On the Precipice

No longer the Smoky Mountains best kept secret, Townsend wrestles with the pitfalls of its newfound popularity


by LaRue Cook

Standing atop a 30-foot cliff overlooking the Little River in Townsend, I begin to rethink my logic.

Having grown up on Watts Bar Lake in the sleepy town of Kingston, I'm no novice to cliff jumping. Forty-footers, 50-footers, hell, I even had the courage, or what some might call stupidity, to take a leap from the catwalk of a 60-foot bridge.

But here, at this popular swimming hole that has come to be known as the Y, I sense fear seeping from my body. There are 100 or so onlookers at the Y, which is where the river transforms from a narrow, serpentine tributary into a widened body of water that is much more representative of its name. To the left sunbathers lie prostrate on a grassy hill, while kiddies and teenagers and even elders swim freely and jump from cliffs and rocks of various sizes. Most only find the Y in passing as they float by on bright yellow inner tubes with purpose, ducking and dodging the jutting rocks that act as obstacles to the serenity of their journey down the 18 miles of river located in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Tubing has become a reputable industry in Townsend over the last 15 years. In no way similar to whitewater rafting, tubing is a more peaceful float as the calm river carries inner tubes at a slower pace, occasionally gaining steam at intermittent rapids.

Professed to be â“the Peaceful side of the Smokies,â” the town of roughly 400 embraces its reputation as a reprieve from the commercialization of tourist havens like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Like indie directors who shun the bright lights and umbrella-garnished drinks of Hollywood for guerrilla-style filmmaking in New York City, bona fide outdoorsmen escape the amenities of indoor plumbing and strip malls for the raw and rustic sojourn in nature that Townsend offers.

â“We really encourage people to appreciate the natural beauty of the park,â” says Jeanie Hilten, who is the special events coordinator for the Smoky Mountains Visitors Bureau and has lived in Townsend for 23 years. â“Any way we can connect people to nature is a good thing. Having that direct experience is what usually gets them hooked.â” If not for campgrounds and inner tube stands prompting a sprinkling of mom-and-pop restaurants and cheap motelsâ"one of which is aptly called the Hillbilly Hiltonâ"the town might be listed under the clichéd category of places time forgot.

But the whispered word-of-mouth Townsend has garnered over the years has turned into more of a rumble. And while travelers still don't arrive in hoards the way they do to Dolly's Mecca in Sevier County, the congregation at the Y has grown each summer. Parks spokeswoman Nancy Gray says it's a â“phenomenonâ” that tubing has placed Townsend in such higher esteem than merely being the â“peaceful side of the Smokies.â”

Which consequently has attracted visitors (myself included) more interested in running roughshod, inebriated and carefree over the sometimes-torrential rapids of the Little River than simply basking in the sobriety of the natural world.

In January it was reported that park officials would ban cliff jumping at the Y this summer, but after searching for a sign over the weekend, I couldn't find one. Gray assures me that it is illegal and that the regulation went into effect this summer.

â“The reason we're banning rock jumping is because of the potential impact on injuries that can occur from jumpers who have started trying to land on tubers and swimmers,â” she says. â“The use of that area has increased so much over the years that we want to try and prevent potential accidents.â”

The ranger force does seem to have made a concerted effort of policing up and down the river much more heavily, mostly to stop the flow of alcohol, which is illegal and punishable by fine in certain areas, especially on the Little River.

I spoke with a group of five college-aged kids who were fined two weeks ago by rangers for having a cooler of beer tied to their float. They told me it was a good ranger-bad ranger routine, the older female ranger applauding them for depositing their cans in a plastic bag rather than sinking them to the river bottom. The 30-something male ranger was intent on giving them a second citation for public intoxication, but apparently decided that one strike was enough.

Eddie Davis, owner of the rental stand Tube Junction, says keeping a watchful eye on alcohol is necessary for a safe environment on the Little River, which has claimed two lives since tubing commenced on Memorial Day weekend.

But he assumes the sanity of the park is the main reason.

â“I'd say the park is more concerned with people littering, throwing beer cans in the river and polluting the area than people being drunk,â” Davis says as I sit and talk with him and his two employees in his office (a picnic table).

Davis, who is a native of Townsend and has been in the tube rental business since 1984, says he isn't keen on the park outlawing cliff jumping since it's a pastime that residents enjoyed long before the area became a popular tubing sight.

â“I think it's a personal thing. People know what they're doing. Now, if it's somebody up there acting crazy with a six pack of beer, then that's foolish,â” says Davis, who admits to having jumped just once and â“not liking it too much.â”

â“But if they are going to outlaw it, then they can't just halfway manage it. It's going to cost money, and the park service is already talking now about how they don't' have enough money for this, that and the other.â”

Park services didn't start keeping accidental death statistics until 1971, but since then there have been 169 deaths, most of them related to motor vehicles. Drowning has claimed 28 lives and falls account for 15.

Brad Goyette, a recent high school graduate who is in his first summer at Tube Junction, says he's certain people will ignore official warnings and continue to dive off the cliff.

â“People aren't going to pay any attention to that. Really, it's just a few people doing stupid things that ruin it for everybody,â” he says.

Later in the day, I walk through the Y as a spectator and within minutes of roaming the rock bed that acts as a seating area for the theatrics being performed above, I overhear an older man mention the drowning earlier this month at a spot known as the â“Sinks.â” Apparently, a 24-year-old swimmer slipped when trying to climb up the hillside, spiraled down into the water and was carried over a waterfall, a 12-foot drop. It was the fifth recorded drowning at the Sinks.

The other death this year occurred when a man stole a truck in Maryville and ran it off into the river.

â“Most of the deaths that happen here are because people are just inexperienced,â” Davis says. â“There hasn't been any sort of a rise in deaths, either. We always have one or two a summer that just don't know the dangers of the river.â”

Davis' aunt and uncle opened Tube Junction when he was 11 years old. His uncle passed some years back, and he became sole owner and operator of the outfit.

He says on a good day he rents roughly 50 to 60 tubes to out-of-towners from distant locales like Germany and England to local University of Tennessee fraternity and sorority groups.

With the sheer number of faces and names entering and exiting his parking lot, Davis probably has no recollection of the five times I've rented a tube at his stand. The first time I came to Townsend I bypassed the well-advertised River Rat shop for the inconspicuous Tube Junction, which is much more visually inviting to a country bumpkin such as myself.

There's no building, no flashing sign, only a pile of tubes sitting in front of a faded yellow school bus, which Davis uses to haul parties to the top of the river and pick them up at the end of the day for a small fee.

Folks in Townsend were tubing on their own accord long before the industry began rather unceremoniously when Kyle Middleton, owner of the Little River campground, started loaning out black inner tubes from old tractor tires in the early 1980s. People would pay him for the float and if they returned it, Middleton would reimburse them a portion of their money.

Residents like Davis' aunt and uncle and later Shannon Skidmore, owner of the River Rat, started legitimate ventures and secured business licenses from Blount County. Davis remembers when tubes sold for $2 a piece, but that price has been on the rise with at least six different tube rental shops now lining U.S. 321.

Business has been rather slow so far this season because of a severe drought in the area, one that residents say has kept the water level nearly a foot below average. Coupled with the stricter regulations it's no surprise that Davis has seen a drop in patronage.

He runs Tube Junction from Memorial Day through Labor Day and, in the off-season, works as a manager at a local gas station, plus he does some electrical work on the side.

He speaks with a sort of fatherly pride about his business and his bus, which he bought for $2,300 in Vonore.

â“I've been meaning to paint it, but I just haven't gotten around to it. It's kind of hard to take it down long enough to, but I guess I could do it in the off-season,â” Davis says, his child-like eyes belying his age of 34.

I inquire about the for-sale sign on his property, to which he replies, â“It's here if someone wants it.â” Although there is no hint of immediacy in his voice, Davis tells me he would like to one day leave the tubing business and start a family.

Nearly a century before tubes weaved their way through the Smokies, Townsend was known for the Little River Railroad, which was built in 1901 by Col. W.B. Townsend to benefit his booming lumber industry. The train was what first brought visitors from Knoxville to the mountain community, and now it's estimated that nearly 1.5 million tourists arrive at the Smokies through the Townsend-side entrance.

Once Col. Townsend, a Pennsylvania native who would later live in Knoxville, exhausted the land of its timber, he sold 77, 000 acres of property to the state, marking the meager beginnings of the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The lumber company officially closed its sawmill in 1938, leaving Townsend without much in the way of labor opportunities for its citizens, other than service repair shops.

Tourists breezed through and bought land to build cabins for seasonal homes, and Townsend's economy became reliant on the monies of non-natives, though never capitalized on tourism like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

While beneficial to the sanctity of the park, some say remaining in limbo as nature's preserve has frustrated any sort of definitive growth for Townsend.

â“I don't want for Townsend to become overly commercialized, but I want to have kids and where are they going to work?â” Davis asks rhetorically. â“In gas stations, grocery stores, campgrounds or selling tubes? People have to drive so far to get a good job. People go to Mayville or Alcoa to work, and I don't see why we couldn't get some kind of a small factory where people could make an honest living with good benefits. That way the next generation can have a chance at a quality life.â”

Davis glances at his watch and is reminded he has a fraternity group to bring back from downstream. He implores that I stay until he returns, so we can speak at length about his tubing philosophies.

His helper Goyette entertains me with Little River stories, while another employee, Joe, skims the classifieds for a place to send his résumé.

â“There's some good-looking girls coming back on that bus,â” Goyette says.

I debate on sticking around to see what kind of eye the kid has on him, but I think better of it and drive deeper into the mountains, following the river.

For tubers, the Y's bustling activity only lasts a matter of moments as signs of life disappear into the calm of nature once again just around the rock-bank bend. But for some inexplicable reason, this bluff I'm on possesses a sort of magnetic pull, causing tubers to discard their preservers if only for the time it takes to traverse the craggy rock and descend.

They leave their tubes on the bank and swim the 20 or so feet to the edge of the cliff, climbing up a narrow pathway, those less confident stopping at a ledge 10 feet below the summit.

People watch in awe as Y veterans perform acrobatic stunts like gainers, front flips and what appears to be a form similar to the spread-eagle of a flying squirrel. Kids ooh and aah, parents grumble at the lack of respect for the violent side of nature.

All eyes seem to be on me even though I'm only one of many atop the 30-foot crag. Members of my tubing party are shouting for me to contort my body into positions that don't seem natural while flailing through the air. My mind is on the small diameter of water in which I have to land. A few feet either way and I won't land in the space where nature has allowed the river bottom to extend below the normal depths of the Y. Also, my paranoia of rangers lurking just beyond the tree line is growing. None of the others who have gone before me were issued warnings.

In a moment of clarity, I ponder my enigmatic urges to jump, walking the line of bravery that exists somewhere between the adrenaline rush and the very real terror of potential injury.

I realize that in the midst of contemplation I have careened off the cliff. And although there was no intention of heroics, my body slowly turns upside down, my head pointing toward the water as I reach out, grabbing nothing but air.

I imagine I resemble a 5-year-old attempting his first dive, my extremities no longer reading the messages sent from the brain through my synaptic terminals saying, â“Remain stiff, straight.â”

Then, the biting chill of the water. I reemerge and no one seems to notice.

Editor's Note: Stayed tuned for Part Two of our Summertime in the Smokies series, to run in the July 5 issue of Metro Pulse


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