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WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: French Broad River, Asheville, North Carolina

Photographs by Basia Irland unless otherwise noted.

According to geologists, I am the third oldest river in the world, with the first and second places going to the River Nile and the New River (Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina). As an old-timer my gradient is low with slow erosion, whereas younger cousins flow more quickly, tumbling down to the sea carrying lots of sediment. My waters flow south to north for 218 miles (351 kilometers), and they helped to shape the Appalachian Mountains. I am the French Broad River, named by French settlers in the region centuries ago at a time when I was one of the two broad rivers in western North Carolina.

The Cherokee have a variety of names for me: Agiqua in the mountains, Zillicoah above Asheville, and Tahkeeosteh after Asheville. As with most indigenous groups around the world, the Cherokee go to the river to pray and perform submergence ceremonies. The phrase “going to water” in the Cherokee language is synonymous with the words for bathing and submerging. Historically, the tribe recognized my floods as a natural part of any river’s cycle, and did not attempt to dam or divert my waters. They knew, too, that I brought rich soil for agriculture when I flooded, and fresh sand for the dirt floors of their dwellings.

The second and third largest craft breweries in the United States (New Belgium and Sierra Nevada) are located on my shores. New Belgium and a local brewpub, Wedge Brewing Company, invite people to their facilities to enjoy a craft beer, and the two companies also collaborate on events to benefit greenways (undeveloped land set aside for recreational use or environmental protection). Since I flow right by the New Belgium facility, I witnessed the construction of their plant on a brownfield property, thereby revitalizing a former landfill and auto parts salvage yard.

Enjoying a craft beer alongside the French Broad River. Photo by New Belgium Brewery.
Enjoying a craft beer alongside the French Broad River. Photo by New Belgium Brewery.

I slowly glide by the River Arts District in Asheville where more than 150 artists have studios. As happens in many cities, artists often move into run-down industrial and factory spaces, creating a vibrant new area of town. Then a small café will move in followed by fancier shops. Incrementally rents go up and the artists will be forced again to find new spaces. This is a cycle that occurs often in urban areas, but for now, this site, which artists have designated as their own, is thriving and lively.

Converted factory spaces house artists’ studios and other shops.
Converted factory spaces house artists’ studios and other shops.

There is easy access to the water and all kinds of people like to float on my body in kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, or inflatable tubes. A friend of mine, Matt West, a young “extreme kayaker,” is devoted to being on the water as often as possible. Matt likes to describe his dawn patrol routine. He wakes up before the sun, gets all his gear ready, and is prepared to put his kayak into the water at first light to enjoy several hours of paddling when no one else is around. He’s off the river early and heading to work just as most people are having their first cup of coffee.

With water quality that is passable for swimming, community members enjoy an afternoon float.
With water quality that is passable for swimming, community members enjoy an afternoon float.
Canoeing the French.
Canoeing the French.

Floating along my ancient spine, a canoeist today notices some unnatural objects within and alongside my body. Here is a coat covered with a grey-green slime of algae wrapped around a rock. And there is a serpentine piece of some sort of vinyl that sways in the current like a long-dead aquatic creature. As happens to so many of my cousins elsewhere people think that they can dump debris into my body and it will disappear. It isn’t their problem any more. However, these discards reemerge so that future generations must deal with pollution and try and clean up messes left behind by others. A section of my banks are even imbedded with old cars dumped here decades ago in a streamside junkyard. As I flow north toward Tennessee, it sure looks strange to see headlights from a 1940’s Oldsmobile peering out from the roots of a tree buried in the mud on shore.

An old coat covered with algae wraps around a rock.
An old coat covered with algae wraps around a rock.
Whose junk is this and who will clean it up?
Whose junk is this and who will clean it up?
Old cars buried along the riverbanks.
Old cars buried along the riverbanks.
Old cars buried along the riverbanks.
Old cars buried along the riverbanks.
Old cars buried along the riverbanks.
Old cars buried along the riverbanks.

In more and more communities concerned citizens are forming organizations to help my compatriots with revitalization efforts. This is true here in Asheville where the non-profit organization, RiverLink, works tirelessly on my behalf to promote conservation, recreational easements, and greenway development. RiverLink members and volunteers reclaim contaminated land, educate thousands of students each year, and ensure permanent public access to me throughout the seasons.

Students and faculty at the French Broad River Academy (located on two middle school campuses, one for boys and one for girls, grades 6-8) have centered their curriculum around me! Whether the subject is social studies, humanities, or geography, the focus is on me and my watershed. What a great concept. My water provides inspiration for art and writing classes, and a living laboratory for scientific and mathematical explorations. There are also lessons to be learned paddling tandem in a canoe, which requires teamwork and the ability to make quick decisions based on my surface conditions at any given moment. I wish other schools would follow their lead, so future generations understand the relevance of us rivers in their lives!

French Broad River Academy students help prevent erosion by pounding cuttings of native alder or willow into the riverbank. Photo by Andrew Holcombe.
French Broad River Academy students help prevent erosion by pounding cuttings of native alder or willow into the riverbank. Photo by Andrew Holcombe.
Students seine for macroinvertebrates looking for indicator species of healthy stream ecology. Photo by Elizabeth Douglas.
Students seine for macroinvertebrates looking for indicator species of healthy stream ecology. Photo by Elizabeth Douglas.

Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for 30 years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship. You may read more about her and her work on her website.

Comments

  1. Meg Kalmbach
    Suwanee, GA
    February 24, 4:59 pm

    I am a seventy year old grandmother of seven. I was raised by my grandparents in Etowah, NC, on River Rd, and the French Broad ran parallel
    to the then-gravel road. Around 1952, my grandfather was totally distressed over the condition of the French Broad. With the right wind direction, the fumes smelled like rotten eggs. A light brown soap-suds like froth was prominent in the river. Worse, the foliage up the bank and onto the pasture looked like an agent orange disaster. The unchecked culprit was the Inka plant, which dumped dyes into the river, with reckless abandon. My grandfather was LIVID. He watched his beautiful four acre property drop in value, but he was also concerned about the well being of migrant workers who would be bused in to pick cotton in that pasture
    which he did not own. He died in 1967 and his property had been sold about five years prior to that. Sit down for this miracle: Fast forward to 1999. Im now married to a talented chemical design process engineer. His company contracted him to work for Akzo Nobel, in Arnhem, The Netherlands. Their kind, top level manager invited us for dinner at his house. I was telling him about the Inka Plant and how it impacted the quality of life of my family. He explained that Akzo Nobel bought that plant and he was the man that was responsible for jerking a knot on their stupid ignorant heads and cleaning up that problem. What are the chances that you would go to dinner in another country and meet the person that made your grandfather’s dreams come true, even posthumously. Tears ran down my face. It has the same effect on me to read about all of these wonderful young people that are vigilant to the condition of the French Broad. Im SO PROUD OF YOU ALL. Thank you sooo much. It is incumbent on us all to keep a tight watch in this foolish greed motivated anti-EPA new administration in Washington. Resist with all of your might anything that will take away your God given right for clean water and air. The beautiful NC mountains is not a place where a gasoline pipeline should be plowed through Sandy Springs, at the Appalachian Trail. Is freaking NOTHING SACRED!? Keep up the good fight, and God bless you all.

  2. willson
    grantsburg wisconsin
    February 2, 1:34 pm

    hey i was wondering if i could use this article for a research paper for collage

  3. Loren
    Asheville
    January 16, 9:45 am

    Having spent most of my life in cities and having attending what some would consider the very best schools, I can tell you that a river was never the focus of my life or curriculum! I know I learned a lot about human conquests. Now living in the mountains where natural beauty abounds, I am thrilled, and envious, that my daughter’s attend The French Broad River Academy For Girls and are learning about something that really matters. Learning about the ecosystem builds accountability and respect for our world and all living things. the world is no longer a thing to be conquered. Education based on learning to love and respect the French Broad River and beyond? I’d trade my Ivy League education for that!

  4. John Douglas
    Asheville NC
    January 10, 3:07 pm

    Great article. I think you have captured the essence of the French Broad.

  5. Lauri Pixley
    Asheville
    January 2, 3:15 pm

    I am wondering why this article has the French Broad river as the world’s 3rd oldest but if you just Google it says it’s #5 and 3rd oldest in USA.

  6. Antonio García
    January 2, 1:17 am

    Dear Basia, thank you for this new inspiring post about the French Broad River. I like what you tell about how the tribe understood the richness of the flooding in the floodplains. I think we should leave enough space to the river to draw its own stream. I love the photos. Another remarkable thing is those academic curriculums based on the river. I think that is a great initiative to generate attachment and concern about our environment. Looking forward to reading more posts.

  7. Lynne Gallimore
    Wilson, NC
    January 1, 11:03 pm

    Being a North Carolinian, I read this informative and interesting article with great interest. We frequently visit the Asheville area and will now look at the river with a new insight and appreciation.

  8. Torg
    United States
    January 1, 6:40 pm

    Loved finding this and enjoyed reading the article. We’ve been working on a film about this river.

    https://thetorg.wordpress.com/french-broad-river-movie/

  9. Karen Cragnolin
    United States
    January 1, 10:35 am

    Great article thanks