The recent Twelve Mile Circle journey to western North Carolina included one of my favorite activities, whitewater rafting. The boys were finally getting old enough to join us although we still kept it pretty easy on them, sticking primarily to a series of Class II and Class III rapids (moderate to intermediate). This made a guided rafting adventure on the French Broad River particularly enjoyable and appropriate for our little group (map).
Similar references and claims repeated themselves as I searched for a suitable rafting operator. Invariably websites noted that the French Broad River was the third oldest river in the world. It was always the third oldest. Even the U.S. Forest Service repeated the claim. I didn’t have any ability to corroborate or debunk the statement at the time so I tucked it away in my mind, intending to check it later. I’ve learned since then that measuring the age of rivers wasn’t an exact science. However, geologists could determine their relative ages in wide general bands based upon various signs and conditions. Determining an exact order would be problematic.
The best that might be said of the French Broad River was that it was really, really old, maybe 300 million years old. I pondered that for a moment. The first dinosaurs evolved during the Mesozoic Era, 225 million years ago. It was entirely possible, even likely, that the course of the French Broad River predated dinosaurs. Many geologists believed that possibility because the current flow of the French Broad could exist only if the river predated the Appalachian Mountains, because it sliced entirely through the range.
Mountains formed over millions of years in fits and starts, providing plenty of time for rushing water to preserve the original channel via erosion while the range slowly rose around it. Otherwise — had the river had been younger than the mountains — the channel would have formed on one side of the range or the other.
The mountain range surfaced during the Alleghanian orogeny, when the Euramerica continent (including modern North America) and the Gondwana continent (including modern Africa) slammed into each other to form the super-continent Pangaea. Orogeny was nothing more than a fancy word meaning, "the process of mountain formation especially by folding of the earth’s crust." Thus, geologists could estimate the age of the mountains and then by implication work backwards to estimate the age of the river. The initial collision took place approximately 300 million years ago so the French Broad River must be something older than that.
That was about all the geology my simplistic mind could comprehend. I still wondered about the river’s name and assumed correctly that French Broad had nothing to do with a woman from France. English explorers discovered two rivers of comparably broad width situated near each other on opposite sides of the Eastern Continental Divide on the unsettled fringes of the Carolina colonies.
The western river flowed towards the interior of the continent, in the general direction of lands claimed by France in the Mississippi watershed. Thus it became known as the French Broad River. Its course took it past what later became modern-day Asheville, then northwest through the Appalachian mountains (going past Lover’s Leap) then due west to the current city of Knoxville. There it joined the Tennessee River, onward to the Ohio River and finally into the Mississippi River.
The eastern river was located just outside of modern-day Asheville, directly past the summit of a ridge a few miles to the southeast. It flowed into the Congaree River and then to the Santee River and finally into the Atlantic Ocean. It became known as the English Broad River because that’s where the English has established their colony. The name shortened later to Broad River, so now there was a French Broad River and a Broad River. I saw the Broad River when we visited Lake Lure during the same trip. I’m lucky to be able to say that I had the distinction of experiencing both the Broad and the French Broad Rivers during our outdoor activities.
Was the French Broad River the third oldest river in the world? Well, who knows. It certainly fell within the top tier of ancient rivers.
Hurricane Katrina formed ten years ago today, on August 23, 2005, and hit New Orleans on the 29th. I wrote about some of my family’s experiences previously in Hurricane Katrina: Family Memories 5 Years Later. I can’t believe another five years has passed. I can’t believe I’m still writing Twelve Mile Circle either.