I’m not one to seek out tight places, but when Greg Rowe told me about the old railroad tunnel on Calderwood Lake, I thought it might be a good opportunity to try to overcome my aversion for the sake of adventure.
Greg, co-owner of the Little River Trading Company in Maryville, wore a wet suit and had a sleek 16-foot sea kayak. He actually planned on exiting his boat and snorkeling in this tunnel. From the photos he showed me, taken by author Jeff Wadley, the tunnel had this sliver of light at the end, which reminded me of what people describe after near-death experiences.
Greg said he’d been in the tunnel ten years earlier. When he’d thought he’d have to paddle backwards to get out, he made a stab at the bottom with his paddle only to discover that it was a lucid reflection of the tunnel’s roof.
Stabbing at water, I knew, could lead to capsizing, a worry I did not speak aloud.
We launched at Magazine Branch boat ramp, off Highway 129 just before you cross the bridge below Cheoah Dam. A couple in wooden canoes with strange narrow paddles that looked like clubs came downstream toward us. Their boats had been made from kits, the paddles hand made. Having camped on the bank the night before, they told us they had seen a bear swimming across the lake. It had never occurred to me that a bear would want to swim across the lake; their having seen such a sight gave them a certain authority in my eyes. As we left in search of the tunnel, the woman remarked that they had just been there and had not been able to go all the way through because the level of the water was too high.
Calderwood’s water level is raised and lowered according to releases from the dam upstream, Cheoah, and the dam downstream, Calderwood.
If people in wooden canoes who had seen bears swim couldn’t make it, then surely we should approach with extreme caution, I was thinking. Unfazed, Greg glided ahead of me and spotted the upstream opening of the tunnel near the right bank, perhaps a half mile after passing under the power lines. The opening did not lead away from the lake straight into the bank, but ran parallel to what used to be the Little Tennessee River, now Calderwood Lake, through a sort of bulge at the bottom of the slope.
Workers built the tunnel in 1916, notes Wadley on his website, for a train track that ran alongside the river during the construction of Cheoah and Santeetlah dams.
From 100 yards away, we could see wispy fog swirling around the entrance. As we were swapping adventure tales, Greg had confided to me that after watching “The Legend of Boggy Creek” as a child, he was so scared he wouldn’t leave the house for a time. “Don’t watch it,” he told me.
“So you know for a fact that this place is not haunted,” I said.
“No,” said Greg.
“You don’t know that it’s not haunted?”
“Correct.” With that, he glided into the abyss, paddle across his deck. I followed.
For a while we did not speak. Droplets of water clink-clinked from the ceiling. The air was at least 10 degrees cooler than outside, the water frigid. Greg said that he would not be snorkeling in this water. He hoped I was not disappointed.
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, tiny sparkles emerged in the rock, the smooth black ceiling only a few feet above our heads, curving downward to the water line. The light at the end of the tunnel, an indeterminate distance away, seemed inadequate as an exit.
Greg stopped and flicked on a powerful flashlight. He was trying to see things underwater. I’d say we were around 30 feet from either end. I tried paddling backwards a couple of strokes just to see if I could do it. I bashed into the wall stern first and made a jerky movement, over correcting and nearly turning over. Then I came forward too fast and bumped into Greg’s boat.
We stayed a little longer, talking quietly, as if making noise might disturb whatever lived here. I was grateful there were no bats, but it did occur to me that if Cheoah released water to generate power, we might have to back paddle out in a hurry.
After a short discussion on how the tunnel was created (we thought dynamite was probably involved), we glided toward the downstream opening. Greg, riding lower in his boat, leaned forward and passed through with ease.
It was not nearly as difficult as it looked from a distance, but after wondering aloud whether I should lean forward or backward, I slid under the low ceiling, scraping the crown of my cap. The light outside was blinding after our dark passage. Greg suggested going back through in reverse, but he was kidding.
On the way back, buoyed by our successful adventure, we paddled infrequently and let a robust tailwind propel us toward the boat ramp, a couple of miles away. We were in no hurry for the trip to end. Greg said that it was good to be off the asphalt ribbon, which connected us to jobs and worries and technology. We weren’t that far from the highway known as the Tail of the Dragon, and yet, in a way, we were far, far away from it and its kind.
Ironic, I thought, that we had explored a tunnel that facilitated the early industrialization of this area, a passageway that helped in the transformation of a free-flowing river into a series of lakes. Now, that tunnel constituted an adventure for us, an escape from our lives in a civilization partly powered by these dams.
Near the end of the voyage, just a few yards from the concrete boat ramp, our official return to the asphalt ribbon, an eagle stared down at us from a treetop, his head cocked, as if in contemplation of our slow progress upriver.
Kim Trevathan is the author of Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin, published by UT Press and available online or at Union Ave Books.