An Afternoon at Seven Islands

A 400-acre preserve in East Knox is a sanctuary for wildlife and stray humans

Most of the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge is firmly on the mainland, it turns out, but it's a mainland unlike any other in Knox County. The wildlife sanctuary is on a sharp peninsula in the French Broad River, just past Strawberry Plains but just this side of Kodak. You can get there by the Midway exit on 40 East, and follow the signs. It's maybe 10 miles from downtown. Some say they come here to jog, some to launch a canoe, but it's mainly for walking around.

By the parking area there's a color-coded map, and maybe you can make sense of it. But the best way to encounter this place may be aimless wandering. The deal is you're free to go anywhere there's not thick undergrowth or a barbed-wire fence. You'll eventually come upon a mown path. Trust them all. None of the paths are likely to get you lost; they all come back around before long.

It looks like a big farm that has lain fallow for a few years, and is. A former corn, green-pea, and tobacco farm, it was once a part of Sevier County, until 1899, when the owners decided they'd rather live in Knox, and worked it out. Today it hangs off the county's southeastern corner like an appendix. This land once faced embarrassment as a theme park of some sort, but conservationists, including Knoxville philanthropists Pete and Linda Claussen, as well as Knox County government, in an enlightened mood, stepped in to save it. Open to the public since 2001, it's the pride of a quietly effective organization called the Legacy Parks Foundation. They laid claim to much of this 400-acre property to preserve it as a sanctuary.

It starts out looking ordinary enough, a gate on a country road called Kelly Lane, named for the main family that farmed the place in the 20th century. The road goes on, but you can't drive it unless you know somebody. The patchy asphalt road bisects the Seven Islands preserve, and is the only dull thing about it. Paths lead elsewhere.

In the Smokies, paths called "Homestead Trail" lead to ruined stone chimneys. Here, a short stroll through the woods discloses a mown lawn and a big clapboard house with new windows and a fresh coat of white paint, so new-looking you'll be convinced you're trespassing. Give it a big Vols flag and it could pass for a Farragut obstetrician's manse. You'll learn only by asking around that it's the Kirbys' old farmhouse, being fixed up under the auspices of the Seven Islands Foundation for use in the future as a possible library and/or caretaker's home.

The farm itself is lovely, framed as it is by the woods and the bluffs across the river. The steep unmarked dusty wagon path to the elusive summit, turns out to be more of a march than it looks from the road, and on a hot day you might question your off-road whim until you arrive at a rare vista, of river, island, bluff, and distant mountains, painted on the sky like an illustration in an old children's storybook.

But reconnoiter the fringes. The paths are mostly six-foot-wide mown trails through underbrush. They take you by Schumpert Pond, froggy and so thick with algae you think maybe you can walk on it; but don't. It's named for County Executive Tommy, who was in charge when the county acquired this land for public use.

A couple other houses are in various states of decay. It's a farm with no farm animals, and no farmers. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the whole spread had an agreeable Left Behind feeling to it.

In a four-hour hike around the place, you see only 10 people, all at a distance of more than 200 yards—and six of them might have been the same couple, three times. You feel, as they probably do, too, like you're spying on each other. Once, a rare sight in Knox County: adults running through a field with butterfly nets. "Finally!" comes a thin voice far across the meadows, the only human voice you'll hear this afternoon. "I finally got a monarch!"

People are scarce, as is, hence, litter. Here's a complete inventory of litter discovered on a four-hour walk: One Mountain Dew bottle. One Miller Lite can. One large pelvis, its species obscure.

It's large, geographically complicated, and a place of distinct regions. On an October afternoon, you can experience at least three seasons at Seven Islands. In the yellow hayfields, when the sun's out, it's still unforgiving summertime. In the woods, it's turning fall; the poison ivy's already burnt umber. But at some shady points under the willows nearest the water, it's bright-green mossy spring.

Seclusion Bend Trail, along the river in the southeastern quarter, is almost suburban, like an expanded version of Sequoyah Hills Park. Right across the river—it's known as Seven Islands over there, too—is a rapidly developing residential subdivision. There are already dozens of middle-class houses over there; the sounds of hammers and electric saws and the audible shouts of carpenters tell of more to come. This once-pristine area, almost forgotten by Knoxville, is changing rapidly. This part of it's staying the same.

The peninsula plays tricks on you. Follow the paths and the river will appear where you didn't expect to see it at all. Then, take a hard turn toward the river, and it's gone without a trace, nothing but pasture.

The French Broad, the same French Broad that flows through Asheville and which gives Newport its best excuse for a nautical name, forms the border between Knox and Sevier Counties, just before it colludes with the Holston to make the Tennessee. It's bigger here than it is in Asheville, but, below Douglas Dam, shallow. Here shoals evolve into islands, or vice versa. It's unclear whether the seven islands once counted here are necessary the same islands we see today. A fishing boat that appeared beached in the middle of the river might be an island in a year or two.

In the southwest corner of the property, you can see them, if not clearly enough to count them and check the math. Steamboat Island, one javelin-like shore, looks like a good place to dwell forever, especially if you're an elf.

This lush forest might also be the best place in Knox County to shoot another, better remake of Robin Hood.

Many who are serious about ornithology know Seven Islands best as a bird sanctuary. Not long ago, Steamboat Island hosted a rare bald-eagle nest. In all, some 150 bird species have been identified. Even if you're not a birder, you hear plaintive tunes in the trees you never hear in the suburbs. And you find nests in unexpected places, like in a bush, eight inches off the ground. Cats haven't found this place yet.

The place can seem enchanted. The tall grass and woods are fairly booby-trapped with heavy flops, thuds, and splashes, as you startle beasts of unknown order who are wary of pedestrians. Twice I saw some furry creature that could have been an especially agile groundhog, or an especially fat fox, make an deft escape. Step lightly here. m


Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge

When: Open from dawn to dusk

Where: Exit Interstate 40 at Midway, exit #402, and follow the signs to Kelly Lane, via Midway, Maples, and Kodak Roads; the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge is just about three miles south of the interstate, at the end of Kelly Lane. A barrier crossing the road marks the entrance; a small parking area is to the right. From there, walkers may either walk down the road or take a mown path toward Shumpert Pond.

How Much: Free

Word to the Wise: Seven Islands is a low-impact recreation area. Camping is prohibited and, of course, hunting is strictly forbidden, though fishing is allowed. Vehicles, including bicycles, are prohibited except by permission.

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