Story by Frances Figart | Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham
Gray Jernigan fell in love with rivers and Western North Carolina as a kid at Falling Creek Camp in Henderson County. First in canoes, then kayaks, he “dove head first,” he says, into paddling.
“I’ll never forget my first whitewater trip on the lower Green River in a tandem canoe with a friend at camp,” he says. “Later I taught paddling at Falling Creek Camp, and in the years since I’ve guided rafts out West and sea kayaks out East. But that first trip at summer camp is what got me hooked.”
Originally from Raleigh, Jernigan managed to receive undergraduate degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in between paddling gigs. After graduating, he spent some time on the North Carolina coast working for a land trust and kayak guiding. Then, he decided to attend Vermont Law School where he earned a law degree and masters.
“After graduating, I came home to North Carolina and worked practicing law with a small private firm in eastern NC, and then took a job as staff attorney and communications coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance— an international nonprofit focused on protecting our waters and keeping them clean,” he says. “Waterkeeper Alliance supports all of the Riverkeeper organizations around the world. I was based in Raleigh, and worked with Riverkeepers across the state (including the French Broad Riverkeeper at MountainTrue) on water quality issues stemming from concentrated animal feeding operations.”
When the southern regional director position opened at MountainTrue last year, Jernigan was well acquainted with the organization and jumped at the opportunity to get back to the mountains. He became the new southern regional director and Green Riverkeeper for MountainTrue earlier this year.
MountainTrue was formed in 2015 by the merger of three of the oldest and most respected environmental advocacy organizations in WNC dating back to the early 1980s: Western North Carolina Alliance, Environmental and Conservation Organization and Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance.
What do Riverkeepers actually do? “Riverkeepers are the key protectors and watchdogs of their respective waterways,” says Jernigan. “They fight for safe and healthy waterways for all citizens by bringing together and empowering local residents and communities to identify pollution sources, advocate for and enforce environmental laws and engage in restoration.”
Essentially, a Riverkeeper is the voice of the river, advocating for its protection and holding polluters accountable. This is achieved through a combination of education, volunteer engagement for on-the-ground projects, policy advocacy, investigation and enforcement.
Jernigan and his colleagues at MountainTrue are always looking for volunteers to help with water quality monitoring and river cleanups. With the launch of the new Green Riverkeeper program, he says, those opportunities will grow.
Continuing to paddle both for business and pleasure, Jernigan has recently gotten more into flat water boating and canoe camping. But his primary focus is always to expand water-quality work across the region and put renewed energy into protecting our iconic rivers.
“To me, it really all comes back to MountainTrue’s motto: Protecting the places we share,” says Jernigan. “All of our work is focused on protecting resources like water and land that are owned by the public and belong to everyone. It inspires me to know that with every inch of progress, maybe one more kid will be able to have the same experience I did, paddling a river or hiking a trail and will fall in love with nature the same way I did.”
MountainTrue’s Southern Regional Office is located at 611 North Church Street in downtown Hendersonville. Learn more at mountaintrue.org, by calling 828.692.0385, or following the organization on Facebook @MountainTrue and Twitter @MtnTrue.
Upcoming Green Riverkeeper Events
Big Sweep, a region-wide litter cleanup
Hendersonville Green Drinks at Black Bear Coffee Co.
Green Riverkeeper Community Picnic at Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander’s Ford
MountainTrue Fall Gathering at New Belgium Brewing