Rafters enjoy the rapids on the French Broad River
As kids head back to school and Labor Day approaches, families are taking their last opportunities to enjoy the outdoor activities that abound in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains.
About 130 miles northwest of Charlotte, Asheville sits in the heart of the mountain range in Buncombe County at the confluence of the Swannanoa River and the French Broad River. Summer is one of the most popular seasons for the area's more than 3.3 million guests annually and many come for fun on the river, according to the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Outdoor adventures are absolutely what our mountains are known for," said Dodie Stephens of the visitors bureau. "People come here to have a range of experiences whether that be a hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway or rafting on one of these scenic rivers."
In fact, about 4 percent of overnight guests to Asheville participate in rafting activities, as opposed to the U.S. average of 1 percent, according to a 2015 Longwoods study. With more than a dozen companies offering outdoor activities in the region, at least half specialize in whitewater rafting.
One company, French Broad Adventures, catered to 18,600 rafters in its entire March-October season in 2015, and this year has served just under 15,000 visitors during its busiest months of June, July and August.
"My favorite part is when I can sit over here in my office or look out my window, and the bus pulls in and people are clapping and they come off with a big smile," said Mitch Hampton, co-owner of the company. "It's pretty amazing."
Hampton said that 30 percent of visitors return year after year but most newcomers have never rafted before.
Some who may have previously opted to visit Charlotte's U.S. National Whitewater Center instead of driving more than two hours to the mountains, didn’t have that option for much of the summer. The center’s manmade river was shut down in June after an Ohio teenager died after contracting a brain-eating amoeba during a visit. The Whitewater Center reopened on Aug. 10.
Although Hampton said he cannot say definitively whether the facility's closure caused the number of visitors this summer to rise, he does frequently get questions from worried rafters.
"They just call kind of concerned about it," said Hampton. "They've read about it and they are simply just asking if there's been any notice from anyone contacting us about the amoeba, if tests are being done, that sort of thing."
Because the French Broad River is a naturally flowing river and is not recirculated like that of the Whitewater Center, he said they do not face the same danger of contamination from amoebas.
For the Hutto family, from Orlando, Fla., finding a fun family activity while vacationing in North Carolina led them to French Broad Adventures.
"We had no idea of what to expect," said Tim Hutto, 45, who owns a medical manufacturing company. "The scenery was beautiful and you're right on the water, seeing everything, so it was great."
"The whole experience was absolutely wonderful," said his wife, Natasha Hutto, 41. “The view, the water, even the bumpy ride."