Embrace America's Rivers

Tennessee River Trip

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

This is a continuation of the Cumberland River Trip. We begin this journal from the Barkley Canal (photo), where we crossed over from the Cumberland River to the Tennessee River. There is actually 25 miles of the Tennessee River below the canal, through the Kentucky Locks and to the Ohio River at Paducah. I have been on this route many times so on this trip we are heading upriver on the Tennessee (Kentucky Lake) from the canal.

Day 5:

Some things would change since we were now traveling upriver. The river narrows approaching dams and suddenly becomes a large lake after passing through the locks. We would also use more fuel against the current. Kentucky lake was choppy but otherwise the day was sunny and nice. Kentucky Lake is a popular place but it is so big that there is never a problem with congestion or finding a remote spot. All along the left descending bank is the "Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. There are miles and miles of undeveloped shoreline with many nice coves and beaches to enjoy. The left descending bank is more developed and where most of the marinas can be found. Remember that with any descriptions in this journal that refer to right or left bank, that we are going upriver, so the right bank will be on our left.


One Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkely the mile markers (daymarks) are located on rock pilings in the lakes indicating where the channel is located. The channel follows the original path of the river before being dammed. What makes the mile markers interesting is that a platform was built on top of each structure for the osprey to build a nest on. These raptors live on fish and like being located close to the water. The photo shows the top of one of these. Notice that the lighted navigational aid is powered by a solar panel and battery. 

Just above an abandoned railroad bridge at mile 78 there is an interesting structure in the lake. At one time a large grain company elevator was located along the riverbank. When the river was flooded by the dam, the building was left in place. This is a five story building and only the top two floors are seen on the photo. This is a popular fishing spot and, of course a popular place for graffiti artists. Many islands begin to appear as we continue upriver, following the zig-jagging channel back and forth across the lake. At New Johnsonville, TN the lake narrows for a short time. We pulled into the bay at New Johnsonville to see about getting some ice, food and supplies but there was no good place to leave our boat at the busy launch ramp. We were still OK on these items and decided to go on to Clifton, where I knew that we could find what we needed. After passing under the Interstate 40 bridge the waterways begins to transform from a lake back into a river again, with a defined bank and backwaters. 

At 7 pm we pulled into the Clifton Marina at mile 158 after traveling 144 miles. We fueled up and asked about a nearby place to anchor. I usually don't stay over at marinas, preferring a more natural and quiet setting. A local man name Carl who lives in a houseboat at the marina found out about our trip and we quickly became friends. He said that he could get us a covered slip for the night and invited us to the fish fry going on at the marina. That was too good an offer to pass by so we spent a great evening with several local people. Carl even offered to put us up in his houseboat but we actually preferred our sleeping arrangements on the boat. The only drawback was that a man in a slip near us had a TV set on the dock turned up very loud so that he could hear it from the comfort of his boat, but we could also hear the unwanted noise and did not get to sleep until he turned it off at around midnight. I lay there remembering why I don't like staying at marinas. I fell in love with the little town of Clifton several years ago when we stopped there on the Delta Queen. It is a pretty town with very friendly people. Once again, Clifton was good to me

Day 6:

We left Clifton at 9am with the goal of reaching Florence, AL. We Passed by Savannah, TN at mile 190 but did not stop. It is a nice town with facilities helpful to transient boaters but there is no safe place to leave a boat. There is a launching ramp but no docks and even landing at the park would leave a boat exposed to wakes in this narrow section of river. We did get a good look at Cherry Mansion (shown in photo). This home served at General Grant's headquarters before and after the Battle of Shiloh that took place just eight miles upstream. That location is now home to the Shiloh National Military Park. 

At mile 206 we locked through Pickwick Lock with no delays. The photo at right shows us leaving the lock chamber. Notice in the photo on the starboard deck there is a black bag. This is our solar powered shower bag. We fill it with 5 gallons of water in the morning and if we have enough sunshine there is enough hot water to shower that evening. We could actually do this onboard. It would hang on the bimini frame near the stern, with a privacy enclosure. We used bio-degradable soap and the water would drain into the bilge, then the bilge pumps would send it into the river. I should mention that I always have two bilge pumps operating from 2 different batteries, just in case one does not work. 

Upon Entering Pickwick Lake we were suddenly thrust into a huge lake just crazy with Saturday boaters. It was a pretty day with no wind but the water was constantly churning from the boats, particularly the large cruisers. I began to once again look forward to this waterway turning back into a river again. It is easy to mistake the huge bays and coves for the main river and once again there are few buoys where you need them. The only thing that kept me from going the wrong way at times was my hand-held GPS.

We got to Florence, AL by 4 pm. There is a nice marina and park at Florence but it is a difficult walk into town, crossing busy roads and up the hill, but we really didn't need anything and I decided to go ahead and lock through the Wilson Lock (an impressive 94ft lift). Upon entering the canal to the lock, the lockmaster had told me to come in right away as the lower gate was open and they were about to close it to fill for a downbound tow. This was great timing, however as we approached the lock chamber, we encountered a towboat crossways in the canal maneuvering some barges. We could not safely go around the tow so we waited. After about 15 minutes I radioed the lock to tell them of our delay. He said that they would hold it open for us, and so in a few more minutes we entered the giant lock chamber. As the 100ft door closed behind us (shown in photo) I thought about the huge gate that held King Kong back on the island. Since Wilson lock went so quickly I decided to go on to Wheeler Lock, only 15 miles up the river. My plan was to anchor in Town Creek, just below the dam if they were busy, but as it turned out we were able to lock through Wheeler Lock with not delay. I never expected to get through 3 locks in one day, so we were ahead of schedule. 

We stopped for the night on Second Creek at TN River mile 275, just above the Wheeler Dam. I found a small, shallow cove off the creek and headed toward the bank slowly, going around some brush and was able to land on the bank to tie off to a tree. I also put a small anchor off the stern to keep the boat from swinging. As shown in the photo, we have a lot of stuff in the boat, but is doesn't take long to move a few things around to make room for the 2-man tent that we pitch right in front of the console...and we still have room to walk from bow to stern. 

Sometimes we camp on shore, particularly on islands and beaches but the steep bank at this spot made it more convenient to stay on the boat. It was a nice spot within Wheeler State Park and a beautiful evening. 

Day 7:

We left Second Creek at 8 am on a hot and hazy day. I decided to take a side trip up the Elk River at mile 284. The banks along the Elk River have a fair amount of development but not the same as we had seen on the more popular lakes. Most of the homes are modest or are cabins, giving one more of a sense of what rivers were like before condominium developers discovered them. Fortunately a lot of the Tennessee River shoreline is protected with state forest land.  When we approached Decatur, AL the railroad bridge was down (photo) and it did not appear as though we could clear it with the bimini top up, so we lowered it and slipped under it. If our boat had been to tall to get under the bridge we would have had to radio the bridge operator and waited for it to be raised. A train was apparently due to pass over it soon because this bridge is usually in a raised position until a train is coming. In most cases, trains have the right of way and boat traffic must stop and wait for the train to cross. The exception at this bridge is when downbound towboats are approaching the bridge, the current often makes it difficult to stop. In this case, the train is radioed to stop and wait for the tow to pass. 

Decatur is another river city that has a lot to offer the transient boater but does not realize the benefits of having a way for boaters to access the city. There are no docks or safe places to land at Decatur. The river above Decatur is absolutely beautiful and the right bank is protected by the Wheeler National Wildlife area. Also along the left descending bank, we passed the Redstone Arsenal. This military installation is the center of testing and development for the U.S. Army missile programs. The Saturn V moon rocket was also developed at Redstone. All this is going on but as we pass by the bends of the river, all we see is beautiful shoreline and not sign of civilization, except for a park for government empoyees. We stopped at Ditto Landing Marina at Huntsville to fuel up and take showers, leaving there at 1pm. 

At mile 345 we passed by the well-known Painted Bluff (photo). The 485ft bluff is named for the yellow and black strata that is very colorful in the sunlight. This bluff marks the abrupt end of Merril Mountain. 

We arrived at Guntersville Lock at 2:15 pm and was through the lock by 3pm. We had planned to stop at Guntersville, AL for supplies and maybe a restaurant but could not see anything close to the courtesy docks along the downtown area. I would have been tempted to stay over at one of the hotels in Spring Bay Creek at Guntersville, since they have docks and are close to restaurants but it was too early in the day and we were actually looking forward to finding another beautiful cover to spend the night at.

We continued another 30 miles and pulled into Jones Creek at river mile 388 for the night and found a little paradise. It formed a shallow pond with glassy smooth water surrounded by mountains. Knowing it was only about 3 feet deep I proceeded slowly but my prop tangled in some vegetation and wrapped around it so tightly that the engine began to shake. I had to raise the engine then get into the water to cut it out. That actually felt pretty good on this hot evening. I would normally be hesitant to spend the night in such shallow water but since we were not that far above a dam, I knew that the level would likely not change much. This spot was worth it and we thoroughly enjoyed our evening, complete with a gorgeous sunset (photo).

Day 8:

We left Second Creek early while there was still a haze over the river. There is something magical about early mornings on the river. The water is often glass-like calm and it is quiet. I cannot help but to slow down and enjoy it. In the photo we are approaching Bellefonte Island at mile 392. A little further upriver we pass by Long Island from mile 412 to 417. Near the head of the island we pass back into Tennessee from Alabama. There is a railroad lift bridge crossing the river at the island but it has plenty of clearance in the lowered position. I remember going under this bridge when I worked on the Delta Queen Steamboat. As we passed under the raised bridge bundles of bibles began hitting the deck of the boat from above. Apparently the bridge operator took the opportunity to help any sinners onboard by pitching them from the bridge. It was actually quite a dangerous stunt and our captain filed a complaint.

We locked through Nickajack Lock at mile 424. spending about one hour. Even though we had some pleasant nights on the river, I decided to get a room for the night, so I called Hales Bar Marina and reserved a floating cabin for the night. This is a beautiful stretch of river and it was a clear day, though temperatures was in the low 90s. This isn't bad while moving in the shade of the bimini top but when we stopped it felt very uncomfortable. We got to Hales Bar at 1:45pm. The marina is located at the former Hales Bar hydro-electric power plant. The dam was torn down in 1968 but the huge building that housed the turbines is still protruding out into the river and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That building is now used for boat storage. After checking in we docked the boat right at our cabin (photo) and spent a relaxing evening with air conditioning. There was no open restaurant nearby so I cooked polish sausage with our grill on the dock. The cabin was nice but rather pricey, particularly considering  that every time we used the marine toilet, the entire cabin smelled awful. We found ourselves opening the patio doors at each end of the cabin after each visit to the bathroom. We discussed one of the challenges we have locking on Tennessee River locks. First, they do not always answer the radio and we had to call some of them on the cell phone. Then, when they do answer many of them are hard to understand, given their accents and poor radio sound quality. I hate to ask them to repeat more than once, so I just wait until I see the green light and hear the signal to enter. I will say that all of them were friendly and helpful once we got passed the radio problem.

Day 9:

We left Hales Bar at 9am, hoping to get to the Hiwassee River this day. It is another hot and sunny day. We got to Chattanooga at 11am after passing through the most beautiful section of this river. The winding gorges and mountains are outstanding as can be seen in the photo.

We had planned a day stop at Chattanooga to show Debbie around this great river city that has one of the best and most functional riverfronts in the nation. We discovered that there was a riverfront festival going on and no place to dock a boat. There are many docking facilities but they were all taken but one. We pulled into that empty spot and was promptly chased off by a man in a golf cart who said a reservation was needed. A kind man in a houseboat overheard our conversation and offered to let me dock in the small space in front of his boat, but I would have to nose into the dock with the stern of my 22 foot boat sticking out into the river. This would make it difficult for anyone to dock in the reserved spot that we vacated so I declined. We also planned to visit the Delta Queen, presently being used as a hotel on the opposite side of the river but I could not reach a friend who works on her, so we went on to the Boathouse Restaurant near an available courtesy dock just upriver from Chattanooga and had a great meal before heading up the river.

In just a few minutes we were approaching the Chickamauga Lock & Dam. I had radioed the lock when we left the restaurant and was told to put the hammer down and come on in. Upon approaching where I knew the lock had to be, all I could see was construction barges with cranes and small towboats moving around. I approached at idle speed watching for any towboats that me be backing up and finally found my way to the open lock gate. This is a major renovation of the lock, as they are building a new one next to the smaller ageing lock.  

Our goal was to spend the night on the beautiful Hiwassee River that pours into the Tennessee River at mile 499. We reached the mouth and went 12 miles up the Hiwassee, passing mazes of islands and enjoying the natural beauty (photo at left). This 132 mile-long river originates in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia with a valley that is 90% forested. At about 6 pm pulled into Rogers Creek for the night. This was another beautiful, remote spot but we were joined by neighboring boat playing rap music. With all the space there is in this river and its backwaters, why did they choose anchoring 50 yards from us to create their sound pollution.  They finally left at around 10 pm and we had a restful night.

Day 10:

After fueling at B&B Marina on the Hiwassee we re-entered the Tennessee River at mile 501 at 9:45 am and locked though Watts Bar Lock at 11:30 am. We could see a nasty storm brewing and heading our way, so we ducked into a cove just above the lock to sit out the storm and have lunch. Storms can be worrisome but the good thing is that they pass quickly, rather than an all day rain event. After the storm passed we continued upriver to Buck Creek at mile 574. It has a nice cove within a cove that would be very helpful because another big storm was coming in. I turned on the weather radio to hear tornado watches and severe storm warnings for various counties and towns, so I got out my state highway map to see if we were near them and it appeared that we were in a direct path of the worst of it. I decided to move the boat to the side of the cove that would provide the best wind protection from the direction of the storm. Then I used an old steamboat method for securing the boat. I nudged the port side of the bow against a soft shore, tied a tight line from the starboard side of the bow to a tree, then tied another tight line from the stern to a tree. This three point method insured that the boat will not move. After putting an extra tarp over most of the boat I stood watch for funnel clouds when the storm rolled in. Had I seen any, we would abandon the boat and find a low spot in the woods to lay in (I had already scouted for the spot). The storm packed 60 mph winds and the huge amount of rain kept my bilge pumps working constantly. We weathered the storm just fine and the boat barely rocked. A mild rain followed for most of the night but we were relieved to see all that lightening and thunder downwind of us. (Shown in photo is looking out from the cove toward the river.)

Day 11:

We left our safe little cove at around 9am with sunny but threatening skies to the north.   We arrived at the last lock on this trip at 10:45. Ft. Loudon Lock took 1.5 hours. This was not due to them being busy but to mis-communications that I spoke of earlier. Fort Loudon is also the location of the mouth of the Little Tennessee River that is dammed at the mouth and connected to the Tennessee River with a canal that leads below the dam. This empoundment of the Little Tennessee River is called Tellico Lake.

At 1pm the thunderstorm we had been watching in the distance finally caught up with us. Fortunately, I spotted a huge covered dock for sale. There was no house but they had apparently built the dock to enhance the sale of the land. I figured no one would care if we pulled in to have lunch and sit out the storm. We had a little rain blow in from the landward side and hung a tarp on the port side of the bimini but overall it was ideal (photo). We actually enjoyed watching the storm from the safety of the shelter. The storm passed through in one hour and we were on our way. 

Fort Loudon Lake is over developed and very busy. The shorelines are filled with nice homes and condos and manicured lawns. This may sound nice to some but for anyone looking for a natural beauty to enjoy along the shore, it will be hard to come by. Our goal at this point was to reach Knoxville so we went on through, leaving the condos and mansions in our rear view mirror (I don't have a rear view mirror on the boat but I like the expression).

We are getting excited as we approach the city of Knoxville, TN. Knoxville is almost our goal on this trip. I say almost because our actual goal is to reach the beginning of this great river, which is a few miles above the city. Knoxville has an impressive riverfront with parks, restaurants and a marina. They have riverfront activities and excursion boats to take people out on the river. This makes Knoxville another great river city in my book. 

We might normally have spend the night at Knoxville but I wanted to spend the last night on the boat at the beginning of the Tennessee River. It begins at the confluence of the Holston & French Broad Rivers, which is Tennessee River mile 652 (652 miles to the Ohio River). 

At the confluence we went up the French Broad and saw the Island where Sea Ray boats are built (photo). It didn't look like much was going on there. They have a beautiful dock but there were no boats. Then we went up the Holston River to Boyd Island where I decided to find a good spot for the night, facing further storms forcasted. For protection we anchored under a small bridge going to the Island. I set 2 anchors with one on an elastic line so that we could move the boat easily without removing an anchor. We felt pretty comfortable under the bridge but then I noticed that the green water was getting brown streaks in it. That means that this little river will likely be rising during the night. The top of our bimini only had about 1 foot of clearance under the bridge. Before we turned in, I check again and we only had about 6 inches of clearance. Should this continue, we could get pinned under the bridge and I would have to destroy the bimini top to get out, so I laid the bimini down, giving us about 5 feet of clearance. This was a good move because after another night of storms the river was running fast and had rising about 2 feet

Day 12:

We left the Holston River at 8am to meet our driver at Knoxville at 9am. We had to proceed slow due to the huge amount of drift that the storms had washed into the river. At 8:30am we arrived at the ramp at the same time. Everything went smoothly putting the boat on the trailer and we headed out for our 6 hour drive home. The old boat had performed flawlessly and we used the same aluminum prop for the whole trip (with a few dinks). 

This is a great trip that I would recommend. June is a risky month for weather but I chose that over the really hot months and possible low water on July or August. If I had it to do over would I? Absolutely! Given the mountains and forests I think that a fall trip would be outstanding. We met some great river people and saw some of the most scenic river miles you can find. As mentioned earlier this was the second leg of a two river journey. Below is a map showing the entire 12 day trip.  

Jerry Hay