Archive | Outdoors

A Summer of Music By the River

 

RiverMusic

Tonight’s the night: the kickoff of RiverMusic, a free summer concert series set against the backdrop of our French Broad. The event, entering its third year, is hosted by local nonprofit RiverLink. The organization works tirelessly to revitalize the river and bring people to its banks and waters to live, work, and play.

Of course, RiverMusic is about the latter. Not only does it feature live entertainment from well-known national and local acts, but it also offers countless food trucks and beer merchants hawking delicious drinks and dishes. New this year, vendors will work together to create food/beer pairings.

To get the full scoop, I caught up with RiverLink’s Dave Russell as he was preparing for opening night.

MC: Why did RiverLink begin the concert series? Why music?!
DR:
RiverMusic is staged to get folks down to enjoy the splendor of the French Broad River and discover the River Arts District. For years, neither the river nor the district were destinations for anyone, and we’re hoping to change that. It’s also a fundraiser to assist us in working for more parks and green space in our community. We chose music because nothing gets Asheville out more than beer, fresh air, and music.

MC: You encourage folks not to drive to the concerts, since parking is limited. What will you have set up for cyclists and river rats?
DR: We’ll have Asheville on Bikes for bike storage. Folks can put in at Bent Creek, Asheville Outdoor Center, Carrier Park, French Broad River Park, or Hominy Creek Park and float down to the venue if they want. Our river access consists of a set of stairs down to the water that allows folks to easily get their boats up to the event. We don’t have any special infrastructure for storing boats and tubes, but we can always find a spot for them.

MC: Seen any unexpected alternative modes of transportation over the years?
DR:
At our very first concert, a man galloped up on a horse!

MC: What’s the feeling you hope folks leave each event with about the French Broad?
DR: We want folks to leave feeling like the setting was perfect, the entertainment great, and that the river is a place they want to return to. We want them to come back not only for the concerts, but to tube and canoe and fish and to spend time in the River Arts District perusing the awesome studios.

Must-Know Info

Who/What: RiverLink’s RiverMusic free concert series
When: Kickoff is Friday, May 30, 5-10 pm featuring headliners Orgone, with additional dates through September; click for a full lineup of musical acts, two of which have river in their band name!
Where: At RiverLink Sculpture and Performance Plaza in the River Arts District
How: Entrance to the event is free, but bring money for refreshments; click for details about parking, pets, and more

Read another Asheville Pocket Guide blog post about the River Arts District.

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Dinosaurs on the River

Great Blue Heron Burg Ransom photo

Great Blue Heron Burg Ransom photo

The early morning sun is a fuzzy red ball in the dense fog. It’s hard to tell where the fog stops and the water starts. Your eyes strain to pick out the next rock or riffle before you’re upon it. The boat glides silently on the water; the only sound is the water dripping off your paddle as you scan the river.

Gggrrrruuuaaannnkkk! The bellow shatters the silence, followed by loud splashes, then the rhythmic thuds of large wings in the foggy abyss; a dark shadow approaches in the fog. The archaeopteryx – oh, wait, that can’t be an archaeopteryx – it’s much too large! It can only be one thing – a great blue heron.

This modern-day avian dinosaur, which can reach a height of four feet, is more than twice as large as its eons-old ancestor the archaeopteryx and in flight the great blue might evoke images of that other flying lizard the pterodactyl, with it’s slow deep wingbeats, long trailing legs and it’s big-headed appearance. The heron gets that exaggerated head look because it flies with its head close to its body, its long neck curved “S” like. Cranes, on the other hand fly with their necks extended.

This large blue-gray wader with its black and white head can frequently be seen stalking the shallow waters of the French Broad looking for prey. Prey could be anything from frogs, to insects, to small mammals and/or reptiles to fish. The heron has a long, strong, sharp beak. It will grab smaller prey in its mandibles but it often uses its spear-like beak to impale larger fish. Great blue herons nest in the area and can be see year round on the French Broad.

Green Heron Burg Ransom photo

Green Heron Burg Ransom photo

Its smaller cousin, the green heron, may be seen along the French Broad from late spring till early fall. Green herons nest in the region but they overwinter from South Florida all the way to northern South America. This crow-sized little heron might, if stretched, reach two feet tall. The adult’s back is a rich teal color and its neck and face are a rich chestnut – the throat is white and it has a dark cap.

The green heron, formerly “little green heron” is also known by a couple of descriptive colloquial names, both related to calls. Skeow is one and relates to its loud “skkeooww” alarm call. To the Cajuns of South Louisiana the green heron is known as “kop – kop” for another common call it makes when flushed from its marshy habitat.

The green heron is an expert fisherbird. It will use baits, both live (insects, earthworms) and artificial (twigs, feathers) to attract fish, which it either grabs or spears. The green heron feeds in very shallow water (four inches or so) and feeds on crustaceans, amphibians, fish, reptiles and insects.

Either or both of these avian dinosaurs may be found along the French Broad. To enhance your chances of seeing one or both try hitting the water in the early morning or evening when these stalkers are more active.

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A Paddler’s Paradise: Explore the French Broad on a SUP

Paddling and standing on the French Broad. (Photo: Effort, Inc.)

Paddling and standing on the French Broad. (Photo: Effort, Inc.)

 

For David Donnell, the perks of cruising down the French Broad River on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) are all about the vantage. But then again he’s always seen Asheville’s chief waterway from a different angle.

When Donnell opened the Asheville Outdoor Center in 1992, the river oozed just about everything but charm.

“Back then the river had a stigma as a nasty body of water; there was no emphasis on making the riverfront pretty, but it was a great location for my business,” says Donnell. Three years after opening, he pioneered the recreational development of the riverside by transforming a former sand company on three acres into a sanctuary to promote his devotion to river sports.

Donnell says that it took a while for visitors to warm up to “calm water” paddling in the mountains—then, the thrill of whitewater was the principle lure to the region’s rivers. But in the last few years, boaters, anglers, and tubers have become a common site on the French Broad.

And lately, so too have paddlers on SUPs—especially Donnell.

As a whitewater boater, he was accustomed to standing in his canoe to anticipate challenges downstream, so the transition to navigating a rivercraft on two feet came easy.

Anna Levesque, the owner of Girls at Play and former member of the Canadian Freestyle Whitewater Kayak team, is also a devotee of the growing sport and appreciates the versatility of a SUP. “You can sit on the board, kneel, do yoga, or stand up. You can also vary the intensity; even when you’re going out for an easy float, you’re still activating and toning your muscles just by balancing on the board,” says Levesque, whose business offers SUP lessons and SUP yoga classes.

Both say the natural character of the river—its mellow tempo, the lack of obstructions, and occasional waves—make it a perfect venue for the sport.

Despite the relatively placid current, Donnell, a certified paddleboard instructor, stresses the inherent dangers of moving water, and says that knowing the risks and having the proper equipment are vital. Levesque agrees and suggests that instruction to develop skills, such as a strong forward stroke, can help paddlers stay out of trouble and get the most from the experience: staying focused on the views of the river that may be missed if sitting on your fanny.

“You can get lost and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere and still be in the center of Asheville,” says Donnell. “So many folks experience a moment of peace and come off the river totally recharged. It’s a great release.”

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River Rendezvous

Urban infill, greener pastures and Elvis sightings were discussed during the monthly RiverLink bus tour.

Urban infill, greener pastures and Elvis sightings were discussed during the monthly RiverLink bus tour.

A dozen or so curious guests and I spent the first full day of spring touring the river district—an adventure I highly suggest you sign up for (details below).  Karen Cragnolin, executive director of RiverLink, guided us along the informative bus tour, which featured the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. Even though I’ve lived here for nearly 25 years, I soon discovered several new chapters about the local history, recent riverside developments and future plans along the corridor.

Cragnolin shared intriguing stories ranging from a mystery bystander named Rockefeller to a close encounter with Elvis. In between these tales, we learned news about the bridge-to-bridge development of New Belgium Brewery, crossed over a stream with no name, and heard about a trolley era transportation system that was once powered by a hydroelectric plant on Hominy Creek.

The French Broad has a life of its own, and there are many ways to interpret the people, places and events along its historic past. It was fascinating to connect Asheville landmarks with their origins. When we dig a little deeper into the past, we better understand the present world we live in. The way we historically move people is a stellar example.

The first street railway in Asheville operated in 1898 and ran from Depot Street to the Public Square (Pack Square). In its heyday, the expanded operations carried over three million passengers annually along 18 miles of tracks in 43 streetcars. Once, the trolley lines extended west of town as far as the present location of The Asheville School. Eventually, around 1934, buses replaced streetcars.

During the tour I noticed our present-day system, an Asheville Redefines Transit bus, as we turned down Clingman Ave., passed the RiverLink office, and headed into the River Arts District (RAD). As we entered the RAD, Cragnolin reminisced about the district’s vacant buildings and warehouses when she first moved to Asheville. Today, she shared, the district includes one of the highest densities of artist-owned properties in the country.

Current riverside development features the shipping container architecture of The Smoky Park Supper Club.

Current riverside development features the shipping container architecture of The Smoky Park Supper Club.

The tour included historic sites as well as unsightly scenes along the riverfront. Abandoned warehouses, brownfields, steep slope development and former landfills became part of the discussion. She pointed out that our river faces ongoing challenges including poorly managed steep slope development, habitat degradation and urban runoff. RiverLink’s  “Forever Option” guides the nonprofit’s long-term land-use strategy and conservation efforts. These conservation easements permanently protect riparian corridors and water quality along waterways.

The tour continued with an eastbound journey along the Swannanoa River, a major tributary of the French Broad. The river’s course meanders 22 miles through Buncombe County, with land uses along it ranging from antique warehouses to a reclaimed recreational park. As we traveled near the WNC Nature Center, Cragnolin revealed that Thomas Wolfe often retreated nearby to a rustic cabin on a knoll above the river. Asheville’s native son maybe best known for looking homeward, but he also wrote a sequel to the classic entitled Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth.

Today, we enjoyed our time along the river. The Asheville Pocket Guide is all about connecting you to these unique places and stories, both old and new! Take a tip from us and experience the river up front and personally. Connect with your hometown river and the French Broad watershed on these monthly two-hour guided tours of the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan. $/Members Free. For more info, visit: riverlink.org.

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Birding in the Citay!

Urban parks and open spaces provide convenient bird watching opportunities.

Urban parks provide convenient bird watching opportunities.

Some of the best year-round birding in the area can be found just two miles north of the heart of downtown Asheville. The Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society’s Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary is located on Merrimon Avenue at the southern end of Beaver Lake. A lot of different habitat packed into a little over eight acres offers the chance for a lot of diversity within a small area.

There are conifers and hardwoods, a small pond with marshy edges, wetlands, weedy fields and open water on Beaver Lake. Common nesting species include Gray catbird, eastern towhee, northern cardinal, ruby-throated hummingbird, yellow warbler, yellow-throated warbler, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, red-bellied woodpecker, red-eyed vireo, tree swallow, red-winged blackbird, green heron and many more. Some not-so-common nesters that have been documented on a regular basis include warbling vireo, Baltimore oriole, orchard oriole and brown-headed nuthatch.

And of course there’s migration when almost anything is possible. A dozen-warbler morning is not uncommon during migration when you can toss the possibility of chestnut-sided, magnolia, northern parula, palm, blackpoll, northern waterthrush, Canada, hooded, common yellowthroat and many more including golden-winged and blue-winged into the mix alongside the nesting warblers. Scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks often add their music and color during migration. Fall migration can be just as wild with fallouts that will leave you dizzy. And storm driven waterfowl and/or shorebirds can bring surprises to Beaver Lake during spring or fall migration and throughout the winter. Some recent surprises include red-necked grebe, white ibis, American avocet, lesser and greater yellowlegs, pectoral sandpipers and Caspian tern.

This urban birding oasis was destined to simply be an extension of more strip malls along Merrimon Ave. until Elisha Mitchell Audubon raised enough awareness and money to purchase part of the site in 1988. The group owns about half the site and manages the rest through an agreement with the Lake View Park homeowner’s association. Now there are trails and 3/8 of a mile of boardwalk plus the trail alongside Beaver Lake for birders, “butterfliers” and other outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy. There is parking at the entrance to the sanctuary, which is open dawn to dusk. Be sure you pay attention, because the gates open and close automatically. There is a little bit of additional parking available at the Beaver Lake dam on the corner of Merrimon Ave. and Glen Falls Rd.

Add an hour to your commute to work – nothing makes that cubicle more bearable than remembering the gorgeous American redstart you just left foraging for insects at the edge of the pond. And it’s a great place for a “green” birding expedition – just hop on your bike and hit the road.

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Long May You Run

Vintage postcard circa 1911 ~ Confluence of the Swannanoa & French Broad Rivers.

Postcard circa 1911 ~ Swannanoa & French Broad Rivers.

I first met the French Broad River while section hiking the Appalachian Trail. My companions and I were hiking from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Iron Mountain Gap. Midway through our trip, we traversed the north side of Bluff Mountain down into one of the AT hikers’ favorite towns, Hot Springs. Along the way, we noticed the rushing waters of the French Broad on its last leg before it enters Tennessee. I told them: “This place feels like home!”

A year later, my family and I packed our bags and moved to Asheville. My very first spring here, I paddled the French Broad’s headwaters near Rosman through six counties and two states. Looking back, I realize that I’ve been connected to this Southern Appalachian gem for three decades.

The tranquil section that flows through Asheville affords a variety of recreational opportunities, including fishing, paddling, floating, birding and more. Several parks along its banks attract both residents and visitors. Boat launches, the greenway, a recreation park, dog park and bike routes follow the river’s course along a revitalized city district showcasing local restaurants, craft breweries, art galleries, music halls and outfitters.

If you’re looking for something new to do this spring and summer, get out and explore the river. We’ll be sharing some of our own stories and adventures along the way, and we invite you to do the same.

In All Good Things, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne muses, “All good times, all good friends, all good things got to come to an end.” He even gestures to a river’s end. But for some of us, the river is just a beginning — an open-ended invitation to a lifetime of adventure and understanding. For me, each time I take out, load my gear and secure my canoe, I always walk back down to the river’s edge and look upstream to where I’ve been. Then I look downstream and ponder, “Long may you run!”

Run the same river twice! You might be surprised with the seasonal changes of the river. A winter paddle down the French Broad exposes the industrial era of the river district, while the forested banks of summer encloses her natural beauty.

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The Green Within

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When I start talking about the Hominy Creek Greenway in the heart of the city’s west side I have a tough time containing my glee. Though small in size (just fourteen acres) it’s big in meaning. Acquired by the city in 2011 – the beloved parkland is a testimony to what a group of dedicated citizens can accomplish.

In 2006 My neighbor Doug “Brotherhug” Barlow spearheaded a grassroots effort to conserve the land when he moved to Asheville from Atlanta. Then, the overgrown corridor and right-of-way for an underground sewage line was overgrown, trashy and dangerous. Even still, Barlow saw beyond that and envisioned a thriving, wild, and much needed community green space.

Many others agreed. His effort to conserve and purchase the tract was enthusiastically backed by neighbors, non-profit organizations and local government. The wave of support (and funding) is a sign of the times; it’s a by-product of a growing and forceful movement in Asheville to create more pockets of connected urban greenspace. That may seem a superfluous goal since our city is surrounded by over a million acres of public forest. Yet for a town that places such a premium on quality of life, recreation, and the environment some argue that we’ve lagged behind other urban areas in the amount of greenways and natural parkland.

Fair enough, but there may be a good reason for the shortcoming.

In the decades following World War II, policymakers figured there was little reason for recreational resources since the town was flanked by a heap of opportunities in the national forests, and state and national park land.  City Hall was also shackled by the highest per capita debt of any other city in the nation when the thundering economic boom of the 1920s crumbled — bolting a fiscal ball and chain that city leaders didn’t shake until the mid 1970s.

The result was an underdeveloped local park and greenway system and little to no vision to expand it.

Fast forward a few decades and behold the Hominy Creek Greenway. The once derelict corridor of green space now filled with users – pet owner, cyclists, swimmers, families – is a pillar of the West Asheville and it’s hard to imagine my neighborhood without it. That’s a great testament to our people, leaders and the kind of institutions that make Asheville such a great place to live and visit. And not just for the parkland around, but for the green space within.

 

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