Embrace America's Rivers

Cumberland River Journey...

Boat: 1975 22ft center console open boat with 2008 115hp Mercury 4-stroke outboard motor.

Equipment: 2 VHF radios...Hand-Held GPS...Extra Battery...Extra Prop...Rain Shield...2 Bilge Pumps Charts...State Maps...Tool Box...Safety Gear...Depth Finder...Large Tarp & Clips...Extra Rope...2 Cell Phones...300 Watt Inverter...List of Marinas...Porta Potty...Portable Shower...Tent...Air Mattress

Crew: Jerry Hay & Debbie Hay

The beauty of this river trip is that it was over 1,000 miles long but we took the boat out just 125 miles from where we started. This is due to the 2 rivers running somewhat parallel, so we started going downriver at the navigable beginning of the Cumberland and ended going upriver to the beginning of the Tennessee River. We began our journey on the Cumberland at river mile 381, which is the head of navigation for the Cumberland River. Since the mile markers begin at the mouth of the river and go upriver, that means that mile markers will be smaller numbers as we descend the river.

Day 1:

We met our driver at Celina, TN at 8am and put in on the Obey River (photo at top right). He would keep our vehicle and trailer, then pick us up at the end of the trip at  Knoxville, TN. This is a tributary to the Cumberland River with the ramp being just one mile from  entering the Cumberland. We started with 55 gallons of fuel which will get us over 300 miles. We took a side trip up the Cumberland to the official navigable portion of the Cumberland, then headed downriver on a beautiful day. The river is very natural with many rocky bluffs (Photo is at mile 378). 

Our goal was to reach Cordell Hull Lock & Dam that evening, then lock through the next morning. This lock requires a one day advance reservation to lock through. Since we were going downriver, the river gradually widens into a lake as we approach each dam. We anchored in a nice cove along the right bank just above the dam. The photo is looking toward the main channel from the cove. Our routine was established early on with my wife Debbie and I each having duties to prepare for the night. This included moving gear to the back of the boat, leaving room on the deck for our tent. We preferred to anchor or tie to a tree and sleep on the boat.

Day 2:

We locked through Cordell Lock at 8am with no delay and were on our way by 8:30. This was another good weather day with outstanding scenery. The morning air was cool so Debbie put on her hooded sweatshirt and enjoyed her front row seat to the spectacular bluff-lined river as we made our way upriver.


We passed remnants of old lock walls in this and several other sections of the river. At one time there were many more locks & dams on the Cumberland River but were eventually replaced by larger and fewer of them. All that is left of them is the land-side lock walls, which are often handy for temporary mooring. They are not good for overnight, due to being exposed to boat wakes and wind

As we cruised I took way more photos than necessary but I just could not help myself, given the beautiful scenery on the Cumberland River. This part of the river has all the features that makes a waterway beautiful; clean water, mountains, islands and forests. This photo at is another example of why we so often slowed down to soak it in.

We only travel fast enough to get the boat on plane to safe fuel. We are not interested in speed as we want to go slow to really enjoy the river, which for this boat is about 15 mph.

I expected the river to get more crowded with pleasure boaters when it became Old Hickory Lake and it was. One of the interesting things we saw was the burned down lakeside home of the late Johnny Cash (photo). The fire started from remodeling being done by the new owners. This is apparently a popular attraction as there are security cameras and signs warning boaters to stay away. We were on Old Hickory Lake, which is a very busy lake with many boaters, marinas and way over-developed shoreline. I didn't see any coves that you could anchor in without being near someone's backyard. The waterway is there for everyone and there are no trespassing issues about it, as long as one does not go ashore, but I prefer a more remote location to enjoy the evening.

We stopped at Anchor High Marina to top off our fuel tank and locked through Old Hickory Lock at 4pm with no delay. 

I really like getting through the locks while going downriver because the waterway immediately turns back into a river just below the dams and there is a lot less boat traffic. We locked through with an old houseboat with several people onboard. What made that interesting is that the houseboat was powered by a jonboat attached the stern, steered by a man who could not see anything past the aft wall in front of him. He was guided by another man on the bow who was yelling out directions. In this photo of the front of the houseboat leaving the chamber, one would not know what about their method of navigation. 

We continued on to the Stones River (photo) at river mile 206. Went up the Stones for a few miles and found a great place to anchor for the night. I wanted to find a place in this area before we got too close to Nashville. It was a nice remote river but a little shallow for some boats. One of the advantages of using a smaller boat is the freedom to explore tributaries, island chutes and small coves without much worry of running aground, and if we do it is easy to back out. It is still wise to run slow and watch for stumps and rocks. They can ruin a boating day.

Day 3:

We departed Stones River at 9 am and passing the moored General Jackson excursion boat and to downtown Nashville at 10:30 am. Not being sure about where to land and visit the city, we spotted four Nashville police officers on bicycles on a dock. They advised us that we could use one of the two police boat docks that was not being used, located right behind the courtesy docks that were full of boats. Some nice folks in a houseboat said they would look after our boat so we didn't worry about locking things down. We spent 2 hours visiting Nashville that including Tootsies Orchid Lounge and lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. It was nice to take a walk but the 90 degree heat made us anxious to get back to the river and some wind. Show is our boat docked at Nashville. The red bimini top is easy to spot.

The river at Nashville is narrow and very busy with bridges and industrial sites, however, this changes very quickly when heading downriver away from the city. It does not take long for the shoreline to once again become scenic and seemingly remote. I say seemingly because we could still hear the sounds of the city but the high wooded banks on both sides of the river provide a sense of remoteness that is surprising near a large city. Our plan was to lock through the Cheatham Lock & Dam at mile 149 and stay over at Clarksville, TN. We passed the mouth of the Harpeth River. This was the site of Harpeth Shoals on the Cumberland and because of these rapids, it was the head of navigation until the dams were built. Many steamboats sank trying to get through the shoals. Now there is no sign of them. We did not come across many boats in this area, only a few bass boats flashed by us at amazing speeds.  

We locked through Cheatham Lock at 3pm with no delays. Just above the dam along the right bank there is a nice park with a ramp, dock and a big beach. Good luck at the locks so far, but our luck ran out with the weather. It was raining hard by the time we reached Clarksville. We needed ice so we put on our rain gear and walked to a gas station close by. Clarksville has a great river front with overnight docking, but too much car traffic and noise for us. We sought out a more peaceful location to spend our rainy night at. We went about 4 miles up the Red River just below Clarksville and found it to be perfect. It is narrow but has a deep secondary channel for many miles. After anchoring we discovered that it is a popular fishing river with several boats passing by, but all were courteous enough to slow down. Most were interested in getting a closer look at our boat with a tent pitched on the deck and a privacy curtain hanging aft for the porta-potty and solar heated shower.

Day 4:

It is said that a bad day on the river is better than a good day at work. This day might test that theory. We left the Red River at 7:30am in heavy rain. We were well equipped for bad weather with rain gear clothing, large bimini top and a roll-down plastic rain shield in front of the console, but we had been spoiled by beautiful weather until the afternoon of day 3 when the rain began and continued through the night and into day 4. Debbie abandoned her perch at the front of the boat and cocooned herself in a blanket and tarp behind the console and me. She is beneath the blue lump in the photo at left, reading a book with a flashlight.  Notice the soccer ball in the lower right portion of the photo. This was a gift from the river that I took home. I don't play soccer but since I have given many things to the river (including several ball caps), I figured that I will take what I can get back.

We passed Dover, TN and historic Fort Donnelson National Battlefield with the river beginning to have large shallow backwater areas. As the river widened into Lake Barkley the wind caused the water to become extremely choppy. The farther down the lake we got, the worse the wind and rain became. There was a lot of floating logs and other debris that I had to constantly watch for, made difficult by the choppy water (shown at right) and seeing through the wrinkled plastic shield. I had to stand with my face against the shield to see somewhat clearly. 

As soon as I got a cell phone signal I called Eddy Creek Marina and booked a motel room for the night. All we had to do was get there. We usually cruise at about 15 mph but progress was about half that. Another problem we found on Lake Barkley was the absence of buoys and the difficulty seeing them in these conditions. I know that this is a shallow lake with stumps so it was important to stay in the channel. Suddenly my depth finder would show 3ft of water and I had to slowly search for the deeper channel. Lake Barkely is a beautiful waterway that I have been on many times in better weather, but our focus that day was not on the pristine shoreline but to get a break from these conditions. There are times when I think that a small boat with a cuddy cabin would be helpful and at least my wife could get out of the weather, and this was one of them. We arrived at the marina at 3pm after 7 hours of hell on water, had dinner and relaxed in comfort until 10am the next morning. The next morning I was thinking about the previous day on the water and come to the conclusion that, yes, it was bad but it was also an adventure that we will long remember and talk about. We also had another option that we could have chosen. Clarksville, TN is a great river town with much to offer. In fact they are building a new marina and expect it to open in 2011. We could have stayed there for another day and waited out the weather.

We were pleasantly surprised to see blue sky and calm water in Eddy Bay as we walked to our boat at the marina (free docking for motel guests). We topped off our fuel and headed back onto Lake Barkley. Just a few miles below Eddy Bay along the right bank is an imposing structure. Some call it the "Castle on the Cumberland" (show in photo). The official name is the Kentucky State Prison. This maximum security prison was built in 1886. The area around the prison, including the waters in the site of "Old Eddyville" The town was relocated  when Barkley Dam flooded the valley. During winter pool (when the lake is 5ft lower) old foundations, sidewalks and streets can still be seen. While cruising on Lake Barkley we are traveling above the remains of many ruins and even some cemeteries.

At mile 33 we turned into the Barkley Canal. This is a one mile-long canal that leads to Kentucky Lake (Tennessee River). In order to go to the end of the Cumberland River we would have to lock through the Barkley Lock, then go 31 more miles to the Ohio River. I have done this stretch often so on this trip I decided to take this little short cut to continue our journey up the Tennessee River. We absolutely loved the Cumberland River. I had traveled it before in much larger boats as far as Nashville but experiencing it is a small craft from the head of navigation allowed us to get to know the river much better. 

This journey continues on the Tennessee River Trip