Headwaters Celebrating 25 Years On The River
April 20, 2017
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of Headwaters Outfitters, the fly-fishing and paddling guide service located on N.C. 215 at the headwaters of the French Broad River.
When they first opened in 1992, the owners, David and Debbie Whitmire, said they had people come in and tell them they were crazy. Some of those people asked, "Who would ever come here to do this?"
The Whitmires started with 10 canoes and one passenger van. Today, they have more than 70 boats.
The company offers tours up and down the French Broad River but also lead trips on Lake Joccassee, along with employing some of the region's expert anglers.
To make their business successful, the couple relied on each other.
When they met, Debbie was the recreation manager at a resort in Sapphire, and David was working on the resort. Both of them grew up on the water -Debbie in the swamps and lakes of Florida, and David on the mountain rivers and creeks. With their combined experience they knew they had the right start, but one glimpse at the French Broad River in the early 1990s would have had many doing a double take.
The river was full of trash - cars, tires, cans and household appliances. You name it, and people chucked it off a bridge and into the river. Over the years, David estimates he has pulled more than 5,000 tires from the river during Headwaters' annual French Broad River Clean-up, which takes place May 20 this year.
"We did the cleanup twice a year, but for the last eight years we have done it just once," said David. "Now, the river looks more like the Davidson River. It's pristine, with campsites and people who want to help preserve it."
The French Broad River cleanup has become a community event. Each year, registration fills up quickly with people who want to give back.
Headwaters' paddling trips are also more than just a float down the river, with an educational component that is part of what brings people back for more.
Debbie went to school for outdoor recreation and has managed ski resorts and other programs, so imparting some of her reverence for the land and the water is important to her.
"When someone comes to us we help them get to know the river, how old it is," she said. "They understand river safety and what they need to know to get out on the water. We hope to inspire people to take care of their own local rivers and be good stewards. If they don't have a good experience, they won't come back. In the last few years, we have had people who came in 25 years ago and they are bringing their kids now. We have people tell us they go out and explore rivers across the world, and that they were inspired by us."
That's a rewarding experience for both of them. The pair said that now they are seeing the county take some ownership of the river, with assistance in removing logjams and providing dumpsters for all of the trash that volunteers gather. One huge logjam a number of years ago cost $140,000 to remove.
David said they are seeing appreciation for the river grow and that 25 years ago there weren't even that many private boaters. Seeing more outfitters in the county makes them happy too. Headwaters was also the first mountain bike guide service in the area.
"It was us and the summer camps," he said. "These woods and the river will stay protected if people love and enjoy them."
Debbie said that a piece of their success has been being as involved as much as they can.
Through their contacts in the paddle sports industry they have been involved in many educational programs and are members of the Professional Paddlesports Association.
"We even started a chapter of the paddle sports association of North Carolina," she said. "We discuss industry trends, risk management and safety. We have worked with a ton of people across the industry. We have served with the RiverLink, French Broad River Foundation and MountainTrue's Riverkeeper Program. We were one of the first outfitters in the area. Outdoor recreation was here before we were, but we have made every penny walk three times."
Headwaters Outfitters has also helped a number of young folk get their foot in the outdoor industry door.
Each year, Headwaters calls the Brevard College Wilderness Leadership program and finds experienced students looking for summer guide jobs.
Some of those students have gone on to be industry leaders, working at companies such as National Geographic, while others have gone on to start their own businesses.
One memory that stands out in their careers was around 2005 when two men brought an alligator up from Florida and put it in the French Broad River. Paddlers kept coming in from the water telling them they had seen an alligator.
David and Debbie brushed it off for a couple of days, but when people kept reporting it, they went out to investigate.
"We just figured it was a mistake," said David. "This was right around the time that people started using the phrase 'climate change' and some people thought alligators were making their way into the mountains. Turns out it was just a couple rednecks who played a mean trick on an alligator. It was the best marketing for us ever."
A family owned business, their daughter, Jessica, now runs the marketing and promotions side of the business.
They recently opened the Forks of the River taproom on site, and Blue Smoke Barbecue sets up shop on their property twice a week. Both the taproom and the food truck continue to draw people in.
Their retail space inside has all the latest gear - from paddling gear like Stand Up Paddleboards and the newest PFD designs to fly-fishing gear.