A lone kayaker goes on a summer-long expedition to find the places where dammed lakes turn back into rivers
by Kim Trevathan
I suspected I was onto something important when friends and relatives, some of them seasoned outdoors people, stared blankly or changed the subject when I described my project for the summer of 2007. Paddling upstream in a kayak to discover the exact point where dammed lakes turn back into rivers might not be for everyone.
My paddling partner, Jasper, a shepherd mix who had accompanied me down the length of the Tennessee River in my canoe, had died that spring at the age of 15, so in part these little voyages were tributes to him. I was looking for a quirky kind of solace in these quests, for the spot where rivers resurrected themselves.
I didnâ’t have grandiose expectations about the transitional zones; I expected the changes to be gradual and subtle, perhaps in places already frequented by many. All of these questsâ"on lakes Tellico, Fontana, Nantahala, and Cumberland/Big South Forkâ"were within a half dayâ’s drive of Maryville. My procedure: Camp near a put-in on the night before, launch on the lake just before dawn, and be home in time for a nap by mid-afternoon.
What I found ranged from the sublime to the bizarre to the devastatingly disappointing, but in this summer of drought and heat, when moving water was in short supply, it seemed fitting to paddle upstream until I could paddle no more.
Finding where to put in on Tellico to reach its transitional zone required several excursions on Monroe County back roads, a Tennessee Gazetteer open in my lap. I eventually found the right spot, off Belltown Road, a grassy turnaround and a beaten-down bank at the end of an unnamed dirt road.
At 8:30 on a cool May morning, it was so quiet the bumblebees seemed to roar. Woodpeckers rat-a-tatted and called out shrill and rooster-like, one pecking at a hammer-and-nail speed, the other going full-tilt staccato.
Stumps and dead trees protruded from Tellicoâ’s surface or lurked just a few inches under the water, cattails thriving near the banks, thick dark forest on each side of the river. But no discernible current.
For the first couple of miles, I saw scant evidence of humanity: a rope swing, a lawn chair or two, a forked stick for a pole. A deer snorted indignantly from the bank, and instead of taking off, he stayed there, invisible, snorting more and more shrilly. I felt like a clumsy intruder.
By mid-morning the trees reached across and met above me, the lake/river restricted to 30 feet. I searched for signs of current in floating leaves or tree limbs that dipped onto the surface of the water. A pile of deadfall had snagged a childâ’s plastic four-wheeler, the first substantial trash of the day, and against a fallen log that tilted toward me, I saw it, a stirring.
After another half mile, the riverâ’s striated rock bottom came up to meet me, four or five feet below, and I struggled to move forward. No trumpets blowing, no fanfare, but Iâ’d found where the river revived itself, pastureland on both sides, the smell of freshly mown hay, the sound of a generator kicking in, a tractor coughing in the distance.
I left feeling like Iâ’d discovered something intimate about the Tellico, that Iâ’d reached a place worlds away from the reservoir just a few miles north.
Big South Fork of the Cumberland/Lake Cumberland
It was mid-June, and Jack Danielâ’s distillers in south central Tennessee worried about their special spring drying up. If it does, they said, no more whiskey this year. I drove to the confluence of the Big South Fork (BSF) and the Cumberland at a state park named after Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside.
The lake was low, not only because of the drought but by design. Leaking Wolf Creek Dam needed some ease from the strain of holding back so much water, for the Corps of Engineers had recently determined that if its leaks turned into something more serious, like failure, things looked dire downstream.
I put in at the football field-sized ramp that had been extended to allow fishermen and 90-foot houseboats to put in at the low water level. In the desertion of pre-dawn, I was rewarded with the sighting of a vixen and two pups, high on the rocky bank below a large house.
The banks were a jigsaw puzzle of flat tan shale, brittle when you stepped on it, and sloped so steeply that disembarking from the low-slung kayak was a sport in itself.
My plan was to paddle to a place called Alum Ford up the Big South Fork in the Daniel Boone National Forest, camp there, then venture a little farther, if necessary, before floating back to Burnside the following day.
A forest service employee had told me over the phone that she had no idea where the current of the BSF started. She gave me the number of another ranger, Kevin Moses, who â“loved that river.â” I left a message, but Moses never called me back, and this encouraged me. Nobody, I thought, not even the experts, knew where the river resurrected itself from failing Wolf Creek Dam.
After about four and half hours of paddling, the sun worked its fever into my neck and shoulders and brain, and the wind was pure insult, gusts of 15-25 mph that twisted my course. I pulled over on the bank to reconsider my quest and cut my ankle on the shattered shale disembarking. Trying to get back in the boat, I dropped my paddle and the wind almost blew me downstream faster than I could retrieve it.
This, the blundered landing, not even halfway to Alum Ford, decided the issue. I would turn back.
I lifted my nylon hammock as a spinnaker and strained against the power of the wind. Jet skis and power boats appeared, throwing wakes at my little boat, heavily laden with camping gear.
I was near delirium when I returned to the boat ramp late afternoon after 10 hours of paddling. I remembered what a park employee had told me the day before when I asked how far Iâ’d have to paddle before I reached current.
â“Pretty far,â” he said.
Indeed. Too damn far.
After a two-hour drive over the Smokies alongside lakes Chilhowee, Calderwood, and Fontana, I arrived at a hamlet called Aquone, where you could hardly get to the lake it was so clogged with gated communities with names like Arrowhead Point. At a bait store/fishing camp, a tough-looking teenage girl turned to an old woman in a rocker and asked on my behalf, â“Where could he camp in a tent?â”
â“In a tent?â” asked the woman with a contempt that made me smile. She reminded me of my own grandmother, throwing the words of your own life back at you so you could see its absurdity. Then she told me a place I could camp, for free: Old River Road, actually Forest Service Road 308; I took the site with the least trash.
Next morning, one car was parked at the boat ramp in the huge gravel parking lot. Nothing was stirring that morning. Above me rose high bluffs with majestic houses built close to the water, all wood and stone and glass. There were no big boats at the slips, and quite a few kayaks and canoes.
A wispy fog hung above the water, and up in the hills it gathered thickly along the receding and intersecting angles of the southern mountains. For the first two hours, there were no other boats, no human voices.
I entered a fjord-type environment that I was relatively sure was the mouth of the Nantahala, though it would have been easy to get it wrong. There was a big cove farther left and a couple of creeks to the right that might have fooled me.
The water turned turquoise up in the coves, different from the slate gray of the lake. Dead limbs reached out from the banks like the arms of ghosts, visible deep beneath waterâ’s surface.
The river bent hard right, and an amber scooze appeared on the waterâ’s surface. I thought I saw the scooze move in some current, but couldnâ’t be sure.
The bottom came up at me suddenly, about five feet below, the banks maybe 20 yards across. The new cold of the river penetrated on the backs of my legs through the thin plastic hull. The water turned the color of strong tea.
There was a house with some steps leading down to a wooden platform 10 feet above the water, two padded chairs set up, the exact spot where these folks could get up each day and see where the river begins.
Up ahead the river flowed across shoals so shallow I had to raise my rudder. Here the Nanty roared low like static. I paddled hard and fast until I ran aground and let the current carry me back downstream.
Fontana Lake/Nantahala River (Tsali)
On the hottest day of the year, Aug. 7, the heat index was over 100 and I was at crowded Tsali Campground, a half mile or so from upper Fontana Lake. One of the guys at the site next to me was calling somebody possibly named â“Wiffleburg.â” It was a business call, sounded like. Then he told the guy heâ’s sorry about his divorce. Heâ’s going through a divorce as well and gave Wiffleburg the details. He said heâ’s â“jazzed about it.â”
The camping sites at Tsali sit too close together for my taste. The evening had been full of action, too. There was the Edward Abbey type with a van, a canoe, and his sonâ’s kayak on top. He had a sarcastic rapport with the teenaged son, but his wife hardly said a word. Another guy showed up around 10 in a white convertible, halogen headlights blaring. He had a long important conversation with someone on his cell phone.
I was the first one up at Tsali; I put in at Lemons Point at a concrete ramp. The reservoir was so low that peopleâ’s docks stood up high out of the water. I paddled under the old railroad bridge and past a marina, hunkered low and still in the early morning haze.
A lone fisherman cast his line in the shade of the bridge. Above me, some kind of machine, invisible, was eating away at the trees along the little road up there. Something began to send bubbles to the surface like signals, all across the lake. It looked like rain, which would have been a blessing.
A fishy smell rose from the water. There was a long grassy point at the next left bend, two skeletal gray trees standing out on it alone. Gelatin-like tumors grew on dead limbs and on rocks. The bottom came up. I saw cans. Shoes. Rocks. I imagined screams, squeals of delight, rafters tossed by a river I was approaching.
A solid fog bank about two feet high guarded a concrete structure that extended from each bank, part-way across the river. The water refrigerated the air. I paddled 50 yards against the current, the river deep and strong here.
Then the sun struck the surface and revealed the bubble makers. It was if a curtain had been drawn. Carp, dozens of them. They swam right under the boat, fearless, a foot, a foot and a half long. I could see their square scales, sparkling in the sunlight. A good sized turtle poked his head out of the water, looked at me and said, â“Psssshhhhhhh.â”
On the way back, two kayakers approached, lean women in their 60s.
â“Are yâ’all from around here?â” I asked.
â“Yes,â” one said curtly. â“Are you?â”
I said no and they smiled at each other. I asked them about the concrete structure. One with a floppy hat said it was an old railroad bridge.
â“There were whole communities here,â” she said, â“before the dams.â”
I know all that, I started to say, feeling vaguely implicated as an ignorant tourist, a beneficiary of dams and marina culture. Instead, I changed the subject and marveled aloud about the fog, the carp, the turtles up ahead at the resurrection zone. They nodded and paddled on, either disbelieving me or unmoved by my description, a good thing, I thought, because local or not, I liked the idea of having the zone to myself.
All content © 2007 Metropulse .