adventuring since 2014

Wheeler and Wilson Lakes

Entering the larger Wilson Lock and Dam, I’m enjoying the lack of current which pushed me downstream near Florence.  They give you this impression you will be swallowed alive with the creaks and moans, splashing of water and imposing scale.

This is the view from the bottom of a lock looking up at the floating pin that raises with the water level.

Wheeler Lake was a really challenging paddling area.  The shoreline on the north side offered shelter from the strong winds of the day but was lined with private homes, boat docks and the like.  Where it wasn’t built up, sheer rock bluffs made it impossible to land and I’d go hours without seeing any kind of acceptable landing spot to take a break or swap out fresh water into my camelbak.  The sun’s heat had intensified and although September, the heat index neared 100 each day.  In a single stupid day of paddling, I covered the entire lake and locked up into Wheeler Lake.

I found a property on the waterfront for sale located up in a cove.  The signs were falling down and weeds overgrown so I settled on this landing for the evening in hopes nobody would show up to weedwack in the dark.   In the morning around 5AM, I awoke to a waxing moon and set out onto the lake with stars glinting my way.  The mirror like surface gave the impression of paddling into space, water neither above or below.  On the rivers, night paddling can be dangerous with all the hazards and current.  On the bigger lakes, when still, it can offer an opportunity to get in touch with the boat and the planets in another way.

Some charming graffiti outside Florence.

The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is the exact opposite of Wilson Lake, dotted with islands and lushly vegetated shorelines. In fact, the challenge became finding any place to hang a hammock that wasn’t overgrown with poison ivy or dense layers of canopy.   A break at the Swan Creek WMA led me over this dyke to see what was on the other side…a wildflower field and spillway reservoir for high water times.

Paddling late into the day has it’s rewards like this sunset.  The cost would be my terrible rocky rip-rap campsite with thousands of vicious mosquitoes as company.

The back sloughs of the wildlife sanctuary give a break from the current and a great chance to spot green heron, belted kingfisher, blue heron and egret.

Sunset ski.

I’m now officially east of I-65

I FOUND IT!  (just kidding)

The trip is nearing in on Guntersville Lake which is where I’ll meet up with friends and pull out for a few weeks of R&R.  It is an upstream paddle to the dam another 30 miles then across the lake. Most days I can make 8-10 miles upstream with the current and conditions at hand.  I’m awed each day by some facet of river travel and despite the physical challenges, excited to see what is around each bend.  Too all my friends in Royal, AL – see ya next week 🙂

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Pickwick Lake

State Line Island Campsite

Pickwick Lake was the first place I came into contact with the dense vegetation growth near the shorelines. The resort in Pickwick actually had signs up that they were treating it with herbicide – still safe for swimming!

The discount grocery store in Pickwick was closed by the time I arrived so I walked next door to R&B BBQ for a $6 BBQ Platter that filled me up after a long day’s paddle. Back at the park, nobody was around down at the “Unsupervised Swimming Beach” so I strung up the hammock and called it a night. Come morning, I returned for some biscuits and gravy then filled my food sack at the grocery store before getting back on the lake.

The sunsets are nice but I prefer sunrises, all full of possibility with what may come.

The wildlife along the shores was pretty rich but I was surprised a week ago to see what I thought was a wild dog. The following week, I spotted another and got close enough to identify it as a coyote with mange or mites limiting it’s fur growth. Thin as a rail, I almost tossed some food out to this canine but thought better of it. Slinking along the shore on this hot morning didn’t sound like a good life.

One of my favorite parts about the Tennessee River is the abundance of cypress trees along the banks and in the lakes. Their evergreen scent sometimes blows on the wind making me dream of fir forests farther north. The first one I spotted was actually along the Ohio River in Illinois!


TVA Lands mostly allow camping and some have signs for more established sites with firepits, open vegetation and a view of the river. Although the vegetation blooms can be thick near shorelines, my kayak can make it through unlike a motorized boat, lending sites to little ol’ me only…or maybe it is a Tuesday evening and nobody is out camping!

The Jason Isbell song “Seven Mile Island” is about this stretch of river here where a series of small islands, known together as Seven Mile Island, offers chutes and backwater paddling away from the bass boats and current in the main channel. Many heron, egrets, turtles and raccoons live in these shadowy swamplands. Using the charts, I find a chute that will let me climb the island over 5 miles within it’s shelter. Upon reaching the mouth, I find it is only a few inches draft and just enough for my boat to scoot through. Phew! I was not looking forward to returning down that long chute.

Yesterday as a powerful thunderstorm attacked with 30 mph winds and heavy bands of rain, I pulled out on Spring Creek just under Tuscumbia and Sheffield. This point was a native camp site and also end of the line for many railroads above on the hill. It was this location which saw the Trail of Tears pass through on boats heading downriver. I picked up an entire trash bag of litter here and figured I had done my good deed and could camp among the poison ivy shrouded oaks. A quiet and steamy night spent listening to the barred owls hoot back and forth.

This morning finds me in Sheffield, AL, home of The Swampers and that Muscle Shoals sound so popular in the 70’s. The new radio antenna I ordered (for the second time as the first one was wrong size) arrived USPS and now I can finally call in to the locks without having to bend the antenna to make contact. The next week looks to be in the 90’s but mostly sunny which will allow my new solar panel to properly charge batteries along the way – this has been a huge morale boost since I can enjoy a book at night or podcast without worrying about the next plug-in. With a full bag of food, I’m off to paddle Wilson Dam and into Wilson Lake where I’ll knock out some miles on my way to Lake Gunthersville by the end of the month. Thanks for enjoying the blog and more will be coming in a week or so 🙂

PADDLE ON GARTH!

TN River (Mile 100 -> 206)

It was a new environment paddling upstream on the mighty Tennessee. Staying to the banks and eddies kept me near the coyotes and deer on shore, turtles slipping off logs and carp feeding in the pools. Overhanging rock outcrops along the river offer a nice break from mid-day sun when the feels like temperature tops 100.

Sometimes getting off the main channel is worth the break and pause from effort. I’m constantly rewarded with picturesque views.

Despite the south winds that usually blew me back downstream, I occasionally got lucky in a bend and could downstream umbrella sail for a few miles. What a relief from paddling if even for a few minutes.

On Labor Day I met a group of local river folk at a sand bar around mile 155. They gave me a beer and took a bunch of pics of the kayak and myself posing on the beach. Slightly uncomfortable with the celebrity, I accepted their hospitality and paddled over to Beech View for dinner. Angel was kind enough to let me take a shower AND gave me a soft and comfortable RV to myself for the night! Jeff and Rennae fixed up some dinner and along with everyone’s potluck we sat down to and feast. Afterward we played a game of corn hole in which Angel and I inexplicably won. What a shock. Great folks and what a warm welcome to this corner of Tennessee. My phone was dead so I don’t have any shots of the group of us (if any of you can, shoot me a pic).

Some days the pop up afternoon storms are wicked and pack serious winds that kick up blinding sand and make paddling a no-go. Hey, I could use the break anyway.

Spotted this Coyote? yesterday. It was so skinny and almost had no tail. Pointy ears and slinky. It almost reminded me more of a wild dog. I’m gonna say it was a chupacabra.

The river depth fluctuates feet each day depending on the generator demand from the TVA Pickwick Dam. Last night my boat was on the waterline but come morning I’ve got to drag it 15 ft back to the water’s edge.

The final few miles up to Pickwick were a serious challenge with heavy current in a bend and few eddies to take advantage of. It was with sweet relief I finally made it to Pickwick Landing Resort just as the sunset. Walked a mile to a nearby R&B BBQ for a huge platter well deserved. Sometimes I’m living high on the hog.

Land Between the Lakes

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.

 

 

Cumberland River

I didn’t think this would really be a cakewalk and the first look back shocked me with how little distance I had covered. Camping was easy on the Ohio but the banks of the Cumberland proved to be muddy and steep straight to the water and up to a 20 ft cutbank. The current was also much swifter than the Ohio and it was imperative to use eddies to work my way up the stream and follow the inside of bends.

The sunset was a rosy hue like a treat after the grueling upstream workout. I put in a good bath, kindled the Twig stove for dinner of lentils, quinoa and eggs then set up my hammock in the few scraggly trees. Tows passed by in the night only 30ft away, their engines rumbling from the darkness with two brilliant beams piercing their direction into the nothingness.

It took a total of three days to make it up the 30 miles of Cumberland River. The many Asian carp and dead catfish along the way weren’t a good sign for healthy waterways but I pressed on with constant determination to reach the Barkley Lock and soon, Kentucky Lake.

As you can see here, the river gets very narrow at times.

Some church decided to throw plastic jugs and bottles in to the river with religious messages. Littering in the name of God is ludicrous. Come on people, there are better methods of spreading the word than garbage.

It was a challenge but with the mantra “I think I can, I know I can” and stopping for many breaks on the few Sandy beaches, I finally made Barkley Lock and Dam by sundown. The imposing lock is twice as tall as the usual locks I’ve frequented and took nearly 20 minutes to ascend the 50 ft or more rise.

This sexy 500hp powerboat locked through with me. Happy to share the space.

And next…Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake!

Oh yeah baby! This is what I’ve been waiting for. Some wide open water.

End of the Ohio

The final lock at Smithland Dam lets me in in the later hours of the day. I feel conflicted as I finish this last portion of the Ohio River. The beauty and grandeur of the scenic river remain intertwined with the sheer reality of man’s impact and impact. The changes I’ve witnessed and smelled along the way have informed my opinions and deeper understanding of the fabric of this corner of America.

Paddling between the many islands of the Smithland Pool, I witnessed this raccoon crossing 1/4 Mi of open water to make the island.

Heading through the final lock.

This was the first time I had ever seen a tug pushing another tug upstream on the Ohio. What a bow wake that was.

This is t he end of my Ohio River trip here at the mouth of the Cumberland River. The current here is surprisingly swift as the muddy and darker waters of the Cumberland mix in the liminal zone with the hydroelectric power plants tailwater of the Ohio. Heading upstream will be a whole new ballgame but I’m in pretty good shape now.

Ohio River: Final Miles

The last week has really went by quickly. It is incredible how much the river has changed as it continues to grow and form. The days blend into each other with distinctions being weather changes and perhaps a unique view from camp. Each day along the waterway I observe bald eagles, coyotes, raccoons, deer and even a wiley Coyote.

The second busiest lock and dam in the country is at Newburgh, IN and as I approached, the moored 8 or 9 tows foreshadowed something was amiss with the lock.Repairs to the main chamber forced all tows to take the smaller 600′ chamber which meant they had to break in half. With all traffic having to break in two, it takes nearly 2 hours per boat. That was about 24 hours to lock through and I wasn’t in the mood towait. I was in the mood to throw in the towel after a solid long day of paddling. The sun was setting as I called in to the lock and got word I’d have to portage. As I was pulling the boat up onto the rocky rip-rap and unloading my gear, one of the kind lock keepers offered tohaul my gear and boat around to the other wall. It wouldn’t really fit in his short bed truck so we put it crosswise, all 16 feet of it, and drove it around carefully to the other wall. I can’t stress how helpful this was. With sweat dripping off me, I then carried and dragged the boat down 40 feet to the water’s edge and hoofed all the gear through the rocks and driftwood back to my boat. Did I mention my flip flops were tied together with rope by this point?

I’m carefully letting the kayak down to the muddy shore when it slips and takes off like a torpeedo into the lock area where half of a two boat sat waiting to lock in. I was able to wade into the water fast and grab the submerged kayak, flip it and haul it back onto the mud where I proceeded to sop out gallons of water and mud before reloading it. Dripping with sweat and my head pounding, I took a few minutes to collect myself before slipping off into the inky river darkness as the wash from the tow boat entering the chamber shot me downstream at twice my usual speed. The first clearing of shoreline I saw just outside the approach looked prime for camp. After a bath in the shallows that didn’t really do the trick, I lay sweating in my hammock waiting for the upcoming rainstorm to sweep through. The rumbles of tow boats and toot of the whistle blew through the night as sleep was fleeting. In the morning though, I was on the correct side of the lock and a new day was ahead of me…

While passing through Pittsburgh, I camped on a half submerged dock and found a plastic duck floating in the muck. On it’s head was written 152, no doubt one of hundreds thrown into a small stream or town river for an event. Well it took me a month but 152 is now securely glued to my Yak’ as a hood ornament companion.

These moths are quite fond of the tropical colored flowers on my shorts. Yes, I found these shorts on the shore in PA and have been wearing them since.

The shoreline of Illinois along the Ohio is geologically rich with many escarpments and bluffs of sandstone. I stopped to explore the many boat-only accessible caves before making it to the tourist attraction of Cave In Rock. The history here goes back hundreds of years and was used by theives, robbers and many colorful characters as far back as the 1700’s. The 55 ft keyhole entrance is covered with grafitti and the roof darkened by the smoke and soot of countless fires. If these walls could talk.

A quite peaceful sunset from the Kentucky shore.

I was quite affected by the sight of a mature barn owl floating downstream swirling in the current. What a sad sight.

This hitch hiker hung with me for a good 10 minutes as I paddled along.

My food supplies were growing low as I finished half of a big can of salmon yesterday. I knew I’d eventually make it to Rosiclare for groceries, water, electricity and wifi. Fortunately, I had planned right and my food lasted until I arrived today. It feels like hitting the reset button as I reload all my podcasts, print new maps for the next section of river and get contact with family members for the first time in a long while. All told, it took about 50 days to go from Fairmount to Rosiclare, over 1000 miles. The entire Mississippii only took my 70 days and that was over 2000miles! Looking forward toheading upstream. In 20 miles I will lock through Smithland Dam and turn upstream onto the Cumberland River toward Lake Barkley and then Tennessee Lake. Looking forward to visiting all my friends in Alabama shortly!