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Tennessee is a paddling wonderland

By Johnny Molloy • May 27, 2018 at 6:00 AM

The state of Tennessee has a wealth of paddling destinations, from the wild whitewater of the Ocoee River to the mighty Mississippi River, and a lot of waterways in between. Our immediate area has paddling destinations aplenty, including the Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers, Watauga Lake and South Holston Lake.

A native Tennessean, I have lived in all parts of the state, growing up in Memphis, living in Nashville and Knoxville, finally settling in Johnson City. Throughout that time I have explored the great outdoors of the Volunteer State. I roamed the mountains from top to bottom, trekked throughout Middle Tennessee and camped the lowlands of the west.

I also began paddling many of the state’s rivers and lakes, from the Nolichucky to the Buffalo and waterways beyond, flowing off the Appalachians, the Cumberland Plateau, throughout the Highland Rim and Central Basin. Sea kayaking trips led me west to Reelfoot Lake, Lake Barkley and the Mississippi River. I have since made repeated trips to these Tennessee treasures, paddling along dark water trails of swamp rivers that contrast mightily with the crashing, whitewater streams.

Time passed, and I began writing outdoor guidebooks for a living. Then an opportunity arose to write a guide called Paddling Tennessee and I jumped on it, then began systematically exploring new waterways in the Volunteer State, in addition to ones I had already discovered. I sought to include paddling destinations that would not only be rewarding but also would be exemplary paddles of the varied landscapes offerer in our state.

There is so much water. In the east, the Hiawassee River is a jewel of Blue Ridge paddling destinations. But these mountains offer other paddling places, such as the rafting destinations that are the upper Pigeon River, the incredible Nolichucky Gorge and the renowned Ocoee River. The Obed-Emory river system is a designation national river and recreation area, as is the Big South Fork.

And what good is a Tennessee paddler without floating Tennessee’s contribution to great rivers of the world -- the Duck? The Duck River flows through the botanically rich heart of the Volunteer State. The Duck River has a little bit of everything, flowing in wild whitewater off the Cumberland Plateau and calmer through the Central Basin and Western Highland Rim before emptying into the Tennessee River. Did you known the Duck River is one of the most biologically diverse rivers on the planet?

Middle Tennessee’s stunning Buffalo River offers sheer bluffs rising from clear green waters across from which lie inviting gravel bars. The aqua green waters of Piney River flow past strange rock formations and beside tan gravel bars. In West Tennessee, the Hatchie makes a serpentine course into the back of beyond, through pristine, undeveloped swamps to flow into the Mississippi River.

There simply is no other Reelfoot Lake. Created by earthquake two centuries ago, this wildlife refuge is something you must experience for yourself. Tennessee’s dammed lakes deserve your attention, too – from our own spectacular Watauga Lake and South Holston Lake, to Middle Tennessee’s Center Hill Lake to island-studded Percy Priest Lake just outside Nashville.

Therefore, when you cobble the paddling destinations together it presents a mosaic of Volunteer State paddling opportunities that is hard to beat! Now it is your turn – get out there and paddle Tennessee!

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