Riding Whitewater: North Fork French Broad River
Transylvania County is renowned as an outdoor adventure sports playground for everyone from rock climbers to mountain bikers to paddlers.
But when most people think of paddling in Transylvania County, they envision an idyllic, lazy float down the gently flowing French Broad River.
However, for a handful of kayakers in the area the county’s abundant rainfall and steep topography provide the perfect components for some of the best extreme whitewater Kayaking in the country.
One such paddler is Daniel Kreykes, a recent college graduate of Brevard College who spends his free time pushing the limits of whitewater paddling, among other outdoor pursuits.
Kreykes said Transylvania County is unique among areas in the East because of its abundance of steep creeks and waterfalls, which make for ideal testing grounds for the area’s top whitewater boaters.
One of his favorite rivers is the North Fork of the French Broad.
“The North Fork is great,” Kreykes said. “As an introduction to Brevard Kayaking, it really doesn’t get much better.”
Kreykes said the run starts out with a brief warm-up before paddlers reach the “Boxcar Rapid,” one of the biggest waterfall drops of the entire run.
“It’s really intimidating,” he said of the rapid, which is rated a Class V on the International Scale of River Difficulty.
Class VI is the limit to the scale and is deemed “unrunnable,” which places “Boxcar” near the upper limits of what is possible to run in a kayak.
“It always takes a lot of courage to run it for the first time, but once you do, it’s great,” Kreykes said.
Kreykes describes the rapid as a multi-tiered slide that begins with an 8-foot drop before boaters begin a 15-foot-long slide down a bedrock slab prior to launching off the final 9-foot drop into a pool he describes as a “cauldron.”
“You’ll definitely find it a little hard to roll back up down there,” Kreykes said of paddlers who get caught up in the cauldron.
In order to succeed at “Boxcar,” Kreykes recommends boaters paddle with other experienced kayakers, closely examine the run and “take a big stroke off the edge (of the last drop) and try to keep the front of your boat up as best as possible.”
Kreykes said he vividly recalls his first descent of the rapid four years ago.
“It was a great feeling being at the bottom looking back up at it,” he said of his successful descent.
Beyond the “Boxcar Rapid,” the river eases off considerably for a stretch, but still maintains its difficulty – although not quite as challenging as Boxcar.
Kreykes said he believes the North Fork is a good introduction to kayakers looking to take their paddling skills to the next level.
“I guess if you can run the North Fork, you are really considered to be a boater who is taking boating seriously,” he said. “Everything else up to that point is a hobby, but if you’ve made it to the North Fork and you’ve run that, then it’s something a little bit more.”
Kreykes describes the river as a great skill-building zone for expert paddlers because of the diversity of the different routes down the river.
“It offers a lot of different lines and a lot of different opportunities to progress and try different things,” he said. “There are still different lines that I’ve never run before that I can’t wait to run the next time it rains.”
Kreykes said the river contains “a lot of good boulder gardens, tight slots and steep slides.”
One of those slides, called “Submarine” by kayakers, is a challenging rapid by all accounts. While Boxcar offers thrills and excitement, but little danger, Submarine has a healthy dose of both, Kreykes said.
“Submarine is the first introduction to consequences on the North Fork,” he said. “There’s a little cave on the left, which is not a good place to mess up. A lot of paddlers walk Submarine for their first time because it’s such a scary looking rapid.”
Boaters know the cave as the “Closet of Doom” because boaters who venture into the cave tend to get struggle and lose their paddles, a situation that can get dangerous easily.
Despite the dangers, for the most part, Kreykes said the North Fork is “generally pretty clean and safe.”
“Most of the consequences are a result of the fact that it is creek boating, so it is shallow and you don’t want to be upside down,” he said. “So, there is always the physical risk of impacting rocks at high speed, but, for the most part, it’s a pretty clean run.”
The river runs after heavy rains during the summer months. During winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, Kreykes said the rivers in the area tend to run more often.
“In the winter it just takes about a half an inch to three quarters of an inch – depending on the water table,” he said.
While there are stories of boaters who have paddled the North Fork at very high levels, Kreykes stays away. He said it isn’t necessarily because of the danger involved with a high-water run, but because there are other rivers in the area that often become runnable only with that much rain.
“It gets really fun as it gets higher,” he said. “It gets pushy and it turns into more of a river run. But when it gets too high it definitely gets scary.”