A River for All Ages
Susan Brown finds that delight in nature can lead to good stewardship.
Where did you find nature as a child?
Susan Brown is an avid paddler who has lived in Transylvania County for the last 18 years—but she grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. These days, as a passionate advocate for the French Broad River, she meets lots of people who care deeply about the outdoors—and many of them have a different story than her.
“You talk to a lot of these folks and they’ll tell you how they grew up in the woods and their daddy took them fishing. I grew up in suburbs,” she says.
“The closest thing to a woods was one of the vacant lots on our street that still had mature elm trees on it. There was just the little lake in our community, which was probably not more than a pond, but as a child it seemed big. It meant so much to us. We would ride our bikes over there every day and just scare frogs and watch the damselflies and the dragonflies.”
Fascination and play can grow into a commitment to stewardship, at least in her experience. That’s one reason why the Transylvania French Broad Stewards, a citizens’ group that Susan coordinates, hosts a river festival every summer for families and children.
This year’s Upper French Broad Riverfest is coming up on Saturday, June 22, at Champion Park in Rosman. There, the French Broad is just starting its winding route through the open river valley, after gathering waters from rushing streams in the mountains. In Rosman, the river runs low and clear over a stony bottom—a perfect place for kids to play.
“It’s for kids to get out and get their feet wet,” Susan says. The festival features free tubing rides, kids’ archery, hands-on learning activities, food trucks, and music. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will bring Rocky the Hellbender—a live hellbender—so kids can see one of the rare, giant salamanders that make their homes under rocks, right there in the French Broad headwaters.
The festival coincides with the Hellbender 20 Miler, a canoe relay race organized by Headwaters Outfitters to benefit river stewardship efforts. Headwaters also provides the tubing rides, which deepen kids’ connection with the river that flows through their county.
David Whitmire, who owns Headwaters, says, “For some kids, it may be the only chance to tube on the river that summer.” Not everyone’s parents get excited about outdoor activities. “That doesn’t mean their kids might not want to and all you have to do is click that little lightbulb on. So, hopefully we can click some light bulbs on.”
“The River Here is So Beautiful”
Susan discovered two of her lifelong passions when she was at Virginia Tech earning her doctorate in plant and soil science. One was paddling and one was playing the fiddle. As an old-time fiddle player, she made friends with musicians from the Brevard area. “I’ve been playing music with people in this community since the late 70s and I came here to be part of that musical community,” she says.
She moved from Iowa, where she was working for the Cooperative Extension as a grant writer and project manager on water quality issues. There weren’t many jobs around Brevard in her field of work, but she was able to move here nine years before she retired, as a telecommuter.
For her, it’s the river valley that make Transylvania so special. “A lot of places have the mountains but they don’t have the valley and that’s what makes the vistas so beautiful here.”
She and her partner of more than 20 years, Steve Davis, love paddling on the French Broad. Her favorite part is the wildlife, she says—the herons, ospreys, kingfishers, otters, beavers, turtles, or snakes you might see on a trip down the river. “We like to call ourselves the geezer demographic,” she jokes. “We’re the active seniors!”
“Not everybody wants to go over a waterfall or ride a bicycle pell-mell over rocks and stones in the woods,” she says. “Some of us are older and just want to get out and enjoy the outdoors in a beautiful way. I mean, the French Broad here is so beautiful.”
But it’s hard to paddle down a river with large trees across it snagging debris—and sometimes tubes or boats.
For decades, David, a Transylvania native who founded Headwaters with his wife Debi in 1992, had been putting in the work to keep the upper stretch of the river open, wading in with his chainsaw to remove trees.
But it would take more than a few volunteers to keep all 36 miles of the French Broad in Transylvania clear. In 2010, two trees fell across the river near Penrose and started a monster logjam. For more than a year, logs and branches piled on to a tangle of barriers that blocked the entire river. The logjam grew over 250 feet thick and 25 feet high.
“It was very, very dangerous,” Susan says—difficult to portage and sometimes hard to avoid. Rescue teams were called multiple times to get people out of the snarl of jagged branches and forked logs. By the time the county had the logjam cleaned up, the job cost over $100,000.
Clearly, there was a need for more proactive stewardship—so a resident named Sid Cullipher brought citizens together in a group that became the Transylvania French Broad Stewards. Both Susan and David were charter members.
Sadly, Sid passed away from cancer shortly afterward, in 2012. Since then, the Stewards have continued and expanded the work. The group has helped secure funding for prompt clearing of downed trees and they post alerts about hazards on the river on their Facebook page. They’ve raised awareness about the French Broad’s importance to the local community. And, they bring together stakeholders with diverse points of view to steward the river as a natural and economic resource. In 2016, they started RiverFest.
Now, plans are underway for the group to become a program of Conserving Carolina, a local land trust.
David says, “Falling under Conserving Carolina’s umbrella is a huge step for a grassroots organization like us. We can have a bit more structure, so we don’t have to worry about a lot of the homework and we can focus more on the grassroots part or boots-on-the-ground work.”
A Link from School to River
Today, thanks to the Stewards, people can travel more easily and safely down the river. Susan is also passionate about a project that might help people get to the river more easily and safely—especially young people.
To reach the Hap Simpson River Access Park from Brevard, you go down Rt. 276 just three-quarters of a mile past Brevard Elementary School and the Transylvania Boys and Girls Club. But kids can’t get to the park, at least not safely. They’d have to walk on a road with narrow shoulders and fast-moving traffic.
Imagine if there was a safe path for young people to come spend time in the park, Susan says. She’s envisioning a river walk that would link the park with the school and the Boys and Girls Club. Part of it might be a raised boardwalk and it could connect to the Brevard greenway system.
The county is deliberating the purchase of a 55-acre property just behind the Boys and Girls Club that would make it possible, with plans to decide by Oct. 31. Conserving Carolina is helping the county apply for grant funding from the NC Parks and Recreation Trust Fund that could help pay for the purchase.
To Susan, it’s one more opportunity to connect local residents with the river and foster a sense of stewardship. “The more you can get people connected to the river, the more they will appreciate it and own it,” she says.
“It’s people’s engagement with the river that makes it work. You can’t throw enough money at something or write enough rules or regulations to make things work, if people don’t love it.”
This article is part of our monthly Stories of the Land series which runs in the Hendersonville Times-News. These stories explore people’s connection to the land and the ways they give back to the places they love.