Written by Shawndra Russell | Photos by Evan Anderson
Kevin and Christie Merrill want to let you know why your next Western North Carolina outdoor adventure should be river snorkeling.
When I found out I’d be snorkeling in a river with Kevin Merrill, owner of Transylvania County’s Oxbow River Snorkeling, for this article, I asked all my outdoorsiest friends—ranging from serious mountain climbers to laid-back tubers—if they’d ever done it. Most looked at me dumbfoundedly, and I quickly discovered that no one in my circle had ever heard of river snorkeling, much less done it. They immediately peppered me with questions: “How will you see anything in that murky water?” “Won’t it be really cold?” “What can you really see when the water is moving that fast?” “Do you really think it will compare to ocean snorkeling?”
For that last one, I can say that, no, you can’t really compare ocean to river snorkeling because they are two completely different experiences that have their own thrills and distinct ecosystems to explore. And sure, river snorkeling doesn’t come with palm trees or the array of tropical colors found on and around a coral reef; yet some of the 45 available fish species in this area certainly have brilliant swipes of colors (like the male river chubs’ streaks of blue) and funky silhouettes (like the sculpins), and many sections of the river were crystal clear. I certainly can’t wait to go again, and it was truly fascinating to see so much life teeming below the surface.
There was much to learn during our three-hour tour (most Oxbow trips are half- or full-day outings), like that the hairy growths I’d always mistaken for moss on underwater rocks during my childhood years spent playing in creeks and rivers in Southwest Ohio were actually water insects that make intricate homes to help protect them or capture food. And I was pleased that the three-piece wetsuit kept me warm the entire two-mile journey, as that had been high on my list of concerns, pre-snorkel. The getup included a tight hood that cups your face, full-body wetsuit, and water booties that require a sturdy pair of boots or tennis shoes worn over top. (I wore water shoes, but they weren’t tough enough to help me dig in when I needed it and they slipped off several times, meaning I had to chase after them down some Level II rapids.)
Yet what surprised me the most was how much fun it was digging my heels into the ever-shifting riverbed and crouching over to see a few fish while always keeping a vigilant eye out for an Eastern Hellbender Salamander, the crème de la crème of sightings, according to Merrill. In fact, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission has asked folks to report when they see a hellbender since these gentle giants are disappearing quickly due to their natural habitat being destroyed. They can be found near the headwaters of the French Broad River, where Merrill often starts his river snorkeling tours for groups, and where he also takes me and photographer Evan Anderson for our excursion. “Groups that book with me have to be flexible,” Merrill explains, “because we might not be able to determine a meeting spot along a river until the day of—I never want to take anyone out where the water is too murky or the current is too fast.”
And while plenty of tour operators for various outdoor activities say they’ll reschedule groups if the weather is poor, the reality is that some places will try to push through an itinerary to keep things on schedule and not lose a day’s worth of income. But Merrill doesn’t operate under any kind of bottom-line-first mentality when it comes to his bootstrapped business. Currently, he hasn’t made the leap to operating it full-time and is finishing up his nursing degree, averaging three to four trips per week during July and August.
He and his wife, Christie, started the business in 2013 after debating about whether to buy Headwater Outfitters, which offers fishing and paddling trips out of their small facility and taproom, located at the starting point of the French Broad River. Kevin actually worked as a river host and river guide for the company from 2012-2014. Instead, says Merrill, “Christie encouraged me to apply for a loan and start a guided snorkeling business.” He enlisted the help of his cousin, a graphic designer who lives in Winston-Salem and works for Hanes, and had his lawyer form the LLC while he worked on the website and Facebook page for the business.
The original concept was to take school groups out, since conservation is tied to exposure; i.e. if kids fall in love with river snorkeling, they’ll want to help protect America’s rivers. “I had already started my high school club SANE (Southern Appalachian Nature Expeditions) Adventures and really wanted to add the outdoor educational aspect to the business.” And while Oxbow has not yet turned into a venture profitable enough for Kevin to focus on the business full-time, he and Christie are always brainstorming ways to grow the business, while also paying off their student loans and avoiding taking on more debt. One way Kevin has tried to increase profits is by becoming a watersports gear dealer through Diversico out of Atlanta, because they carry the Akona wetsuits he prefers. “They’re the most comfortable and durable wetsuits on the market and are made from more environmentally-friendly material,” he explains.
Turning kids into environment-loving adult advocates seems more crucial now than ever, since just last month the current administration was sued for weakening the Clean Water Act protections in place to protect rivers, streams, wetlands, and other waterways in the United States. Additionally, federal Food and Drug Administration documents reveal that the United States has approved for American paper mills to dump “hundreds of pounds of a controversial chemical into rivers—a reality that the federal government is aware of and has signed off on,” according to The Hill’s “Environmentalists: Paper Mills Likely Major Source of Chemical Pollution in Waterways.”
But Kevin Merrill, an upbeat jokester who gives off a mad scientist vibe when he really gets going about the river’s ecology, likes to focus on the positive. He’s excited to transition from working at Rosman High School (located between Brevard and Lake Toxaway) as Electronic Learning Advisor & ISS to a nurse in part because he wants Oxbow to offer Wilderness Rescue and other first aid/survival-type certificates. Christie Merrill has just wrapped up her requirements to be able to start teaching these types of classes, which they hope will be another steady income stream for the business to help it grow. She already works as a critical care registered nurse at Transylvania Regional after spending time at both Mission Hospital and at the University of Kentucky, having completed her Bachelor of Science in nursing with a minor in chemistry from Eastern Kentucky in 2008.
“I love spending as much time exploring in the water with Kevin as possible,” she says, but these two don’t just stick to river snorkeling. Christie will soon be the proud owner of a solo whitewater canoe, which she plans to spend lots of time in—no small feat when she works crazy hours at the hospital and is a mom to their two teenage daughters, Meredith and Rebekah. The couple met during their spring 2003 semester of college when Kevin’s daughter, Rebekah, was two and Christie’s daughter, Meredith, was three years old. “We could relate since our girls were almost the same age,” Kevin says. Nowadays when the family isn’t on the water, they can be found canoe camping and hiking throughout Western North Carolina.
Kevin’s schooling started in 2003 at Madisonville Community College, where he earned his associate’s degree before spending the next six years at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). He ended up with a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, with a minor in chemistry teaching, and a Master of Science in biology with a focus on freshwater biology. He credits three of his EKU professors and mentors, Dr. Sherry Harrel, Dr. Guenter Schuster, and Dr. David Hayes, for his career path. “These three are greatly responsible for where I am today as far as freshwater biology,” Kevin says, adding that Dr. Hayes was the first person to take Kevin river snorkeling when they explored the Big South Fork on the Cumberland River.
Dr. Hayes was surprised when he heard Kevin opened a river snorkeling company since, as he notes, “There’s a lack of awareness since freshwater systems are hidden from view and people don’t realize what a rich world there is to be seen below the surface.” In fact, the freshwater systems in the Southeast have some of the highest biological diversity in the world, with a rich abundance of fish, turtles, mussels, snails, and crayfish, many with vibrant colors that rival coral reef animals. He also cautions folks to be aware of the physicality of river snorkeling. “I promise you after a long day of belly crawling through fast current,” says Hayes, “you’re going to feel it in your shoulders, and you’re going to go to sleep dreaming that your body is still in the water.” He also gives Kevin full endorsement as an ideal river snorkeling guide: “He has a passion for aquatic environments that is infectious, and he’s personable towards people from all walks of life.”
So personable, in fact, that Hayes became friends with the Merrills. “Kevin was what we in the university setting would call a ‘non-traditional student’ in that he wasn’t the typical 18-to-24-year-old,” explains Hayes. “I was only 28 at the time and he was, I think, about a decade older than me, with grey hair and covered in tattoos, so I’d say ‘non-traditional’ was an appropriate description!” Over a decade later, Kevin now rocks a long white beard, adding to his personability, which was on full display as we chatted post-snorkel at the Headwaters Outfitters pub. He addressed every person who entered or exited, usually with some anecdote or inside story. I joked that he could be mayor one day. “Maybe,” he said, swigging down the last of his beer and smiling.
Hayes got into river snorkeling through his work doing surveys for freshwater mussels, and both he and Kevin share concerns for them, as 50 percent of the more than 60 species of mussels that can be found in North Carolina are designated as Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern. “Freshwater mussels are some of the most imperiled organisms in the world, and surveying for them generally involves snorkeling or scuba diving,” says Hayes. “Then, I started doing more river snorkeling for photography as a hobby. For many species, photographing them in their natural habitat simply wasn’t possible, and it’s pretty amazing to think you might be the first person to photodocument an organism in its natural habitat without traveling halfway across the world.”
Photography is another interest Hayes and Kevin have in common (they originally bonded over music). Kevin indicated he hopes to improve his underwater river photography game and spoke with photographer Evan at length about equipment and tactics during our photo shoot, and also discussed getting a group of photography enthusiasts together for a day of snorkeling and shooting the river. Kevin is one of those people whose minds always seem to be pondering, clicking away at some idea or problem. His high energy and evident enthusiasm for his work is certainly “infectious,” as Dr. Hayes described it, which certainly added to the fun during our float. At one point, he grabbed my arm and pulled me against the current to check out a river Chub’s spawning ground. “You never see this, this late in the season!” Kevin gushed through his snorkel as he quickly dove back under, transfixed for several minutes before moving on to his next chosen spot where he hoped to spy another aquatic species to lure us to.
As Kevin scouted out the waters ahead, he would warn us about upcoming rapids that were surprisingly strong and quick, worthy of scratching anyone’s thrill-seeking itch. The day we went out, Kevin explained the river’s speed was at a 2.8, where with tour groups he doesn’t like to go out above a 1.6. This kind of cautiousness has kept Oxbow free from major mishaps, but there have certainly been days that Kevin and Christie have been tested. “One elderly guy in his 90s insisted he wanted to go, but he was pretty frail. After just a few minutes, he’d basically stopped trying to do anything himself and just held onto me. At one point I was fully carrying him! But the couple had a great time, so that’s all that matters,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. I can testify that I banged my shins on a few rocks, but that was due to my failing to point my head upstream—it can be a challenge to get reset mid-stream in the midst of Level II rapids!
But don’t let Kevin’s laid-back, roll-with-the-punches attitude fool you: This guy knows his stuff. He was selected by Dr. Schuster to be an assistant curator with crayfish in EKU’s Brantley A. Branson Museum of Zoology, and later as Dr. Harrel’s graduate research assistant, he studied the blackside dace, a little minnow that resides in Southeastern Kentucky. This work led to him co-authoring and contributing his data to the Southeastern Naturalist’s article, “Restoration of Stream Habitat for Blackside Dace.”
Dr. Harrel was one of the article’s other co-authors, and she notes, of his blackside dace work, “He did not disappoint! The project was funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and was extremely important in determining how the federally threatened blackside dace were doing in the newly restored stream. His study was an important part of determining the success of the restoration.” Kevin then worked that summer as a field assistant for the Fish and Wildlife Service, surveying the Cumberland arrow darter and the Kentucky arrow darter. His work led to the Kentucky arrow darter being listed as federally threatened on the Endangered Species List. He also has grand plans to eventually document each of the 250+ species of darters in the country, most of which reside in the Southeast. “It’ll likely never happen, but it would be quite an accomplishment to see and photograph breeding males of each species,” Kevin says, a bit wistfully.
Dr. Harrel, like Dr. Hayes, was also a bit surprised to learn Kevin had opened Oxbow. “It is such a novel idea and a perfect way for him to share with others about his passion for aquatic ecology,” she says. “He loves to be on and in the water, and I have watched him grow in his knowledge about the aquatic fauna and their habitat through his years of wonder and curiosity.” Harrel thinks river snorkeling taking off as a commercial recreational activity could be a great thing for river preservation since “so many people are oblivious to the diversity of our natural world, especially in the aquatic world. When people put their head under water, they become exposed to a whole new world.”
Of course, the negative impact of it growing in popularity would be people disturbing the river’s natural world—just another reason Kevin likes to keep his groups at eight or less. “We want everyone to have a great time, see as much stuff as they want, and be safe,” Kevin says. Christie chimes in: “Safety is our number one focus. Without that, people can’t have a good time.”
Anyone who does take a river snorkeling trip with Kevin will probably walk away like I did wondering how Oxbow—and the activity itself—hasn’t exploded in popularity just yet. All four of us—Kevin, Christie, Evan, myself—were grinning from ear to ear after we emerged from the water, startling a group of kids who quickly snapped our picture while giggling at our getups—they’d probably never seen snorkelers come out of the river at twilight, as Kevin only gets to go about 60 times a year. “We love taking friends and family out. It’s just a great way to spend time on the water,” he says.
Of course, he has a deep appreciation for nature’s bounty of his hometown specifically, since he grew up playing in these very waters and can trace his family’s roots in the area back generations, including a great-great grandfather apt in trapping furs and a bootlegging great grandfather. “My family grew up poor and never knew an education. I’m proud I broke that cycle,” Kevin says, noting that their daughters are also preparing to start their college careers. Meredith is going to Blue Ridge Community College in the fall for a year, then transferring to Western Carolina University for either forestry or agricultural science, while Rebekah is preparing to start her senior year of high school and take college courses at Blue Ridge, too. After she graduates, she hopes to attend Appalachian State University and may major in psychology.
With the outdoor recreation industry topping $900 billion in consumer spending each year, river snorkeling could certainly appeal to many of the folks who spend $28 billion in North Carolina alone. Add this fact with the support of the newly-created North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Industry Office—which puts our state in a class with only seven other states with similar dedicated entities—and the Merrills may be poised for big things with their small family business that currently runs out of their dining room and the back of Kevin’s truck. “I want my dining room back!” Christie teased as we pulled on our wetsuits, clearly excited to go river snorkeling for the umpteenth time, just like her husband. “Our biggest obstacle is that river snorkeling is virtually unknown,” Kevin responds, matter-of-factly.
To help combat this unknown factor, they plan to book trips in other areas, especially throughout the Southeast. “We really just want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to discover river snorkeling,” he adds. And while it would typically be great to be one of the few companies who offer what they do, for Oxbow, having virtually no competition means they have to educate the masses about the activity itself. In fact, Kevin is aware of only one river snorkeling program being offered through the United States Forest Service, which has launched summer programs throughout the country in places like the Cherokee National Forest and Vermont’s Green Mountain. The Forest Service also created a “Freshwater Snorkeling Toolkit” to encourage educators, entrepreneurs, and others interested in promoting freshwater snorkeling or even just going out on your own, which will also help the activity grow as more people go out solo, as well as with expert guides like Kevin.
So while it’s yet to be determined if river snorkeling will gain mainstream attraction as a recreational activity, perhaps with the Merrills at the helm, the small town of Rosman (population 587) will become the capital of river snorkeling—adding another feather to Western North Carolina’s cap as an adventure and recreational hub.
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…