Follow along as Paddleboarder Chris Lechner completes a SUP first descent of the 139-mile Little Tennessee River. Along the way, he uncovers history beneath the water and wisdom from unexpected sources.
Rabun Gap, Ga.
The river begins as a small rivulet in the middle of a cattle farm in north Georgia. I crawl under barbed wire and steel mesh fences, like crawling through a war zone, for two miles. For most of the first day, I carry my paddleboard over downed trees, beaver dams, and vine entanglements. Finally, I pass under Highway 441 and the Little Tennessee River starts to look more like a river, as wide as a driveway with a few rapids. I move past old bridge pylons and soon feel the river returning to a native state. Weeds are interspersed with rhododendron and laurel. Osprey nest in the trees, and woodland ducks paddle with me. I finish the day battered and exhausted.
Heavy rains fill the swollen river, affording me quick passage over downed trees. I meander through farmland that gradually gets wilder as feeder creeks come in—including the mighty Cullasaja entering from Highlands in the east. These often unrecognized feeder creeks determine the health or sickness of a river. Author Wilma Dykeman said it best: “How right that we should say a spring is fed by veins—tiny threads of water leading from many sources—and that we can destroy a spring by probing too deeply for its delicate feeders.”
Lake Emory to Driftwood Island
The day is clear, the sky a deep blue, and the sun is rising across the river, which flows into the ever-widening mouth of Lake Emory ahead, becoming slow and shallow. A large muskrat scurries into a hole as I contemplate the pros and cons of this artificial impoundment.
Some argue that the lake acts like a giant filter, collecting sediment and allowing the free-flowing river below the dam to run free of toxins produced by upstream farms. But I find this argument to be weak and unsupported. Natural flowing rivers evolve complex systems for managing sediment and dispersing toxins gradually, using biologic filters and natural barriers. The advantage of the native approach is that sediment moves downstream, avoiding the stagnation and hypoxia of man-made reservoirs.
When rivers are dammed, trout are replaced by catfish and carp, and many fish species die out because of the lower oxygen levels and the loss of clean sandy bottoms to lay their eggs. Some species dwindle or become extinct because they can no longer migrate upstream. Given enough time, Lake Emory will fill in and become a swamp. This is straightforward physics.
I finish paddling the four miles of Lake Emory above the dam. As I approach the shore, I see a bloated deer carcass bobbing in the water. The native Cherokee find meaning in daily occurrences like this. Is this dead deer telling me something? I stop and help the county officer hook the carcass and pull it out of the river.
The Cherokee people believe the deer is an animal of great power and intuition, and they would have given its death a meaning. Around the communal fire, the elders may have said that the Deer had sacrificed himself because the Great River is no longer flowing and has become putrid and sick because of our selfishness. Even the Beaver knows that a dam is only for a time and must be pulled down and moved to let the water flow free and breath again.
Below the dam, there is no boundary between pasture and river. Cattle wander in and out of the river, and the stench of manure is heavy in the air. Black plastic from farmers’ fields are wrapped around tree branches and limbs along the river. For years to come, the microparticulate degradation of this plastic will kill and contaminate the subsurface food chain, including minnows, crayfish, nymphs, and other river insects. I feel sick and helpless.
I pass through a small riverside community with a long suspension bridge and spot a v-shaped stone fish weir near the ancient Cherokee town of Cowee. It sweeps me downstream into the center of the river where the fish nets would have once been placed.
I arrive at a small island at dusk. It is a good place to camp. In the twilight, the island’s heaped-up driftwood takes on gargoyle shapes and sinister postures. I nestle my paddleboard on the lee side of the island and snuggle and balance it between the driftwood. I string my tarp overhead to keep out the rain. I soon have a roaring fire flickering light and dancing shadows over my island home. I fall asleep to the drizzling of rain.