My German shepherd Norman and I had been planning our canoe invasion of Fourmile Creek (off upper Tellico Lake) for weeks, and now we have failed twice. The second attempt proved one of those paddling maxims worth remembering from time to time: Allow nature to determine your itinerary and destination.
On our first try, we put in at Smoky Branch on the north side of the lake and fought a losing battle against a wind that blew in our face on the way upriver (away from Tellico Dam and toward Chilhowee Dam).
A few days later we drove south from Maryville to Vonore on Highway 411 and turned left on Highway 360 to head toward Cherokee National Forest and some roads that looked like they would allow access to the lake nearer to Fourmile Creek, whose mouth was on the north (Highway 129) side of the lake, near the metropolis of Pumpkin Center. Why did I so desperately want to paddle up Fourmile Creek? Calm, quiet refuges from open water, creeks whisper secrets in their current; they reveal surprises around each bend if you glide into them with stealth, paddle raised.
So I was on the lesser developed south side of the lake looking for a put-in without the little boat ramp symbol on my Tennessee Gazetteer. I turned left a couple of times off Citico Road, hoping to get lucky. The road sign poles were there, but the signs themselves were missing, a cruel trick on the navigationally challenged.
The first put-in possibility was too far across open water from Fourmile; even at 7:30 a.m., the wind was already ruffling the water. We would have had to park on the side of what I found out later was Bacon Ferry Road near the Tanasi Historical Marker. Turned left down another road without a sign (Mt. Pleasant Road) and came upon a ramp whose brown sign had been punctuated by bullets, incorrectly, I might add. This was the Citico ramp, three or four miles from Fourmile, the wind blowing that way. Norm got interested in a school of dead buffalo fish that must have taken a wrong turn at the ramp and lay rotting in all their large-scaled glory. How he could put his nose right next to something that was stinking up the whole parking lot I don’t know.
A couple of weeks earlier thousands of these fish had spawned in the clear waters of nearby Citico Creek. Considered by some to be an undesirable because of their boniness and their unfortunate resemblance to the homely carp, buffalo are a native species that the Cherokee harvested in abundance during their spawning runs, an important food source. They are not related to the invasive carp.
I convinced Norm to forgo the canine sushi and to get into the boat. We headed downriver, away from Chilhowee Dam, toward Fourmile Creek. After about 300 yards, something made me turn around and head east into the sun and the wind. In particular, that something was my realization that getting back to the boat ramp would be a colossal chore against this wind that was pushing us toward our destination.
I turned around and faced the bright, bright sun and paddled near the bank in the easy water away from the current that Chilhowee Dam, about two miles away, was generating. Cattails and reeds whispered against the hull and gave off a pleasant dusty smell. We paddled up into a wind-sheltered wetlands area that ended at a beaver dam with a big pond on the other side of it, its elevation three feet higher than the water we sat in. Birds were flitting about and chirping everywhere on the strip of weedy wetlands to our left: red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, swallows, ducks, geese and cardinals. Norm followed their flight with benign interest, as if wondering what it would be like to fly.
We went back out to the main lake to face the wind, paddling hard past the upstream tip of Harrison Island. Across the lake, maybe 300 yards away, was the Harley Davidson shop on Highway 129. Bikers pulled in with country music blaring above their roaring engines. I paddled against an increasingly strong current toward the point about a half mile ahead, gauging my progress by the decreasing volume of the road noise. Perhaps a quarter mile away, water bubbled out of at least one of Chilhowee Dam’s turbines. Norm was lying down in the boat, his chin on the seat, eyelids heavy in the sun. It was slow going, but we made it to an opening sheltered from the wind and current by two tiny islands. Turned out to be a creek that we followed for half a mile or so, the bottom turning to gravel and both sides closing in. The water was so clear, I couldn’t believe that we didn’t scrape bottom. Up here, where water trickled over shoals, it was as if the dam didn’t exist.
This was Mulberry Creek, a delightful sanctuary from the wind and current we’d been battling. I knew about Citico Creek, just a couple of miles downstream, and Fourmile, of course, but Mulberry was the goal I didn’t know about until I came up on it. We dead-ended at a road with three culverts underneath it, where we turned around, got back on the main lake and let the wind and current push us back to the ramp in about half the time it took us to get to the creek.
Being flexible enough to give up on a paddling goal or destination, I think, is a good recommendation for this part of Tellico Lake, on this side in particular. Just paddle up these little coves and creeks exploring, discovering until you get tired of it and let the wind and current carry you back.
Of course, you could also put in on the north side of the river in front of the Harley Store, and be at Mulberry Creek in half the time it took me, only you wouldn’t have the surprise of discovering it for yourself.
The Citico boat ramp is about 35 miles from Maryville.