Lake Life in the Slow Lane: Night Paddling

When I couldn't get any humans to night paddle with me on Tellico Lake, I decided to take along Norman, my German shepherd, to occupy the bow of my canoe. He'd gone with me once before on a night run, and he'd remained calm, even though he hates swimming and sometimes goes berserk when he sees other dogs. In regard to other species in the animal kingdom, I wasn't sure of Norm's disposition.

You never know what you'll find at night on a lake; even the most mundane daytime objects become beautiful and strange in the dark, and things that are strange in the day become downright creepy at night. Our goal was the mouth of Fourmile Creek, on upper Tellico Lake, a couple of miles downstream of Chilhowee Dam. I picked Fourmile Creek because I'd never been there by water, and for me, looking for an unfamiliar spot at night makes for an interesting challenge.

The weather was ideal for exploring in the dark—cool and almost windless. The moon had risen at 3:38 that afternoon and wouldn't set until 1 in the morning.

No cars were parked at Harrison Branch boat ramp when we arrived around 8:30 p.m.; it is a good thing to be on the water without motorboats in the vicinity, not just for the quiet but also because a collision would not be optimal in the cold waters of upper Tellico. Demonstrating my absolute (perhaps naïve) trust in Norm's good behavior, I set up my camera on a tripod in the boat, foregoing the waterproof bag where I usually keep it until I'm ready to shoot.

We paddled toward the sunset for about the first half-hour, and it seemed to take forever for full dark to arrive. Norm lay down on a pad and propped his chin on the gunnel. Near a small island in the middle of the lake, a great blue heron preened on a dead branch, its wings luminescent in the fading light. Norm stood in the boat and stared, head low, as if taking the measure of the majestic bird.

Hugging the right downstream bank, we passed under a steep bluff where great tan wedges of rock stood out like profiles of craggy faces. A power line sagged high above us, the orange balls attached to it mimicking the gibbous moon.

After we rounded the bend of the bluff, a security light up ahead pierced the darkness with such intensity that I avoided its direct gaze. Hounds were baying somewhere in the woods above us; Norm stood and sniffed, his regal silence a stark contrast to the hysterical hounds. I thought we were coming up on a house with a really loud air conditioner or generator, and as we got closer, the hounds, still at a distance, got more excited, one of them sounding like a shrill woman mocking a hound. It was not a house that we approached but an uninhabited square brick building with a metal dome on its roof. The area around it was mown with a few small trees that had been trimmed. The bank was reinforced with riprap. As far as I could tell, there was no way to get to this building by road. (I found out later from TVA that there is gated road that leads to the building, which is the South Blount Water Intake Pump Station.)

It felt good to get out of range of the blinding light and into the darkness, which deepened as clouds blotted out the moon. We headed to the farthest corner of a cove, into the deepest obscurity, where I thought we'd find the mouth of the creek.

First a scent arose, something tangy and pleasant, and then as we turned to enter the creek, a breeze fluttered, refreshing after about a 2.5-mile paddle. Fourmile Creek, I knew, was separated from the main lake by a narrow strip of land. Following the creek, which was wide and deep here, we headed in the opposite direction that we had come, paralleling the lake on the other side of the strip. When we arrived at the other side of the pump house and its loud motor, I decided to turn around.

Norm, standing, stared at the thickly vegetated banks, where loud sloshing noises sounded like something wading in after us. Fish swirled on the surface, sometimes breaking through just a few feet from the boat. I flinched; Norm did not. For a moment the moon popped out and brightened everything, but for much of the return trip it hid behind a layer of clouds thin enough to let through a hint of illumination.

When we got back to the boat ramp after midnight, I was surprised we'd been out almost four hours. In addition to amplifying sound and exaggerating the prominence of unidentifiable objects, night also distorts the passing of time.

When I tell people I like to paddle at night, some look at me askance, as if it's a strange and dangerous form of recreation. After doing it a few times, I'm convinced that it may be safer and potentially more enjoyable than daytime paddling, if you go on a calm night with a big moon, on a lake with no barge or powerboat traffic. Having a strong light in case you have to make your presence known is advisable, but I like to cruise without it and let my eyes become accustomed to the night. It's also good to take along a calm friend like Norman, patient and observant and appreciative, an astute and discretionary lookout who is a great listener.

Kim Trevathan is the author of Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin, published by UT Press and available online or at Union Ave Books.