First Creek: A Journey

Exploring one of Knoxville's hidden green corridors, from start to finish

I was sinking.

With each effort to pull my leg upwards, the deep muck pulled me back with a thick tttthhhhhhwwwwwwwwuuuuuuuuup.

"We've got to turn around," said my fellow adventurer. Tanner Jessel was a neighbor who I had met just that morning. He had responded to a note I posted on our online neighborhood forum asking if anyone was interested in getting to know their watershed.

Now he was sinking in quick mud—like quicksand, but goopier.

Ahead of us, things only looked worse. I was reminded of the early American writer William Byrd's description of the Great Dismal Swamp on the borders of North Carolina and Virginia: "a foul annoyance," "a dreadfull place," full of "that Carolina plague, mosquitoes."

We trudged back through the long tunnel that ran next to Broadway and opened up at Adair Drive. The batteries of my headlamp were dying. The lamp cast just a faint glow upon the water, so that I could see only enough not to step on the rusted iron bars and broken glass bottles that littered the bottom. About halfway through the tunnel it was shallow, and a sandy bar was exposed in the middle. It was imprinted with raccoon tracks. Tanner, who has a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, shined his lamp on a crawdad shooting itself backwards.

"Good food source for the raccoons," he said.

Mostly, though, we were hushed with the kind of concentration that comes with walking through unfamiliar territory in the dark. The tunnel was quiet like a cave, echoing with the occasional ping of water that dripped from the ceiling. Overhead, cars pulled in and out of parking spaces at Big Lots and Food City.

We emerged on the other side of the tunnel and crawled up the bank to the parking lot that we now had to traverse. We clinked our metal trekking poles down onto the black pavement and tromped with our heavy waders through the sea of cars.

When we reached the banks of the creek on the other side of the lot and began to descend, a woman in a Mercedes drove by, mouth hanging open and shaking her head. She looked none too pleased—or perhaps just shocked—at our decision to enter the creek below.

***

Maybe it was ridiculous, but walking First Creek from its headwaters in Fountain City to its end at the Tennessee River was an idea that had gripped me, and I couldn't shake it. I wanted to see this hidden green corridor that passed by just a couple blocks from my house on Fifth Avenue, just east of downtown. I wanted to see these urban wildlands.

The concept of urban wildlands has been gaining momentum around the country in the past decade or so.

"It is built around the idea that cities have valuable biodiversity that deserves to be protected," says Travis Longcore, founder of The Urban Wildlands Group, which is based in Los Angeles but works on urban conservation issues nationwide.

"People need to be exposed to and have the opportunity to enjoy native biodiversity in cities because we're more than 50 percent urban in the world now," he says. "Despite popular belief, there's nature in cities, and there needs to be; it's still important to people's sense of place and well-being and quality of life."

Beth Booker, a resident of the Old North neighborhood close to First Creek, echoes this idea.

"You don't have to drive to the mountains to see nature," she says. "It's nearby, and we all have to value that and support it."

Booker says she and her husband fell in love with the forgotten First Creek 12 years ago when they started walking on the then fairly new First Creek Greenway, which is just under a mile long. "We saw a lot of trash, and we decided to do something," she says. "I see a tremendous value in instead of whining about something, just trying to figure out a way to do it."

Her husband David acquired training through Adopt-A-Stream, and they were able to convince their neighborhood to adopt the portion of the creek from the nearby Kroger on Broadway to Glenwood Avenue.

"It was really bad when we started. We could get 12 shopping carts full of garbage every time we cleaned up, once in the spring and once in the fall," she says. Since then, they've seen it slowly improving.

In his newest book, My Green Manifesto, the writer David Gessner tells about the unlikely restoration of the once-filthy and written-off Charles River that flows through Boston. Gessner's vision of the modern eco-champion is "someone who falls in love with a forgotten space and then fights like hell for it."

Since they are a particularly valuable part of our urban wildlands, we need people to fight for our forgotten urban creeks. They serve as vital corridors for wildlife. They nurture biodiversity. They are home to aquatic life. The riparian zone that surrounds them is habitat for native plants, trees, insects, amphibians, turtles, migratory birds, and butterflies. Their riparian zones also increase canopy cover, which in turn reduces air pollution. Creeks help alleviate what's known as "the heat island effect," the phenomenon of higher temperatures in urban areas due to buildings, roads, and parking lots. They filter pollutants before they reach the river, which is the source of our drinking water. John Nolt, an environmental ethics professor at the University of Tennessee, compares them to the circulatory system, taking nutrients in and flushing wastes out.

***

Several years back, I heard someone call First Creek "a dead creek." I remember how that made me feel hopeless about where I lived. Later, I found out about a cleanup of the creek—one that Booker and her husband had organized—and I went to see why anyone would clean a dead creek. As I crouched on the bank to pull a plastic bag from a low limb, the birdsong became more acute. I began to see mussels and snails along the pebbly bottom. When I pulled away chip bags and candy wrappers, I unveiled fat worms writhing in the moist dirt. I reached to pull a Styrofoam cup from tangled vines, and a long brown snake darted into the water and wriggled away.

To my surprise, as I pulled out buried plastic bottles and fading aluminum cans, I started to see the creek as a surging source of life.

A mother walked onto the bridge holding her daughter's hand as she peered over.

"Look, Tamika," she said. "Look at the water. Isn't it beautiful?"

Beautiful? Something in me was jolted. Besides dead, I had heard First Creek described as gross, trashed, disgusting—but not beautiful.

Beautiful First Creek: That phrase started to percolate through my brain. Since then I have been visiting the creek. All through the year, it has been the place I go to measure my days. It has been the place I go to remember I am part of a community, and that all of us share this creek.

There is no easy place to really enjoy the creek from where I live, so I stand leaning on a chain link fence and look down at it from 10 or so feet above. Still, I have been able to track the changes of the seasons here, to see the leaf cover and color change, to see mulberry trees fruiting and chicory blooming and the first shoots of green in spring on the willow branches, and to notice the water flow. When it rains, I put on my rain boots and walk down to see how much the creek has risen. One day, just as I arrived, a great blue heron swooped down and landed.

These have been my urban wildlands. They are severely limited in scope. They are fragmented, altered, impaired, and polluted. But they are something. This creek matters.

I might even say, a little abashedly, that it has changed me, the way that any creek in your backyard changes you little by little, makes you feel at home. Water is funny like that, the way it makes you feel you belong to a place.

Take Monte Huffaker. Just downhill from the Range House steakhouse on Old Broadway, Tanner and I left the creek for a break and plopped down on the grass. A gray-haired man leaving the restaurant saw us, and his eyes brightened. He came down the hill towards us.

"Turtling?" he asked hopefully.

I wasn't sure what he meant. "Yeah, we're looking for turtles and fish," we said.

The man, who introduced himself as Monte, clarified his question with a story. "I grew up on this creek," he said with a kind of humble pride. "When I was a little boy, two men would come down with burlap sacks on their backs. They'd get 20 or 30 snapping turtles in a day! Boy, they knew how to get 'em.

"We used to fish in these creeks," he continued. "We caught a lot of rough fish—catfish and carp and stuff. One time I caught a trout. How he got in there I don't know, and how he survived I don't know."

"Did you ever eat 'em?" asked Tanner.

"No, we were just kids, just something to do!" he said.

Because of that, though, Huffaker still glances in the direction of the creek whenever he passes by, and memories are sparked.

Robert Booker, a longtime columnist at the News Sentinel, remembered in a 2004 column how he played in the creek as a child: "Dubbed ‘the Jungle,' it had a lush grove of various kinds of trees that hid our playground from the street and the bridge. There was shade from the hot sun, and several apple trees and a plum tree for snacks. ... For us 11- and 12-year-olds, ‘the jungle' was absolutely the best place to play in early spring and summer."

But now First Creek is on the state's list of impaired waterways. All waterways in the state are designated as recreational and as fish and aquatic habitat, and First Creek fails pretty miserably in both regards. Though the creek is fed by several natural springs at its beginning, just downstream it becomes polluted with fecal coliform from the Fountain City duck pond. Along its entire course, parking lots and roads drain directly into the creek. Increased development has worsened erosion and stormwater runoff. In a ridge-and-valley terrain like this one, sedimentation due to hillside erosion can become severe. When the rocky bottom gets covered in deep sediment, the benthic habitat is lost and the creek is closer to being a swamp. First Creek has been listed as contaminated with E. coli, which can come from leaky septic tanks, sewer lines, and agricultural animal wastes. Those, along with nitrogen fertilizers, also add nitrate, which encourages algae growth, decreasing oxygen and choking the creek. And sometimes people just chuck their garbage in. While I was writing next to the creek in a hidden place on the bank, I watched a man on the opposite bank nonchalantly toss a glass bottle into it as he walked by.

It is clear that on the whole we have lost our connection to our urban creeks, though they provide the kind of common, everyday contact that ends up being so significant. Gessner writes that what people often say upon seeing Walden Pond—where Thoreau retreated and developed his most powerful ideas about civil engagement—is that it's nothing special. "Which is the whole beautiful point!" he writes. "It's as ordinary as it gets, and that's why it's so important. It means that your own ordinary backyard might just be extraordinary, too. It means that your own territory might also be worth exploring."

***

First Creek is where the modern settlement known as Knoxville began. When James White arrived in 1786, he thought it a fine place to build a fort and operate a mill. He obtained a grant from the State of Franklin for 1,000 acres along the creek, and he set his fort between its mouth and that of Second Creek (and gave the creeks those names) just before the two waterways reached the Tennessee River, what was then called the Holston, or, by the Cherokee, the "Hogoheegee."

Five years later, William Blount, governor of the territory south of the Ohio River, negotiated the Treaty of the Holston there, which guaranteed perpetual peace and friendship between all U.S. citizens and all individuals of the Cherokee nation and secured for white settlers a vast tract of land that included the present Knox County. (Though the latter was upheld, the former was not.)

The following year, James White mapped Knoxville and its creeks.

First Creek starts in what a 1973 TVA map calls Grassy Valley, to the south of Black Oak Ridge in Fountain City. It is fed by several springs, one of which is the actual fountain that gives Fountain City its name. It goes through a gap in an unnamed ridge, then through Dutch Valley. There, around where the present I-640 crosses Broadway, it is met by Whites Creek from the east. It continues through a gap in Sharp's Ridge and along Walker Boulevard, then to the east of White's Fort (with Second Creek to the west) and then to the river. Though it's about six miles by car from Fountain City to the Tennessee River, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation lists the creek as 16.1 miles long.

Paul Adams, a folk naturalist in the region whose papers are housed at the East Tennessee History Center downtown, started keeping meticulous diaries in 1918, at the age of 17, of nature observations, bird lists, tree lists, flower lists, maps, photographs, and field notes. "The thing I want to bring out," he wrote, "is that First Creek had more species of Mollusca than nearly any other stream in the nation. My last count on it was 103 species, and for a stream that size and length, that's a lot of species."

He wrote about the summer of 1924, when he was excited to show this abundance of mollusks to two conchologists who came to explore East Tennessee:

"I told them just to wait and I would show them a stream where they could stand in one place and fill two 2 ½ gallon pails with shells," he wrote. "I made a beeline across the pasture to where I knew the shells were thickest. [One of the scientists] was astounded. He collected 12 or 15 different species."

"The Tennessee Valley has the greatest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world," says Nolt, who edited A Land Imperiled: The Declining Health of the Southern Appalachian Bioregion. Mussels siphon water, filtering out bacteria, algae, and other small particles, making them one of the few organisms that actually improve water quality. But native mussels have taken a hit in our urban waterways, due to siltation. (To my knowledge, no one has a count on how many species now inhabit First Creek.) "Mussels need a fast-flowing stream with a rocky bottom," Nolt says.

Most of First Creek is anything but that. The kind of quick mud that had almost pulled me down plagues huge portions of the creek. All 16.1 miles of it, in fact, are listed by the state as "siltation impaired."

But the creek is, against all odds, supporting a biotic community. After we escaped the Great Dismal Swamp stretch I described earlier, the creek was creek-like again. Sunlight fell through the canopy in beams, lighting the water down to its rocky bottom, where darted dense schools of minnows. Metallic dragonflies—some green, some blue, some indigo—buzzed around and alighted on the leaves of elderberry, a small native tree with medicinal berries traditionally used to boost the immune system. The tree's berries were ripe, growing in clusters of deep red. A green frog plopped into the water and froze with its eyes on us and its sticky fingers clinging to a floating branch.

If I were Paul Adams, I would sketch in my journal the bright green native eelgrass bending under the water. I would draw the thin hollow reeds known as horsetail or scouring rush, which I find in thick patches just near where the man threw his bottle. I would note that the native medicinal plants nettle, jewelweed, and purple coneflower were growing along the banks, as well as a three-petaled blue flower that I have never before seen. I would list a snapping turtle seen just below the surface of a murky backwater.

The creek surprises me like this—suddenly magical, enchanting, wild. And all this just behind the McDonald's, just out of sight of Buddy's Bar-B-Q, K-Mart, Office Depot, Sonic, Rose Mortuary, and Kroger.

Then I would stumble into a tire or catch a whiff of a foul smell, and my First Creek romance would get less romantic.

The mud sucks down tires, metal tools, grocery carts, circular saw blades, shoes, hats, meat grinders, and all kinds of other things; instead of washing to the river, a lot of the trash just sticks there. At one point, I was repulsed by a thick brown film jiggling on top of the water like some kind of latex covering, and hordes of plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups. The pile of debris was punctuated by a happy beach ball striped in yellow, blue, white, and red.

***

What was supposed to be one day of walking the creek became a full week of exploring its many parts. As creek miles are hard to judge, with the creek bending this way and that, I cannot account for the distance, only that I eventually walked it all. I walked sometimes alone and sometimes with others, and one afternoon I just sat on the bank to think and write.

On the second day I stood on a bridge above the creek hidden by fox grapes and Virginia creeper and waited for Parkridge neighbor Bobby Braly to pass under me in his kayak. I had caught wind of his adventure through our online neighborhood forum, and I wanted to go find out why he was paddling the creek. Soon, he and another neighbor floated into view below. Braly, an archaeologist and adjunct professor of anthropology at Pellissippi State, was laid back in his neon yellow boat, a pirate flag waving from the back and a PBR between his thighs. He yelled up to me and introduced himself.

It turned out he was paddling a few miles of the creek—much of which he had to drag, not paddle, his canoe through—to document trash and get an idea of just how dirty it was. He wanted to report back to the Parkridge Community Organization, which he is trying to get interested in adopting a stretch of the creek. He'd like to see Knoxville include its urban creeks in its overall promotion of outdoor recreation. That would require a lot of work—not just reducing trash but also getting the creek delisted for E. coli contamination, for example.

Dana Wright, Tennessee Clean Water Network's water policy director, says that once waterways are listed as impaired, it's very rare that enough corrective action is taken to have the creek or river delisted. Still, that doesn't mean that drastic improvements can't be made, with enough of an organized effort.

John Nolt says that he's seen such improvements. "I guess I'm optimistic because, since I moved here in 1978, I have seen the creeks go from horrible, horrible shape to kind of bad shape," he laughs.

We are standing at the mouth of First Creek on the Tennessee River, just east of Calhoun's, and just downstream of White's Fort. Bluegills congregate in the shadow of a railroad bridge. A turtle suns itself on a rock. We watch the creek tumble out of a wide concrete culvert.

"I wish I had a time machine and could go back 200 years. You would see some amazing things," Nolt says, leaning on the railing of the small pedestrian bridge we're standing on.

Neyland Drive stretches over the top of the culvert, and, vaulted above it is James White Parkway. The creek is out of sight in the dark tunnel.

As part of my effort to see an unseen creek, I know that I will have to walk through the culvert, but peering into it from this end, I'm a little daunted. I ask Nolt if he'd like to go. "I really should be writing," he says, "but it's hard to pass up a good adventure!" The night before we go, he sends me an e-mail: "Long pants are probably best to protect from scratches, since the water has some sewage in it. This will be fun!"

The next morning we walk down a desire path behind Caswell Park that goes to the bank. At first there is a dense buffer of natural vegetation—mulberry trees, willows, mimosas—that Wright says is good for preventing sedimentation of the creek and filtering polluted storm runoff. It is how a creek or river bank should be, ideally. But within the length of a tractor trailer, the creek changes. Now there are steep sloping walls of concrete rising up on either side of us, and the bottom goes from rocks and pebbles to concrete slicked with algae. We are no longer in a creek, really, but a big concrete ditch.

"When I was in engineering school, the ideology was that water is a waste product, you get it out of your way," says Brent Johnson, Knoxville's stormwater engineering planning chief, who has worked for the city for 25 years. "You needed to get it out of sight and out of mind in order to go about your business. That was the paradigm back in the day. Unfortunately, it's the sins of our fathers that we're having to correct now."

Nolt and I walk through a tunnel about a tenth of a mile long and emerge behind the dog park downtown, where a drainage pipe shoots water down the concrete side. Green algae, which indicates nitrate pollution from human or animal wastes, is thick where the water flows down the slope; there is more algae here than any other section of the entire creek—and it stinks. Somewhere between concrete walls and drainage pipes, this part of the creek feels more like a wastewater nightmare than a page from Paul Adams' nature journals.

We ready ourselves to enter the '60s-era half-mile-long, dark culvert that will take us under Neyland Drive and James White Parkway to the Tennessee River. "Basically, it's a big, big box," Johnson had told me over the phone.

We both worry that our headlights are too dim. Nolt digs in his bag and produces two hand-held lights, and we enter the tunnel. It grows darker and darker until it is pitch dark. I feel a dull panic welling up inside me that I have to fight down by shining my light directly in front of me instead of far up ahead. We continue for what seems a long time until John asks if I'd like to shut off all the lights just to see how dark it is. "Sure!" I say cheerily. I have decided I'm having fun.

We turn them off.

"Perfectly dark," he says.

After several moments, Nolt switches a light back on. I turn on mine, and we start to walk again, and soon we see faint light. Then we are at the end, and there is what looks like an alligator spray-painted on the wall. The air warms as we step into the light.

Instead of plopping down into the river—"You couldn't pay me to swim in that," Nolt says—we cut up onto the bank and through a thicket of blackberry bushes. We emerge feeling we've survived some kind of urban terror—that is, with a subdued triumph, but mostly relief and the desire to shower.

***

Late in the afternoon of my first day walking the creek, after a long slog through a difficult section—parts of which reached a depth of more than 5 feet—the cicadas started up and a soft breeze began to sway the kudzu that hung down to the water. We spooked two herons that were perched with their skinny legs in a shallow riffle. They flew ahead and landed in the branch of a sycamore.

From a little hole between two rocks on the bank, a groundhog stepped out, looking like a cave-dwelling hermit-mystic poet on its rocky doorstep. Alert, twitching its nose and looking at us sideways, it finally turned its fat little body around and lumbered back into its hole. A duck family sat drying out on a rock, and then took flight, honking and flapping above us. Then a heron flew over us the way we had come, and I saw that it was not a common great blue heron but the shorter-necked, stockier, black-crowned night heron.

Cars whoosh past on the road, sounding far away. Here behind Fulton High School, a mere two miles outside of downtown, I am privy to this hidden wonder. No matter how degraded First Creek is, life still finds refuge in this hushed green corridor.

I think about Gessner's proposal that we fall in love with just these kinds of places, what he calls "the limited wild."

"We are making a deadly mistake if we ignore the smaller, more compromised patches, since that is what so many of us are left with," he writes.

I think of those who are fighting for First Creek, and of Gessner's idea of the modern eco-champion, someone who falls in love with a place and then fights like hell for it. But one person won't restore First Creek to good health. Not even someone like Bobby Braly, an energetic, gregarious community leader, or Beth Booker, a deeply committed person who has been sharing her passion for the creek for more than a decade. Braly and Booker just might turn out to be people who can fight like hell for the creek, but that is the second part of the equation. First it will take a whole lot of us falling in love with it.