Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Little Tennessee River and the Great Smoky Mountains

We have made it as far north as we are going on the Tennessee River, to Lenoir City about 50 miles south of Knoxville. I know we said we were headed to Knoxville, but Fall is really falling around here. We've gone from the high 70s and low 80s during the day to the mid to low 50s in little more than a week. Two days from now the low will be 27. I know to my family living in Salt Lake and our friends in Cleveland that doesn't sound so bad, but we are on a boat and boats are not known for their insulation. Its getting cold here.

We have been having a wonderful time since we left Chattanooga.  Most people doing the Great Loop cruise never even get to Chattanooga and even fewer head further north, but believe me, they miss the best part of the trip. The lakes north of Chattanooga are surrounded by hills with forest running all the way to the water line. The river twists and turns through canyons giving you great views around every corner. As you get further north the Great Smoky Mountains become the backdrop behind the Tennessee River hills. It is all just stunning to see.
Smokies in the distance
Our friend Ron Westbrook from Texas drove up to spend some time with us and we went cruising up the Little Tennessee River and Tellico Lake. Tellico Lake is the last lake formed by a TVA dam. The TVA decided it needed to dam the Little Tennessee River at the point it connects with the Tennessee for flood control purposes. They started building the dam in the 1960s and folks around here went nuts. The Little Tennessee was the last naturally flowing river in this area and there was tremendous opposition to damming it. The development was tied up in the courts for over 10 years and the lake wasn't created until 1979. I'm not sure that we would have been able to take a boat as big as Down Time into the Little Tennessee if the dam hadn't been built, so I'm grateful for the dam.

Because Tellico Lake is so new, some of the structures in the areas that were flooded are still standing. These three silos are poking out of the water marking the location of a farm that was flooded.

For so new a lake, there is a surprising amount of residential development around the northern end of Tellico Lake, the area around Knoxville. Lots of very expensive and reasonably ugly monster homes line the banks of the lake. But as you get further south, the housing thins out and by the time you get to to foot of the Smokies, you are back in nearly undeveloped land.

This is the area the Cherokees inhabited before they were driven out to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees fought for the British/Americans in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Before the men would head off to fight, they asked the British to build a fort to provide protection for their women and children. The fort site was thoroughly excavated during the time of the anti-Tellico Lake lawsuits and the point of land on which it had stood was built up to ensure that it wouldn't be covered by the new lake. Then the fort itself was recreated on the site. We anchored off the fort and took our dinghy in to walk around and learn more about the history of this area.

Fort Louden
While we were at the fort, the ranger (state park employee, not a furloughed federal worker thankfully), told us about the Sequoyah Birthplace museum just a mile up the river. Like probably most of you, I had heard the name Sequoyah but couldn't have told you more than he was a 19th century Native American. Turns out he was the man who single-handedly developed the Cherokee alphabet, the only known instance in history of an alphabet being developed by a single person. Even more amazing, once the Cherokees understood what he had done, the entire tribe (approximately 30,000 people) were able to read and write within a year.

From Fort Louden we continued south to the end of the marked channel on the Little Tennessee River, as far a you can safely take a boat as big as ours. We anchored at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Foot of the Smokies
As the days have cooled down, we are also getting mist rising up from the river in the morning.

Some days the "mist" is a thick fog. Yesterday, the boat next to us in the marina had to wait until 11:00 AM for the fog to burn off enough to move, another indication that it is time to head south.

One other stop we made on the way up the Tennessee was Dayton, TN, site of the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925. You may remember (or you may have seen the Spencer Tracy movie Inherit the Wind) that the Scopes trial was about teaching evolution in the schools. The courthouse in which the trail was held is still in use today. In fact the same spectator chairs, judge's bench and jury chairs that were there in 1925 are still there today. Many of the same businesses are still operating. Dayton is a small town that hasn't changed much at all. They do have a nice little museum about the trail in the basement of the courthouse.

Jim at the Clarence Darrow/Spencer Tracy podium

Original spectator chairs
On the way up the river the trees were still mostly green with just a hint that fall colors were to come. I suspect that we will see some beautiful colors on our way south. We will try to capture some of the best views to share with you. Think positive thoughts about us getting out of here without freezing to death.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Nina, the Pinta and the ... Down Time?

We've seen some interesting things boating up the Tennessee River, but the most interesting, so far, has to be the replicas of Columbus' boats, the Nina and the Pinta.  Our first hint of their existence came when we called the city marina in Florence, Alabama, to reserve a slip for the night and the dockmaster told us to just pull in in front of the "Christopher Columbus boats."

These are the two life size replicas we caught up with in Florence.  They are crewed by volunteers who ride on them through various locations, stopping for 2-3 days and selling opportunities for people to see them.  We had heard they were in Grand Rivers Kentucky when we were there although we did not see them. From Florence they were headed up the Tennessee to Decatur, Alabama, and then Knoxville, Tennessee.  Just to give you an idea of how big they are, here is a picture with Down Time, a 36 foot boat.

As you can see, they make Down Time look small.

We actually left Florence with the Nina and Pinta headed upriver. Just  past Florence is the Wilson Dam and lock, the tallest lock on the Tennessee River. Having the Nina and Pinta to photograph gives me an opportunity to help illustrate just how big this lock is.

Wilson Lock gates opening
This is what the lock gates look like when they are opening in front of you.  And here is how small the Nina and Pinta look inside the lock.
Nina and Pinta in the lock
This is my view of the lock looking up, waiting for the lock to fill.

These are the depth gauges on the boat during our locking through in the Wilson Lock.  The top one shows we had 16 feet of water under the boat when we entered the lock and the bottom one shows the 111 feet of water under us when we reached the top of the lock.

Entering depth
Exiting depth
We had one other lock to get through after the Wilson Lock the day we traveled with the Nina and Pinta.  We could have passed the two replica boats and hurried up to the next lock, but the lock tender would very likely have held us there waiting for the replica boats, so we just held back and followed them up Wilson Lake. It was actually quite fun to watch the reactions of the local boaters who saw these two fifteenth century galleons crossing their lake.  One guy came out on his jet ski to circumnavigate the two boats.

The other fun thing we saw was this sign in Decatur, Alabama, positioned to be viewed from the river. I guess every place has to be proud of something. In Decatur, it's cat food.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tennessee River and Chattanooga

For those of you who figured that we must have fallen off the face of the earth, I am pleased to report we are alive and well. Since our last posting we have been cruising up the Tennessee River from Grand River, Kentucky to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The river is very sparsely inhabited, which means that there is very little cell phone service/Internet access. Chattanooga is the first place we have had decent Internet access in over a month.

We have thoroughly enjoyed the river, however. We left Grand River with our Miami friends, Rob and Carol Harris, on board on Labor Day.  We found wonderful, empty anchorages to spend nights in and Carol even swam in the river while we were anchored. A week after the Harrises left us, our friends Bill and Birute Fleck from Charlevoix, MI, joined us in Guntersville Lake, Alabama, and rode with us to Chattanooga. We had a couple of days of overcast weather while they were on board, but scenes like this bridge more than made up for the grey.

Tennessee River bridge

We are headed up the Tennessee towards Knoxville. The further upriver we go, the closer we get to the Smoky Mountains. When we left Kentucky, the river was wide and the surrounding land was flat. The eastern shore of the river is the Land Between the Lakes, a national recreational area formed by Kentucky Lake and the creation of Lake Barkley on the Cumberland River in the 1960s. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, this area was roamed by herds of bison and elk numbering in the thousands. Although the area is now covered in trees, then it was flat prairie because the herds kept the trees from growing. The USDA, which manages the recreational area, has re-introduced a herd of 50 bison and nearly 40 elk into the area. We didn't see any elk while we were touring, but the bison have no qualms about hanging out near roads where people can see them.

Baby bison

Herd just off the road
The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation created by congressional charter in 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation and economic development in the Tennessee Valley, owns most of the riverfront on the Tennessee River because they created lakes by damming the river to generate electricity. The lakes flooded the towns and farms that had existed along the riverbanks and the TVA had to buy out the original owners. You can motor up the river for miles and miles without seeing a single building. Even when you do come to an area where there are riverfront homes, often they are trailers, or even just RVs on the riverbank. Interestingly, most of the RVs are parked under sheds, some with screened porches on the front and garages for the owner's car.

RV under its riverside shed

Single-wide trailer built to withstand flooding

As you get further up the river, you begin to enter the foothills of the Smokies. Hills become more common and you see limestone cliffs on the side of the river. The further you go, the more forested the hills become. The trees haven't started turning colors yet, but we are assured that the colors will be spectacular during the last couple of weeks in October.
Limestone cliffs on the Tennessee River

Chattanooga is the first real city we've spent time in since Chicago. I was here briefly twenty years ago and it has changed a lot. The wealthy residents decided about 15 years ago to clean up the waterfront and begin to market the city as a sports destination, emphasizing water sports like kayaking and paddle-boarding, mountain biking, hiking, and other outdoor sports. It is attracting 20-somethings and young families to live here and has a vibrant restaurant and bar scene. There is lots to do and it is a very walkable city with good public transportation. Bill and Birute brought their car from Guntersville to Chattanooga after we got here and we used it to tour around a bit, including a trip up to the top of Lookout Mountain. Lookout Mountain has the steepest incline railroad in the world and a great view of the surrounding area. They claim you can see seven states from the top, but I think that is more hype than truth.

Incline Railway

View from top of Lookout
On our way back to the boat from Lookout Mountain we stopped to see the International Towing and Recovery Museum, a museum devoted to the history of the tow truck industry. Turns out that the first tow trucks were developed by a company here in Chattanooga. It is a small museum but it has a wonderful collection of tow trucks from the last 100 years and a very large collection of tow truck related toys.

We will be leaving here on Friday and heading further up the river, maybe as far as Knoxville. If we have Internet access, we'll post more frequently. I promise.