When big satisfaction comes from quick, backyard escapes.
I’m not gonna lie to you and say the river I’m paddling is pretty. There are glimpses of pretty—a pasture coming down to the bank with a black cow way off in the corner. The occasional rock outcropping rising from the water’s edge. But mostly it’s just sad. A recent tropical storm has uprooted trees and deposited big pieces of trash, like car doors and full-sized dumpsters, along the banks. Then you have all of the industrial bones that the river cruises through—highway underpasses, sewage pipes…I stood between a discarded shopping cart and stained mattress to scout one rapid. So, we’re not talking about a Wild and Scenic River here. More like Urban and Unattractive.
Not that Hominy Creek, which carves through the suburbs a few miles from downtown Asheville, doesn’t have its charms. It has a few class II rapids. Plus, it’s close to my house. So close that I can ride my bike to it, hitting a mix of singletrack and paved greenway. So don’t talk shit about it, is what I’m saying. And I couldn’t be happier as I paddle slowly down the corridor, my mountain bike strapped to the nose of my raft, halfway through a big day of doing fun things. I’m in the midst of an “adventure cleanse,” an all-day effort meant to serve as a mental and physical reset of sorts. This dirty river might seem like an odd choice for the adventure cleanse that I’m seeking, but it’s the river I have at my disposal. And a quarter mile into the paddle, I can tell the cleanse is working.
Let me be clear: this is not an epic adventure. I never make it more than seven miles from my home. I pedaled out of my garage at 9am and rode directly to a local park to cruise 10 miles of fun, flowy singletrack with a 12-pound packraft and four-piece kayak paddle stuffed into my backpack. I linked that singletrack to a paved greenway, which I pedaled way the hell upstream along the French Broad River, where I connected to more singletrack that I rode two miles upstream along Hominy Creek. This is the Urban and Unattractive Hominy Creek with dumpsters and car doors lingering on the banks. When the singletrack ran out, I inflated the packraft that I had in my backpack, strapped my mountain bike to the front of said raft, and started paddling back toward my house, completing a surf and turf loop. At any time throughout the day, if something went wrong, I could call an uber and go get tacos. But it feels like a big expedition because of the dual-sport/self-sufficiency nature of the adventure.
That’s the beauty of the packraft, small and nimble, so it can be thrown into a pack and added to any outing, allowing certain boaters to paddle remote rivers with limited road access and others to simplify logistics by eliminating the need for a shuttle. Packrafts seem like the piece of gear that should only be used in the backcountry of Alaska, to escape a grizzly or connect glacier runs. Instagram reinforces that notion. Every time I scroll through my feed, I see the tiny boats, loaded with gear, heading towards some red, sandstone canyon in Utah or crossing a lake within a ring of jagged peaks in the Rockies. But I’d argue that packrafts belong everywhere. Even in my urban backyard. Sean Colburn, national stewardship director for American Whitewater, agrees with me. He first started using packrafts when he was working in Montana on a Wild and Scenic River campaign and he needed to paddle remote rivers. It was the perfect tool for the job. But packrafting has become an obsession for him now that he’s back in the Southern Appalachians, where there are roads everywhere.
“Packrafts have a place here,” Colburn says. “They do the job they’re invented to do extremely well, but they do other things too. They’re super fun on whitewater around here, and there are enough runs that require a hike that they make sense.”
Also, I’m not paddling the Grand Canyon this year. I’m not trekking through Rocky Mountains National Park, or trying to traverse a series of lakes through the Grand Tetons. I’m not going heli-skiing in Alaska or surfing Bali…I don’t have any big adventures on the horizon, but I still need the physical and emotional cleanse that comes from that sort of expedition, so I’m trying to squeeze in these backyard micro-adventures as often as possible.
That’s just the phase of life that I’m in right now. I have a day job, kids, wife, a dog, and a geriatric cat. There was a point in my life where I just drove around the western U.S. for a month in a tiny Jetta. Because I could. Because there was no good reason not to drive around the West for a month. I also didn’t mind sleeping in the trunk of a four-door sedan. I felt it was roomy. I no longer think the trunk of a car is a suitable place to sleep. That’s not the phase of life I’m currently living. I’m in the, “I have three free hours on a Tuesday, what’s the most badass thing I can do?” phase of my life.
And adding a packraft sojourn to an urban bike ride is patently badass.
Colburn paddles his packraft all over—on the Nolichucky, or self-shuttling the class IV Big Laurel Creek…he’s sea-kayaked across Lake Fontana to hike deep into Great Smoky Mountains National Park and packrafted down Hazel Creek back to his sea kayak on Lake Fontana.
“They’re cool boats that just kind of make you giggle. We call it ‘laugh-rafting’” Colburn says. “And the boats make you rethink a familiar landscape.”
I’m giggling as I navigate an easy class II beneath an underpass on Hominy Creek. It’s a straightforward wave train, but the weight of the bike on the nose of the boat means I have to pay attention. My legs are beat from pedaling 15 miles to get to this point, and I’m stoked to be sitting down and letting my shoulders do the work. The sun is shining and I might eat a sandwich when Hominy Creek dumps into the more mellow French Broad. Life is good, and I’m tired for the first time in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always tired—I have two kids and sometimes I have to help them with their math. That’s exhausting. But it’s been a while since I’ve experienced that full-body fatigue that’s both physical and emotional. The kind of tired you experience skiing trees for hours on a powder day, or surfing until the sun goes down. It’s not just fatigue. It’s satisfaction. The kind of satisfaction that shifts your perspective and puts you back on the right path. That’s the adventure cleanse I was looking for when I pedaled out of my garage at 9am. And I didn’t have to fly to Alaska to find it. I just needed a bike and a boat in my backyard.