adventure side of the smokies

Packrafting the French Broad River – 2 Day Paddle Adventure

The mud from the crudely cut road flew into the air on either side of the SUV. We were slowly making our way parallel to the French Broad River on a prime piece of property being developed into a campground. The goal was to get on the river close to the Tennessee/North Carolina border but the road was presenting an early and unexpected challenge. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck and have to walk all our gear to the put-in. Luckily, the road was just cooperative enough to allow us through.

The owner of the land was gracious to let us access the river for what was to be a two-day pack rafting trip. We crept down the road for two miles, passing old fishing shacks that may or may not still be in use. Finally, the road abruptly ended at a small beach on the water. We quickly unloaded and began inflating our rafts.

For this mini adventure, I’d brought along my friend and expert paddler, Bobby Johnson. Bobby is one of the best endurance paddlers in the world, having won numerous long-distance races. This trip would be both of our first times in a packraft though, so we both went into the experience with plenty of unknowns.

As we began the process of inflating our rafts and compiling our gear, I found myself staring out across the river to the mountains partially shrouded in fog. Even before getting on the water, we were already in a beautiful setting that would be tough to beat. Instantly, it felt like we were the only people around for miles and miles, and this adventure was going to be special.

We pushed our rafts off the beach and within less than a minute we were bouncing over small shoals. Other than the river in front of us, all we could see were the misty mountains rising sharply on either side. It felt both otherworldly and uniquely East Tennessee.

The plan was to divide the 21-mile trip into two days, giving ourselves the opportunity to enjoy our surroundings at a pace barely faster than the river would carry us. The end destination was a take-out spot near Newport, a town built on moonshine distilling and ripe as a potential hub for outdoor recreation.

The beauty of packrafting this section of the French Broad is that every bump and ripple is magnified. You don’t need Class 2 and 3 rapids to feel like you’re having a whitewater adventure in these boats. We were treated to some easy rapids throughout the first day, which gave us plenty of time to get used to how the rafts operated in the water.

High above us, a variety of birds made the trees lining the river their home. I counted no less than 20 bald eagles during the entire trip and each sighting was as special as the last. When the river would flatten out, I would grab my phone from its dry case and attempt to get video of the eagles in flight overhead. The river would spin the boat around in slow circles as I focused on these majestic creatures.

We had a predetermined stop about halfway through the trip at the Bobarosa Saloon. This gritty bar and restaurant next to the river is a biker’s paradise. We had heard that the food was really good and that was enough to convince us to stop. Less than 200 yards from our destination though was a rather large rapid, easily the largest so far of the trip. The roar ahead of us from the water crashing against itself was slightly anxiety-inducing but the thought of a burger and opportunity to dry off was enough to push us through. Steering to the right side, Bobby hit the rapid at a perfect angle, showing me the way through. The packraft easily absorbed the impact from the rapid and he was quickly through and paddling up to the restaurant. It was the perfect final exciting moment for our first day of paddling.

Day 2 began with temperatures in the low 50s and darker skies. After staying overnight next to the saloon, we slowly pulled on still-wet clothing and walked to the river’s edge. Less than 20 yards from the put-in we could see the first rapid of the day. It didn’t appear to be too challenging from a distance as we pushed our rafts off the shore. Immediately, our initial assessment of the rapid was proven wrong. What we hadn’t seen was a second set of rapids around a slight bend that were much bigger. Before we knew it, we hit them head on, water shooting over the front of the raft and completely soaking both of us. It was the perfect way to immediately wake up and prepare us for what was ahead that day.

After a quick stop to dump out the water in our rafts, we restarted our adventure. The first day had been a fairly easy, relaxed paddle. Today was going to be a bit more action-packed. The rapids were more frequent and slightly bigger now. The rafts handled each one quite well but it took some skill to keep them going straight with each encounter. The river current seemed to always want to pull us somewhere we didn’t want to go, forcing us to paddle harder and faster in order to hit the right line.

Sometime after an hour or so of continuous bumping over shoals, the river flattened out and we were treated to high cliff walls on one side and farmland on the other. It was a stark contrast between shores. With calmer waters, the silence all around was suddenly more obvious. It would only be a brief quiet though.

Throughout this area of the country, cryptozoology is all the rage. If you’re not familiar, this is the study of the legendary creatures that have graced the covers of tabloids for decades—the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch, likely the most famous. Bigfoot stickers cling to countless cars and every gift shop offers t-shirts and trinkets in honor to these creatures. Sightings have been reported for years and years in the area. It’s easy to dismiss these things as just another tourist item and an attempt to make it something uniquely Appalachian.

Our tranquil moment in this section was abruptly broken by a sound that can only be described as something between a shout and a growl. We had just floated past a small section of trees between two high cliff walls. Though we had joked about a potential run-in with Sasquatch a couple of times earlier, this suddenly felt less humorous. As is the nature of a flowing river, we were well beyond the source of the sound before we could fully digest what we had heard. Could it have been the legendary creature? We would never know.

The current was progressively slowing as the area around us became more flat and houses became more abundant. Before we knew it, we were at our takeout next to a historic bridge and the journey was over. Soaked to the bone, we pulled the rafts from the water and began the process of deflating and finding our dry clothing. We retrieved the car we had dropped off a few days before near the takeout spot and began driving back to my SUV deep in the woods.

Twenty-one miles down the French Broad River had been the ideal introduction into packrafting. But more importantly, it was the perfect way to see Cocke County, TN in a way that few others have. From the natural to the supernatural, this water adventure had everything you could want in a weekend in the outdoors.

Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.

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Amongst the Rhododendrons 

I really love camping. That’s a statement not all too uncommon by many outdoors enthusiasts. There’s a certain freedom that exists with temporarily laying claim to a spot of earth and spreading out your basic necessities for a period of a few days. For a small fee, and sometimes no fee at all, you can embrace nature from the comforts of a tent.

Recently, I took a long weekend to explore the remote beauty of Martha Sundquist State Forest. This little-visited wooded area in Cocke County is almost fully surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Like so many of the country’s best destinations, this area is remote and mostly without cell service. Getting into the state forest requires following some windy single-lane roads and even through a small creek. What off-the-path destination isn’t complete without a creek crossing!

Before venturing to the forest, I made a stop at The Bean Trees restaurant in Hartford. Located right on the Pigeon River, The Bean Trees probably has the best burger in all of the county. Knowing that I would be deep in the woods for a few days, I wanted to get one last big meal and some hot coffee at the adjacent cafe. I sat on the deck overlooking the river and began daydreaming about the relaxing long weekend ahead.

Plugging in the address of the park into my phone’s GPS, I began the 30-minute drive to the first entrance. I found myself daydreaming about a life out here tucked away nestled between the bubbling and fragrant flowers. Though creature comforts aren’t far away, it really does feel like you’re disconnecting from society as you drive along. Houses become fewer and fewer as the road becomes more narrow.

I crossed the small creek at the entrance, an easy feat for my SUV, and almost immediately found my campsite for the first night. The spot was like something out of a nature book. Rhododendrons surrounded the campsite in a semicircle with an opening in the middle revealing a rippling creek. Stones rounded by countless years in the creek created the perfect sitting spot to enjoy the cool water after a hot day and long drive. Setting up camp was quick and even though the campsite was next to the main road in the forest, I never saw another vehicle pass.

Nighttime presented itself with a quick drop in temperature. This gave me the opportunity to light my first campfire of the year. There’s something very special about sitting by a campfire and getting lost in the dancing flames. I was seeking out solitude in the woods and I had found it.

The next morning, I set out to hike within the forest. I left my vehicle at the campsite and started down the gravel road to the main trailhead and park map kiosk. In keeping with the theme of solitude, I still hadn’t seen another soul. There was a sense of calm mixed with the twinge of adventure with knowing that I had this quiet, beautiful place all to myself.

The park map displayed several trail options and I chose to combine two. The Horse Route is a 9-mile trail that loops the perimeter of the forest. I started out on that trail and was immediately met with my first creek crossing. In true fashion for the trails throughout Tennessee and North Carolina, the bridge was a log split in half to create a perfect path across the water. It even had a knotted handrail perfect for balancing while taking stunning photos perfect for making your Instagram followers jealous.

The path continued on, and within a mile I turned off onto the TN Gulf Trail. The 3.5-mile point-to-point trail immediately engulfed me in its rhododendron tunnel. I spent the hike continually stopping next to the creek that followed by my side and taking in the sounds of rushing water over rounded rocks. It was hypnotic, calming, and perfectly cold to the touch.

After looping back on the other side of the Horse Route, my hike for the day was complete. Seven miles stretched out over several hours felt both leisurely and not long enough. I kept with the slow pace of the day and took my time making a meal back at the site. Though I was definitely hungry, there was no need to rush the experience. My loose plan for the next day was to stay at the campsite and write all morning while sitting by my private creek. I knew that would round out the ultimate solitary excursion in the woods.

Nighttime approached and the symphonic sounds of creatures all around signaled that the day was coming to a close. I felt privileged to be the only person around experiencing all that the forest had to offer. It was providing me with something that is increasingly harder to find – escape from the pressures and duty of everyday life. Sleep hit quickly thanks to the long hike, warm sleeping bag and fading thoughts of a backcountry trip not too far from civilization and yet perfectly withdrawn from the world.

Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.

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