Pushing Into New Tennessee River, Upstream To Adventure
Early in the morning, as the fog lifts from the banks of the Tennessee River, I’ve been reflecting on one of the common goals Lisa and I talked about, prior to embarking on our second Great Loop. We decided it was paramount to seek out new places as we travel on new waters, explore new towns, and also try to make some people connections on this second adventure. So, in that vein, we venture on to explore the Tennessee River 250 miles upriver past the normal cut-off route that leads to the Gulf of Mexico and warmer southern temperatures. We’ve heard rave reviews from other boaters who’ve made this trip, so we felt it would be well worth the 14-day side trip up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and back before we head further south.
Before we get to the side trip I want to bring you up to date. Since we endured the flooding on the Illinois and Mississippi River, Lisa and I arrived at Green Turtle Bay Marina, a Looper destination in Grand Rivers on Lake Barkley in Kentucky, to waving hands and smiling faces of boaters we’d met before we even left Charlevoix. It was nice to return to a familiar place safe and sound — we’d enjoyed the Green Turtle Bay stop on our first trip —while knowing we, along with many other Loopers, had survived the flooded waters of Illinois River. Our Green Turtle Bay stop provided an opportunity to clean, rest, change the engine oil and socialize for three days without having to be concerned with the rigors of daily water travel. Green Turtle Bay had 25 Looper boats berthed at any one time while we were there. Some would leave, others would arrive, but each boat arriving followed the same basic routine —clean, rest, socialize, and commiserate about the flood waters that we’d all experienced.
After three days of dockside R&R, walking, and site-seeing in the small town of Grand Rivers, we left to head further south, upriver on the Tennessee to a string of small-town marinas and secluded anchorages while bypassing the Yellow River turnoff, which leads to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. It was here, at Mile Marker 215, that we ventured into new waters for us, up the Tennessee River.
The Tennessee River meanders 652 miles, starting in Knoxville, Tennessee, where it flows downstream to Chattanooga. In Chattanooga the river heads southwest into Alabama before changing course to head north through Mississippi and back into Tennessee before ending in Paducah, Kentucky. It’s the waters from Mile Markers 215 to 464 that we’ve not traveled before. We do so now in order to meet its people, become acquainted with the local culture while absorbing its beauty, with the ultimate goal of being able to experience the Tennessee River Gorge.
As Lisa and I travel up the Tennessee River we’re enjoying the charm of this section of the river, which is new to us. Forty-eight miles past the Tennessee-Tombigbee cutoff is where we come to an inlet called McKernan Creek. We were told that if we went back about a mile or so we’d have great wind protection from all sides and be able to anchor in 12 feet of water. Cottages, homes and boathouses surround this quiet anchorage and although it’s very peaceful, somehow we feel we’re invading the surrounding homeowner’s privacy. We set anchor, have dinner, and retire for night.
While making coffee the next morning, I notice a man in a kayak making way towards our boat. My initial thoughts are that we’re in some kind of trouble for anchoring in the residential section of this quiet creek. To my surprise Cameron was not on harbor patrol but interested in meeting us, to find out where we were from and invite us to come ashore for coffee and breakfast. Unfortunately we had to decline but we were delighted to be able to make a connection with an interesting person while just anchoring out. A few days later Cameron stopped by our boat for a longer visit, while docked at Joe Wheeler State Park, and we plan on trying to meet up with him on our trip back down the river. One of our goals was accomplished already.
From McKernan Creek we traveled a short distance to Joe Wheeler State Park Marina in Rogersville, Alabama, where we attended the America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA) Fall Rendezvous. Because Lisa will be covering this in a separate log I’ll keep moving on up the Tennessee River.
We left our dock at Joe Wheeler in a seven-boat caravan to travel 187 miles upriver. The ultimate attractions on this leg of the trip will be the Tennessee River Gorge, Chattanooga, and the Tennessee Aquarium. The cast of boats includes Freedom’s Turn from Michigan, Going There from Pennsylvania, Sunshine from North Carolina, Wanderin’ L&M from New York, Bella Luna from North Carolina, C- Life also from North Carolina, and of course ourselves. The first two days we traveled 83 miles, with the second day bringing us to Guntersville, Alabama, where we spent the night at a free municipal dock.
The next day, as we were heading up river, a boat passed us heading downstream called Domestic Squall. The captain radios to ask if we’re Loopers. I respond by saying, “This is Kismet. We're doing the Loop and currently heading to Chattanooga.” He comes back and says, “You’re from Traverse City, Michigan! I’ve been following your logs, and Traverse City is also our hometown.” After sharing our respective Loop experiences on the VHF radio, we continue on our separate ways. It truly can be a small world when you’re on the water 800 miles from home and you cross paths with someone from your hometown.
|People on the river were so friendly, kayaking up to greet us, and sometimes to invite us home with them.|
As we head out on the third day toward Goose Pond Marina we begin to see the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains start to materialize. These are the beginnings of the hills that will ultimately bring us into the Tennessee River Gorge. Our caravan today is down to five boats, Going There and Freedom’s Turn had to remain behind for repairs. The majestic beauty of this unspoiled, undeveloped, hardwood-filled territory, which rises from the banks of the river west of Guntersville, made me remember that this is one of the reasons Lisa and I decided to do the Loop a second time, to explore new territory we’ve never experienced before. The best part is that we haven’t even gotten to the Gorge yet, the expected highlight of the trip.
Our fourth day of travel brings us to and through the Nickajack Lock where our caravan of boats anchor at the base of Little Cedar Mountain a couple of miles upstream from the lock, and a short distance from the start of the Gorge. The Tennessee River Gorge consists of 27,000 acres of land, mostly unspoiled wilderness that’s often referred to as Tennessee’s Grand Canyon. The Gorge carves its way 26 miles through the southern Cumberland Mountain range along the Tennessee River and is the fourth largest river gorge east of the Mississippi River.
We’re socked in by another heavy bank of fog the morning we start our Gorge adventure, and leave shortly after the sun warms things up enough to burn the fog off. As we head back into the river, the foothills start to build into larger mountains and the river starts to narrow. It seems as if the views become more spectacular around every new curve in the river. The mountains are filled with trees and rock cliffs that reach up 2,300 feet, a sight enhanced by the crimson red, gold, and yellow colors of the fall season. In the deep valleys of the Gorge our boats look more like a string of tiny toy boats following each other through mountains of exploding colors. Lisa and I sit in silence as we absorb the sights engulfing us, and contemplate another goal met.
For me to describe the splendor of what we’ve seen on the Tennessee River, especially the Gorge area, is difficult. But if you close your eyes and think of that one place that is so very special to you, the place that’s memorable because it captures the visual aspects of life that makes you say… WOW! This is how we felt as we traversed the waters of the Tennessee River Gorge. Pictures and words can only begin to do justice to the magnificence of the river valley’s alluring and captivating pull. You need to experience the trip firsthand in order to get the full affect, much like you experienced your own favorite place when you closed your eyes to recall your own precious, visual, memories.
During our three-night stay in Chattanooga we were docked within a short walk of downtown. Chattanooga has developed a wonderful waterfront with the Tennessee Aquarium its focal point. Lisa and I spent four hours at the Aquarium savoring every single one of its displays. They have both salt and freshwater exhibit buildings with every imaginable water creature you could think of. A surprise at the museum was a large, temperature controlled, butterfly room where we had fun trying to locate these beautiful creatures in their man-made habitat. We also spent time walking along Chattanooga’s riverfront boardwalk up to the Museum district and into town several times. It was a treat to be docked within such a short distance from all these attractions where we could easily walk and get exercise, go out to eat and provision while at the same time getting to know Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Because we came by boat we had the added benefit of heading back downriver into the Gorge to revisit its beauty. In the three days we were in Chattanooga the fall colors changed dramatically, making the visual aspect of our return trip even more memorable. We’re looking forward to more trips, like this one, which will expand our boating knowledge while enriching our boating adventures.