Kayaking the Buffalo River in Tennessee: an exercise in humility
June 17, 2012 9 Comments
I was supposed to spend the weekend of the 8th in the Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountain National Park so I could finally see the synchronized fireflies that are unique to just this one small part of the national park and nowhere else in the world. So it would of course figure that the early heat we have had meant the damned fireflies were done three days before we were supposed to get there. This meant I had to find something else to do. I decided we would drive to an area just past Hohenwald, Tennessee, to kayak a stretch of the Buffalo River. Hohenwald, Tennessee, is world-famous for an elephant sanctuary that you can’t visit.
Troy left me to plan the trip which meant no matter what I did, it would be inadequate planning. So I said fuck it and called a canoeing company for information. Of course no one answered, so I printed out what little information I could find on line, directions off of Google maps and we hit the road at 8. A few words to our friends at Google, your directions suck balls. Ditto to the Sprint phone GPS. Note to those who don’t know: avoid the Natchez Trace Parkway at all costs unless you are old and like to drive 50 the whole way. ** For those inclined, directions are below. You’re welcome.
Since I didn’t really plan for much, we showed up at Buffalo Canoeing which bills itself as ‘Christian Canoeing’. Not sure how you canoe ‘Christian’ as opposed to Jewish canoeing, or Buddhist canoeing, but OK. Since it was a Friday, the place was largely deserted and a very nice man walked out on the porch. He had almost zero information on the river, runs, etc., but he told us we should run the Texas Bottoms run, which was about seven miles long. He offered to port our boats and us to the put in and allow us to leave our cars at the campsite, which is an unheard of luxury. (See previous descriptions of ignominious put ins). We took him up on the offer and we quickly found ourselves in the back seat of a Christian Ford Econoline.
The driver told us he was a school teacher and we made polite chit chat. He told us he liked to sew but that he “wasn’t gay or nothin’.” Seriously. I assured him his manhood was not in question and that I merely marveled at anyone who could sew as I am prone to doing things like stapling buttons on my pants when they fall off. (Note: this does not work well). I have created a Google map for accurate directions to the put in so you won’t suffer finding it like we did. Paddlers, you’re welcome.
We were told that it would take us three hours to do the run and that we needed to “watch for a fallen down bridge ” and that we needed to get out and portage the boats over it. That was all the instruction we got. In retrospect, a few more words to the wise would have been helpful. About 100 yards in, there’s a series of falls. Sadly, I had no idea they were coming and getting over them sucked. The water level was low and I high-centered it several times which sucked. Advice to the wise: go right in low water – it sucks less. In higher water, this is a Class II run.
Once we passed the first set of falls, we came across this gem:
The problem with Tennessee is that apparently everyone feels free to use the rivers as their own personal landfill. It’s a lovely river, but it’s packed with trash. I quit counting tires after ten. Note to Tennesseans: when you don’t need something anymore, don’t throw it in the river. You will see a lot of blue herons, ducks, cows, gar, bass, etc. If you are very, very lucky, this stretch is reported to have it’s very own Sasquatch. My quest to see Bigfoot continues, alas, no ‘Squatch for Jean this trip.
The river moves fairly fast and most of this stretch is rapids punctuated by flat still water stretches. This is awesome because I enjoy having a current move my carcass without much effort from me. On the down side, this creates the possibility of decapitation from strainers. The Buffalo River is chock full of deadfall and strainers. Deadfall is paddling shorthand for dead trees and crap in the water that you hit in your boat which is bad. Strainers are things that allow water to pass but not kayakers, in my case, typically tree branches low over the water that I run into. Since this river moves fairly fast and has lots of turns with strainers at the end, this is not a great river for novices. Some people would call it foreshadowing with all the talk about strainers and deadfall, but it was inevitable that I was going to take a hit and dunking in the river. My Waterloo on the Buffalo came in the form of a series of drops with a quick hard turn to the left and a big tree sticking out to decapitate me. I saw it coming, and I could not paddle hard enough to avoid it. As a wise man once said: “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way … turn.” I kind of missed the turn part.
Several large bruises and a tattered ego later, I crawled out of the river with boat in hand and had to pump water out. Troy managed to maintain a straight face for 30 seconds before he began making comments that will likely get him killed in his sleep.
Just after we passed under a large bridge, we came upon the ‘fallen bridge’ mentioned by the porter. He’s right – it’s best to get out of the boat and portage over the bridge. If you try to go over it, it’s not going to go well.
The river flattens out a bit and you get to see nice pretty blue water. You will paddle past pastoral scenes of bucolic countryside. Cows may visit you. Rednecks may also suddenly appear unexpectedly around a bend of the river. They like to sit in chairs in the water and drink beer. By July, this river is reportedly packed with hordes of drunken fishermen. Be prepared.
Troy and I saw two canoes and two middle-aged women arguing in the middle of the river on chairs and that was it, but it was a Friday. Do not expect to get this river to yourself, but it’s not as crowded as other middle Tennessee rivers. There is no cell signal in this area, so try to avoid having an emergency. Services are non-existent outside of Hohenwald so plan accordingly. Also, if you are looking for a nice remote place to bury your smart-assed husband’s body, this area has potential. It’s hilly, heavily wooded and sparsely populated.
**For those who want to know how to get to this place, at Exit 46 on I-65, head west toward Columbia. Stay on this highway (Hwy 99 – a/k/a Bear Creek Road) until you get to Hampshire Pike and exit left, then stay on that all the way to Hohenwald (28 miles or so), take a left at Park Street (you have to look for the Hwy 99 sign as the street is not marked) take a quick jog left at E. 4th Ave (also unmarked, but follow the signs for Hwy 20) then take a quick right at Buffalo Road, otherwise known as Hwy 99 and stay on this road until you see a sign marked “Buffalo Canoeing” – you will know it when you see it. Ignore any other prompting from your GPS or Mapquest. You have been warned.
For paddlers who want more information, the Buffalo Canoeing owner is the son of the original owner and he works three jobs. This means he does not answer his phone much. Leave a message. Portage is available for $5 a person. Take them up on it.