RiverLink brings kids and nature together. Photo from RiverLink.
It’s a simple question: Would the reboot of Asheville be possible without the restoration of the French Broad River?
“I don’t think so,” said Garrett Artz, executive director of RiverLink. “Our organization was formed 32 years ago out of a study that asked the question, ‘How can we get people to stay one more day than the one day they stayed visiting the Biltmore Estate?’ With the study, they thought if they could clean up the river and make it more accessible, it would do that. Turns out, they were right.”
At its essence, then, RiverLink is a nonprofit created to clean up and utilize the French Broad River, the main artery of aquatic recreation in Western North Carolina. RiverLink extends into endless avenues of the outdoors and within the numerous communities along the French Broad.
“It’s about getting people to experience the river, which began with having river access,” Artz said. “We believe if you see it and experience it, you’ll be more aware of it and likely take more care of it.”
Providing hands-on learning experiences for children and adults, RiverLink stands by its three-word mission: experience, learn, conserve.
“We host concerts by the river, K–12 education, kids’ river camps, and created a paddle trail,” Artz noted. “The heavy lifting that’s done by our staff and organization, what we consider high- impact projects, are restoring places that were informal landfills. We’re currently turning a former junkyard into a park, and implementing stormwater control measures that are doing both land and water conservancy.”
RiverLink’s founding executive director, Karen Cragnolin, recently retired. Artz can’t stress enough how much her tireless work over three decades built an unbreakable foundation for the future of the organization.
“Karen was the driver and visionary,” he said. “She had to paint on an absolutely blank canvas, more like a tattered one, and she saw what the river could look like if it was cared for.”
Beyond its countless initiatives and programs, RiverLink takes great pride in its continued work on the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan, a 17-mile greenway project years in the making and quickly nearing completion.
“This plan will accelerate what people are wanting to do and see with the development of the river,” Artz said. “And we’ve become such a water-based economy with all these breweries [along the river]. What a difference they’ve made, all of them very much into the outdoors and conservation.”
“It’s about getting people to experience the river. We believe if you see it and experience it, you’ll be more aware of it and likely take more care of it.” —Garrett Artz, executive director of RiverLink
And for Artz personally, it’s also the faces—young and old—he crosses path with through the physical and spiritual lore of the French Broad River.
“There’s a certain history and heritage that goes along with the river,” he said. “There’s just always great stories. I can’t ever learn enough about the history. All of these river communities, there’s so many stories of what this river means to them.”
The French Broad River is the 218-mile aquatic heart of Western North Carolina. Photo from RiverLink.