thats_wild (2006-39)

Floats of strength, acts of mussel

Defending the French Broad

by Rikki Hall

Today a flotilla from Asheville invaded Hot Springs. Tonight they shall soak. Next Thursday they invade Knoxville, attacking Volunteer Landing at 5 p.m. sharp. We must defend our city. These are the people whose sewage we filter from the river at great expense so we can drink the water, them and the folks up into Southwest Virginia who pee in the Holston.

By the time the invaders reach Knoxville, they will have been on the river two weeks, inhaling the freakish chemicals Appalachian monkeyface fart bubbles release when they rise to the surface and burst. Weak and disoriented, they will be no match for Knoxville’s defenses. At the Holston-French Broad confluence, they will be surrounded by a private navy. It is not the Vol Navy, but if the invaders are smart, they will surrender peacefully, and there is reason to suspect they are, in fact, intelligent.

The invaders represent Riverlink, a conservation organization working in North Carolina since 1987 (long before my father retired to Asheville and joined the Riverlink board of directors). They launched their assault from Rosman, N.C., on Sept. 6. A foray up the Swannanoa River on Sept. 12 was met by a brigade of some 300 UNC-Asheville students, and the resulting melee left the stretch of river between Azalea Park and Biltmore Village devoid of trash.

River cleanups, educational events, community outreach and a little quality time with the old broad are the goals of the trip, which Riverlink has dubbed “Tour de French Broad.” Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson is the admiral leading the charge. He and trusty second mate Mark Vanderhoff will float the full 219-mile journey, joined by a variety of compatriots along the way. Their complete schedule is available online at , and paddlers are welcome to join them for any portion of the trip. The final segment launches from Forks of the River at 3 p.m. for an easy float into downtown Knoxville for a celebration.

Of course I’m joking about the monkeyface farts. The Appalachian monkeyface is an endangered mussel that no longer occurs in the French Broad, so even if they released disorienting gases, which they don’t, paddlers on the river would be in no danger. That may change soon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service is preparing to reintroduce the monkeyface and 14 other species of threatened and endangered mussels to the lower portions of the French Broad and Holston Rivers.

Local non-profit Conservation Fisheries, Inc. has developed techniques for tank-rearing freshwater mussels, and once paperwork and hearings are completed, monkeyfaces, pigtoes, wartybacks and more will be released several miles below Douglas and Cherokee Dams.

J.R. Shute and Pat Rakes of Conservation Fisheries recently discovered an ancient muskrat midden along the French Broad, near River Islands golf course. The muskrat had pried open mussels, eaten them and piled up the shells. It dined on at least 22 species of mussels, including a few that are now extinct, and the find is invaluable evidence of the historical distribution of mussels before we invaded the river and assaulted it with dams and pollution and runoff.

Cherokees built villages along rivers and depended on the waters for many things they can no longer provide in quantity. They ate fish, mussels, frogs and more. If you buy mussels at the grocery store, they likely come from saltwater beds in Korea or China. Commercial musseling is permitted in the Tennessee River, though not the French Broad, but the primary product is pulverized shells used to seed pearls in Asian oyster beds.

The bounty from our rivers is nothing like it once was, something to keep in mind when corporations that use rivers as toilets whine about stronger pollution regulations costing jobs. If they were better neighbors, more people could make a living from the rivers, like early settlers and natives did for so long.

When the Riverlink flotilla arrives at Volunteer Landing, they will deliver a State of the River speech, a comprehensive update on the health of the French Broad and what is being done to keep her grand. Runoff mitigation projects at schools and businesses,  better construction practices, establishment of the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge and French Broad Conservation Corridor and dozens of other citizen initiatives have contributed to the river’s recovery. Speakers will discuss those efforts and the many critters that benefit. Everyone is invited to the ceremony.

Though they are not actually invaders, Riverkeeper Carson’s navy might be joined in spirit by John Sevier and his short-lived State of Franklin militia when they put in below Douglas Dam. A Cherokee trading party might emerge from the mists, and the mussels that have lived in the shoals and sands of the river for 300 million years might give up a sigh of relief that the worst is over and we are finding peace with the river at last.

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.