Plateau Adventure: Three Days of Paddling and Camping in Upper Clear Creek Canyon

The middle day is always the best. It's the deepest point within a journey, where you can find yourself equidistant from both the beginning and the end, and where the thread of time slows the most. The clear advantage of a two-night trip in the back country over a one-nighter is that on that middle day there is no interrupting the trance. On that day flanked by days, there are no distractions, no agenda other than to wake up in the woods, spend the day in the woods, and fall asleep in the woods. Upper Clear Creek Canyon, located on the Cumberland Plateau, is one of the very best places to experience this phenomenon.

Loved by a variety of outdoor enthusiasts, "the Plateau" is a sprawling table-land which towers hundreds of feet above the Tennessee Valley. Like knives cutting through a vast layer-cake of sandstone and shale, countless streams have, over the millennia, carved dramatic canyons into the plateau on their way to the Tennessee River. The canyons of the plateau are geologically similar to those found in the Southwestern U.S., but are cloaked in a lush temperate rainforest. These hidden slivers of wilderness have for decades instilled within local paddlers an insatiable wanderlust, felt in the form of acute pangs of urgency in response to the heavy rains that grace the region in winter and spring. Wet weather breathes life into these streams, where skilled paddlers can be found tackling whitewater rapids in the most beautiful of settings.

The Obed River System stands out on the plateau, offering dozens of different sections to paddle, as well as several high quality overnight paddling itineraries. Clear Creek is one of the main tributaries of the Obed, and it begins just north of Crossville, winding 29 scenic miles before joining the Obed near Wartburg. While several bridges cross the creek in its lower reaches, the most remote stretch of Clear Creek meanders 20 uninterrupted miles below Highway 127 before reaching Barnett Bridge. Much too lengthy for a day run, this distance is best spread over two-four days. It's one thing to spend an afternoon soaking in the unique character of a place like Clear Creek, but to immerse one's self for days on end, bearing witness to the rhythm of light and dark, and the resultantly dynamic nature of the canyon and its inhabitants, is to marinate one's soul in the essence of such a place on a profoundly deeper level.

I was first introduced to Upper Clear Creek Canyon by McMinnville native Randy Bigbee, who has been guiding UT Canoe & Hiking Club members down the creek every Easter Weekend for the last 25 years. No one knows the river's labyrinthine course better than Randy, and I was lucky enough to join him three years ago for my first trip down. What I found was an intimate, narrow stream dashing through surreal canyons packed with mild but interesting whitewater that while easy in my kayak, challenged me to the core when I returned the following year to try the run in my canoe. I now consider Upper Clear Creek Canyon as the finest whitewater canoe-camping trip in the Southeast. I've since made a point of spending at least a few days every year floating through Clear Creek's remote Upper Canyon, and I was finally able to bring my family down the creek one weekend this April.

A friend graciously drove my wife Laura, son Alex, and me, as well as our tandem canoe, one kayak, and three days of overnight gear, up to the top, where we slid into the water in the dusk light and worked our way down bumpy shoals for a spell until we came upon a rock-house—an overhung shelter that seemed to be the perfect spot for a family of three. Our choice of camp was a fortuitous one, as soon after our fire was built the air came to a boil with the rumble of distant thunder. A thunderstorm ensued, lighting up the textured sandstone walls and dumping rain. We watched excitedly from underneath our dry shelter, and after a quick dinner, drifted to sleep to the gentle staccato of raindrops falling on the water.

The following day's only concern was making camp before dark, and with Alex and I in our canoe and Laura in her kayak, we slowly drifted from one turn to the next, as if thumbing the pages of a seemingly endless storybook filled with the richest of aesthetics and sensory-based narrative. In between tricky rapids that demanded our focus and attention, we let the stream-banks—which were lined with the bright colors of redbud, serviceberry, and maple—pass one quiet paddle-stroke at a time. Places with such solitude encourage but whispers, and a mindful eye is sure to reveal abundant wildlife such as heron, kingfisher, bald eagle, coyote, mink, and otter. We found ourselves treated on this excursion to the surprise of a whole herd of deer, led by a large buck, crashing through the creek just a few yards in front of us. In addition to other interesting sights, during a side-hike to impressive Four Mile Creek Falls, we stumbled upon a large garter snake bulging with a recent meal, and spied the vibrant orange and red hues of the delicate red spotted newt.

Back on the water on our third day, we stretched the hours as much as we could, swimming in the creek and negotiating several demanding rapids before Barnett Bridge finally came into view, bringing the adventure to a close. Not wanting our trip to end, we drove slowly back home to the world we had so eagerly left behind, rejuvenated and reveling in the knowledge that Upper Clear Creek Canyon is, after all, but one of an endless bounty of rewarding experiences that await the adventurous Knoxvillian.

A hopeless river soul, Kirk Eddlemon has spent much of his life chasing water through the Southern Appalachians. He is currently writing a comprehensive river guide to the Southeast which should be available in fall 2014.