“Things are different lately.” This is certainly an understatement. I find myself teaching science classes from my deck, while simultaneously navigating the facilitation of my pre-K and first grader’s online learning curricula. Instead of conversation with colleagues, I join forces with my neighbor to do our best to keep watch from our front porches while we both move between various online meetings interrupted by sibling rivalries. Balancing the professional lives of two full time working partners while raising three children is not for the faint of heart. I try every day to find the silver linings in the midst of challenging circumstances.
When the clutter of our daily responsibilities begins to subside by mid-afternoon, my family and I often find ourselves wandering down to the little creek that flows adjacent to our property. We are lucky to have this beautiful resource just a few hundred yards from our back door. I started building a trail down to the creek last year. The trail passes through the long forgotten outreaches of a patchwork of half-acre suburban lots that commiserate to form a remarkably beautiful woodland area with towering white pines and gnarled wild cherry trees which rival some of the largest I have ever seen.
Over the past several weeks, with the rapid emergence of spring, a chorus of wild flowers has created a portrait of color strewn amidst the dark, humus rich forest floor. Spring Beauties and Bloodroot grow boldly amidst the reaching ways of poison ivy vines that are beginning to crawl into the edges of our wooded pathway. The morning clouds give way to the cheerful warmth of the afternoon sun, and we are called to the waters of Smith-Mill Creek.
Meandering past the groundhog holes, and beneath the nests of the increasingly robust population of our avian neighbors, we descend into our backyard gorge. The trail cuts sharply through a series of switchbacks that go up and over an outcropping of boulders. My youngest son River likes to test his newfound ambulatory abilities and leaps from rock to rock. I hold his hand through the last steep chute of slippery soil, and we arrive.
The water shimmers in the afternoon sun as it flows gently through a gravel bar. Smith-Mill Creek makes its journey on the outskirts of West Asheville, draining the flanks of Spivey Mountain, passing through agricultural, suburban and urban landscapes before connecting with the French Broad River. Smith-Mill Creek is unfortunately one of the more polluted watersheds in our county, but thanks to the work of local non-profit, Riverlink, there is a plan in place to improve the water quality of Smith-Mill over the next few years. The section that borders my backyard happens to be one of the targeted sections of Smith-Mill slated for improvement. The creek will eventually be rerouted to reduce erosion and the eventual sediment load deposited into the French Broad. On this particularly glorious sunny afternoon, in the midst of a global pandemic, my family and I feel nothing but extraordinarily thankful to be able to access this waterway on foot.
My kids don their Chacos and splash off around a muddy bend. It is not long before I hear excited shouts about the discovery of a salamander, and rush to investigate. They dig their hands into the muddy clay banks, and I have vivid memories from my own childhood, catching Mud Puppies with my friends. The creek in this half-mile stretch of land serves as the borderland between field and forest.
The field is an old campground, remnants of a Moose Lodge from years ago. The new owner is attempting to resurrect the lodge and turn it into a small outdoor concert venue, and is determined to help safeguard the ecological integrity of the property. There are still old electrical boxes where people used to hook up their campers. The wires and plastic conduit criss-cross the stream bed, lying on the bottom, relics of a changing landscape.
I remember that rivers can teach us things. I think about paddling, and feel disappointed about the loss of the spring race season and so many other joyful moments of gathering as a community. I remember the old line of thinking about doing what you are able, with the resources you have, where you are, and stare into the waters of Smith-Mill Creek with a new perspective. I sprint back up the hill to get my garden shears and my daughter’s kayak & paddle.
I cut the old wires and pull them out of the water. I remove a few strainers and trim back some briar bushes that overhang the bank; in the process I create a two hundred yard stretch of navigable stream bed. My daughter, Aoife, runs and grabs her paddle, climbs into her tiny kayak, and sets forth into uncharted waters. She takes turns with my son Stokes, and when they reach the end of the tiny course, I help them pull the boat out of the water and walk it back to the put-in: a glorious little patch of sand offering the opportunity to create lasting memories.
In these passing moments, amidst the magic of Smith-Mill Creek, we forget about our worries, and forge a deeper connection with the land and waters that sustain us. At the moment, our daily lives may feel upended. Things are certainly different, but wandering into the waters that flow so close to home, I am reminded of the opportunities and the certainty that the paddling community will always find pathways to renewal, community, and coexistence in light of any challenge.