Canoeing and Kayaking in Tennessee’s Scenic Waterways

When most folks think of Nashville, they think of country music. When they think of Memphis, they think of Elvis. When they think of Chattanooga they may remember a song about a Choo-Choo train. What a lot folks don’t know and haven’t yet learned are the adventures to be had by taking a soothing float down one of the state’s rivers, creeks or streams.

The state is home to thousands of miles of waterways and perhaps just as many people who enthusiastically appreciate the entertainment offered on them. So, if you are in the mood for adventure you might plan a canoe trip down one of the state’s rivers, creeks or streams. Be sure to bring a waterproof camera, a good lunch and some close friends and plan on spending a long day and making some very good memories.

I’m going to tell you about three of our states most enthusiastic water adventure seekers.

Canoeing, at in a leisurely style:Skip Handman

Skip has been canoeing for nearly all his 40 years of life. When younger his parents would take him on canoeing trips from his home in Missouri to the Boundary Waters on the Canadian Border. When he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to study at Vanderbilt University, he found that he had ended up in the best part of the state when it came to canoeing and taking advantage of a life long love for the sport.

The rivers around Nashville are bloated rivers that slowly, creep along the flat terrain. The Eastern part of the state has a more rugged terrain which gives rise to fast and sometimes treacherous waterways that are better suited to white water kayaking.

Nashville, which is located in Middle Tennessee is an ideal compromise for someone like Skip who enjoys the slow, creep of local rivers. If, like Skip, you are eager to get the canoe out and get going you might try the Harpeth River just west of Nashville. It offers over 100 miles of floating pleasure. The route, which begins at the Narrows, is about five miles long, and has the advantage of put-in and take-out within easy walking distance of each other, which eliminates the need for a shuttle driver. The Harpeth is a Class I river, with a few Class II rapids tossed in. Along the river are a few U.S. and Native American historical sites, as well as beautiful scenery. The river is usable all year long and is excellent for families, as well as novice and intermediate canoers.

“If you are a family canoeist or casual floater or you just like to paddle downriver with your dog and your binoculars and your fishing pole, Middle Tennessee is the perfect place,” Says Skip.

With all that the Nashville and Middle Tennessee area has to offer choosing a river for canoeing isn’t hard according to Skip. The Harpeth, Duck and Buffalo Rivers are all within 90 minutes of Nashville. If you’re looking for something less traveled, Skip recommends the Red River or the East Fork of the Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Skip says the ability to make canoeing a social activity or a time for quiet reflections keeps drawing him back to the state’s rivers and creeks. He’s been canoeing for decades and doesn’t expect the sense of exploration and anticipation of floating one of Tennessee’s rivers to ever lose its appeal.

The Adventures of Kayaking:
Paul Handley and Philip Donnell

Paul Handley’s first experience with white-water was a rafting trip down the famous Ocoee river 10 years ago. He was immediately hooked on the adrenaline rush.

“I think it’s based on the fear of being upside down in the water and being in a situation that you may not be able to get out of,” says Paul. “That’s what gives you that rush.” Paul is among many who consider Tennessee one of the world’s finest destinations for white-water rafting and kayaking. On the state’s rugged rivers, Paul has met people from around the country and around the world. Nearly 10 years ago people from around the world converged on the Ocoee River in southeast Tennessee for the 1996 Olympic white-water canoe and kayak events.

“We have more white-water days in the state of Tennessee than in any other state in the country,” he says. “That is based partially on the fact that we have dam-released rivers and, of course, we don have lots of natural flowing rivers in the fall and winter.”

Paul learned to Kayak through informal lessons from friends who were experienced kayakers. He suggests that those seeking formal training take lessons offered by the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association. Outfitters such as River Sports in Nashville, North Cumberland Outfitters in Clarksville and Ocoee Adventure Center in Ducktown, Tennessee also offer lessons.

The Hiwassee in East Tennessee is a shallow river with a few rapids, and from there people usually progress to the Nantahala, which requites more technical moves. Experienced kayakers usually float the Ocoee, known for it’s boulders, rushing waters and hazards such as undercut rocks that could easily trap a kayaker.

While adrenaline tends to draw people to the sport, kayakers often end up with something more. “It’s spiritual,” says Phillip Donnell. He explains that white-water kayaking is not about battling or overcoming nature. It’s a process of connecting with nature, using your skills, strength and wits to navigate some of the state’s most difficult rapids.

One thing is for sure, canoeing and kayaking is not a fad for many folks here in Tennessee. It’s a water recreation with a long history and an addiction. It’s an exciting experience you’ll never forget, but beware, you might just get hooked and you’ll definitely get wet but that’s part of the fun.

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