The hazards of kayaking in Tennessee: ticks, sunburns and rednecks
May 20, 2012 19 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.