusiasts.
Rolling On the River
“The minute it gets warm, the phone starts ringing,” says Heath White, co-owner of Asheville’s Zen Tubing [ Zentubing.com ].
White has been in the river industry since he was 18, so perhaps it’s not surprising how he met his partner Jen Ditzler: He was her raft guide. In 2012 they opened Zen Tubing, dedicated to carefree tubing on the French Broad River. They currently have two locations, one off Brevard Road near Bent Creek, and another on Riverside Drive near downtown Asheville.
For many, tubing brings to mind a donut-shaped black plastic tube. Maybe even an old tire. But the Zen Tubing experience is on another level. Their top-of-the line colorful tubes have backrests, solid seating (no hole in the middle), cup holders, and straps designed to easily connect multiple tubes together. With three different sized tubes to choose from, floaters are given paddles to steer, and even a separate float for their cooler.
Similarly, Matt Moses of USA Raft [ Usaraft.com ] started as a whitewater rafting guide in Maine. It was a summer job he held while working towards his degree in outdoor recreation and facilities management from Green Mountain College, Utah. He has now been in the river business for 26 years. “Raft guiding is my favorite.” Although USA Raft’s headquarters are in Erwin, Tennessee, seven out of the nine miles they travel on the Nolichucky River tours are in North Carolina. They also have two additional outposts: Bluff City, Tennessee, is the meeting spot for Worley’s Cave tours, while Marshall is where they run a two-hour rafting tour. This location is very popular and attracts a lot of tourists looking for a day or half-day excursion. The Erwin location is more remote, with bigger whitewater. “It’s a longer, more involved trip, for people who want to immerse themselves in the mountains,” owner Moses says. (There are also two luxury cabins on the property including a “tiny home” built by Tiny House Nation.)
“We treat people as if it’s the only fun thing they get to do all year,” Ditzler says. “If the water is not high enough for a good quality trip, we won’t put people out there,” White adds. In fact, last season they had to close shop for a few weeks due to low rain and the resulting low water levels.
Headquartered out of Boone, River & Earth Adventures [ Raftcavehike.com ] offers canoeing, tubing, and whitewater kayaking, as well as rock climbing, caving, guided hikes, and gem mining. Like USA Raft, and many adventure companies, River & Earth Adventures also has additional outposts, with rafting and cave tours originating from their riverside outpost in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and whitewater rafting from their Marshall, North Carolina, locale. Their Boone headquarters is actually two locations. One is a small building attached to an old gem mine in downtown Boone on HWY 105. In Vilas, seven miles away, they have a 5000-sq.-ft. building with garage bay style doors for storage, check-in, and retail.
Grant Seldomridge started River & Earth Adventures with his wife, Laura. Grant is the water-based program director and a certified whitewater kayak instructor by the American Canoe Association. Laura is their land-based program director and teaches geology at Appalachian State University. What makes River & Earth Adventures so special is that the Seldomridges regularly guide the excursions. “We’re guide-owned and -operated, so we’re very hands-on,” Grant says. “And that rubs off on everybody who works for us.” Although the couple’s mutual interest in education trickles down into their tours, they promise not to geek out too much. “Lots of outfitters take you out, but we try to have concrete educational topics like hydrology, which is the study of water movement,” he says.
I’ve been coming here since I could walk,” White notes. Over the years he has seen the river greatly improve. “We used to shoot cans and tires floating down the French Broad,” he adds, recalling his boyhood days.
River adventure businesses share the water, and they are all committed to keeping it clean, recognizing that no one wants to swim or fish on a polluted river. Leave it better than you found it is a familiar refrain.
Zen Tubing’s White grew up in the Bent Creek area and has a lot of love for the French Broad. “I’ve been coming here since I could walk,” White notes. Over the years he has seen the river greatly improve. “We used to shoot cans and tires floating down the French Broad,” he adds, recalling his boyhood days.
Since then, groups like Riverlink and Mountain True have worked tirelessly to clean up trash and debris in the rivers. They’ve also planted vegetation on shorelines to contain erosion.
Grant Seldomridge explains that the New River and Watauga River are very clean because the waterways’ headwaters start in Blowing Rock and Boone, respectively, flowing through more wilderness areas.
“Unfortunately, the French Broad is susceptible to industrial and human waste runoff. But it’s also so big it gets flushed out. I’ve seen a lot of improvement over time.”
White agrees, saying, “The French Broad River is so much cleaner than it was in the 1970s and ‘80s. There are otters here now, and bald eagles and osprey.”
But before nonprofits like RiverLink and Mountain True came along to revitalize the riverfronts, and river cleanups by organizations and concerned local citizens became routine, a few entrepreneurs took a gamble on the river recreation industry and helped transform it into what it is today.
In 1992, Dave Donnell, co-owner of Asheville Outdoor Center [ AOC; Ashevilleoutdoorcenter.com ] was just getting established (at the time, it was called Southern Waterways) when he attended a City of Asheville Chamber of Commerce meeting and got a big surprise.
“We went around and everybody said what their business was. I said, ‘I’m going to start a canoe rental business,’” Donnell recalls. “Then I hear Dave Whitmire say, ‘I’m going to start a canoe rental business.’”
Dave Whitmire and his wife, Debi, were also just starting a business, Headwaters Outfitters in Brevard, about an hour’s drive from Asheville. Donnell laughs when he remembers how they just looked at each other at the time. “But it worked out well,” Donnell admits. “We even did some cross promotions.”
Now, both companies are about to celebrate their 25th year. They’ve endured floods, economic turndowns, and a slew of new businesses to compete with as the regional outdoor recreation industry exploded. But somehow they’ve survived, and even thrived, with hard won wisdom to show for it.
As the river adventure business expands, whether to add the latest fad to their repertoire of activities is something each of these owners has weighed. “A lot of our competitors decided to expand into zipline and canopy tours,” Matt Moses says. “But I felt like it quickly reached critical mass, and there were too many in the area.”
The latest river activity craze is the Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). “SUP is the fastest growing segment of paddle sports and possibly of the whole outdoor industry,” he says. “We offer instructional river SUP. We start students in flat but moving water, then move on to areas with rocks to navigate.”
Regardless of the extra cost, he feels it’s a necessary investment. “Even though we’re a rafting company, we can’t afford to be the mom-and-pops of old,” Moses admits. “Every business seeks new revenue streams.”
“We always try something new each year,” Laura Seldomridge says. “This year it’s SUP.” River & Earth now sells and rents paddleboards. “We avoided SUP for a while,” Grant adds. “Personally I don’t love it, but people want them.”
USA Raft also offers complimentary SUP Yoga classes on their pond. The strategy is to get guests comfortable with the boards doing simple yoga, and then they may try other sports.
Getting Creative with the Financing
One thing all of these business owners have in common is difficulty getting financing. Whether they are just starting their business, or improving an existing one, financing tends to be an art in itself.
For example, the Seldomridges, at the beginning, were just a young engaged couple with no assets and a dream. “We started [River & Earth Adventures] from nothing,” Laura recalls. “We started out of our driveway.”
“Banks want collateral; I had cash and a TV,” Grant adds.
With few options, Grant took an unconventional approach to financing. He took out every student loan he could while studying Recreation Management at Appalachian. Despite low interest rates and the ability to defer payments, it was still a risky proposition. In addition, Grant maxed out his credit cards and sold his car to purchase a 15-person passenger van. A business was born.
“I wouldn’t recommend taking out student loans to purchase a business,” he says. “I’ve paid mine off now.”
For his part, USA Raft’s Moses got lucky having the opportunity to purchase the business directly from the owner (also his mentor) and obtain owner financing. “Banks don’t understand us,” Moses says, of the adventure industry.
Moses spent significant cash to buy equipment when he launched instructional SUP last year. He purchased four boards to start; good ones run about $1000 each. “Any investments come out of pocket or through private investors,” he admits.
Asheville Outdoor Center’s Donnell was no stranger to having his business underwater or cleaning up the aftermath. But a major flood that hit the area in 2004 had an impact on Donnell’s attitude. “The flood happened in the fall, and the next season was a recovery; cleaning up our property and the river, all the debris and trees,” he recalls. “I was down. Flooding is always an issue, or a concern; but this one caused me to change my outlook.” Although 2009 was hard economically, the word ‘staycation’ arrived. “Every year since then has been a growth year.”
Caving – Wet, Wild, & Otherwise
While the river adventure season typically runs from March through October, caving is a year-round sport. Caves in North Carolina tend to remain around 54 degrees throughout the year.
River & Earth Adventures’ season runs Memorial Day through Labor Day, but they offer tours year-round to Worley’s Cave. Blending education with adventure attracts a lot of scout troops to River & Earth, especially on the overnight caving trips. “We have a lot of repeat customers,” Grant says. “So we get to watch these Boy Scouts grow up.”
USA Raft also runs caving tours to Worley’s Cave, but Moses just unveiled a brand new cave destination: Salt Peter Cave.
USA Raft has an exclusive lease to operate tours for small groups inside the privately owned cave in Tennessee. Moses designed the trip himself: finding footholds, deciding which route to take, where to store medical supplies. “It’s fun to be setting parameters on a new project,” Moses admits. “I’ve been in a lot of caves—the ‘wow’ factor in Salt Peter Cave is beyond compare to any commercial cave.”
Salt Peter Cave has a 50-foot underground lake that adventurers will tube across. Moses calls it a “wet cave” and warns that there will be areas cavers must crawl through. “We get filthy and muddy,” Moses says. “This is wild caving, the real deal; scrambling on slippery, muddy rocks in the dark.”
Wearing helmets with headlamps, cavers cover almost four miles underground in about four hours. If that’s not enough time underground for you, USA Raft runs overnight caving excursions as well, with meals delivered.
Salt Peter Cave will have stricter requirements than Worley’s; the minimum age will be 12 rather than seven, and there will be one guide per five guests at Salt Peter, whereas at Worley’s it’s one guide per eight guests.
“That’s how you control risk,” says Moses.
In a world governed by technology, there is something completely romantic about leaving the phones behind, making a peanut butter sandwich, and heading to the lake or river together.”
It’s called Fishing, not Catching
In 2013, Paul and Kacie Kisielewski started their new business Southern Appalachian Anglers. [Southernappalachiananglers.com ] Their specialty is fishing, and that is what they are most passionate about. “In a world governed by technology, there is something completely romantic about leaving the phones behind, making a peanut butter sandwich, and heading to the lake or river together,” Kacie says. “Not only is it an adventure, but I am a firm believer that the serenity of nature provides the most authentic setting possible to truly get to know someone.”
Another staple of the fishing community of Western North Carolina is the previously mentioned Headwaters Outfitters [ Headwatersoutfitters.com ], located at the headwaters of the French Broad River in Rosman, North Carolina. Dave and Debi Whitmire built the hardy outpost in 2007, and the clean and modern store features fishing supplies, plus just about everything you need on the water, even personal floating devices for your dog.
Just beyond the outpost, steps lead down a grassy hill to a picnic table beside the water, creating a tranquil atmosphere.
“I’m a canoeist,” Dave says. “That’s my passion.” He still guides groups, although he has hired several guides for his staff. Wife Debi serves as president, and Whitmire as vice president of the company. Their business is split about 50/50 between paddling (kayaking, canoeing, and SUP) and fishing.
“We take people fishing where it’s quiet and they don’t have to compete with other fishermen,” he says.
One smart move these entrepreneurs made was purchasing several properties along the river to create an exclusive fishing and camping experience. They own a campsite with six sites, each with lots of privacy. It has a put-in and takes about three hours to paddle to. They offer fishing year-round, both by wading and boats. They even have special sit-on-top fishing kayaks that have rod holders and anchors attached.
Headwaters also runs SUP trips on nearby lakes because the French Broad is too shallow at their location. Safety is a top priority. If there’s a big rain that brings the river up a foot or so, Headwaters Outfitters will temporarily stop sending trips. “The French Broad becomes a Type II level at that point and it is harder to self-rescue,” Dave explains. They do offer tubing, however, if they deem it safe in those water conditions.
“I would have to say the most challenging thing about running a fly fishing guide service is cleaning the equipment,” Paul Kisielewski says. “We have a lot of equipment we use, and we keep it clean so our next clients can stay as comfortable as they would as if it’s brand new.”
“Life is often wrought with stress and unforeseen challenges,” Kacie adds. “But fishing provides a way to escape that reality for a few hours. When I’m out on the water, my worries tend to drift away from me, and I allow myself to soak in the beauty of simplicity.”
Are You a Day Half-Full Person?
Many guided trips are half-day excursions, so it raises the question, what to do with the other half-day?
Avid hiker Deanna Braine recommends Sliding Rock as a destination. “You can just keep sliding down over and over, which is awesome,” Braine says. “It’s like nature’s water slide!”
This 50-foot cascade of water-worn rocks eventually drops into a seven-foot deep plunge pool. It’s a busy summer destination that gets crowded, but that might be part of the allure. Braine says it’s almost as much fun to watch other people slide as it is to slip down the rocks oneself. There are two observation platforms to do just that. Lifeguards are on duty seasonally. And best of all, it’s easy to access. “You don’t have to be super outdoorsy, since there isn’t a hike required to get there,” Braine says.
There is a small admission fee for sliders, but no fee to watch. It’s located in the Pisgah National Forest, just north of Brevard and 7.6 miles from the junction of US Highways 64 and 276.
[ Visitncsmokies.com/listing/sliding-rock-waterfalls ]
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for more of a swimming hole, the Sunburst Swimming Area is a good choice, located in Canton, in Haywood County about 13 miles west of Asheville. Fed by mountain streams, the water is clear and cold. In some areas, smooth rocks form a gentle shoreline. With two swimming areas to choose from, there’s room to stretch out. Take Highway 215 and head towards Lake Logan until you pass Sunburst Campground on your right. The swimming hole will be the river area on your left. [ Visitncsmokies.com/listing/sunburst-swimming-area-2 ]
What about a dog-friendly water destination? If you are looking for one that’s not hard to access, you might want to check out Catawba Falls. Just three miles off I-40, east of Black Mountain and near Old Fort, this beautiful waterfall area is accessed by a short walk from the parking lot. There is a cool wading pool at the bottom of the lower falls, perfect for dogs and kids to frolic in.
From I-40, it’s just off Exit 73. Before the ramp ends, turn right onto Catawba River Road. Go three miles to the end of the road. The parking area is on the left side of the road, just across the bridge, and the path to the falls starts at the parking lot. [ Hikewnc.info/trailheads/pisgah-national-forest/grandfather-ranger-district/catawba-falls ]
Who doesn’t love an ice-cold beer after a day in the sun?
Most river businesses embrace adult beverages, post-trip, but fewer recommend drinking while on the river due to safety. Each company makes its own rules. Drinking alcohol is not illegal on most rivers, with the exception of the Green River.
“The Green River had become a destination for tubing and drinking,” recalls Sara Bell, of Saluda-based Green River Adventures [ Greenriveradventures.com ]. She operates the kayaking business with her husband, Tim, and they recently added waterfall rappelling trips on Bradley Falls to their roster of activities. “Don’t get us wrong,” she explains. “A beer and a river are a pretty perfect combo, but the trash and general mayhem from people being absolutely trashed was overwhelming for other river users and the natural resource.”
By the middle of the last decade, police officers and wildlife resource officers were pushing for a law prohibiting alcohol on the river, as well as 50 feet from the riverbank. When the law finally went into effect August 1, 2006, Sara says the results were immediately visible, and she felt even more confident her family-friendly river business could thrive.
Asheville Outdoor Center has a no-alcohol-on-the-river policy. “I’m ultra cautious,” owner Donnell says. “Guest safety is primary.” Donnell pays careful attention to any potential safety issues, and alcohol on the water isn’t worth the risk to him. His conservative approach has paid off; the Center has had zero incidents in 25 years. But when the trip is over, they’ll gladly serve you a beer at their River Oasis Taproom.
In similar fashion, Headwaters Outfitters host their “Cruise Then Booze” event on Fridays. Floaters meet at Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard at 5:30 PM. Headwaters provides the floats and transports everyone to the put-in. As the sun sinks, floaters spend two leisurely hours on the French Broad, ending up back at Oskar Blues Brewery. Once on dry land, they can bask on the patio of the brewery with an ice-cold beer in hand.
“Things like user safety and drunk driving certainly played into the decision to outlaw alcohol on the Green River,” Sara Bell says. “But I believe the main motivation was river cleanliness.”
Headwaters Outfitters’ Dave Whitmire’s dad used to put him and his cousins in a canoe and pick them up down stream; at that time, hardly anyone was on the water. “Used to be, we had refrigerators and tires floating down the river,” he recalls. Now he sees the improvements that long-term revitalization has made. “We’ve got Hellbenders here now, which is a threatened species of salamander. They wouldn’t be here if the water wasn’t clean.” Whitmire credits nonprofit agencies like the above-mentioned RiverLink and Mountain True for making the difference.
“RiverLink started as a riverfront revitalization program,” Whitmire says. “But it expanded to bring the whole watershed together.”
Each spring, Headwaters hosts a river cleanup with 75-100 participants. “We love giving back to the river,” he says. “It does so much for us—it’s good karma.”
Asheville Outdoor Center has made river cleanup a part of its regular schedule as well. “We’re closed on Mondays, so for ten years we’d go out in canoes and have a competition picking up junk, like how many tires fit into a canoe,” Dave Donnell quips. “Turns out, it’s 17-20.” Fortunately, the tires are pretty much gone, but the cleanups continue. AOC partners with Asheville GreenWorks on routine river maintenance.
Green River Adventures participates in cleanups each year, but their drivers also use down time between trips to pick up garbage in public access points along the river. “It keeps things looking good for our clients,” Bell admits. “Also, it’s just the right thing to do—taking care of the natural resource that takes care of us.”
There’s probably no business more at risk than fishing when it comes to river cleanliness. “As stewards of the rivers, we care about maintaining river cleanliness so the fish can live long and healthy lives,” SAA’s Kacie Kisielewski says. They always catch and release at SAA, with a big focus on teaching clients the proper techniques to release each fish as quickly and safely as possible.
“With so many clean rivers and streams in the mountains, Asheville has become a world class fishing destination,” Paul says.
Incidentally, SAA is holding a river cleanup in late August to help benefit wildlife, stream life, ecosystem, and landowners. Volunteers can contact SAA by phone [828-691-1506] or by email [ firstname.lastname@example.org ] to attend.
You can also combine supporting river cleanliness with a fun—and free—activity this summer. RiverMusic is an ongoing free concert series, put on by RiverLink, and usually held on the second Friday of each month (with the exception of August, which is a Saturday) featuring three live bands performing at the RiverLink Sculpture and Performance Plaza in Asheville’s River Arts District. Food and drink will be available for sale from local vendors. You can even float right up to their river access point, or set anchor and enjoy from the cool clean waters of the French Broad. [ Details: Riverlink.org/rivermusic-2016-lineup-kicks ]
Fishing teaches children patience, hones fine motor skills, and provides them with a greater appreciation for nature.”
In the End, It’s All About Family Fun
All of these family-run businesses seem to naturally extend their family to include guides and staff—the ongoing, common goal being to promote healthful and fun activities for the individuals and families making up their clientele.
“We empower anybody who works for us to come up with creative ideas for a trip or an event,” Headwaters Outfitters’ Whitmire says.
Southern Appalachian Anglers, likewise, bond with their staff over the love of the river, always seeking new spots to share with clients. “We spend our days off scouting new, untouched rivers,” Paul Kisielewski says.
Perhaps the digital era, with its demands and distractions, lends all this an urgency of sorts.
Says Kacie Kisielewski, “Mother Nature faces some serious competition when it comes to iPads, gaming systems, and Netflix. Fishing teaches children patience, hones fine motor skills, and provides them with a greater appreciation for nature.”
“The best part of this job,” Zen Tubing’s White says, “is showing people in this day and age there’s more to life than cell phones, internet, and the drama we see on TV.”
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