Heart of Volness

A lone kayaker traverses the treacherous waters of the Holston and Tennessee Rivers—on Game Day

Having canoed the 652-mile length of the Tennessee River with my dog Jasper, I'd confronted my share of boat wakes. Labor Day 1998 was so turbulent with four-foot rollers that when I camped, exhausted from paddling, I felt the ground pitch beneath me as I tried to sleep, and I awoke that morning, hands clenched, as if I'd paddled my tent all night.

Still, I had never joined the Vol Navy on game day, when, I was told, a multitude of canoe-eaters (big boats) such that I'd never beheld would gather. I'd heard rumors that there might be drinking, that the vision of navigators might blur with tears should the Vols lose to the Florida Gators.

On the VolNation website, experienced mariners advised a Chattanoogan not to pilot his 18-foot ski boat to a game. "You will beat yourself up," said one post, referring to the turbulence created by seaworthy boats on a narrow river.

Ski boat—with a motor.

I do most of my paddling these days in a kayak, lighter than my canoe and shorter, 10 feet versus 16. In the kayak, I'm about as low as you can get, which makes the largest cabin cruisers seem like floating castles, their wakes like tsunamis. If they see me at all, I probably look like a bit of plastic flotsam.

I put in near dawn at Holston River Park, about seven miles from Volunteer Landing. My intent: to experience the full effect of paddling from pastoral stream to city river swirling in a frenzy of sports mania.

At the park, a lone fisherman cast from a deck built over the Holston, a narrow channel separating the park from Boyd's Island. The water flowed fast and high, sloshing around fallen trees, grass waving ghostly fingers beneath the surface. Upriver, Cherokee Dam was making electricity, and the by-product pushed me toward Knoxville at a trotting pace.

At the forks of the rivers, I crossed under the railroad bridge and scooted onto a narrow beach, comfort zones which are scarce at summer pool. In front of me was the beginning of the Tennessee—mile 652—where the Holston and French Broad come together. Across the Holston, an army of beagles bayed. Gunfire cracked from the far bank of the French Broad.

At Ijams Nature Center a woman jogged on the riverside boardwalk, her footsteps faint thunks that floated across the river to me. A deckhand in an orange life jacket carried a coil of rope down the length of a docked barge. The first boater: A fisherman casting toward Dickinson Island.

On the south bank, downriver from Island Home Airport, two people boarded a canoe and started downriver. I headed them off in the middle, between the Corps of Engineers' channel markers.

"How far you guys going?"

"Just a little ways," said the paddler in the stern. He was wearing a floppy tan hat and a green army surplus jacket. A solid black oval was embedded in the lobe of his ear, and a small skull and crossbones flag flew behind him. In the bow sat a boy in a wide brim camo hat and sunglasses.

Wes, in the stern, and Drew, had recently moved to Knoxville from Arizona. They were paddling a 19-foot fiberglass Winona that weighed less than my kayak, 40 pounds. The Winona had a sticker depicting Christ that said "Jesus Is My Homeboy" and beside it the outline of a fish, with feet, that said "Darwin" inside it. They didn't know about the game downriver, and they declined my invitation to continue past Riverside Landing Park.

It was an idyllic day on the Tennessee, sunny, a breeze blowing at my back, the penultimate day of summer 2008. At a municipal water intake, skyline in view, I cinched the spray skirt around the cockpit and secured my borrowed camera in a dry bag.

Wobbling in the scant current against its anchorage, a decrepit pontoon flew a Vol flag and the Stars 'n' Bars from its stern. No one stirred within. Up ahead hundreds of gleaming boats flanked each other far out into the river, a couple moving just above idle, their bows barely rippling the surface. So far I'd climbed nothing worse than a bass boat wake.

A man on a dock pumped his fist at me and shouted "Go Vols!"

Just downriver of the wastewater treatment facility, a platoon of Florida fans gathered on the bank next to the concrete plant.

"I guess you guys are favored," I said to a couple in folding chairs.

"Doesn't matter," said the man. "When we play here, you never know."

I was expecting a "Hell, yeah," something stronger from the fan of a fourth-ranked team.

"Do you know which way the river flows?" he said.

I pointed which way it flowed, in theory, and began to explain about the pooling effect of Fort Loudoun Dam downriver.

A fleet of cabin cruisers came around the bend from Sequoyah Hills and passed under the Alcoa Highway bridge, plowing deep liquid valleys, the waves reverberating off each shoreline to create a mishmash of turbulence. I paddled away from the Floridians to negotiate the wakes bow first. This put me among a squadron of jet skiers that flanked the convoy like jumping porpoises.

When another convoy approached, I paddled toward the orange boom (a floating barrier to help with trash collection) that blocked the mouth of Third Creek.

I'd seen the signs advising against "bodily contact" with Third Creek, but it didn't matter. I didn't plan on swimming in it; it was my refuge until 2, an hour and half before kickoff.

As I paddled up the creek, the sounds of traffic and pre-tuning wafted down, a shout or rebel yell penetrating the corridor of trees. Night herons stared, hidden within foliage. Great blue herons squawked. Turtles fell from logs and swam beneath the murky water, their paths marked with rising bubbles that circulated among glass and plastic bottles.

From the greenway above, cyclists and joggers waved at me.

"Looks like fun," said a woman walking a dog.

That's when I saw the bloated body lodged in the limbs, half out of the water. I paddled closer, bracing myself for the stench. But there was no stench. It was a man-sized stuffed animal, Shrek, I thought, discarded by a bored child or a cruel parent into this putrid creek. Still green, still smiling, Shrek deserved a better fate.

An hour and a half before kickoff, the wakes rolled in with increasing strength and regularity, crashing into the Neyland Drive bridge piers and advancing up the creek mouth like a storm surge.

At 2 o'clock I charged at the orange boom toward the open water and got hung up. As I pushed and scooted to free myself, a series of four-foot wakes climbed toward me, the worst hitting the bow just as I got over the boom, a splash big enough to soak my shirt and pants. I wondered if, just beyond the barrier, the "bodily contact" warning still applied.

I paddled across to the south side of the river, up to a small house trimmed in orange, with an orange roof and a "Go Vols" big enough to read from the top of the stadium across the river, the tiny gravel yard punctuated with objects of interest: a dolphin, a pelican, a rooster, a bear, an eagle, two American flags, and a man in a sombrero leading a burro.

The owner sat cocked back in a chair, a slim man with glasses, two big speakers shouting country music at the river.

I turned into shady Goose Creek and startled a group of young fishers gathered above a culvert.

They told me they'd seen fish in the middle of the creek, out of their reach. A young man with a shaven head warned them when they stumbled too close to the water. He held a line in his bare hands. The five kids fished with sticks and snarled line, all of their hooks baited with worms they had dug themselves. One of them asked the young man about building a raft.

I'd brought a fly rod with two floating poppers, which I hung up in the trees a few times before hooking a tiny blue gill. The kids shouted, edging down the steep bank. I brought the fish around to the oldest girl to take off the hook. She cradled it too gently to get the job done, and her brothers heckled her. When I tossed the fish, she caught it in her bucket and declared that we'd invented a new sport.

Out of the creek and back in the sun, fireworks erupted. An amplified voice boomed play-by-play over the river, bad news for the Navy. A few boats held anchor near the Gay Street Bridge, the people subdued as they cooked and drank and ate and mulled over the inevitable: another loss.

The rows of big boats were mostly empty, as were the banks all the way back to the Holston. Going against the current and taking the south side shortcut around Dickinson Island, I reached the park at 6, time enough to beat the bulk of the traffic on the drive home.

It had been a long day trip, about 14 miles, but it really hadn't been as rough as I'd thought. Aside from the Navy, more stately than agitated, more civil than I had expected, the subtler things enthralled me the most: the slow motion liftoff of a great blue heron, wings beating the air; shady Goose Creek and the excited young fishers with their humble rigs; puffs of grill smoke floating past me under the Gay Street Bridge, the aroma tempting me to linger, to beg or barter; and the pleasure of traveling by water from the early morning solitude of the countryside to a city focused on sport, tensed for a showdown, the stadium looming like an ancient tribal monument above the river, its reflection rippling in the breeze.


Holston River Park Canoe Launch

When: Holston River Park is open from dawn to dusk.

Where: Holston River Park is located at 3300 Holston Hills Road. Travel I-40 east and take the Asheville Highway exit (exit 394); turn right onto Asheville Highway; go to red light and make a left onto Chilhowee Drive; go through four-way stop; when the road dead ends, make a right onto Holston Hills Drive; go approximately 2 miles; at stop sign, cross Boyds Bridge Pike; passing the Holston Health Care Center; park will be about half mile on the left.

How Much: Free

Word to the Wise: The put-in at Holston River Park is seven miles from Third Creek, so it's a 14-mile round trip and you have to paddle against the current going back if you don't have a shuttle (impractical on a game day). So pack a lunch. Get downtown sometime in the morning, at least four hours before the game, and leave after the game starts or shortly beforehand. (You can also put in at Riverside Landing Park and that cuts the trip in half.) For comfort and to take along the family and dog, you'll want travel by canoe.  For speed, distance, and making headway upstream and against the wind, touring kayaks are the way to go.