Know Your Tennessee River

Starting a four-part series about water: river, creek, quarry, spring

In Knoxville we are surrounded by water. On a map the entire city is crisscrossed and spotted with blue, but to someone hoping to swim or wade, these blue marks are misleading. I've spent the summer exploring Knoxville's rivers, creeks, quarries, and springs, and the real water is mostly buried, polluted, or privately owned. "Avoid Body Contact" read the signs on the banks of the creeks, and "No Swimming" signs at the old quarries. It seems there are few places for a law-abiding person to swim in natural water on a hot summer day.

One of the great sorrows of Knoxville is its polluted water. Our policy-makers have not cherished our waterways. We have used them like toilets and trash disposals then paved over the unsightly mess. We are ashamed of it. The proof is in Second Creek, forced underground into a concrete culvert under World's Fair Park while on the surface an artificial creek has been constructed, powered by electric pumps ("No Wading").

Real, tangible access to natural water is important in our daily lives. It is good medicine to sit by a rushing creek, swim in deep water, feel a connection with the source of our drinking water. Despite the pollution, despite the "No Trespassing" signs, I met many people of different ages and backgrounds seeking out Knoxville's creeks, quarries, and springs looking to answer these yearnings. But only the Tennessee River can answer all of them.

At Volunteer Landing on the Tennessee River, a concrete splash-pad with artificial fountains tries to stand in for traditional human activities that used to take place at the water's edge. "No climbing on rocks, don't get in pools, absolutely no fishing!" read the signs. The concrete walkways lift people far out of reach of the real river, and railings discourage contact with the natural water. However well-intentioned, the water park, used legally, is an inadequate stand-in, not psychologically fulfilling or very fun, as evidenced by the acts of civil disobedience I witnessed everywhere—children climbing on the rocks, swimming in the decorative pools, and fishing from the docks.

Swimming in natural bodies of water makes you love them, and care about protecting them. If you really want to get to know our river, leave Volunteer Landing, go upstream from where First Creek empties into it, cross the South Knoxville Bridge and go down by Kat's By the River (1315 Island Home Ave.). At the water's edge, castles of kudzu tower above an old dock, slowly crumbling into the river. The water there is clearer and green. Take a shallow dive into the cold water and swim out to the middle. When you look down, the water is clear enough to see your feet, and even past your feet until the green deepens to black. On the far side of the river you may see the red blinking light of a cell phone tower. Close to the tower, a pair of ospreys have reportedly made a nest. Maybe you can spot the shape of a large bird diving for the trees. The current tugs you downstream. With all that powerful water surrounding you, supporting your body and the bodies of all the other creatures in the river, how can you not fall in love with it, and want it to live?