Around the Bend: the Quiet Beauty of Little Dismal Creek

I stood in the mud beside my kayak up a creek as far as I could go. On one side lay a meadow of tall grass open to the sky, on the other a steep ridge dark with trees. Somewhere a little dog barked at the bumping sounds I had made arising from the cockpit. Normal stuff. Then something whooshed overhead, what sounded like a sudden gust of wind on a morning as still as a country church. Above the meadow jetted a squadron of swallows, veering as a group and disappearing as quickly as they had appeared.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was on Little Dismal Creek, off the Clinch, a few miles upstream of Clinton City Park, where I had put in that morning. The name "Dismal" motivated me to drive the 35 miles from Maryville that day and the next to explore a river that many had recommended for its fishing and its paddling.

On that first day, I was secretly mocking the name "Eagle Bend," thinking it highly unlikely I'd see one of the majestic birds on this stretch of the Clinch. The city park put-in was underneath the four-lane Clinton Highway, where signs advised "park at your own risk." One side of the river was lined with heavy industry, and the other side was generally undeveloped. I favored the pastoral right side of the river going upstream, but I could not escape the roar and the clang of industry, people up above making things while I loitered in a boat, not even fishing. I felt just a little guilty, even though it was Sunday. Or maybe because it was Sunday. Every now and then a loud garbled voice would rise from an intercom as if scolding me. At the tip of Aulton Island, about the time I turned the bow to head back to the boat ramp, I gazed at the dark ridgeline off in the distance and spotted an eagle.

Not all creeks are equal to the upstream paddler. And you'd think that with a name like Little Dismal (and Dismal, its nearby cousin), that I'd see something that would explain such a moniker. Dismal is not a word I'd associate with creeks in general, though I could see why folks would call a swamp dismal, like the "great" one in North Carolina and Virginia, the kind of gloomy place, full of predators, where you could easily get lost, temporarily or permanently.

Clinton Public Library local history volunteer Stephanie Hill speculated that the Dismal creeks may have gotten their name for two reasons: the wolves that roamed Wolf Valley and/or the nearby shoals that hindered navigation. I knew the shoals were gone, buried with the construction of Norris Dam, and I felt it was highly unlikely that I'd see a wolf. But on the chance I might, I returned earlier the next day, around 6 a.m., and put in at Eagle Bend Public Access Area off Mountain View Road, which is left off Wolf Valley Road. Dismal Creek waited downstream a couple of hundred yards away. Fog lay heavy on the Clinch, rising from water flushed out of deep, deep Norris Lake, a few miles upstream.

Fog seems to hold things still and quiet, to create a kind of static atmosphere, so when I saw a cat head—sized object moving across the water, and it made a cannonball splash as it dived, I almost fell out of the boat, even though I knew what it was: a beaver.

I wondered if the Dismal Creek experience would measure up to its name. Little Dismal had failed in a sense, offering me only quiet beauty and the swallow epiphany. Here, at big Dismal, the fog dispersed as I entered the dark creek and paddled upstream 200 yards to its terminus, a graveyard of discarded tires. Forming a blockade across the creek were tires of all sizes, even a bicycle tire and a whitewall. Some had some tread left. You could stock a retread store with the tires in Dismal Creek, down below Mountain View Road.

Onward I went on the Clinch proper, upstream toward Hinds Creek, what promised to be a longer paddle up a creek that in 1888 was designated a navigable stream, known for its three saw mills. The river and the creek were empty now, but the timeless quality of paddling through fog helped me imagine a raft of logs coming out of that creek mouth and heading downriver to Clinton or beyond. A group of cows stopped and stared at me from the bank. I guess I looked as ghostly to them as they did to me. I heard the traffic on Highway 61 long before I could see the bridge. Hinds Creek opened wide and accommodated me for a hundred yards, then a chute full of strange oblong rocks turned me back, after two efforts to breach it in my flatwater boat.

I did not see deer at Hinds Creek, as one might think from the archaic use of the term "hind," but going from the Eagle Bend boat ramp to the bridge is a good up-and-back paddle in early morning, when the fog is thick and the dam is not generating too much current.