A Common Bond
“Liz!” An excited whisper came from Lucas in the stern of our canoe. “Look to your left!” I pulled my paddle quietly from the water and turned my head. Crawling from a hole on the riverbank was a chubby, reddish-brown creature. It stood in the bright sun for a second or two and dove into the water, showing off its flat, hairless tail. A beaver! Lucas and I watched in silent awe as our boat slowly floated downstream. A second one followed, emerging from its home and clumsily splashing into the river like a character from a Saturday morning cartoon. Out of range of the bumbling beavers, our excitement erupted. “Did you see that?! Beavers!” “Two of them! SO cool!”
A neat thing happens when you spend time in nature – you begin to see things you wouldn’t ordinarily notice. Lucas and I recently paddled the French Broad River, traveling from Pisgah Forest to Asheville over the span of a late-winter weekend. I make the same trip almost daily, but my commute is powered by an engine and four wheels instead of my body and a single-bladed paddle. While the drive is undeniably beautiful, my eyes are mostly closed to the world around me.
Life is different on the river. Little time had passed before Lucas and I began pointing things out to each other. “Look at those tree roots!” “Hear that? It’s a Pileated Woodpecker.” “See the muskrat on that rock over there? Let’s paddle up to it!” Each of my senses was fully engaged. Thoughts of future engagements and responsibilities dissolved, and my biggest worry became navigating around the rock 50 feet ahead on river right. I felt connected to a world much bigger than myself.
Over the course of 37 miles on the water, we saw a river otter, beavers, muskrats, hawks, ducks, raccoons, and turkeys. We also saw refrigerators, washing machines, wooden pallets, car tires, and hundreds of aluminum cans. No, we didn’t make a side trip to a home improvement store or recycling center; each of these things was spotted from our vessel on the water. The juxtaposition of a brilliant red cardinal perched on the exposed metal corner of a Maytag washer is alarming and significant, to say the least. Turning my head or looking away proved unsuccessful, as I was met with similar images all around me. Reality quickly sets in when it’s thrown in your face.
In the mid twentieth century, the French Broad was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. It was described as having “white scum that caps the water’s blackness for mile after mile.” The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 marked a turning point for the river, and its health has improved significantly since that time. It now offers extraordinary recreation opportunities for folks like Lucas and me (and all of you), and supports unique ecosystems. But, as witnessed on our trip, the condition of the French Broad is beginning to deteriorate once again. Consistent non-point source pollution and the lack of enforcement of Clean Water Act mandates are hindering, and in many cases reversing, its progress.
I love the French Broad River. I love that it meanders alongside my route to work each morning. I love that I get to run beside it at sunset. I love that the rapids on Section 9 challenge me and the slow currents of Section 2 inspire me. I love that I’ve spent more than one hazy summer afternoon floating its waters in an inner tube. I love that it ushers economic and spiritual life into the community that I call home. I love this river, so I want to protect it.
When I returned home after our weekend excursion, I began researching ways to get involved in elevating the state of the French Broad. I was met with a long list of volunteer cleanup opportunities and community events meant to raise awareness and ignite action. This spring I will spend several afternoons pulling tires, cans, and abandoned appliances from the muddy banks of the river. Why? Because, thanks to a late-winter paddling trip, I feel connected to the meandering currents and diverse ecosystems of a world much bigger than me. I share a common bond with every inhabitant of the river: life and the right to live.
When I walk around Eagle’s Nest during the summer and see a child studying salamanders in a stream, or when I hear stories of the profound effect a view from the summit of a mountain had on a Hante student, it gives me confidence in the future protection of the world’s natural spaces. By forging a connection with nature, our campers are developing a relationship with the environment that will last long after they leave our valley. Camp and Hante give young people the opportunity to slow down and open their eyes to the vibrant world around them, just as paddling the French Broad did for me. These opportunities serve as a reminder that we are all connected to something much larger than ourselves, and it’s our duty to take care of all living things, from the tiniest creature in the river to the tallest pine in the forest.