The hazards of kayaking in Tennessee: ticks, sunburns and rednecks

It’s been a while since the Harrison household hit the water for a variety of reasons. Baxter’s death took the wind out of my sails to some extent and Troy’s continuing rotator cuff injury meant that there was little point in getting the kayaks out. This weekend, though, we decreed it was time. We mulled over a number of possibilities and decided to do a stretch of the Piney River in Hickman County, Tennessee, about an hour west of Nashville. We consulted the oracle, otherwise known as a paddling book for the Middle Tennessee area, and set upon a 6.9 mile run from the old Piney River bridge to the Walter Nunnelly bridge. The book indicates that you will arrive at an area where you can park next to the bridge and then descend a short embankment to put in to the river. After Troy and I skirmished over whether the area we found was indeed northwest of the bridge (thankyouverymuchTroyIwasright), we parked and did a quick recon. The book euphemistically refers to the put in area at the end as a “slide”. This translates to very difficult and steep muddy bank for those not in the know. We lugged the boats down. Then Troy changed his mind and we lugged the boats back up the hill. I complained. After another skirmish about violating someone’s property rights and entering on the east side of the river, we turned back and went back down with the boats to the edge of the river. We were greeted by an Australian cattle dog that gave us the “are you seriously going down there?” look. We went down there. Again.

Crawling down a steep bank with waist-high flora is guaranteed to get you two things: poison ivy and ticks. I marinated myself in Deet, but as it turned out, the ticks laughed at my feeble attempts to keep them at bay. One of them was later discovered lodged in my side where the sports bra was. I am reasonably confident I avoided the poison ivy, but it’s a bit early to say for certain. However, the end of the bank and my less than graceful entrance into the water pretty much guarantee that I washed off any sap I may have touched as we pretty much took headers into the river. Troy’s shoe got stuck deep in mud and there were some choice words that rhyme with brother trucker and similar words that came out of his mouth.

Had we paid $5 each, we could have ported to the private spot across the river.

After our ignominious start, we ambled down the river. For those who read this and actually want to know what the river is like, note that this was a warm, dry day in May after several days without rain. A good bit of the first part of the river is inches deep and there was some portage involved. Also cursing. Expect a fair bit of grinding over shallow rocky bars in the middle of the river in places and if you have a fiberglass kayak, I’m so sorry.  For novice kayakers, there are parts of this river that run at class IV+ to Class V and this is not a river to fuck with in high water or in specific stretches. Leave that to the pros and stick to the area between Piney River Road and the Piney River Campground and you really can’t hurt yourself without effort.

The start of the run next to the wreckage of the Old Piney River Bridge

In May of 2010, the middle Tennessee area was hit with catastrophic flooding and this river still shows the effects. Huge trees are down along the entirety of the river and there is a great deal of deadfall and some strainers.  At the beginning of the run, you can see the wreckage of the old bridge which was destroyed by the floodwaters. Also, the picture above gives you a good idea of just how shallow the river can get in places. Look ahead for the blue water to avoid getting high centered on a gravel bar. Also, this avoids hearing taunting comments from one’s husband who did not get high-centered on the gravel bar.

Shallow and wide at the beginning, punctuated with little rapid runs.

The Piney River drops at about 8 feet a mile so there are some nice little rapids you will have to contend with. Post-flood, there is a ton of debris you have to avoid and in higher water, this could be challenging and easily a class III run.  Most of this is in the class II category which is easy enough, but for the novice, you may find yourself tipped over multiple times. Fortunately, unless you knock yourself senseless, you won’t drown because these rapids aren’t more than a foot deep in most places.

The water is clear and moves along at a good 100 cfm. There are places to fish for those inclined and there are a lot of trout. Also, there are a lot of beer cans, which indicates redneck fishermen. Be prepared.

This river is lovely, but it’s also trashy. 99% of the people you will meet on the water are going to be beer-swilling rednecks with extended families carrying fishing gear, and smoking and drinking. Apparently, they simply heave their trash wherever they happen to be which is quite unfortunate. On the plus side, the old sewer plant no longer takes water in here.  Less than two miles from the end of the run, you will come upon what is clearly a Redneck Riviera. As you round a bend, you will see a campground on the right packed in good weather with the unwashed masses swimming in the river, drinking beer, smoking and engaging in redneck mating rituals. Paddle harder and get past this. Resist the urge to look as you might need therapy.

Troy lagging behind just past the Highway 48 bridge

On this run you will pass under three bridges. The first at Pinewood Road, the second at Highway 48 and the final one at the end which is Highway 230 where you have hopefully had the foresight to park your car or arrange for portage. Once you hit the Highway 48 bridge, you are roughly halfway done and the river gets wider and deeper, still punctuated by occasional rapids with steep turns and things you want to avoid.

Once you see these, you are in the home stretch.

You will know your run is at an end because you will see another bridge, but this one is packed with redneck kids. They like to jump off the bridge. This is Darwinism in action, but make sure you look up before you go under the bridge to get out on the left side. There are dumb kids up there and they might not realize you are coming underneath. No sense dying with them.

Walter Nunnelly bridge and home to jumping redneck kids

You will want to exit here as we are told the debris from the flood has made much of the rest of the trip to Vernon Bridge (2+ more miles down the river) largely impassable.  On your exit, you will immediately note the poor condition of the bridge while mentally wondering if you have to drive over it. The good news is, no, you do not have to drive over this bridge which looks like it’s at risk of imminent collapse from below.

“Big Guns vs Hot Rod FOREVER”. I have no idea what this means. Note the kids preparing to jump up above.

I was told by one of the kids that before the flood of 2010, you could just walk right up to spray paint the bridge, but now, they have to hang off the bridge to do it. Today’s youth, tomorrow’s convenience store clerks.

I am not a nice person.

At the end of the day, what I have is three ticks, one serious sunburn, majorly sore muscles and a new appreciation for urban dwellers.

I am not sure how to explain the line of sunburn demarcation.

19 Responses to The hazards of kayaking in Tennessee: ticks, sunburns and rednecks

  1. Emiie says:

    Great story! I think I’ll kayak or canoe elsewhere, thank you very much!.

  2. Shaun Albright says:

    Please explain to me why this is fun. My idea of fun doesn’t include water, boats, sweating or work. Just a drink on the back patio and watching my dog. I don’t have to drive and there is indoor plumbing. However I am glad you get time away to enjoy yourself.

    • Kayaking is always fun. It would have been less painful if my muscles hadn’t forgotten how to do it during the eight weeks we didn’t go out. :-) You go pet Molly for me and tell her you know this crazy woman in Nashville who could spend her time petting dogs, but spends it doing hard paddling.

  3. lori says:

    Hilarious Jean! You are clearly out of your mind, but hilarious nonetheless! HA HA :)

  4. I do drink beer, but I don’t smoke, nor do I dump trash in rivers, so I must just be a backwoods redneck.

  5. Also, were you wearing socks? That might explain the line of demarcation. Congrats on Pravda, by the way. And look at my facebook page–Jamie graduated from high school!!!! He also made Eagle scout!!!!!

    • No socks. Chaco sandals for the water. Congrats to Jamie and you both.

      • Thank you. I believe that i should have been given a gown, a hat, a diploma and a patch. I feel like I earned each and every one.

      • Also, there is also the philosophy that in all the wide world there is nothing that the proper application of duct tape and high explosives cannot cure. A martini and AK-47 are all well and good, but they cannot reattach a bumper or remove the enemy with quite the same pananch as 100 mph duct tape or c-4.

  6. David says:

    Ouch!! That’s some serious sunburn! :(

  7. Rednecks and red leg and red canoe … I’m noticing a pattern here.

  8. mistyslaws says:

    Looking at that Big Guns vs. Hot Rods tag, it actually looks like a heart with an “s” instead of vs. So, Big Guns “hearts” Hot Rods? Doesn’t really make much more sense, but that’s what it looks like. It’s just that lawyer in you always seeing “vs.” ;)

  9. bschooled says:

    “Today’s youth, tomorrow’s convenience store clerks.”

    Best. Motto. Ever.

    I can actually feel your sunburn scorching through the layers of my epidermis. Whatever that means.

  10. Pingback: Kayaking the Buffalo River in Tennessee: an exercise in humility « Bloggertobenamedlater

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