Unlocking the Pigeon River for outdoor recreation

Mar. 13—The clear mountain waters of the Pigeon River course for 70 miles through Haywood County — ideal for kayaking, tubing, canoeing, swimming and drift boat fishing. The only issue? Finding a public access point to hop on.

In hopes of solving the Pigeon River access conundrum, a feasibility study is underway to examine public put-in and take-out points for river recreation.

Three parties in Haywood County are jointly funding the study, which will focus on riverside property already owned by the county or towns.

"We're going to look at the feasibility of opening up those sites to residents and visitors for possible use of the river," said Corrina Ruffieux, executive director of the Tourism Development Authority. "Whether it's easy access for trout fishing, more tubing, kayaking or just to park on the river because people like water. We don't know what the outcome is going to be yet. We're just looking at those sites for 'How can we start getting people out on the water?'"

To outdoor enthusiasts like Steven Reinhold, founder of The Appalachian Adventure Company, the Pigeon is one of the most beautiful natural resources the county has to offer. He's a big advocate of any plan to gain public access to unlock its potential.

"We're sitting on a liquid gold mine that is the Pigeon River," Reinhold said. "We're blessed with such a pristine watershed here. I just kind of think that basically the potential is unlimited for being able to tap into the Pigeon River for recreational opportunities and public parks, public settings, things like that."

Surrounding communities have their own respective rivers to enjoy, he said. Asheville has the French Broad River, Sylva has the Tuckasegee River, Franklin has the Little Tennessee and so on.

"They have parking facilities, bathrooms, trash receptacles," he said of public amenities along the rivers. "I just see thousands of people out there enjoying themselves and utilizing the river. And I just feel like we're missing the opportunity here in Haywood County to have those kinds of experiences."

However, Reinhold said that it's almost a 'tale of two rivers' right now.

"Upstream from Canton we've had a long history of recreation, fly fishing, hiking, just hanging out in the creeks. And then downstream from Canton, I think the river's almost been forgotten about a little bit, and I feel like honestly it's one of the prettier parts," he said.

For more than 110 years, the paper plant polluted the waterway downstream. For most of the mill's history, swimming in the toxic water was dangerous and eating fish from the river ill-advised.

"There was a point where it was actually declared biologically dead for miles downstream," Reinhold said.

While water quality improved substantially over the past 20 years, the reputation lingered.

Now, following the mill's closure, there's been a noticeable contrast in the color and quality of the water, Reinhold said. When he was younger all his memories were in the headwaters, he never even considered going on adventures downstream because of the pollution.

"It just seems to be repairing itself pretty quickly," he described. "It used to be almost like a dark blackish brown to it, and you can actually see rocks at the base of it now, it's pretty incredible."

In fact, it was the mill closure that prompted the idea of a feasibility study to open up the Pigeon River recreation as it flows downstream Canton, through Clyde, Iron Duff and Panther Creek and eventually to Waterville Lake at the Tennessee line.

Tapping the potential

Even before the mill closure was announced, local tourism, recreation, environmental and economic development leaders were already looking for new ways to highlight the county's natural resources. They formed an ad-hoc committee for brainstorming — and the Pigeon rose to the top.

"We thought 'how do we grow our outdoor community and activities?' And the Pigeon River came to the top spot very quickly," said David Francis, county economic development director.

The Pigeon River is why the paper mill was built here back in 1905, and provided an economic engine for the county for 115 years. Francis said the Pigeon River will still be an economic engine for county.

"The committee identified that we have this beautiful river flowing through our county and we really don't leverage it as an asset for outdoor recreation — whether it's locals using it or visitors using it. And so, that was one of our top gaps of something that Haywood County could look at," Ruffieux recalled.

The group of stakeholders also signed up for a nine-month program called Made by Mountains "Building Outdoor Communities." At the end, there was an opportunity to apply for a grant.

Haywood County gave it a shot, applying for a grant to fund the Pigeon River Access Plan feasibility study.

Unfortunately, the grant was rejected. The competition was high, with twice as many grant applications than there was funding for.

But the parties involved in writing the grant still felt it was a valuable idea and decided to fund a Pigeon River feasibility study themselves.

Creating the plan will cost $40,000, with $10,000 from the Haywood County TDA, $20,00 from Haywood County and $10,000 from the town of Canton.

Next steps

The feasibility study is just phase one in the Pigeon River access plan. It will focus on sites that are currently owned by the county or town, and assesses them through the lens of stewardship and flood mitigation.

"We're looking at what's more feasible, therefore affordable for future progress. And what do our locals want to see along the river? And we're going to try and marry those things together," Ruffieux said.

Once a plan is in place, there's still the job of finding money to create public access points with put-ins and take-outs.

"The thought of being able to provide some access closer to where people could go have fun and then either rent a kayak or rent a bike, or a tube and then go shopping or get dinner. All of that is a big part of the outdoor economy," Ruffieux said. "This is a great opportunity to leverage a very underutilized asset to provide an activity for both our locals to enjoy and for visitors. And the visitors will hopefully spend a little money and help support our local businesses."

Francis said river recreation goes hand in hand with other outdoor recreation sites that have come online or are in the works — from Chestnut Mountain Park outside Canton to the Raccoon Creek Bike Park in Waynesville. Of course, it's not all about tourism, Francis said.

"Any of those recreational enhancements that we can have for our residents so that they're not traveling to other places to do things — so they can stay here in the county and have these amenities. Then it's just a win-win for everybody," Francis said.

As for Reinhold, he just wants others to experience the same love he has for being on the water.

"It's just as much about the beauty of nature," Reinhold said. "The ability to come out and enjoy the beauty and quiet of nature. Because nature is medicine, it is so healing and we have such an incredible opportunity to open up access to these quiet moments in nature."