(State #11/50) Ben surprised me when he said he could join me in North Carolina for a Wednesday evening float. Not only does he have a wife and two young kids, but he’s also in the Air Force — an institution I didn’t imagine allowing mid-week time off on short notice. But, perhaps what thrilled me the most, other than a friend of 20+ years canoeing with me, was that his Mother would freak out if she knew.
Since Ben is a longtime friend, I feel I have license to embarrass him a bit… Ben skated when we were kids. Not skateboarding, not iceskating, but figure rollerskating. He competed wearing shimmery, colorful, spandex outfits (somewhere, there’s a box of pictures that I must get into the hands of the Air Force). Hilarious outfits aside, Ben was damn good at skating. He even won Nationals (3 times) and went to Germany to compete in Worlds. Had figure rollerskating made it to the Olympics, he would have represented the USA.
Now because of his prowess in the rink, his Mother was loath to let him get hurt. One of his Mother’s biggest fears was Ben going to the neighborhood creek with me. Even late into high school, when we were more interested in sports and girls, we’d still hear “Now Bengermen, stay outta that creek!” This delicious little piece of irony was not lost upon us. “Even if you don’t tell her, she’s going to just know, somewhere out there, you’re on a river with me,” I joked.
Although the creek was off limits, we entertained ourselves in his house or in the field out back by playing games either our friends or we made up. Such competitive sports included baseball golf, vacuum cleaner golf, tackle nerf basketball, etc. A few times we’d just section off the back room, turn off the lights and throw balls, stuffed animals, Furbies and plastic chairs at each other. We both obsessed over baseball cards and spent hours reviewing our collections, pouring over the latest Beckett price guide and making high pressure trades. We’d watch sports blooper videos, Planet of the Apes, Waterworld and any number of fabulously terrible movies. We’d record ourselves singing on tape cassettes. We talked about school and girls until one syllable answers turned to sleep.
But, we had never done anything outdoorsy together. “Remember, I’m not experienced with this kinda stuff.” Ben told me over the phone. I promised him and his wife I’d keep him safe. We got on the French Broad, South of Asheville, in mid evening. Sunny skies became overcast and warm and humid weather turned chilly. The river was high, fast flowing and a steely gray reflection of the sky. Being a meteorologist, I blamed Ben for this turn. “I told you, I do climate modeling in Africa now!” he tried to explain. Still, I knew this was on him.
Ben and I made great time with little effort. The hard part was reading the flows and locating the rocks normally above water. Ben reported back obstructions and choppy water and I tried to steer us clear. A few times we went through standing waves and rocked around. Water splashed over the gunwales and onto Ben. The French Broad was my first paddle through urban/rural interface; we canoed by both farms and highways. It was strange to pass beneath a traffic laden highway, yet much of the river was flanked with wooded hills and pastures.
There were multiple public camping areas along the French Broad Canoe Trail. We passed the first after 2 miles and decided to keep on going. The next, closer to dark, was right next to a busy highway. “Firefighter Island should be a couple miles down on the left” I told Ben, hoping I was right.
We found the island at dusk. There was a small sign we couldn’t read, but nowhere to land the canoe. We pulled over on the main shore and I spoke to a man. “This is only for firefighters. There should be another campsite 10 minutes down river,” the man said. There was no way we were going to paddle down this river after dark. “Well, I won’t run you off, but the caretaker might,” the man told me. “We technically can’t camp here,” I told Ben, “but unless that island right there is the campground, we’re putting up a tent right here.” We joked that they could run me off, but not a vet.
Donning headlights, Ben and I paddled up current in the dark. We rounded the island tip and canoed the main channel, searching the forested island with our swiveling lights. “What the hell has Eric gotten me into?” Ben must have thought. I explained this wasn’t normal. Ben was just lucky enough to be along for my first night canoe of the trip. Getting a closer look, I steered my friend towards the overhanging trees, right into the illuminated webs of the spindly legged spiders that always live above the water. Ben took it all in stride. I crawled out onto a steep slippery mud bank and explored. “I found a campsite! There’s a spot for the tent, fire ring and picnic table!” I shouted. I’m sure Ben was relieved. I know I was.
We unloaded gear, tied up the canoe and set up the tent. The fire still had coals and someone had gathered wood. “I don’t think anyone’s coming back here tonight,” I said. We stoked the fire and soon stood in its glow. I fried up hotdogs over the coals and we talked. Ben and I discussed baseball, work (or in my case, a lack there of), music, politics, travel, family, etc. It was great. I’d say it was like old times but we didn’t do a top 10 list of girls we liked or divide up and have a one-on-one forest battle.
We lead, without question, two different lives. Ben is a family man whom is outcompeting (though he won’t likely admit it) his contemporaries and rising up through the Air Force (I don’t know my military lingo well, but I believe he’s achieved the rank of Sky Captain Extraordinaire). And then there’s me: unemployed, unshaven and homeless by the very definition. Yet, I was happy to see how similar we still were in many ways — surprised by how many conclusions about life we had reached, independently of each other. We retired to the tent around midnight. Without a pad, Ben curled up in his 2-year-old son’s Paw Patrol sleeping bag. This was his first time camping in decades. We talked until Ben answered in single syllables. “Hey Ben… you still awake?” I was tempted to ask.
We woke up to a cool morning to the sound of turkey’s gobbling. Ben didn’t sleep well, so he agreed to a cup of my crappy instant coffee. Raiding his kids supply, Ben brought out some ziplock bags of Kix for breakfast. We talked more, packed up and got on the river by late morning. No matter, the water was still high and flowing and we got to the takeout before 1 p.m. We had done 16 miles in just over 4 hours on the river. Ben’s wife picked us up right as the rain started. By the time we had lunch it was pouring. I suppose Ben had called in a favor with the weather Gods.
It meant a lot that Ben joined me even though he didn’t have “experience” and his Mother would likely still kill me. Though, I must say, I didn’t get him hurt. So, if called up to be the US Armed Forces Roller Skating Ambassador, Ben would be ready to serve at a moment’s notice. And now, due to extensive river training, he’d be able to paddle into action as well… even at night.
River Stats and Fun Facts
- French Broad, North Carolina
- Weather: Overcast, humid and cool
- Miles canoed: 16
- Launch Point: Westfeldt Park off Boylston Highway (35.421897, -082.542011)
- Campsite: Firefighter Island Campground (Public, free) (35.492142, -082.578183)
- Takeout Point: Hominy Creek River Park (35.555178, -082.590988)
- Song Sung on River: Wagon Wheel, Old Crow Medicine Show
- Thanks to French Broad Outfitters for all their advice on for the float. (828) 505-7371
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: great blue heron, night heron, lots of Canada Geese, kingfisher, wood ducks (heard turkeys in the morning)
- Reptiles: a few turtles
- Mammals: 10 white tail deer
- Noted Species: Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant (endangered), Black Bear
- Dominant Vegetation: Sycamore, American Elm, Black Willow Sweetgum, White Oak, Red Maple.
- Ecoregion: Blue Ridge, (66j) Broad Basins
- Current Threats: Coal Ash from old coal power plants south of Asheville. Stormwater run off from towns, agriculture waste from farms and waste water (sewage plant failure in 2013 from a blown pump, over 4 million gallons went in)
- Trash collected: Water too high to collect trash on river. I picked up some at the campsite, but didn’t see too much!