The Land Between the Lakes region seperates the dammed Cumberland River (Lake Barkley) and Tennessee River (Kentucky Lake), nestled in between the two is a camping and outdoor recreation area unrivaled on my river trips thus far. It was a beautiful morning as I paddled up from Barkley Lake past the palatial mansions on the shoreline beneath red cedar, white oak, beech and shortleaf pines. The forests here immediately transition from the upland mixed hardwoods to the water’s edge with little wetland buffer as is typical in a river setting. The result is a biodiverse and rich shoreline that is essentially the upland woods. Acorns dot the forest floor where the rebounding deer species forage among the fire-managed open understory.
The two lakes are joined by a 1.5 mile long man-made canal. It was my goal to make way through here early on this weekend morning since the narrow waterway would soon be full of yachts, pontoon boats and speedboats showing off with big wakes and some less than sober captains. Already I could feel a slight current from the more powerful Tennessee River as I worked my way out toward Kentucky Lake’s shoreline.
The shores of Kentucky Lake are lined with the crushed rocks and fossils eroded from the shoreline banks. This makes for a nice solid landing surface anywhere on the shoreline – a huge improvement over the muddy mess that was much of the Cumberland. One morning while enjoying my coffee as the sun rose, some movement caught my eye and I spotted a toad burrowing into the rocks. We both sat there enjoying the sunrise a foot apart.
Upon reaching Ken Lake Resort, my food supplies were running low and it had been challenging to find any fresh ingredients for a few days. For a moment I considered the Turtle Treats out front but decided I’d venture inside to see what I could rustle up…and charge my dead phone.
The marina restaurant offered a Grilled Chicken Salad which materialized before me on en enormous platter. Hidden beneath the eggs, cheese and grilled chicken are green things, I swear! It was all I could do to finish half of this salad and happily loaded the remainder into a box for dinner to be enjoyed on a beach. In Kentucky they take the calories seriously!
One of many sandy crescent beaches popular with weekend boaters and families looking for a break from the boat docks. Since all this land is National Recreation Area, I was never challenged in finding a campsite for the night for 100 miles.
The old grain elevator on the south end of the lake juts out from the middle of the water, a relic of days before the lake. Waves and wind have been rough on the structure but remarkably the rebar and concrete remains, now updated with artistic license from spray-paint wielding graffiti artists. The wind and waves were less than ideal when I passed to get very close to it so I kept a safe distance as I umbrella sailed past.
As the sun set near Mile 99 of the Tennessee River, I reached one of the final islands before the river begins to narrow for New Johnsonville, TN bridges. The current picked up some but I was content to keep near the islands as the warm colors of sunset backlit the willows. A distracted raccoon exploring the shoreline for edibles didn’t hear me coming until I was 10 feet away. The coloring was magnificent in the evening light.
Lunch break on one of the more island filled areas on the south end of the lake. The low water levels here make it excellent for a kayak as I could sneak in and out of narrow chutes and passages that would have left a larger boat stuck in the mud.
It can be challenging at times to make the river and civilization meet. In Aurora, KY I landed at the old Cherokee Campground, once the segregated campsite for the region, and began walking. The boat ramp was a quite place and I felt my gear was safe for the few hours it would take. It was 10AM but already temps climbed to the mid 80’s as I climbed the hills and went down in the hollers on this rolling country road for a mile. Here I was humming familar folk songs without a care in the world on my way to load up an empty food bag. The grape aroma of kudzu blooms wafted on the steamy morning air as the dew almost seemed to hiss when hit by the radiant sun.
Then another mile or two up the narrow highway’s 6″ shoulder to the Dollar General, the only grocery store in the area. Canned spinach and eggs were on the list along with banana chips, nuts, cereals and other fuel for the kayaking. On the way back to my boat, I ambled up to a retired gas station become Flea Market and asked the solid elderly woman sweeping and rummaging around if she had a spoon I could buy. I haven’t had any utensils since the start of this trip. She gave me one from a huge box of assorted cutlery and offered me a folding chair to “sit a spell”. I dug in to my pint of Cookie-Dough ice cream before it melted as her and her husband, 90 years old, educated me about life here in quit stop-sign intersection Aurora. Hearing his stories of swimming in the Tennessee River prior to the TVA was a unique perspective. “It was only 20 years ago that I saw my first deer in this area. They were all hunted out when I was growing up”, he relayed. The high was hovering around 92F and I wondered how this couple was going to stay safe in the non-air conditioned garage.
Headed back to the boat, I stuck my thumb out in hopes that the few vehicles on this dead-end road would stop. The first truck sped past but the second Dodge pulled over and I jumped in the back. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like 45mph air conditioning after a hot walk in the mid-day Kentucky sun. Thanks Dennis for the great conversation, stories and information.,
The bluffs and small cliffs offer rich fossil hunting and a unique experience to walk for miles with endless artifacts of modern lake-life floating up from flip flops to watermelon rinds and sunscreen bottles.
The fruit of an Osage Orange washed ashore at my “coyote camp”. A coyote was walking the shoreline as I paddled in and quickly scattered into the woods.
I don’t recall taking this picture but I was sure having a GREAT day! My new habit has been to wake up in the morning and say “Today will be a GREAT Day” and so far, despite many challenges, each evening I can reflect on the many positive points of my experience.
The Tennessee River narrows down around Duck River and although the flow is present, it isn’t as forceful as the Cumberland River. Each day allows for about 15-20 miles of paddling as the sunlight dwindles sooner. Waking before sunrise has been key to gaining miles before wind picks up or weekend boat traffic turns the river into a rollicking sea. There is much beauty in the wilds of Tennesee that I now find myself traversing and hope to update you when I finally make it down to Alabama. Thanks for following along and the fabulous support from all you River Angels along the way.