I was paddling out of a creek I'd never seen before and had never planned on exploring when six people in a motorboat asked me where Butterfly Island was.
Why they asked me—a paddler who had forgotten sunscreen and drinking water, who had been driving around western North Carolina for hours looking for a suitable place to paddle—I have no idea. We all concluded that Butterfly Island, among other things, was probably underwater from the heavy rains following July 4.
This creek I'd never seen before—Forney—off the Tuckasegee arm of Fontana Lake, arrived in my field of vision by one of the most circuitous routes I've ever taken.
Originally, I'd planned on renting an inflatable kayak to float the Oconaluftee through Cherokee, an urban paddle on a river that ran along Tsali Boulevard, named for the warrior hero who killed a soldier who had prodded his wife with a bayonet, hurrying her from the Cherokee homelands along the Trail of Tears toward Oklahoma.
The Cherokee Whitewater kiosk for kayak and inner-tube rental was unmanned at 10:30 a.m., opening time, and a man in the Little Princess restaurant next to the kiosk told me the reason. The rental guys were taking the day off because the river, at this level (2700 CFS at the gauge in Birdtown), was too dangerous.
I was a bit relieved because the Luftee did look pretty angry roaring through town past the craft shops, the museums, the hotels, and the souvenir stands, and I didn't want to crash and burn a rented kayak in front of a crowd waiting in line to buy tickets for Unto These Hills. With my flatwater kayak on top of the car, I went down Highway 19 in search of Luftee Lake. I spotted the dam far below a road, water roaring through its gates, but I could not find a way to get to the lake. Luftee Lake Road ended at someone's driveway.
At this point, desperate to be on the water, I drove toward Bryson City and Fontana Lake, past the Hiawatha Trailer Park, the abandoned Warrior Motel with the huge sign of a hatchet wielding Cherokee brave, and ads for "free rental tubes." The Tuckasegee roared wide and deep, strengthened after its confluence with the Luftee. I passed a burger joint called Na-ber's Drive-in, where you could sit in your car and watch the river flow as you ate. The eccentric hyphen (on the menus but not the sign), the correctly used apostrophe, and the setting made me vow to stop on the way back from wherever I ended up.
With a glance at the North Carolina Gazetteer, I plunged off Highway 19 onto roads that curved and dipped through small communities next to roaring creeks, onto roads that did not exist on my map, twice past Rockledge Singing Park, and finally to Carson Road, which led to a driveway and a North Carolinian who drove up just as I was doing a three-point turnaround.
He directed me to Greasy Branch, a put-in that he said was less "trashy" than where I'd been headed, further up the Tuckasegee arm near where the river came into the lake.
It took me one turn and 10 minutes to get to the ramp. Fontana, a vast lake in the Little Tennessee system, reaches with many narrow fingers deep into verdant mountains. At the ramp the water was unruffled, blue, and empty of boats. Forney looked the most prominent of creeks in the vicinity, and it sounded vaguely familiar, so I headed there, surprised that its mouth was marked with a sign on the bank. To a navigationally challenged paddler, this seemed the height of civilization, notwithstanding the neat bullet hole centered through the "O."
I had company, a lone ski boat, Malibu was its name. It pulled two teenage girls on wake boards up and down Forney Creek, a huge inlet two miles long. I jumped their wakes four times, but I didn't mind; they were having a blast, keening adolescent music blaring over the motor noise. Before long I approached the place where Forney as it existed before the dam began to take shape, no place for wakeboards. The creek, which descends from Clingmans Dome, poured over rocks and cooled the shaded air. A red canoe was pulled up on the bank, a couple setting up camp out on the point.
I walked a bit up Lakeshore Trail, which follows the creek and meets up with Forney Creek Trail and Whiteoak Branch Trail. There are several campsites in the area.
Na-ber's lived up to its promise, its menu singular, offering along with the usual hamburgers and fries, cider, roasted corn, "hard" ice cream and "sliced pies." A teenage boy brought my meal on a tray and hooked it onto the car window. The fries, wrapped in a napkin, were so good I started scarfing them without ketchup, and the burger ("all the way," which includes coleslaw) was way better than one I could grill myself. Just a few yards away, the river cascaded past, carrying cold water and flotsam to Fontana a few miles downstream. A young couple stood on the river bank and embraced, little sister nearby throwing rocks into the brown rushing water. Mom waited in the car, blowing cigarette smoke from the open door. In losing myself, I'd found a home at Na-ber's.
This is a drive I recommend after the sort of big rain we'd had, storms that clarify the air and sweep aside humidity for a spell. It's two hours from Maryville to Cherokee and another 20 minutes or so to Bryson City, but for most of the drive, you travel alongside mountain rivers—the Little, the Oconaluftee and the Tuckasegee—that were a big part of what drew people to this place, what made them fight and die to stay here.
Perhaps I'll return when the waters recede and look for Butterfly Island.