South Fork Holston ~ Wesley Road to Riverfront Park.
- 7.66 miles
- 2:53 duration
While paddling on the Watauga River on Sunday, LakeBum (Rob), Mrs. Jack (Dori) and I cooked up a scheme to venture out again the next day. It was Memorial Day, meaning that Rob and I both had the day off. Dori’s employer did not need her on Monday, and Captain Jack (Tom) was taking a vacation day. It would be his first opportunity to paddle with us this year.
We decided to paddle the South Fork Holston River, including a section called The Sluice. This trip begins just below Fort Patrick Henry Dam near Kingsport and ends below Kingsport at Riverfront Park near Netherland Inn.
When I dropped Dori off Sunday evening, I kept her kayak, Heather Patrice, in my truck. We checked the generation schedule and saw that TVA would be running one generator on Monday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. We made tentative plans to meet up at 11:00 the next day.
When I got home, I saw that I had a text from Rob confirming the generation times. However, he suggested that we begin our trip at 2:00 so that we would not get ahead of the water. Since he is much more experienced in such things, we agreed to wait until 2:00.
I invited Deban to go along, but she needed to help her mom with some chores. Rob texted that Kara would like to go, and asked if she could once again borrow Deban’s kayak.
I loaded the extra boat in my truck Saturday morning, and then went to Tom and Dori’s house at 1:00. They had been happy with the late start because it gave them the opportunity to volunteer at Shades of Grace that morning.
Also joining us on the trip was another Shades of Grace volunteer, Jack. Just Jack. Not to be confused with Captain Jack. We loaded two more boats into my truck for a total of five. One was Tom’s boat “Hulk” and the other belongs to Mandalorian Steelers (Larry) and has been stored at their house lately. Dori had given both of them the same spa treatment she gave Heather Patrice the day before, so they looked clean and smelled wonderfully of the essential oils she had used.
I’ve determined that I could probably carry six boats if they were all the size of mine or Tom and Dori’s. Deban’s is deeper and takes up more room.
Jack climbed in the truck with me, and we caravanned to the take-out point so that Tom and Dori could leave their vehicles there. Dori was going to need to leave quickly once the paddle was over because she had an event to attend that evening. Tom would need to take Rob and I back to the put-in to retrieve our trucks.
I had met Jack before, but this drive together gave me the opportunity to get to know him better. We covered a wide variety of topics in the short drive. Once Tom and Dori dropped off their cars, they climbed in with us for the ride to the Wesley Road boat ramp. There we began unloading all of the boats and were soon joined by Rob and Kara. For the second day in a row he would be the only canoe paddler.
Dark clouds had gathered overhead, and I looked up at them as we unloaded. Dori said, “Don’t worry! They will move on. It’s not going to rain.” I told her I wasn’t concerned about rain. I was saying a silent thank you for the cloud cover so we wouldn’t be too hot.
We launched our boats at 2:14 and began the relaxed float along this beautiful section of river. It is hard to imagine that we are so close to the city when we are on this river. There are only a few houses along the right bank below the dam and nothing along the left bank. WalMart is very close, but over the hill out of sight.
I looked over to see Tom paddling next to me, and he was beaming happily. I was so glad that we finally had the opportunity to paddle together. Our work schedules do not allow for that very often. I also felt doubly blessed that I was getting to spend time with Dori two days in a row.
We enjoyed the sight of large birds flying overhead. A blue heron swooped toward the top of a dead tree and snapped a limb off to carry with him. He must have needed some building materials for his nest. Cormorants perched in the trees above us, and as usual I had to ask Rob to remind me of their name.
I had eaten lunch earlier, but was hungry again. I had stuck an apple in the pocket of my life jacket and pulled it out to munch on as I paddled. It takes skill to hold an apple and a kayak paddle at the same time. It takes even more skill to take a photo of yourself holding an apple and a kayak paddle.
There are always a lot of turtles sunning themselves along this river, perched on rocks or fallen limbs. They usually dive into the water when I get near, but today one posed for me to get a good photo.
There is a man-made waterfall along the shore, running from a business above. I dodged around a young man fishing from a kayak nearby so that I could grab a picture of it. As usual, I kept finding myself lagging behind the rest of the group because I kept stopping to take pictures.
I caught up with the group again, and Dori and I pulled in to a concrete structure along the shore to check for a geocache that was hidden there a few years ago. We had both already logged it, but were curious to see if it was still there. It was gone – likely floating away during high water.
Soon we neared the bridge carrying the John B. Dennis Highway over the river. At a boat ramp nearby, a woman and her toddler daughter were having a picnic. She asked where we had started our trip, and I stopped to chat with her. She had just bought a kayak the day before and was looking forward to trying it out on this river so I gave her advice on where to put in and take out.
Just past the bridge, boaters have a choice to make. There are two routes that you can take, each traveling along opposite sides of Long Island. Continuing straight takes you through the middle of the Eastman Chemical plant. This is an interesting route, but requires you to stop and portage (carry) your boat around a weir dam. Most often, we turn left here and travel down The Sluice as it is a more scenic route. This route is also narrower and flows faster. The overhanging trees make for a scenic paddle and provide a lot of shade. This was the route we chose today.
At the entrance to The Sluice is the first rapid of the trip. None of the rapids on this journey are very big. We jokingly term them as Class Half rapids on a scale of one to five. Today the water was a little bit shallow, and I think we all scraped bottom coming through.
A Blue Heron began playing tag with us as we paddled The Sluice. It would perch on a branch at the water’s edge, and as we neared would take off and fly a few hundred feet downstream to a new perch. It did this over and over again. I am always amazed at how such a large, ungainly looking bird can actually fly.
Jack pointed out a spot where nature is reclaiming what man built. I had never noticed this light pole that is being swallowed by vegetation. There is also an abandoned truss bridge that is slowing being taken over by trees, shrubs and grass.
Just past that bridge is a steering wheel that sticks up out of the river bed. Rob tells us that his older brother Richard can remember passing over the bridge as a youngster, and that the riverbank was lined with old cars. Someone had decided they would be a good way to prevent erosion. As we paddled along, we could see the remains of many of those cars.
In 2016 Rob had hidden a geocache along The Sluice called “An Island of One” because it was hanging from the one tree on a small island. It was at this cache that I dropped my trackable Space Pen in the water that summer, and I haven’t seen it since. As we passed the cache location today, Rob noticed that the island has literally flipped. The tree that was on it has been toppled, and it’s roots carried the whole island with it. After returning home that evening he archived the cache. On his last log he wrote, “The island of one is now an island of none.”
Rob and I stopped to check the status of a cache BackWoodsAng had hidden in 2016. It requires climbing about 15 feet up a tree that overhangs the river. We paddled under the tree gazing upward and I finally spotted it still hanging there. It hasn’t been logged since I climbed up just over two years ago and signed the log sheet for Rob who doesn’t do trees. This was my second trip up the tree as I had climbed it the year before to share First to Find honors with Team Cache Cracker Jacks. As we looked up at it I told Rob I was glad I would never have to climb up there again!
We stopped at a rocky beach to stretch our legs for a bit. Dori found small river rocks to paint and give away as part of the Kindness Rocks Project. I picked up a few as well, but Kara and I were more interested in finding interesting river glass. I found three round pieces of glass – the bottoms of glass bottles that have been worn smooth by the water. Tom found a spatula, and I found a beat up pot. There were several pieces of a ceramic crock scattered about, and I also found a pretty shell.
I waded over to a large stump and climbed atop it. Dori shouted at me to do a cannonball, but the water was too shallow so I passed.
We finally climbed back in our boats to continue our trip down the river. Everyone was already paddling downstream by the time I climbed into mine, so I decided to not bother putting my skirt back on. I knew there were not any rapids ahead that were big enough to splash much water in my boat.
We had just passed under a railroad bridge when I heard a train whistle. I turned around to see a train starting across the bridge and yelled, “TRAIN!” to the rest of the group. It was backing up; caboose first. After several cars had crossed the bridge it came to a stop, and then reversed direction. I felt the need to apologize to the others for my excitement over a simple train, but Rob said, “Who doesn’t like trains?”
The best rapid of this trip is near the lower tip of Long Island. It is still pretty tame – maybe a class three quarters. Last week when Kara kayaked for the first time, I had instructed her that she was supposed to shout “WOO!” as she goes through rapids. I was right in front of her for this rapid, and instead of shouting “WOO” I kept turning to shout “ROCK!” at her. This was because I kept bouncing off rocks all the way through and hoped that she could do a better job avoiding them.
Once past Long Island, the river becomes very wide and slow. We had to paddle a lot more the last mile of the trip. Fortunately, it was not as hot and sunny as I have experienced on some trips. This is a fairly boring part of the journey except for an island that is covered with birds. High in the trees are the nests of various birds of prey and blue herons. On the ground are geese and vultures. In between are a large variety of smaller birds. There is a constant racket with all of the birds making noise. The island is home to literally hundreds of birds.
As we paddled by I heard one of my companions remarking that there were so many different kinds of birds on the island. I said, “Yes, and they are all living peacefully together. Too bad we can’t do that as humans.”
A lonely duck paddled along the river and I was able to get fairly close to him for a picture. His mate was over by the bank. I wonder if they had a fuss and he needed to cool off by taking a paddle.
Soon we reached the boat ramp that signified the end of our journey. After I climbed out of my boat, Kara asked me to leave it down by the water so that she could try it out. It is similar in size and construction to one that she was thinking of buying, and she wanted to see if she fit and how it felt to paddle it. I helped carry other boats and gear up to the parking lot while she paddled around a bit.
Tom drove Rob and I back to the Wesley Road ramp to get our trucks. By the time we had returned, Dori and Jack had loaded their kayaks in and on her vehicle. Tom and Jack helped me load my boats while Rob loaded his canoe. We parted ways at about 6:00 pm, all happy for another great day on the water.