This summer in West Tennessee state parks: canoe & pontoon tours, fireworks & more
It’s easy to enjoy Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in spring, when dawn and dusk are cool, and days fill with the colors of everything in bloom.
But about a year ago, I discovered that I enjoyed the state park in summer, too. My daughter and I had driven about 30 minutes north of Memphis in Millington, to visit the nature center. Lucky us—we arrived just in time for the ranger-guided pontoon boat trip on the park’s Poplar Tree Lake. Forty-five minutes later, we’d seen red-eared slider and musk turtles sunning on half-submerged logs; fringy mimosa trees; water bugs darting from fish; freshwater coral; and a birdwatcher’s boon, including egrets and Mississippi kites as the Mississippi Flyway runs overhead.
Turns out, Memorial Day through Labor Day, the park employs seasonal rangers who host such programs. This past weekend, we tried a different program: a ranger-guided deep swamp canoe trip. I called a few days in advance to reserve our canoe which is $10 per vessel, and on 9:30 a.m. Sunday we met ranger Michael Beasley at the park visitor center to caravan to the launch site, a few miles away on Eagle Lake. Fun fact: Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park covers more than 13,000 acres, many of which are managed by TWRA. Eagle Lake is one of the park’s TWRA-managed assets.
The drive to the put-in goes off-road and gets gravelly, but our small SUV needed only a car wash to recover. Once you’re in the water, the ride’s nothing but smooth.
Eagle Lake takes its name from one of the many species that inhabits it, though we saw no eagles Sunday morning. Instead, we listened to the calls of vireos and warblers; of green and leopard frogs—each sound distinguished by Michael.
As a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Biological Sciences, Michael was an ideal guide for this trip. Between interpreting the sounds of the morning, he shared the story of every species we encountered: a craw fish darting; carp jumping; damsel- and dragonflies alighting; a velvety wolf spider climbing; turtles basking. A mono-culture of bald cypress trees and the swamp itself stood still in contrast. An oxbow lake of the Mississippi River, the swamp is estimated to be 100 years old. As a swamp, it is ever-inundated with water, though at widely varying levels. In the low-water conditions we experienced, it was easy to dredge up coontail, an aquatic plant, for closer examination:
. . . and to discover this early bloom of the button bush near a clump of cypress knees:
My favorite moment of the trip, however, was entering this outdoor room. Cypress trees stand in for walls and ceiling; fallen logs furnish islands; duckweed rolls out a carpet:
Our course kept largely inside the shade of cypress clusters like this one, lasting somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes. I was so struck by the quietude and cleanliness of the setting, I wasn’t timing, but my six-year-old was getting antsy toward the end. Michael kept her going with a trip to see a vacated beaver lodge, which she’s still talking about. That should also tell you everything you need to know about the skill level required for this trip: If my daughter and I, who paddle on average once a year, can do it, so can you. Part of Michael’s narrative was a paddling crash course, which I’m always down for.
We emerged from the swamp and were back on the main road by 11:45 a.m just in time for lunch at Shelby Forest General Store.
Before you go
Remember that the following programs run through Labor Day 2014:
- Guided pontoon boat rides on Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park’s Poplar Tree Lake run 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Fridays, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sundays. Cost is $5 per person with children ages 7 and younger ride free. Check in at the visitor center for availability and directions.
- Guided deep swamp canoe trips from Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park run 8 a.m. Saturdays and 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sundays. Cost is $5 a seat or $10 a canoe. Reserve by calling 901-876-5215.
- Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park rangers also guide weekly, complimentary hikes 10 a.m. Saturdays. These 1.5-mile hikes traverse the park’s Woodland Trail that my family loves for its elevation changes, water crossings, and milk snake sightings!
- Check online, call ahead at 901-876-6552 or ask at the Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park visitor or nature center for a current calendar of ranger-guided programs. In addition to the opportunities I mentioned, rangers will host frequent and free animal interactions, ecology talks and themed hikes through Labor Day. The visitor center is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; the nature center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fri.-Sun.
Other summer activities in West Tennessee state parks:
- July 4 fireworks at Pickwick Landing State Park and Paris Landing State Park (Paris Landing also has a free concert at its amphitheater on Kentucky Lake to go with the fireworks.)
- “The Story of Davy Crockett as Told by Himself” at Johnsonville State Park 8 p.m. July 5. Clarksville, Tenn. native Arthur Hunt will present a narrative based on Davy Crockett’s autobiography. Hunt is a professor, amateur actor and Crockett enthusiast who channels the man like no other. He’ll present his program beside the fire; bring a lawn chair or blanket.
- Pontoon boat tours at Reelfoot Lake State Park: Naturalists discuss the history and ecology of this Northwest Tennessee lake formed by the earthquakes of late 1811 and early 1812. Ideal for birdwatchers, photographers and anyone who can appreciate the view of cypress trees and shorebirds. Three-hour cruises run 9 a.m. daily. Tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for children under 16 years of age; hour-long cruises run 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Tickets are $6 for all ages. Two-hour sunset cruises run 6 p.m. Saturdays with tickets $10 for adults and $6 for children under 16 years of age. Reservations can be made by calling 731-253-9652. Also, if you’re in the area on July 5, watch for fireworks and listen for a free concert by Nashville recording artist Traley Fisher starting at 7 p.m.
How do you celebrate summer in West Tennessee’s state parks?