outdoor recreation

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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Adventure Run on Mt. Cammerer Loop

At most, I stared only a few inches in front of my feet as I moved slowly up the rocky trail. Each step required full focus in order to convince myself to keep going up, up, up. The initial excitement of this trail running challenge faded almost instantly when my labored breathing and pounding heart rate quickly surpassed the pace of my running. One thing was clear—this trail was determined to defeat me within the first mile.

In a casual conversation around a hiker hostel campfire the night before, I’d mentioned my plan to run the Mount Cammerer loop. Slightly less than 16 miles in length, the counterclockwise loop was a challenge I’d wanted to undertake for some time. My contribution to the conversation felt slightly less impressive given that I was sitting with a group of thru-hikers currently tackling the Appalachian Trail. These seasoned, gritty trekkers seemed quite interested in my pursuit though, clearly a result of the respect all trail lovers have for any worthwhile adventure. As I retired to my rustic accommodations for the evening, I felt an increased excitement for the following day’s journey.

I chose a rather easy start/finish spot for my run—Cosby Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This section of the park is perfect for anyone wanting to experience the beauty without the hassle of the crowds. Tent and RV camping are offered at this entrance, and the area feels secluded yet safe. The campgrounds have several trails to choose from with a variety of distances and difficulty levels.

My adventure began on the Low Gap Trail, which has a trailhead right at the parking lot. The first quarter-mile was easy single track running that lulled me into a sense of wonderment as I looked around in all directions at the abundant rhododendron plants. Crossing a wooden footbridge over a storybook-like creek, I passed some day hikers taking advantage of the beautiful morning in the woods. Within a matter of minutes though, things took a turn in a more challenging direction. What had started out as a pretty good running pace was suddenly reduced to what felt like a crawl.

The Low Gap Trail takes you up to an intersection with the famed Appalachian Trail. When looking at it on a map, you don’t get a realistic feel for what this initial short trail experience will be. All I saw when I first researched the entire loop was that Low Gap Trail would only be 2.8 miles long before meeting the AT. What I was now experiencing in real life was the 2,000 feet of elevation gain that occurs in that slightly less than three mile “run.” The trail was testing my athletic ability and it was winning.

I love a good challenge (it’s why I was doing the run in the first place) but this loop adventure was doing everything it could to defeat me in the first hour. On a ridgeline, I finally met the Appalachian Trail and could put the Low Gap Trail in my rearview. Several hikers were resting at the intersection and seemed surprised to see me slowly run up. I struggled to respond to the questions they asked as my breath had staged a mutiny on my body about a mile earlier. After some nodding and one-word answers, I turned to see that the AT was continuing the ascending trend!

Onward and upward! In a matter of minutes, the trail was traversing the ridgeline and the trees gave way to stunning views of nearly all of Cocke County, Tennessee. White blazes on the trees, the infamous markers of the AT, began to pass at a faster rate as the trail leveled out and running became more effortless. The trail weaves in and out of the Tennessee/North Carolina border for about two miles and around every turn I was sure that I was about to see the iconic Mt. Cammerer Firetower looming over me.

I finally came to a sign indicating that I’d need to take a spur trail to the tower and would thus have to come back down to this same spot to get on the AT to continue the loop. This trail only went about a half mile to the tower and it was well worth it! Like a boxer in the late rounds, the firetower has taken a beating from the weather over the years but it still stands as a marvel to each person able to reach it. Chipped paint and warped floorboards add to the allure of the building as you take in the 360-degree views from the wraparound deck. Built in 1930 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it has seen generations of adventure seekers arrive at its nearly 5,000 foot summit. I spent about 30 minutes taking in the views and eating some much-needed calories before heading back down to the loop.

Once I was back at the loop, I was met by more thru hikers on their way to Maine. At only 230 miles into their journey, it was clear their adventure was long from being over. Mine was one-third of the way done but it had felt like 230 miles for me at some points. I proceeded to descend down the AT on what felt like the staircase for giants. The stone steps were just far enough apart to make running at a consistent pace very difficult. Thick mud from a recent storm created an additional obstacle between each step. But I was descending instead of climbing and that felt like a small victory. Somewhere around mile 8.5, I left the Appalachian Trail and turned onto the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail.

Though I had seen countless hikers for the past couple of hours, from this point on until I got to my car I didn’t see a single person. It was like having two completely different running experiences in one trip. This trail felt isolated and slightly eerie, and I loved it. I was finally feeling like I could run more than power hike. The trail winds around the side of the mountain range and slowly drops a couple thousand feet. This was a manageable and enjoyable downhill that almost made me forget the first two uphill miles of the adventure that nearly brought me to my knees. Back at the car, my 15.5-mile adventure was coming to a bittersweet end. I’d accomplished what I set out to do but I was feeling a sense of sadness that it was over. A short drive to Adventure Distilling Company for a taste of the local moonshine and a well-earned rest was the perfect end to the long weekend. My legs ached but the satisfaction made it all well worth it.

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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