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Canoe the Clinch River with Great Blue Herons By Your Side

Great blue herons have the right idea about living on the river.

I took a canoe trip down the Clinch River recently with the long-necked birds by my side. They fly from tree to tree, then perch on fallen trees along the banks. They wait for the current to carry my canoe down river. Like many East Tennesseans, these lean wading birds decided the river was theirs.

And, why not? The Clinch is one of the most beautiful waterways in the state.

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Mirror-clear water from Norris Dam weaves through pine and hardwood forest and farmland to Clinton. Very little disturbs the landscape — occasionally a weekend home or herd of cattle. In the early morning, fly fishermen are in water up to the top of their river waders casting thread-thin lines in hopes of landing a trout.

The Clinch River was once a wild river. In 1936 TVA closed the gates on Norris Dam, making it the new agency’s first dam completion. The closure created the Norris Reservoir, now a popular boating destination.

A float on the Clinch is easiest when water flows freely over the rocks. This means calling ahead to TVA Norris Dam or checking its website to find out if water is being released from the dam. If at least one generator is running, you are good; if not, you’ll be dragging your canoe over rocks far more times than you wish. The released water comes from the bottom of the lake, so it is cold, bone-chilling, turn-purple cold.

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We put in the canoe at the loading area off River Road, just below the dam and weir. I reach the put-in by taking the Highway 61 exit off Interstate 75, and making a left turn just a little past the Museum of Appalachia, following Norris Freeway for awhile, and then turning left on River Road.

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Almost immediately we are accompanied by great blue herons. They stand like sentinels, reaching 4 feet in height. They have blue-gray color over wings and bodies, white around the head, and long, straight bills. As we approach, it becomes a test of wits. Then suddenly, they lift off, spreading their 6-foot wings. In flight, their folded necks, rather than extended necks, differentiate them from cranes. We count about 40 heron sightings (probably seeing some of the same birds multiple times). Our picnic spot is on a sandbank across from a small heron rookery. Nest-building is the activity of the day for one energetic pair.

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During the four-hour canoe trip, we see plenty of kingfishers, ducks and geese. Ospreys also patrol the river for fish to snatch from the current. We encounter only three fishing boats and a pair of kayakers, so really, we have the river to ourselves.

This solitude may be felt because there are no canoe rentals or outfitters on this part of the Clinch River. We have to haul our own canoe and park a second car at the take-out point, the third bridge on the water route. A boat loading area at Old Sinking Springs Road outside of Clinton sits by the bridge.

Other enjoyable options in the area can extend your half day on the river to much more. Norris Dam State Park offers swimming, hiking, boating and camping. The Museum of Appalachia gives a glimpse into the mountain heritage of East Tennessee.

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Have you canoed the Clinch River? Let us know about your experience in the comments!

Hi! I’m Linda Lange. As a travel writer living in Knoxville, I fully appreciate barbecue, bluegrass and Dollywood. My story...Read on

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    scott hipsher

    How long a trip is it from the dam to say the rowing arrows down in oak ridge and is the river pretty tame. Any info would be great. Thanks

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