Attempting to trace First Creek on Google Maps can be an unsettling experience. The creek winds secretly through the city I thought I knew. It slips behind businesses and disappears into underground culverts. It flows through pockets of wilderness just blocks from the bustle of downtown. First Creek is a huge entity twisting through our lives that we have forgotten about, that we do not see. From satellite view, it looks like a gigantic snake lying disturbingly close to my house. If it was a snake, it would have bitten us.
First Creek is formed from several springs in Fountain City. The one that trickles cold and clean from the heart of Fountain City Park is the most accessible. Children wade in the shallow pool at the fountainhead and float boats down the little stream that meanders toward Broadway. Sunlight filters through the leaves of sycamore trees. Salamanders, crawdads, and turtles hide in the rocks. For a brief stretch the spring supports both animal life and human activity. But the creek rushes away from the park, and the water soon becomes untouchable. Near Kroger's new Shell station, oily parking lot run-off drains into the creek. Signs appear along the bank, "Do not allow contact with water. Stream fails bacteriological tests."
First Creek has a long history of pollution and abuse. But now there is a desire to rescue First Creek. The city has a plan to build a 10-mile-long bicycle/pedestrian greenway along the entire length of First Creek from Fountain City to the Tennessee River. Parts are already completed, and a section between Fulton High and Edgewood Park is under construction. The greenway will connect neighborhoods, create a focal point of healthy activity, allow us to know our First Creek. Perhaps the creek bank will be landscaped to allow better access by humans and animals.
Near James White Parkway, the creek dives into an culvert for the final time. A tangle of highways makes it impossible to follow. But I know it must emerge somewhere along the river bank. Just past Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, I hear the roar of a small waterfall as the creek escapes its crypt. Styrofoam McDonald's cups bob in the sudsy gray water. At the mouth of the creek, nets prevent an ungodly amount of trash from washing into the river. A family of ducks frolic on top of it, their own floating island.
A young couple are fishing beside the island of trash. As I arrive, the man catches a small native fish.
"It's too small, so I'm throwing it back," he says.
"Were you going to eat it?" I ask. A nearby sign warns against eating certain fish due to high levels of contaminants.
"No, no," says the woman, "it is just for fun."
A few paces away, hordes of monster carp, an invasive species that thrive in low oxygen, are milling around the Star of Knoxville dock.
The greenway plan gives me hope that First Creek will not always be a filthy, forgotten storm-water drain. Our creek is self-renewing. With every drop of pure water that spills from the springs in Fountain City, we get another chance to improve things downstream.