Although we typically do articles on this blog, this weekend I sat down with three boys who had just returned from a two day paddling trip down the French Broad River. Based on their account and my cross references with the counselor, I decided their tale would make a better short story than an article. The following narrative is based off that interview with Keaton, Nick , and Michael…

French Broad Open Canoe June 2014

Today the van buzzed with excitement. My friends and I had just finished two paddling trips earlier in the week, earning our Yaklet, the camp’s certification that we could paddle a kayak. We were ready for the next challenge. Today we were going down the French Broad River, the widest river in West North Carolina. Its turbulent waters are labeled as a “class 3,” making it more difficult than any we had done before. We agreed it would be worth enduring a two hour trip to the put-in.

I looked over at my friends Nick, and Michael, two brothers who had gone through the program with me. We knew we were more experienced than the other boys. Nick looked antsy, like he was ready to get out on the river. Michael was making some adjustments on his life vest. For some reason the counselor driving the van blasted a local Latino-music station at maximum volume. And despite not understanding any of the lyrics, it still pumped everyone up.

We arrived at the launch area to what our counselor Jez described as a normal day. “There’s nothing abnormal about the river today,” he said. “The weather’s beautiful, and we shouldn’t be encountering any abnormal water levels.”

“But that’s not to say we won’t have a challenge,” he said with a foreboding smile. After spending some time on the shore, going over basic signals and instructions, and scarfing down a lunch of tortillas, peanut butter, and honey, he commanded us to move into the water.

I could see the look of fear on the younger campers faces as they slid their own canoes into the water. I followed their gaze downstream as I saw the current splashing against the large rocks scattered across the river like an obstacle course of terrain.

The lukewarm water shocked my system as it seeped into my wet shoes. The brown water made it impossible to guess what I was stepping in. But I decided it didn’t make a difference as I swung myself aboard. Michael climbed into the boat behind me. And Nick climbed into his own canoe down the shore. Before I had a chance to nod at him, I could feel my own boat take off like a bucking bronco. I hadn’t even had a chance to stick my paddle in the water before I could feel the boat drifting out of line with the others.

“Stay in line!” shouted Jez. At first I thought he was shouting at me, but I looked around and to my relief saw the mob of other paddlers twirling around like the teacup ride at Disney.

The river carried our boats along despite the awkward angle it drifted at. We looked at the bank wishing we could see the rapid train carrying us along. It didn’t take long before we seized control of the boat as we stabbed our paddles deep into the water.

We pulled off into an “eddy,” or a pocket of calm water beside the river, to listen to more direction from Jez. “You need to stay in line. It’s going to get rough up ahead.”

We nodded; wondering if that was humanly possible, before launching ourselves back into the rough water.

The French Broad’s beauty captivated us for a short time. The narrow channels that emptied into it like a network and boulders jutting out from every direction reminded me of a painting that would go up in a natural art gallery.

The scenery disappeared almost immediately once I heard the yells of the first boat behind us flipping over. Turning around, I saw a group of younger campers swimming to shore, with one of the counselors helping to tow their canoe off to the bank. I steered my paddle out to stop from running into them. Right as I did so, my paddle slid out of my hand and into the gurgling water.

We looked around to see the other canoes around us capsizing like they were built to roll down a river upside down. Our paddle, with a new destination in mind than anywhere with us, swam away, leaving us only with our hands. Based on how our boat pivoted in the water, I could see we were temporarily stuck in a whirlpool.

“I think we’re going to flip,” yelled Michael from the back of the canoe. His doubt lit a fire in me, making me paddle through the current with the speed of a wild otter.

Our boat tipped left and right and I could feel the water giving out from under me like we were floating through the air. I closed my eyes.

I opened them to see us floating on the other side of the whirlpool. Michael had a grip on a near-by branch the size of a thread of twine, tethering us to the delicate handles on the bank. Nick came up behind us, looking dry.

“Made it,” he said as if it were nothing between harsh gasps of air.

I saw our paddle that we had lost drift back to us. I made a reach to grab it, feeling the canoe turning on its side 70 to 80 degrees. I grabbed the tip of the handle, like a leaf-stem in a windstorm. I pulled it aboard and used it to push off from the bank. A pool of water that had collected in the bottom of the boat sloshed as we started moving again.

I looked behind me to see the other campers finding their way back into their boats. I felt like the rough waters of the French Broad had tested us. But the looks of fear and nervousness had vanished on everyone’s faces. We leaned back in our crafts bobbing in the still waters of the eddy, glancing down the river, hoping to see a waterfall.

- John Granatino