Seven Islands Is Tennessee’s Newest State Park!
The Kelly family used to call this place Seclusion Bend.
The French Broad River runs peacefully around fertile farmland far from the noise of the city. This 360-acre tract near Kodak bears white frame houses with wide front porches and weathered barns that at one time held dairy cows, horses, mules and tobacco.
The property in East Knox County was purchased in 2001 by the Seven Islands Foundation and named the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. High value is placed on this patch of land by nature enthusiasts because more than 160 bird species can be spotted in the meadows, woods and riverbanks. Fishermen have access to a stretch of the river known to have 50 species of fish.
Big news came in late September.
Gov. Bill Haslam announced the refuge will become Tennessee’s 56th state park. It will be called Seven Islands State Birding Park, and it will be Tennessee’s first state birding park.
The Seven Islands Foundation, the Legacy Parks Foundation, and Knox County Parks and Recreation conveyed the property to the state. The state will begin managing the site in July.
Though I had visited the refuge several times before, the announcement by Gov. Haslam spurred me to visit again. The winding back road from Interstate 40 to the refuge allows for adjustment to a slower time, when country life revolved around milking time and hay cutting.
This Saturday morning has brought out other folks too. Twenty or more walkers—many carrying cameras with lenses as long as eagles’ wings and others leisurely exercising their dogs—scamper up the hills on grass trails or follow the mile-long paved route. One 60ish man tells me about coming here to fish when he was a boy.
Birds dart in and out of the trees so quickly that you need sharp eyes to tell them apart. Their chirps are heard everywhere, but I don’t hear songbirds. Perhaps they have migrated south already, or they are keeping quiet until I move down the path.
A river access point near the refuge entrance holds 10 pickup trucks with boat trailers, plus one truck that probably held kayaks. I look for the kayakers, thinking they may be weaving between the seven islands sprinkled along the water passage. Sunlight bathes the limestone palisades. The refuge fronts about four miles of the French Broad.
Wildflowers edge the pastures once set aside for dairy cows. Their blue, white and yellow blooms draw butterflies which bring even more color to the landscape. I made a promise to come back when blazing fall colors will turn the forests into an artist’s paint box.
Though some of the barns and milking parlors from the Kellys’ day have been taken down, other structures remain, including an empty farm house that is open for a walk-through. The barns wear painted quilt panels as decoration. Handcrafted signs point the way along the mowed grass trails and up the hill to the family homestead. Various types of bird houses are placed throughout the property, including gourds meant to entice purple martins and bluebird boxes hitched to fence posts. Informative signage depicts owls known to live on the property. The refuge is used by the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Ornithological Society for habitat research.
It will be interesting to see how this refuge evolves as a state park. It’s beautiful the way it is, especially with the Smoky Mountains seen in the distance. With Seven Islands getting more name recognition, this river bend will be found by more people. Hopefully it will still be peaceful and secluded.