French Broad River

Life on the French Broad

It is a truth universally acknowledged that field trips are the best part of school.

While I do admit that “universally acknowledged” might not be literally true here (nor did Jane Austen use it literally), I firmly believe that taking a field trip is one of the best ways to feel more connected to the subject I’m studying.

This weekend I went on the MEM Water Resources Management (WRM) trip to Asheville for some good ole’ camping, hiking, deep discussions about water, and a brewery tour.  When I read the agenda for the weekend, I thought to myself, This is what I’m in grad school for!  This is my chance to hang out with other water-minded people and enjoy the great outdoors of North Carolina!

Before I moved to Durham to start the MEM program at Duke, I had heard a few rumors about what grad school would be like.  I’ve listed some of the predictions people have made about grad school below, in order from most exciting to most depressing.

  1. Grad school will be the place where you can meet like-minded people.  Or, they’ll have shared interests with you and differing viewpoints on those interests.  No matter what, there will be lots of people you’ll want to talk to.
  2. You’ll have a ton of fun with those people referenced in #1.
  3. You’re going to work really hard.
  4. You’re going to work so hard that you won’t sleep a lot.
  5. You’re going to spend a lot of money on coffee.

These predictions shaped my expectations for grad school.  My visions of what I’d be doing at Duke included me with a bucket of coffee and a bunch of notebooks, surrounded by other people with the same quantities of coffee and notebooks, and then the next day we’d jaunt off to the mountains to take a little hike and end it all with a picnic.

I’ve already experienced the realizations of predictions 3-5, have certainly felt that a bucket of coffee would be truly a dream come true.

The field trip to Asheville this weekend fulfilled predictions #1 and 2, and I was thrilled to get the chance to jaunt off to the mountains as anticipated.  Of course, in your daydreams about grad school, you forget two vital points: a) you’re so sleepy from all the studying that you don’t have quite the energy you would have liked for a field trip; and b) mountains get cold.

A snapshot of the trail we hiked near Asheville
A snapshot of the trail we hiked near Asheville

Our group of around 20 people set off on our trip on Saturday morning before 7 am and made it to Asheville for lunch.  I wanted the chance to explore downtown a little, but we were pressed for time.  The great news is that I’m returning to Asheville this weekend for fall break, so I knew I’d have the chance to return and explore.

After lunch downtown at a little crepe place, we made our way to our beautiful campsite: a spot directly on the bank of the French Broad River.

Since I did my undergraduate thesis on flooding at a campsite, a part of my brain immediately launched into panic mode.  (HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE IT RAINED? HOW BIG IS THE 100-YEAR FLOODPLAIN? IS MY TENT GOING TO BE SWEPT AWAY?)

Once I assuaged those concerns with a cursory analysis of the width of the river and the dry, clear blue sky, I decided this was a fine place to camp.  Not that I had a choice anyway.

After setting up camp, our next move was to our hiking spot in an experimental forest.  This was where prediction #1 (see list above) came true on the trip.  A forest is a great place to talk about water because it’s everywhere.  From streams to leaves to mud to spiders, there is no escaping the issue of water in a forest.

Being a group of water-minded people, our hike didn’t last long before our professor, Martin Doyle, encouraged us to tromp around in a stream.  So, we jumped down into the stream and investigated the high flow marks, the braided flow pattern, and the origins of flow, and discussed whether the stream should be included under federal jurisdiction or not…

I promise you, the discussion was not dry.  (Pun intended.)


My favorite part of the trip was what happened after the hike.  We drove back to our campsite (after a quick stop by Trader Joe’s, because after all, we Nic Schoolers seem to love Trader Joe’s), changed into comfy campfire clothes, and set about eating pizza and discussing water by the fire and the French Broad River.

The French Broad River at sunset
The French Broad River at sunset

Though I was tired out from the lack of sleep (see prediction #4 above), I felt a tremendous amount of gratitude to be sitting on a picnic table by a river, surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve met, discussing something so important to all of us and all of the world around us.  Water is necessary to survive.  Period.

Water is necessary for so many of the challenges to sustainability that we talk about in the Nic School: Energy.  Ecosystem health.  Food security.  Economic health through thriving sustainable business operations.

I could continue to list the importance of water to human and environmental systems.  The point is, the fact that I’m here at Duke, learning from professors and peers who work at the forefront of water issues, is very exciting to me.  The fact that my Saturday night consisted of discussing important water resource issues around a campfire is also exciting to me.

The night ended with our professor, Martin Doyle, reading from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.  Amused as we were by Twain’s high praise of science (“There is something fascinating about science.  One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”), I went to bed/sleeping bag with visions of riverboats in my head.

In my next post, I’ll fill you in on the brewery tour and on anything interesting that I encounter in Asheville this coming weekend.  Till then, I’ll leave you with more Twain ponderings.


“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.  And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”

– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

2 thoughts on “Life on the French Broad

  1. Very interesting! I didn’t realize that education could be fun! I’m glad you’re the future! You know so much!

    Totally not your little sister,

  2. What wonderful pictures!

    Thanks for reminding me of what solace nature can provide with its beauty.

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