The WWT Takes on the Elk & Cumberland Rivers

May, 2003


I have previously described fun experiences in the Nashville environs, a region where I spent most of my first thirty years. Tennessee is loaded with endless, unique experiences waiting to be enjoyed, especially if you access the local knowledge (The LocTAM procedure), and seek out the unique ways that Tennesseans amuse themselves. Returning to my roots for the long Memorial weekend, I was looking for truly unique Tennessean experiences with which to impress my newlywed, Pauline. We selected a variety of adventures for the four-day weekend, a canoe trip down the Elk River, and a Steamboat trip on the Cumberland, a little league baseball game, a visit to Jack Daniels Distillery and a walk through Cheekwood.

What a great idea to repeat with our wives one of our favorite childhood past times, floating down one of the many rivers that crisscross the countryside! (Jimbo1, my eldest son's recommendation) Now any genuine Tennessean considers himself a canoe expert by the time he reaches puberty. While planning and looking for various options I began to remember how canoeing usually went "back then", giving me some cause to contrast it to this particular situation. The typical day trip began with a rag tag fleet of leaking, patched up canoes and boats, most of which had been fished out of the trees (or stolen) after one of the many floods. We would often add these to our fleet in real time as we progressed. None of us could have afforded a store-bought canoe or even a life jacket. Dressed in bathing suits and barefoot we would spend about as much time in the water as we did in the canoe. The goal was not so much to get anywhere but more to find places where the water was so swift that getting through would be a challenge. At the end of a day at least one of the canoes in a fleet would have new holes ripped in it if not completely ripped apart after passing over the worst possible part of the rapids.

Staying dry was of no particular interest, so I could not actually remember if staying dry would be that easy, but surely it must be one of the possible choices. We were more concerned about broken bones. We also did night runs where fishing and frog gigging were the stated purpose with the added objective to drink as much beer as possible. Getting dunked at night usually happened to the guy who had downed enough beer that he would have had trouble standing on solid ground, let alone in the canoe while taking a whiz over the side. For him, getting wet was funny, as was just about anything that happened.

I recalled the drowning of a few of my friends in these rivers, which could become pretty wild after heavy rainfalls. In one of the most notable, local tragedies Joe Coffey, the captain of the Shelbyville Central High School football team and two others drowned when their boats were swept over the Duck River dam by fierce flood waters; they were not found for days. So I had developed some respect for these rivers.

By the time I had become a responsible parent, my canoeing had become much more civilized and the serenity of lakes and easy living change my canoeing habits. By the time Jimbo had graduated from lakes to rivers, I had left Tennessee, and I can only guess that he had taken over my duties as a beer drinking canoe man of the rapids. With these and other reflections I developed a few concerns about this trip, mainly because Pauline is a non-swimmer and is understandably somewhat nervous around deep water.

After some discussion and perhaps more rationalization, Jimbo and I convinced ourselves and Pauline that we could choose a benign stretch of river that would offer little risk of anything beyond a mild splashing. Still, her first response was that she would hold our coats and meet us at the take out point in a car. Eventually she gave in after I assured her that this would be a beautiful, dry and relaxing experience, and a promise that she would not get wet. Even then we could not resist teasing her just a little about the possibility of water moccasins dropping from the trees into the canoe (actually, not an unheard of event).

Based on various local recommendations and an Internet study we headed for Kelso, Tennessee, a small town on the Elk River, between Winchester and Fayetteville. Many other choices could have placed us on rivers of varying difficulty within easy driving distance. Bill and Linda's Elk River Canoe Company would outfit us with two canoes and life jackets and place us in the Elk River with a promised pick up down stream, all at the reasonable cost of $18 per person for a six-mile stretch of river. They had stacks of brand new, fiberglass canoes, a nice cabin with equipment and food for anyone who wanted to change clothes or create a picnic. We had our choice of various trips ranging from two to six hours.

Ordinarily, this kind of trip would be a cakewalk along a pastoral, class one river stretch.......during most of the year. However, I had failed to take several things into account in this case. Tennessee had just gone through record flooding with more tornados touching down in the region than ever before in the Month of May. Although the rains had stopped, the river was still a foot higher than normal, and what was worse, the combination of floods and tornados had left the river filled with trees and debris. We soon discovered that this was the first day the company had been open since the floods so no one really knew the state of the river.


The beginning was exceptionally nice, since we had a well-placed gravel bar for launching and a slow moving river to sit back and relax in. Pauline's initial fear spurred


on by the misbalance sensation of a floating canoe in the water soon faded, and I could tell that she had become more relaxed as we glided with the river streamlines. Although I had last paddled a canoe at least 30 years ago, it all came back to me like riding a bicycle. It felt wonderful to slide down what seemed a rather lazy river. We encountered a few fallen trees, but these were easy to maneuver around. The real problems are the ones that lay just beneath the surface and are not seen. Just about the time I was getting really comfortable, I recognized the faint outline of a full tree just under the surface, spanning almost the width of the river. It was too late to go around and I had little time to gain the necessary speed to shoot over it. We made it half way over and stopped dead in the water. Water continued to stream along on both sides of us, but we sat there still, suspended on a subsurface tree.

Fortunately, Pauline, knowing something had to change and not knowing what to do, asked me what I wanted her to do. I was relieved by her calm voice and to see her sitting still in her seat. I realized that she was doing exactly what I wished I had remembered to tell her to do. My immediate response was "Don't do anything. Sit tight and stay low, while I figure out how to get us over this log without getting sideways or rolling over."

A canoe, believe it or not, will usually find its own way through the toughest situation without turning over unless it has help, and the best maneuver is to help the canoe move where it wants to, while keeping the center of gravity of the canoe as low as possible and along the canoe centerline. In this case the canoe wanted over the log, and carefully moving my weight forward made it happen without incident. If, on the other hand, the inhabitants ever move the center of gravity to the wrong place by leaning or standing the canoe will roll like a log. Also, a serious problem occurs if the canoe turns sideways and acts like a dam. Nature will move it in unpredictable ways, throwing the inhabitants off balance.

Since we were in no hurry, part of the time we simply drifted, hearing only the sounds of the river. The tree lined banks were alive with birds, squirrels, and other sound making creatures; the quieter we were the noisier they got. A gentle breeze rustled the tree leaves, and the sound of water gurgling and dripping from various falls and creeks filled in the natural symphony. The sun peaked in an out of an overcast sky. One could hear a crow cawing from a far away field. The next hour and a half was free of stress until we caught up with another fleet of stop for a while and have our first river picnic.

Linda had told us we would encounter an island and that we should go around the right side. What she didn't know was that where the two channels converged in a single, narrow, swift chute, a large tree stump had blocked the main channel. We slammed head-on into the stump and stalled sideways in the swift water, definitely not a good position to be in. The choice was between working the long way along the stump forward or to move backwards around the other way, which was full of limbs and undergrowth. I had not noticed Jim and Joan approaching from behind. The swift water slammed them into us broadside, whipping their canoe around and along side us. Now Joan is a NASA rocket engineer with an inborn drive to immediately act upon and solve every problem in her field of view………..whether the problem is hers, someone else’s, engineering in nature or otherwise, and whether she knows how to solve it or not. Her immediate reaction was to move away from the collision point, which combined with the force of the swift water was enough to start the canoe into a catastrophic roll.

Within seconds the canoe took on water and dumped them both into the gushing stream. Fortunately they managed to cling to the canoe as it passed around us, and aside from soaking everything from cell phone to wallets, came up unscathed. The crash had moved our canoe sufficiently forward so that it could move freely in the current and we shot past them, once again, safe in the open river. For the first time Pauline came to the realization that getting dunked is, indeed, within the realm of possibility. I think it may have taken her a while to get over that burst of adrenalin.

Getting out of a canoe into the river is a lot easier than getting back in from the river, and I was amazed that Jim and Joan managed this with little fanfare. Apparently he had become a canoe expert behind my back. They did not even seem perturbed by being soaked, and we continued another two hours of relaxing river experience. Once again, just as we were getting completely comfortable we glided over a swift rocky shoal into the forks of a hidden tree and became lodged. Struggling to extract ourselves from the fork, it only moved with us as we backed away, not about to relinquish its trapped prey. After several futile attempts, we twisted ourselves and the tree backwards into the current allowing the fast current to extract us from the tree. The only inconvenience was going over the rapids backwards. Again, the canoe did all of the work and we simply had to wait (patiently?) for quieter waters to turn around and head downstream with the front of the canoe aimed in the right direction.

Rocket Engineer and Canoe Man Drying off


Our last near fiasco occurred at the take out point. Linda had told us not to miss the stairs at a shoal immediately after the second bridge. "If you miss it, we will have to pick you up some where in Alabama", she warned. The take out point turned out to be one of the toughest challenges of the whole trip. The river at this point was wide, shallow and rather swift because of the flooding. I would have missed seeing the stairs except for seeing Jimbo paddling ferociously in a race to get across the river to the stairs, which he had just seen and almost passed. I also, had to race the river to get across without passing the take out stairs. Jimbo slammed into the bank and once again Joan obeyed her instincts to help, dumping them both into the water for a second chilling experience.


The good news was that Jimbo was standing in the river at this point and could hold us at the bank until I could work my way onto the bank. Even with his help I wound up missing a step with one leg knee deep in the river. Even so, we kept our promise and returned Pauline dry.

The pickup man arrived soon and took us back to our cars. At our cars as we split to head in different directions and as we gave each other good-bye hugs, I could not resist laughing. "Good bye Canoe Man".


The Cumberland River Experience-Not a Canoe

What could we do really different to celebrate my daughter, Kris', birthday? The General Jackson is a great paddle wheeler on the Cumberland River that starts at the Opryland Hotel and travels down river to Nashville and back several times a day. Since this was my first trial of this experience, I went for the Cadillac package, which included a dinner and a show in the Victorian Room. For a cost of about $70 per person you get an elegant dinner and a first rate show, a real bargain in today's world.

The gangplank entering the boat was peopled by elegantly dressed greeters, who I later recognized as the singers and dancers who would later entertain us. We had about an hour before dinner to walk casually around the boat and see the various saloons, gift shops, and at least three different music groups including a piano bar.

Dinner began with a great salad served in a fanfare of music and hoopla with home cooked yeast rolls, followed by Salmon and Prime Rib topped off with a great cabernet and a Riesling. The dessert was ice cream served in its own chocolate bowl. An army of waiters kept every glass full and every wish fulfilled and little waiting between courses. By this time we had reached downtown Nashville and were invited to stray outside to experience the night skyline. The boat turned around in the Cumberland at that time and we watched the powerful paddlewheels churning the water to take us back up stream. It was time to return for dessert and the show.

After the dessert was served, an MC took over and involved the audience by introducing birthdays and anniversaries. I had purposely not subjected Kris to the embarrassment of that since I know that she would prefer it that way. The MC called the winner of a Mock drawing and this date to join him on the stage. When the couple arrived on the stage, it became clear that there was more to come. The man made a little speech about his date then fell to his knees and proposed to her. This was all very touching, especially to us romantic people who do similar things.

Many cities have great musical talent, but Nashville has the very best in the United States, maybe in the world. The musicians in Nashville come across as truly natural; they must have come out of the womb playing and singing. Their ability to make it look so easy and fun has a natural way of drawing in the audience, making all of us feel like musicians. They had started the rapport with the audience at the gangplank and they continued to nurture it throughout the show, even lining up to say good by as we left. At one point in the show the MC had the entire audience, old and young, doing the "funky chicken". I was expecting a great musical show, the best you can get, and my expectations were fulfilled by the show in the Victorian Room on the General Jackson.

The show began with the blues and showed how different regions portrayed this music and dance. The singers and dancers worked on a multilayered stage, accompanied by a band that was elevated high in the back. A backdrop screen was filled with images of the actual musicians and historical scenes to accompany the musicians. The influence of the African slaves on American music was brought home with songs like "Old Man River". Given the bad side of slavery consider what our music might be like today if we had waited on those guys to come here of their own free will. The show moved up through history covering jazz, country, and rock and roll. (Fortunately they forgot rap). If you had closed your eyes you could believe we were in the presence of Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Loretta Lyn, Roy Orbison, Tina Turner, and so on. Elvis Presley moved into the audience and teased a little old lady, about 70 as he sang.

The show ended with a repertoire of patriotic songs, while the images on the screen depicted American heroes ranging from September 11 to the War in Iraq. As the entire group presented a heart-wrenching version of America the Beautiful, there was hardly a dry eye in the restaurant.

A visit to Jack Daniels Distillery

On Sunday we moved on to the Jack Daniel distillery in Lynchburg, where we took the distillery tour and had a special meeting in the Tennessee Squire's Room. The Tennessee Squire Association is a select group of Jack Daniels aficionados who are selected by previous member nomination, something like the Holoknights Association. Each member can nominate another at some special time. A Tennessee Squire is deeded and owns one square foot of property on the Jack Daniels property and receives gifts from the distillery from time to time in addition to updated information on the doings at the distillery, like a new brand of whiskey.

I became a Tennessee Squire about 20 years ago after a friend, Fred Way, nominated me. Since that time I have nominated three friends, Roger Crouch, Ulf Merbold, and my son, Jimbo. Roger visited Jack Daniels after his spaceflight and presented them with an autographed plaque that contains a patch and a Squires badge that actually accompanied him on the Space Shuttle. The plaque still hangs in the Squires Room.

Jack Daniels and the village of Lynchburg are fun places to visit and walk around. This is the smallest county seat town in Tennessee and they seem to like it that way. Since it is so off the "beaten path" it is rarely crowded with tourists. To have one of the worlds most famous whiskey factories in a county where alcohol sales are illegal is one of the true curiosities of the Southern culture.

A Little League Ball Game

I had arranged to arrive in Old Hickory, TN, near Nashville, early enough to watch my grandson, Wes, pitch his first little league baseball game (minor league). Attending the game brought back special memories of my own little league coaching days (See Dewannis Makes the Majors). This is the league where the pitcher is 90 per cent of the winning teams strategy. Pitch it over the base most of the time and you win the game.

Wes began his pitching career by striking out his first batter. After that it was pretty much down hill, getting through the first inning with the opponent gaining only two runs, a very small number in this league. I could only imagine how taxing this inning was to the two parents, Kris and John, who dutifully chewed fingernails as the bases were walked full. The second inning was not so positive, with Wes getting tired and walking the whole team around the bases before a change of pitchers. The outcome wasn't exactly awful, losing 9 to 2, especially since the opponents were the top league team. Regardless of the outcome we all celebrated with ice cream at the local Sonic Burger Drive In.

1. I am the only one who still calls Jim, "Jimbo". Fortunately, he gave up calling me "Daddybo".