The rules of the game are simple. First one to fall in the water has to buy the beers. From there, it’s not so black and white. You can lose your balance and fall in, or you could get ambushed and pushed in. There’s a lot of gray territory in there that includes throwing rocks, splashing, manhandling…If you hit the water first on any accord, you’re buying. The game has four players, all on standup paddleboards, running an alarmingly shallow and rocky river. Should we be concerned that we’re mixing alcohol with a sport that puts a premium on balance? Probably. But it’s summer. And this stretch of river was practically made for this type of excursion. We’re paddling a 3.5-mile piece of the French Broad River that runs along the western edge of downtown Asheville, N.C. The trip begins in a park and ends at a riverside bar with big adirondack chairs and grills where hipsters fire up plump, organic steaks on weekends. In the middle of this stretch of river, there’s a brewery. Perfect, right?
We put in on a hot Saturday afternoon and immediately start trying to push each other off our boards. There are some relatively hairy stretches of the French Broad. The river popular with families in outdated canoes that are half-sunk with picnic supplies and orange, circa ’82 life vests. American Whitewater rates it as class I. Occasionally, at high water, there’s a surf-able wave that forms near a fishing pier at the park where the water tumbles over a drainage pipe.
But today, given the fact that each of us is three beers deep before we even dip our toes in the river, and at any given moment, a paddling partner could employ guerrilla warfare and pounce on you, I’d give the river a solid class IV. The fact that the river is low and unusually bony only adds to the difficulty rating. Large rocks that are typically submerged are poking above the surface, ominously.
I know what you’re thinking: You’ve seen this After School Special before. And it doesn’t end well. Any half-witted fool will tell you that water and alcohol don’t mix. All I can say in our defense is, it’s summer. And when it’s hot, we’re more likely to do stupid things. Like craft makeshift necklace koozies out of thin rope and duct tape, so we can paddle with two hands while still carrying cans of Budweiser. Please don’t try this at home. We’re trained professionals.
Everyone stays dry until we hit that drainage pipe that’s occasionally surfable. Today, the top of the black pipe is breaking the surface of the water. Tim, a marathoner and father of five who makes his own crackers (seriously) guns it to try to carry enough speed to muscle his board’s skegs over the pipe. It’s a disaster. His board stops dead as soon as the fins grab the pipe, but Tim keeps going, falling belly and beer first into the shallow water. The rest of us drop to our bellies and surf paddle our boards over the pipe with nothing short of grace.
Tim pops out of the water, bleeding a little from his knee, but rules are rules: the first round is on him.
In order to reach the brewery, we take out at an interstate underpass that’s decorated with really bad graffiti and the occasional condom. Some college kids are there, blowing up cheap inner tubes in between drags on their American Spirit cigarettes (it’s okay, they’re organic!). Lugging our heavy paddleboards on our heads, we set across an abandoned lot and two sets of train tracks to the Wedge Brewery, a local mainstay that serves high gravity beer and buckets of free peanuts so you’ll drink more high gravity beer.
Over the first round of IPA, we tease Tim for his poor balance and question his reasoning behind making his own crackers.
Us: “How much money could you possibly save by making your own crackers?”
Tim: “We have five kids. We eat a lot of crackers.”
It’s decided that we’ll stay for just one more round. After that round, we consult the map and see that it’s at least another mile before our take out, so we order two growlers to go.
The second half of the trip is far less athletic than the first. People fall off their boards often. At one point, we sit cross-legged on our boards letting the current take us where it will while passing the growlers back and forth. It’s all very Huck Finn.
The trip ends at The Bywater, a bar with an expansive lawn that drops right to the edge of the French Broad. Across the river, there’s a city park with five miles of brand new singletrack, which makes me think of staging a killer paddleboard/mountain biking duathlon in the near future. It could even be a triathlon if you consider keg stands a sport.
Somehow, while on my approach to The Bywater’s makeshift take out, I stumble, fall on my cheap plastic paddle, and snap it in two. It’s tough to navigate a paddleboard when you have a growler in your hand.
Once planted safely on terra firma, we split up, sending two men into the bar for the next round while Chuck and I wait in line at The Pink Taco, a food truck that’s taken up residence next to the river.
While waiting, Chuck asks a painfully obvious question: “Why haven’t we done that before?”
We’ve both lived in Asheville for several years. The French Broad has been there for eons. The brewery and bar have been open for at least three years, if not longer. Summer heat, paddleboards, beer–it seems like just an obvious equation, but sometimes, it takes a while to do the math.
I shrug and ask the more important question: “When are we going to do that again?” •