Lake Life in the Slow Lane: Exploring Ninemile Creek

As Park Ranger Will Kinton was describing a guy who had paddled the length of the Tennessee River with his dog, I turned around and saw that my canoe, the same one I'd taken down the Tennessee, was floating 20 feet off the shore of Fort Loudoun State Historic Area. It was knocked from where I'd propped it by the wake of a 50-foot cruiser that had appeared on this Sunday morning, at 7, the day before Memorial Day.

"That guy who paddled the Tennessee," I said to Kinton as I ran down the hill, "that was me!"

"If you can't get to it," he shouted back, "I've got a friend with a boat who is coming later!"

That's how this day started, having to get my feet wet to retrieve my stricken canoe, nearly swamped by a type of boat that the ranger and I didn't think would appear until noon.

German shepherd Norm, my current paddling companion, had canoed several times already, without incident, and I was starting to think he might rival Jasper, the Labrador-German shepherd mix who went down the 652-mile Tennessee with me in 1998. Yet Norm had not faced the seaworthy vessels that carved the waters of the dammed lakes of East Tennessee. Here we were on Tellico Lake, about 15 miles above Tellico Dam, within paddling distance of three gargantuan marinas, on the busiest boating holiday weekend of the year. It would be Norm's toughest test.

We headed across the main channel for the mouth of Ninemile Creek, which would take us past Tellico Marina. A gentle rain speckled the smooth surface of the water, and a big sign with red letters told us not to leave a wake. The marina was deserted. We circled around it looking at the boats, one's 40-foot hull emblazoned "Cat A Tac," a twin-engine speedboat with a fearsome red, blue, yellow, and white hull suspended above the water. I hoped this beast would not awaken.

Houses sat high above us on right bank of the creek, a large embayment about a half-mile across, deep enough to accommodate the cabin cruisers, pontoons, and runabouts in the snazzy boathouses that fronted landscaped lawns. One dock said that it permitted Vol fans only. Another had a vintage sign that recommended fishing naked to show off one's "bobbers." A cartoonish redhead holding a bent pole was in the foreground, and in the distance was a guy, in a canoe, gawking through binoculars.

When we passed under the Highway 72 Bridge, the change was immediate. In a folding chair under the bridge, a man was catching catfish with chicken livers. Further on, we would accidentally flush two great blue herons from their nest high in a dead tree. Older houses lined the left bank, which was flat to the water, and someone was camping out in one yard. Trees stood up out of the water as the creek actually began to look like creek-like and began to wind through places navigable for paddlers only, thick forest or pastureland on each bank.

After two hours on the water, we still hadn't seen another boat. We scooted through a narrow passage of deadfall, where something was making a loud sucking sound in the water. A variety of trees—maple, locust, elm, oak—rose high from each bank and formed a leafy roof above us, sheltering us from a shower that began. Cattle stared down at us, and Norm stared back without barking. A 1930s-era humpbacked car was buried in the bank, honeysuckle covering its rusted shell, one piece of chrome gleaming in the sun that burst through after the shower.

If I'd been in my kayak without Norm I could have portaged around or maybe forged my way through the second pile of deadfall to explore several miles farther up Ninemile Creek. Back at the bridge around noon we saw our first motorboat. One guy held his fist in the air and shouted "Great day!" They were able to clear the low bridge but not by much. At the marina, the pontoons and small runabouts began to rev up. When we reached the crossing at the main lake, it was about 1 p.m.

I looked both ways: clear. We were maybe 300 yards from the island we had launched from. Norm had performed well, ignoring dogs on the bank and treating the cows with friendly curiosity. Still, he had a tendency to stand up when anything was happening, and as two cabin cruisers rounded the bend just as we were about halfway across, Norm stood up, all 85 pounds of him, and canted the canoe to the right. I asked him to sit, to no avail. I got on my knees in the stern to lower our center of gravity, and paddled like crazy toward Fort Loudoun, where someone was firing a large 18th century weapon called a wall gun. Later I would find out it was Will Kinton. Norm looked from the fort's bluff to the approaching cabin cruisers. The boats passed within 15 yards of us without decreasing their speed, and I turned the bow to meet their wakes. Boom, boom, boom went the hull of the canoe as surfed over the double swells, and Norm stumbled but did not panic.

Back at the fort, Kinton was dressed in an American uniform, his hat topped with a cascade of bear fur and deer tail. People lay on the grass near the water, strolled the trails with dogs, and toured the fort. Kinton also had a hand cannon, a matchlock, and a flintlock. He fired blanks from each one, delivering a lecture on each.

The park is a good place to hike or run, with extensive trails that go through woods and meadows and alongside the lake. I have never hiked those trails without seeing at least one deer, and that morning, on the way in, we saw five on the roadside. To get to the park from Maryville, take Highway 411 south to Vonore, turn left onto Highway 360, and the next left on Ft. Loudoun Road. It's about 20 miles from Maryville.