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Rapid relaxation 

Surf's up in Hot Springs, N.C.! For the first time in a decade, the French Broad River has plenty of water in late summer. The combination of higher-than-normal water levels and lower-than-usual air temperatures means perfect conditions for a whitewater rafting trip. It sure beats complaining about hot or rainy weather putting a damper on outdoor activities around the Triangle.

In fact, the eight-mile journey down the river was so much fun we stayed an extra two days to take the same five-hour trip two more times. We now understand the maxim that "you never travel the same water twice." Part of the pleasure comes from the diverse travel partners, including an exuberant group of UNC-CH Emergency Room staff members. Part of the satisfaction also comes from knowing that we are supporting the oldest local, family-owned rafting business--Blue Ridge Rafting (www.blueridgerafting.com or (800) 303-RAFT)--instead of its bigger, corporate competitors.

Of course, the main event always is the nature of Appalachian North Carolina. Seeing the mountains from the vantage point of the middle of the river not only was beautiful, but also a powerful reminder of the importance of environmental protection in western N.C. We must admit that protecting the environment took second place to protecting our vertical positions as we flew down (and up) the bigger rapids. The French Broad's rapids are exhilarating rather than death-defying (mostly class 2 and 3), but they're not for little children or anyone frail.

Two weeks passed before the call to return to the relaxed pace, friendly informality and the joys of river rafting became irresistible. Driving up on a recent Friday after work and returning Sunday evening gave us the time to float and paddle to our heart's content both Saturday and Sunday. The eight-mile trip is more than twice as enjoyable as the four-mile one. There's a bonding that happens over the course of these five hours--with the environment, with each other and with the knowledgeable and experienced guides (especially Mikey, Joe, Rick and Cori)--that is hard to duplicate elsewhere. Even a very relaxing day at home has little of the restorative power of the mountains and the river. Like everyone else, we talk about needing a break. This experience meets that need in a low-key, nothing-fancy way.

The French Broad also is the river less traveled, so we did not encounter the crowds or raft fleets that diminish the delight of getting away from it all. Coupled with a hearty skillet breakfast at the Smokey Mountain Diner, a sandwich lunch on an island in the river and a delicious mountain trout dinner (and live music) at the Paddlers Pub, this short visit to Hot Springs (about 45 minutes northwest of Asheville in Madison County) had the recuperative effect of a much longer vacation.

Of course, we can't go there all the time. That's why our next reservation isn't for another two weeks.

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