Big Little Rapids: Canoeing the Little River, Tennessee

DSC_0812(State # 10/50) Georgia burned, South Carolina was underwater and Tennessee didn’t have enough water. Well, at least where I wanted to canoe.

I spent hours hunting for a new target and decided on the Little River near the Smokey Mountains. Arriving around 5 p.m., I pulled off the highway to scout a section and found a clear stream flowing over a 3-foot rock shelf. Modest white spray flew up from the bottom of the drop. Further down, large rocks funneled the river into churning, zigzagging shoots. Ooo that will be fun, I thought. Class II rapids are nothing to a rafter or experienced whitewater kayaker. To me, though, they looked big even from the bridge.

DSC_0709I launched the canoe from a little park in Townsend, straight into a glittering riffle. The evening sun blinded me off the water and I couldn’t see what was coming. Thankfully, the river soon changed course. I moved along at a swift pace, between high growing deciduous trees and the odd pines. Hills, neigh, proper mountains surrounded the river valley. Everything not water or sky was a brilliant shade of green. There were ducks, honking Canada geese and jumping trout. The water glimmered above a floor of polished large stones.

I didn’t, however, have much time to enjoy it all. After weeks of canoeing swamps, wetlands, coastal plains and oceans, my first whitewater test awaited. The sound of the rushing and crashing water alone, echoing in the valley, gave me pause. As I approached the rapids, my eyes darted around for the best way, but there were zero conservative options. All had rocks, all had risks. “Oh shit, oh shit,” I muttered to myself through clinched teeth. I thought of my canoe overturning or smashing against the rocks and breaking in half. The idea that a wrong decision over the next 30 seconds might screw up the trip made my palms clam up. I shook the thought. “Come on Rider, we got this!” I said that aloud. Listen, I’m embarrassed too. My only excuse is I was hoping to reassure the canoe, if not myself.

DSC_0789Water splashed as I bounced over and between rocks. The canoe thudded hard and bucked like a mechanical bull. I hit a couple of boulders harder than I’d like, but kept the bow strait with the current and didn’t tip or take on water. However, there was little time to celebrate. The roar of the next session became audible once the sound of rapids past faded away. For an hour, I repeated this process, getting slightly better at reading the rapids and avoiding rocks and shallows. At least that’s what I told myself.

DSC_0721In between the sections of small rapids, passing cars dominated the evening soundscape; a highway takes advantage of the valley the Little River carved out. Noise from whooshing cars and diesel engines is ever-present where the river song doesn’t drown them out. Like much of Appalachia, the area occupies that category of quasi-wilderness. Canoeing by a steady stream of river houses, I thought of what a man had told me over the phone. “It’s one of the two rivers in Tennessee that is all private. The water is public, but the land under it is owned.” At least a 3rd of them had ‘Posted’ signs tacked to the trunk of the largest tree by their beach.

With the sun behind the mountains, I started looking for camp. This place looks doable… I’d think for a moment. Oh wait, another sign reading ‘Posted. NO Trespassing.’ Everywhere I stopped was either a bed of poison ivy or cleared private property. “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind, do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign.” As the old hippie anthem goes.

DSC_0759Around 8 o’clock I found a gravel island between a homestead and a pasture. It was an unattractive little outpost as recent floods had piled it with driftwood and litter. Along with branches and logs, high water wedged shoes, sunglasses, plastic tarps and bottles into car-sized debris piles. It wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t seem owned. And if it was, could they care that I was on it? Of course they could. I get the idea of property rights, but only in America have I run into people that are such jerks about it. “It’s my land! You don’t pay no taxes on it. Now git! Lest I call the sheriff.” Territorial for the sake of being territorial, as if this is still the cattle rustling, bandit-ridden Old West. Some, I gather, still feel it is, but I’ll save that can of beans for another time. If my island was owned, I just hoped the owner didn’t shoot trespassing Texans for sport.

I made camp under some elm trees and atop matted vegetation and large rocks. I was grateful my Aunt Liz had sewn up my ripped sleeping bag that morning, because the night was chilly. But, no one drove me off this island via shouting, hunting dogs or gunfire. In the morning I collected a bunch of river trash (my payment, I decided, if it was private land) and departed. DSC_0784

I canoed down below blue sunny skies. I saw a slippery river otter slither into the water from a muddy bank. I scattered little plovers, annoyed excitable kingfishers and pissed off plenty of Canada Geese. I tailed one down a series of rapids — it honked all the way, not flying out of sheer stubbornness.

I passed more homes set upon bluffs overlooking the stream. Stately properties awash with more no trespassing signs. One sprawling property with a 2-story white house had ones that read “If you’re not floating, you’re Trespassing!” and “If you’re not fishing, you’re Trespassing.” Part of me understands how, if they didn’t have these signs, these properties might be overwhelmed with drunk summer tubers, urinating everywhere and leaving beer cans. Another part of me wanted to stop and take a dump on the lawn for spite. In the off-season, they all seemed like obnoxious overkill — unnecessary, aggressive eyesores along an otherwise charming river. “Sign, sign everywhere a sign.”DSC_0807

At noon I ran the big rapids I had scouted the evening before. Nerves translated into adrenaline and I enjoyed the thrill more than I feared the worst. I did bottom out a few times, but managed through in one piece.

DSC_0786I took out at a campground and inspected the bottom of the canoe; there were multiple gashes were rocks had removed all the paint and exploded the guts of Rider. I locked my boat to a tree and jogged a half-mile to the nearest gas station. There, I planned to solicit strangers for a ride upstream to my car. This was the test to see how feral I appeared to the public. If I was refused a lift and had to hike back along the busy highway, it’d be proof that I needed to lose my excuse for a beard. I sat on a bench outside, trying to look human. “Excuse me sir, are you by chance headed up to Townsend?” I asked a man walking to his car. “No, but I can give you a ride.” I hopped in the passenger seat and we drove up the highway. The results were in — I could handle canoeing big little rapids, people along the river are nicer than their signs suggest and I didn’t have to shave.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Little River, Tennessee
  • Weather: Clear, scant clouds warm in the day and chilly at night.
  • Miles canoed: 8
  • Launch Point: 35.679891, -083.781277
  • Takeout Point: 35.738453, -083.825898
  • campsite: ?
  • Song Sung on River: Signs (Five Man Electric Band)
  • Thanks to the two friendly women at the Apple Cafe and Country Store for letting me park overnight, the guy for going out of his way to give me a lift to my car and the Whispering River RV Resort for letting me take out and leave my canoe and gear.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Canada Geese, pileated woodpecker, cardinal, plovers, ducks, kingfisher.
  • Reptiles: one tiny turtle
  • Mammals: river otter
  • Noted Species: Black Bear
  • Dominant Vegetation: Sycamore, Sweetgum, White Oak, Red Maple.
  • Ecoregion: Blue Ridge Mountains (66g) Southern Metasedimentary Mountains, (66e) Southern Sedimentary Ridges
  • Current Threats: stormwater run off from towns, Trespassers
  • Trash collected: Plastic tarp, 3 pair of sunglasses, plastic bottles, part of a lawn chair and beer cans.
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One Response to Big Little Rapids: Canoeing the Little River, Tennessee

  1. Anonymous says:

    DeanO here…we did mange to recall most of the lyrics for “Signs” on the Brazos, but actually saw very few “No Trespassing” signs!

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