You’ve seen those clickbait come-ons that show a joyful mountaintop or seaside selfie accompanied by text that says something like: “One moment she was smiling at the camera. What happened next will horrify you.”
I’ve got one of those pictures: Me and my wife Carolyn, her sister Jackie and her husband Matt, all grinning in blissful ignorance as we drift gently on inflated tubes along the French Broad River near Asheville, North Carolina. Matt, holding the camera, is barely in the frame. The rest of us are all smiles behind him, about an hour into our three-hour tour.
Yes, that’s right: a three-hour tour.
High above the frame, but about to command our full attention, was a wall of black clouds, sweeping over us like a shroud. Within three minutes of that carefree photo, a pounding rainstorm the likes of which mankind has never witnessed would pour upon us as if God Himself were siphoning out the swimming pools of Heaven.
A few hundred miles to our north, I’ve no doubt the curators of Kentucky’s Noah’s Ark Encounter were gazing at their weather apps and murmuring, “Well, we finished this thing just in time.”
‘A back-alley mugging’
This wasn’t even one of those storms that introduces itself with a gentle how-do-you-do of occasional droplets. No, this was a back-alley mugging; a middle-of-the-night grizzly bear attack, a Kim Jung Un execution by anti-aircraft missile of a downpour.
“Are you there?” I yelled through the impenetrable curtain of rain. Above the deafening slap of gumball-sized droplets on the river and our rafts, I heard only the sputtering of my thoroughly saturated companions.
You might think my life would have passed before my eyes at a moment like that, but I actually rewound only an hour or so, to when we had innocently pulled into the launch facility of Zen Tubing, about two miles from downtown Asheville.
The late-morning sun smiled from on high, and our phone apps cheerfully reassured us that while there was rain in the forecast, by the time it arrived we would be happily sipping margaritas at nearby White Duck Tacos.
We’d already signed the requisite waiver when I noticed a prominently placed sign that warned we were on our own: in case of bad weather, no one would be coming to rescue us.
“If it starts raining during your trip, continue down the river,” the sign said. “If it starts thundering or lightning, pull over to the bank and stay in your tube…Once the thunder/lightning stops, continue your trip.”
“Hmph,” I’d said to myself. “I’m sure glad we’re ahead of the weather.”
What a great deal
At $20 a head, tubing near Asheville is one of the great bargains in U.S. travel. The Broad French is one of the few rivers in America that flows from south to north, and although there are busy nearby roads that have carried crops, lumber, and food stuffs to market for more than three centuries, its tree-lined length gives a healthy sense of remote wilderness without the nagging fear of hearing the theme from “Deliverance” drifting from shore.
A friendly bus driver transported us the four miles upstream from the base camp of Zen Tubing (“Discover Your Inner Tube”) and dropped us off at an impressive fleet of blue floats, each resembling an oversized inner tube but with a filled-in center, eliminating any chance of slipping through the donut hole and into the chilly river water.
After the requisite safety lecture (“We encourage you to wear life vests” — yeah, right) we chose our individual floats.
“Pick up one of those paddles,” said my brother-in-law Matt, who has made the trip with out-of-town guests like us dozens of times. “We just need one to push us away from overhanging branches.”
In the water, we linked our floats into a circle with straps, placing a yellow rectangular refreshment float at the center of our ring. Into that we placed a bag containing a towel (just in case we got wet), snacks, a cooler stocked with drinks, and Matt’s Bluetooth speaker.
Geologists say the French Broad is the world’s third-oldest river — after the Meuse of France and the ironically named New River of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. As such, it has long since flattened its course through the Appalachians to the point where rapids of any consequence are out of the question. What could go wrong?
Off we drifted, finding a nice lazy lane in mid-stream. I leaned my head back, watching the branches pass slowly above, soaking in the soft chatter, the drifting music, the soft gurgle of the river as we slid over the gentlest of rapids.
On our left spread the tall trees and undeveloped shoreline of the French Broad River Park. From the right, somewhat muffled by greenery, came the hum of light industry and railroad yards. Clearly we were still near the city, but somehow also miles away.
A shutter, then thunder
When it came time to take that selfie, we detached two of the floats from each other and maneuvered into a tight semicircle. Just as Matt’s iPhone emitted its fake shutter sound, the soft roll of thunder, somewhere past the tree line, announced a coming storm.
Matt, the closest thing we had to an experienced river man, turned his head with some concern. His lips tightened.
“Maybe we should try to move a little fas—“
Matt’s “-ter” never made it to our ears. It may not have even made it from his mouth. A vertical wave of water dropped on our heads, as if we had suddenly wandered under the Horseshoe Falls of Niagara.
For a few moments, the four of us just sat there, our mouths hanging open like those kids who used to get slimed on Nickelodeon. Then, as if by reflex, we all started paddling like insane gondoliers — my companions with their hands, me with my pitiful yellow paddle. Of course, that just sent us spinning. From the shore, it would have looked like we were swirling down some drain in the French Broad River.
It was useless to shout orders to each other; the tumultuous rain smacking against our tubes and the river was drowning out our voices. We soon found a rough rhythm, the women on the sides pulling their hands, front to back; Matt in the rear pushing his hands upriver; me in the front, both hands on the paddle, pulling it towards me like a baker stirring dough in a giant bowl.
Ahead and to the left, I made out the shape of a giant willow tree leaning over the river. I gestured toward it, got nodding assent from my fellow castaways, and aimed us toward its apparent shelter. Fighting the now-accelerating river current, I angled us into port and grabbed ahold of a finger-width root stretching from the tree trunk to the shore.
For a few moments, it seemed like we had found shelter from the storm. Outside the rim of the tree’s canopy, the river was a gray mass of infinite small splashes, each rising an inch or so off the surface as the rain pounded down.
Beneath the tree, the water was relatively smooth — but still moving, and the current was becoming visibly swifter. I raised my yellow paddle and lodged it into a crook of the tree, holding us in place. It seemed like we could stay here as long as we wanted. A jolt of triumphant glee shot through me. I glanced at the others, smiling incongruously.
Row, Row, Row Your Float
My grin was met with stares of blank misery. Jackie, whose hat had blown away, gazed at me, hollow-eyed. Carolyn obsessively scooped water out of the indentation where she sat in her tube, mindless of the additional water that was dripping in from above. Only Matt, laughing and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” seemed to be enjoying this as much as I was. He had the presence of mind to stash the Bluetooth speaker in the cooler.
Within minutes of taking refuge, the inevitable happened: Rain filtered through the dense leaves and began dropping on us — not as violently as we’d experienced out on the river, but with increasing intensity. Thin but relentless rivulets seemed to pour off the individual leaves, dousing us as if from ten thousand tiny green gravy boats.
“We’re getting just as wet under here,” Carolyn finally said — she has a way of stating the obvious when no one else is willing to acknowledge it — so we pushed off, figuring every minute heading downstream was one tick closer to dry clothes.
Miraculously, the deluge never developed into a thunderstorm. We pushed on into the murky distance, like Charlie Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The horror…the horror. Through the gray curtain we made out riverside establishments — Asheville’s lower arts district, the New Belgium Brewery — and imagined the lucky people in there; dry people, warm people, people whose butts weren’t sitting in four inches of water.
A bit farther along, on the bank above us, a small bus rolled to a stop and the driver pushed the door open. It belonged to another river rafting company. We waved and yelled. Quickly ascertaining our blue floats were not his responsibility, the driver pulled the folding door shut and sped away.
Like the sign had promised, we were on our own.
“I see the sky clearing over there!” Jackie exclaimed. Sure enough, to the West we could make out the clouds pulling apart, like curtains on a stage, revealing a paradise of blue skies and puffy white pillows.
Above our heads, though, the St. Pete’s reservoir continued to empty itself on our heads. I was reminded of that moment in A Perfect Storm when the crew of the doomed fishing boat sees sunlight peeking through the clouds at the very moment they are swallowed by a crashing wave. I kept that to myself.
“I see the bridge!” Matt hollered, and that was good news. The point where Interstate 240 crosses the French Broad comes just a half-hour before the pullout. We aimed our rafts between the bridge’s towering legs — and found ourselves utterly inundated by fire hose-like torrents pouring from drains in the roadbed high above, shuttling water from under the car tires and onto our heads.
It was like the grand finale in an amusement park flume ride, designed to soak anyone who managed to stay dry in the previous twist, turns, and plunges.
And, in fact, it was just that: As we emerged from under that final downpour, the rain stopped as quickly as it had begun. The river was smooth, the sky silent. In a few moments rays of sun began to warm our saturated bodies.
The drama from above had abated, but the river was not quite through with us. The French Broad has always been a working river, and one of its jobs historically has been to flush away all the waste Asheville could produce. Decades of cleanup have worked wonders in making the river habitable once more, but violent, brief storms have a way of resurrecting the river’s dirty past: On both banks we could hear and see the frothing effluent of gulleys and concrete spillways, each pouring chunky runoff into our path.
The river turned brown around us. Branches, leaves, and rafts of pollen and twigs clogged way. Ducks arrived to pick happily at the floating feast, but they were outnumbered by plastic bottles, bobbing beer cans, and the occasional foam cooler washed into the river from littered ditches, drains, and parking lots.
Up ahead: White Duck Tacos
We were moving perceptively swifter now — and visibly higher as the river level rose. “There’s Duck Tacos!” Matt said, pointing to the right bank. If there had been a stairway, or even a dirt path, from the river, we would have been up there faster than you could say “Abandon ship!”
Happily, the sun came back to stay, and with relief we leaned back on our floats, chewed on some nuts that had inexplicably stayed dry in their Ziploc bag, and marveled at how Matt’s Bluetooth speaker was still singing away from inside the cooler.
The river widened, became a bit lazier, and dispersed the carpet of detritus. Somehow, we recaptured the swoony wave of relaxation that had marked the start of our journey, and we were actually a little disappointed to see the Zen Tubing “Pull Out Here” sign up ahead.
Well, at least Matt and I were.
“Thank God!” Carolyn exclaimed. I think Jackie was shedding silent tears of joy.
A warning to the rest
We were back where we started; where we’d parked and boarded that bus upstream. We regaled the young woman in charge with a thumbnail account of our ordeal, and she gestured toward a group of about a dozen people nearby. They had just driven through that storm, and they were debating whether or not they should proceed with their planned tubing trip.
“Tell them not to do it,” the girl whispered, sounding a little desperate.
Carolyn was more than happy to oblige.
“It’s no fun!” she shouted across the parking lot. “You’ll get soaked!”
A pang of guilt stabbed at me. But it was fun, I thought. Then I looked at Carolyn, her shirt clinging to her frame, her teeth chattering like those of a 4-year-old who stayed in the pool too long.
She was right. Unless you’re one of those die-hard river rats whose idea of a good time is dodging boulders in a leaky kayak, river tubing is a fair-weather sport. We changed into dry clothes and headed for White Duck Tacos. Chowing down hungrily on soft shells stuffed with pork belly, black beans and cheese, we could hear the now-subsiding river gurgling below us.
“We should do that again,” Matt said. “When it’s nicer, I mean.”
No one disagreed.