A Fall Cruise of the Tennessee River – Quimby's Cruising Guide

A Fall Cruise of the Tennessee River

If we needed a reason to cruise from Chattanooga to Knoxville in October, we found one in a newspaper headline: “Experts Predict Good Display of Fall Colors.” And later, an even better reason in a quote from a foreign visitor, engraved on a boulder along Knoxville’s Riverwalk: “Looking up and down the river, I wondered why Americans spend thousands of dollars to travel to other countries for a vacation.”

Bill and I set out from Island Cove Marina, near Chattanooga, aboard our 34-foot Mainship Pilot and were soon approaching the giant towers of Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, belching white fumes, when he asked perhaps the most unnerving thing you can on a boat, “What’s that noise?” We pulled back the throttles and realized it was just the Wednesday noon siren test. The ominous wailing was a stark reminder that this river is far more than entertainment for us boaters.

But the next day when Bill said, “I hate to tell ya, but I’m not going home,” I knew we were once again settled into our nautical routine, a lifestyle we’ve enjoyed for 50-plus years. We locked through Watts Bar and pulled into Spring City Marina in Spring City, Tenn., where we traded stories with the marina manager, also a long-time boater, and discovered a skilled chef who served a sumptuous shrimp supper.

The weekend brought us to sprawling Blue Springs Marina in Ten Mile, Tenn., a favorite stop anytime we’re on the Tennessee. Of course, October weekends in SEC territory mean football, with a crowd in the restaurant/bar. My captain was the lone ’Bama fan among a platoon of Vols, but they were kind. One assured me, “Since you live in Alabama, it’s OK. But ya know what I can’t stand? A man who lives in Tennessee and yells for Alabama.” He shook his head as if it were the saddest thing he could imagine.

Red-and-Yellow Hills
Heading to our next stop, we wound two miles down a creek, between vibrant red-and-yellow hills to Caney Creek Marina in Harriman, Tenn., remote and obviously in the midst of fishing and hunting country. One lone store across the road announced “Sporting Goods.” We walked over to find serious paraphernalia and a sign at the entrance: “You are welcome to carry your gun in here, but should you need to use it, please use judicious aim.”

Through Ft. Loudon Lock — and as with all the locks on this trip, we were taken in immediately. No tows. In fact, we saw only one towboat the entire trip. Not sure what this says about the economy, but it sure made locking easy.

At Fort Loudon Marina in Lenoir City, Tenn., we were reminded that boating is a small world when we found friends we’d first met in Demopolis and another crew we traced back to an encounter on Lake Michigan.

We borrowed the courtesy van and found a first for marina cars: a full tank of gas! Of course, we had ribs at Calhoun’s restaurant one night. Another lucky evening we were swept into a marina party/fundraiser for Lenoir City’s underprivileged children. Yummy hamburgers, margaritas and a stand-up comic auctioneer.

Along the way we were learning of the river’s monumental historical changes by reading “The Tennessee, The New River: Civil War to TVA.” At Ft. Loudon, we found the TVA still hard at work. Bulldozers and trucks crawled across a rise back of the marina, building the bank even higher “in case there is a flood.” Locals were puzzled, though, since in order to breach this levy the river would have to rise 50 or more feet and darn near flood the entire state first.

Concord Marina in Farragut, Tenn., was our next stop, and my captain, a train buff, was duly entertained. Just yards across the water was a train track with eight or 10 long lines of freight cars daily, clickety-clacking, whistles blowing. Adding to the charm were church bells chiming the hour. I, meanwhile, was entertained by boat names. My favorite, belonging to a Tennessee fan who must also be a student of ancient mythology, was Vol Hauler.

Mansions of Every Style
Riding from Ft. Loudon Dam all the way to Knoxville is like flipping through the pages of Architectural Digest. Lake cabins here have grown up to become mansions of every style.

We timed our arrival in Knoxville for a quiet, non-game weekend, but sports loyalties are ever present here. Buildings, cars and boats flaunted Tennessee orange.

From Volunteer Landing Marina it’s an easy walk up the hill and to downtown. Early in the evening we decided, in spite of misting rain, to walk to Crown & Goose, a restaurant recommended by local boaters. The rain increased as we huddled under our umbrella. We asked directions from a young man and, after another block, he drove up with his wife in the car and insisted we ride. “I told my wife, I’ve gotta help that nice old couple.” At that point, were we never so glad to be “old”!

We enjoyed marvelous food and music, then more customers drove us back to our boat. What a friendly place! (During daylight hours, trolleys and buses offer easy access to town, the University of Tennessee campus and beyond.)

Back on river the next day, we turned up the Little Tennessee/Tellico Lake and rounded a bend for a spectacular view of the Smoky Mountains. Tellico Harbor Marina was home for a few nights. One day we rode up the Little Tennessee River, where markers of Cherokee Indian history drew us back into the region’s ancient stories. Adding to the scenery were the shoreline trees donning their fall wardrobe, the brilliant colors fulfilling the promise of that newspaper headline.

Meandering back down the Tennessee, I would have described this whole adventure as a serene trip…until our last day out. That morning we woke at Euchee Marina in Ten Mile to pea soup, but by 9:30 a.m. the marina basin was clear, so we untied and departed. Out on the river, fog smothered us again. Surely, it would clear shortly. No. We were immersed in a jug of milk. We idled and circled, blowing our foghorn. Thicker still.

The wise plan was to return to the marina. But how? The navigation app chose that time to jump all over the place, and we couldn’t see the small marina channel buoys on the radar. Captain said we would follow the shoreline back. “If we can find it,” I muttered as I perched on the bow to watch for logs, shoreline, trees and river monsters.

As I hunched down, peering through the soup, I pondered, “What in the heck is an ‘old couple’ doing out here!” We crept along. When a bird flew low over the water, I knew how Noah felt. An hour and a half after leaving, we found the marina again, tied up and breathed a sigh of relief. Ten minutes later, the darn fog lifted as pretty as you please.

We set out again and arrived back at Island Cove Marina a couple of happy and tired boat bums — and planning yet another trip on this captivating river.

Author: Joanne Cunningham Walker is a regular contributor to HeartLand Boating


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