The lake belonged to me and Norm, a good situation when you canoe with an 85-pound German shepherd. The sun glittered off water untroubled by boat wakes and wind, steep ridges rising on both banks, nothing up there but trees and rocks and trickling springs—no houses, no marinas, no one fishing off the banks, and, most importantly for us, no other dogs.
It's always that way when we come here to upper Chilhowee Lake, just below Calderwood Dam. If you have a canoe or kayak, and you enjoy calm, quiet waters, relative wilderness, and a sense of discovery, it's worth the drive south from Knoxville (about 25 miles from Maryville) to the narrow lakes of the Little Tennessee River, a respite from less paddler-friendly waters like Fort Loudoun.
The challenge on this early spring day was to get a little exercise, to take in the scenery, to fall into a meditative trance, and to stay upright. Achieving these goals would depend upon First Mate Norm, occasionally prone to fidgeting and distraction.
Off Highway 129, not far after the beginning of the ascent up the 11 curvy miles known as the Tail of the Dragon, a small green sign indicates Growden Boulevard coming up on your right. This gated road, open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, leads to the bottom of the gorge, where you take a right to get to the boat ramp out on a point. Other roads will take you past the vestiges of Calderwood Village, where those who built the dam lived.
We were greeted by a group of deer and a gaggle of geese that shared an open field next to the road. Norm stared quietly at them for five minutes, and then they bounded majestically across the sunny field into the woods up the road.
Our plan was to paddle from the ramp directly across to the opposite shore, 300 yards away, and take a walk around the ruins of Scota, once a resort owned by Alcoa. Then we would paddle upstream toward the dam until the tailwaters pushed us back toward one of three narrow islands, our lunch destination.
It was too early for snakes, and since none of the trees had leafed out, it was easier to tour the remains of Scota than the last time I'd been here, the previous summer. A set of steps that leads nowhere marks the best landing, a low gravel bar near a path through new-growth forest. Bearing to the left on the trail leads to a stone stairway and a tile patio, partially reclaimed by kudzu vines. Another path leads past a springhouse made of slate toward where the golf course used to be.
Back in the boat we headed upstream, toward Calderwood Dam and Powerhouse, recently acquired by the Brookfield Company from Alcoa. I paddled near the far bank until I could see Calderwood's red-lettered "Dangerous Waters" sign ahead near the powerhouse. I turned the bow and rode the tailwaters back to the second island.
We landed on a strip of sand near a couple of geese in the water. I'd seen deer on this island, and once I could have sworn I'd spotted a wild pig from the distance of the opposite bank. Though we had considered exploring the island, the geese persuaded us otherwise, their patrol sounding the alarm when we moved inland. If we sat and ate, they were quietly vigilant, so that's what we did.
Back in the boat, I pulled around to the side of the island nearest the bank, where I thought we'd be out of the wind that had risen. Norm likes to sit about the middle of the boat, lifting the front up high like a sail. We made little progress back to the ramp. Finally I discovered that going backward was easier than going forward, and then that a sort of cartwheeling motion in the general direction of the ramp was best.
This was working okay until a guy with what looked like an unleashed pit bull began walking from his truck toward the boat ramp. Norm saw the dog and began making anxious sounds. The headwind was still pounding us, and Norm shifted back and forth, yearning to get out. At the ramp, the guy threw a stick, the pit retrieved it, and they returned to the truck, mission accomplished.
We struggled back to the ramp, each of us well exercised. Norm hopped out and spritzed the porta potty while I loaded the canoe.
What I like about this place is that it's almost always deserted (I have usually gone on weekdays) and its shorelines combine a wild dramatic majesty with vestiges of history. You can hike as well as paddle here, useful if you've got a dog, and since I have caught a fish here (smallmouth bass), anybody should be able to catch one. There's no camping here.