Embrace America's Rivers

Cumberland & Tennessee River trip log

Dates: June 1 to June 12, 2009

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.

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. 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. 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. (Cumberland River mile 378 at right)

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. I expected the river to get more crowded with pleasure boaters when it became Old Hickory Lake and it was. 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 turns back into a river instead of a lake just below the dams and there is a lot less boat traffic. We continued on to the Stones River (shown at right) 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. One does have 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 got to downtown Nashville (shown at right) at 10:30am. 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. We locked through Cheatham Lock at 3pm with no delays. 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. After anchoring we discovered that it is a popular fishing river with several boats passing by, but all were courteous enough to slow down.

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. 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 and seeing through the wrinkled plastic shield. I had to stand with my face against the shield to see somewhat clearly. Debbie curled up into a blanket cocoon behind me most of the day. 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 20mph 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. 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.

Day 5:

We were very happy to wake up to sunny skies and calmer water. Today we planned to get to Clifton, TN (shown at right) which is 144 miles so good weather was important. After fueling we headed for the Barkley Canal that took us to the Tennessee River (Kentucky Lake). 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. I fell in love the 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. We pulled into the Clifton Marina at 7pm to fuel up and see 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.

Day 6:

We left Clifton at 9am with the goal of reaching Florence, AL. We locked through Pickwick Lock with no delays and was 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 GPS. We got to Florence by 4pm and I decided to go ahead and lock through the Wilson Lock (an impressive 94ft lift). There we no delays so we went less than an hour to Wheeler Lock and passed through. 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. It was a nice spot and a beautiful evening. (At right are the huge 100ft tall lock gates at Wilson Lock as they are closing.)

Day 7:

We left Second Creek at 8am on a hot and hazy day. When we approached Decatur, AL the railroad bridge was down and it did not appear as though we could clear it with the bimini top up, so we lowered it and slipped under it. We stopped at Ditto Landing Marina at Huntsville to fuel up and take showers, leaving there at 1pm. We arrived at Guntersville Lock at 2:15pm and was through the lock by 3pm. We had planned to stop at Guntersville for supplies and maybe a restaurant but could not see anything close to the courtesy docks. We 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 tangle 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.

Day 8:

Even though we had some pleasant cruising days I decided to get a room for the night and before we left Jones Creek I called Hales Bar Marina and reserved a floating cabin for the night. We arrived at Nickajack Lock at noon and in one hour we were on our way. 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 after less than 4 hours running time. We docked the boat right at our cabin (photo at right) and spent another relaxing evening with air conditioning. There was no open restaurant nearby so I cooked polish sausage with our grill on the dock. 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, but prefer that over Day 4. 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 at right. We had planned a day stop at Chattanooga but there was a riverfront festival going on and no place to dock a boat. We pulled into one empty spot and was promptly chased off by a man in a golf cart who said a reservation was needed. We also planned to visit the Delta Queen, presently being used as a hotel but I could not reach a friend who works on her, so we went on to the Boathouse Restaurant just upriver from Chattanooga and had a great meal before heading out for the Hiwassee River. We went 12 miles up the Hiwassee and at about 6pm pulled into Royers Creek for the night. This was another beautiful spot but we did have a neighboring boat playing rap music. They finally left at around 10pm and we had a restful night.

Day 10:

After fueling we re-entered the Tennessee River at mile 501 at 9:45am and locked though Watts Bar Lock at 11:30am. We could see a nasty storm brewing and heading our way, so we ducked into a cover 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 60mph 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 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. At 1pm we were at mile 508 when the thunderstorm 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 but overall it was ideal. The storm passed through in one hour and we were on our way to Knoxville. Knoxville has an impressive riverfront with parks and restaurants (Knoxvile shown at right) 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. At the confluence we went up the French Broad and saw the Island where Sea Ray boats are built. Then 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! We met some great river people and saw some of the most scenic river miles you can find. The trip was actually for dual purposes. First to enjoy it and secondly to gather information for my upcoming guidebooks for the Rivers. The Tennessee River Guidebook will be published in 2010 and the Cumberland River Guidebook in 2011. I have extensive notes and photos (way to many to include in this brief journal), but will be part of what I use to produce these books. 

Jerry Hay

For more info about the Tennessee River CLICK HERE

For more info about the Cumberland River CLICK HERE