Eric Jackson in Tennessee

Navigate Tennessee Waters like Olympic Kayaker Eric Jackson

. Tennessee waters and kayaks are so diverse that Olympic kayaker Eric Jackson breaks them down by type for you here.

You may have noticed kayaks being sold at just about every corner store, big box store, and specialty outdoor store in your area. The popularity of kayaking has grown tremendously over the past 10 years due to improvements in kayaks, equipment, techniques and the addition of the fishing kayak to the market.  

Eric Jackson Olympic kayaker
Olympic kayaker Eric Jackson enjoying Tennessee thrills.

What is it about kayaking that is so attractive? It could be the immersion into the outdoors in a way that you can’t experience any other way; floating on a creek, river, pond, or lake, with nothing but your arms or legs to move your boat around quietly. Most people consider it therapeutic to get out on the water and explore, fish, or simply float down a liquid conveyor belt through a beautiful valley. Others enjoy the rush of whitewater, the challenge of the rapids, and the group dynamics of a whitewater trip.

There are some best practices that you can use to make kayaking as safe as it can be. There are also some common mistakes that are the root of most accidents. Tennessee waters and kayaks are so diverse that we will break them down by type for you here.

Flatwater Ponds and Lakes- Flatwater Kayaks:   

Getting into kayaking typically is done in the flatwater first. In these waters, you can take your time and learn your strokes, get a feel for the kayak, and start and finish in the same location. It is still important to practice safe boating meaning:

Always wear your Personal Floatation Device, a life jacket: When exploring Center Hill Lake at Rock Island State Park for instance, the fact stands - stay afloat and you are going to be safe. There are very comfortable life jackets today that offer pockets for your sunscreen, glasses, phone and more that make it a tool beyond safety.

Always paddle with a friend:  Having a friend there makes any trip safer. Medical issues experienced while kayaking are also less risky if you have back up. 

Dress for the Water and Weather Temps: You can typically look up the water temperatures of Tennessee lakes with a google search in a few seconds. In the spring, for example, the water may still be quite cold even if the air is warm. Here are a few tips for dressing warm for a wet sport during cold months (late fall, winter, early spring). Your local kayak shop can help you get the right stuff if you need more information.   

Wear synthetics as a base layer. “Fleece” is the best wicking material that keeps the water away from your skin and you feel dry even if it gets wet. Waterproof outer layer- rain coat/pants work fine for keeping splashes off of you, but a “drysuit” makes a dump into cold water not only safe, but it can be enjoyable and warm.     

Wetsuit booties to keep your feet warm, wetsuit gloves for your hands, and a “skull cap” or a stocking cap to keep your head warm. 

Bring dry clothes for the car in case you get wet. 

Mostly Flat, Moving Rivers and Creeks— “Floats”

Tennessee offers some of the most amazing floats throughout the state. The cool water floats in East and Middle Tennessee bring lots of family fun and a break from the heat to the dog days of summer.     However, these floats are great any time of year if you are prepared and check the conditions.

There is a wide array of floating rivers in the state that vary from the smallest creeks with shoals that you can almost touch both banks at the same time, to the big rivers like the Cumberland River in Nashville, or the Mississippi River in Memphis.  

Smaller creeks that are tributaries to the bigger rivers are a personal favorite of mine because they get you into the more remote areas. Enjoy amazing views while winding quietly through a valley with gravity as your engine, moving you and the river along without taking a stroke. Bring a fishing pole and you may catch a variety of bass, crappie, trout, or even a giant muskie. Bring a picnic and you’ll likely find some nice beaches or clearings in the woods to take a break, refuel, and extend your day out.   

There are a few safety tips to assure you get from the “Put-in” to the “Take-out” seamlessly.

First, let’s make sure you know how to set shuttle!

You need at least 2 vehicles- plan on leaving the one that is best at carrying people and boats at the take-out.

Drop all equipment at the “Put-in” or make sure it is all loaded into the vehicle you are going to take to the put-in. Then drive all of your vehicles to the take-out.

Leave as many vehicles at the take-out as you can, and everyone gets into one vehicle to get back to the put-in. 

Make sure to remember what the take-out looks like on the river. You don’t want to float by it and find out miles later that you missed it.

Leave your keys with the cars. Hide them on or near the car, and make sure everyone knows where they are in case of emergency. If you do bring them, show people where you are keeping them, which should be in a dry bag, and attached to your body. 

Make sure to leave some dry clothes, a towel, snacks and your phone in the vehicles that are at the take-out.

Safety on the Water:

Practice in Flatwater first. If you are getting on moving water, you should have some experience paddling on flatwater first. Part of the fun of moving water is that you’ll be cruising along quickly without having to take any strokes. It takes more paddling skills to maneuver around in a river and you may need to quickly get around obstacles.

You’ll also need to check creek conditions. A good rule of thumb for Tennessee creeks and rivers:

If it just rained and the water is muddy, wait a day or two to put-in. Tennessee creeks tend to be clear water unless they are super high. High water is dangerous unless you are skilled enough.

If it hasn’t rained in a long time and it is the summer or early fall (leaves on the trees) the creek could be extremely low and take a while to maneuver. Prepare for getting out and dragging your kayak over shallow shoals. Bring shoes ideal for the water!

Know the dangers: The following are your main dangers on free flowing creeks and rivers

Trees in the water: Small creeks in particular get “choked up” with downed trees. These trees are awesome for catching fish and make the float more fun but they can also cause you to capsize and worse. Think of trees as a ‘strainer” that the water flows through, but the branches don’t let you float through. Avoid trees by paddling around them. If one is across the entire creek, get out and walk your kayak around it. 

Rocks in the water: Most of the river bed will be full of rocks - be careful in fast current. Try to keep your boat pointed downstream in shallow fast water and go around the rocks that are sticking out.

Cold Water - If you are paddling in cold moving water, you need to wear warm clothes that you can swim in. Nothing beats a dry suit, but you can also wear fleece and a rain suit if it isn’t winter cold.  

Whitewater Kayaking

The Great Smoky Mountains and Cumberland Plateau have amazing whitewater rivers to enjoy. People come from around the U.S. to Tennessee each spring to enjoy the free flowing rivers and creeks that run when it rains. In the drier months, dam-controlled rivers are the dependable way to find great whitewater like the Ocoee River or Hiwassee River.   

Whitewater kayaking requires some skills, the right equipment, river knowledge, and at least one other experienced person to paddle with. Follow these rules and you’ll never run out of new whitewater to explore in the state. Tennessee whitewater is class 1 and 5 which means you’ll always have something to look forward to that will challenge you.  

Eric Jackson, olympic kayaker in Tennessee
Eric Jackson, olympic kayaker, on Tennessee waters.

Safety Tips:

Get instruction: Join a local club, learn to roll in a swimming pool or lake, take classes from a professional. 

Watch safety and technique videos online and become knowledgeable

Have the right equipment. Get assistance for purchasing new or used equipment from an expert. Kayaks come in all shapes and sizes and you need one fit just for you. Tennessee-based company, Jackson Kayak sells more than 30 different whitewater kayaks from kid’s kayaks to adults and for different purposes.

See you on the water!

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