Dog Days: Up the Tennessee River with a Puppy in Tow

Maggie mantle
Maggie pensively peers into the mist during a moment of calm on the Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Kim Trevathan

60-year-old Kim Trevathan of Maryville, Tennessee, paddled the length of the Tennessee River in 1998. His pooch, Jasper, a Shepherd and Labrador mix, was in the bow.

“He was one of those uncanny dogs: calm, charismatic, beautiful, smart, and obedient to a fault. He was also fully grown, six years old on the trip.”

Trevathan and his dog Jasper enjoy a downriver drift during their 1998 Tennessee River journey.

Coasting that current with a calm, obedient dog left great memories and nearly two decades later, Trevathan completed an encore. He paddled 652 miles back up the Tennessee River, this time with an impulsive, 65-pound, ten-month old puppy named Maggie in the bow. The pair started on March 21 at Mile Zero in Paducah, Kentucky.

“It was a cold, windy day,” remembers Trevathan. Almost two months later, on May 17 the pair finished the trip at Knoxville, a bit beyond Mile 652. “In between, we endured cold weather, long rains, headwinds, tailwinds, strong currents generated by dams, big boat wakes, bad campsites, long stretches of river with no place to land, and so on,” he says.

Trevathan was also tested by the pup, who was not “obedient to a fault” like his earlier paddling partner on the Tennessee.

Putting in at Broadway Wharf in Paducah, Maggie’s excitement forebode an eventful ride to come. Photo: Mel Purcell

“I had determined that I wasn’t going to get a puppy, I wasn’t going to get a big dog, and I didn’t plan on getting a female. I ended up with all three in Maggie. Like any puppy, she had an excess of energy and a destructive streak.”

In addition to being an associate professor of Writing/Communication at Maryville College, Trevathan is the author of several books about rivers and paddling, so he knows about foreshadowing.

“She ate a model wooden canoe that my sister had given me, a bad omen, I thought. But we went anyway, even though plenty of people–friends, family, girlfriend–did not think it a good idea for a 60-year old to paddle up the Tennessee with a rambunctious puppy.”

Maggie’s seat on their vessel, an Old Town Discovery 158, was an inflated Therm-a-Rest pad bedded in the bow.

“She also has a very nice life jacket, which she loves to put on,” Trevathan says.

He acclimated Maggie to a canoe when she was just four months old, paddling on a couple lakes. “She hopped right in the boat when I threw a treat in there. Now, she hops right into her place without hesitation, and with some grace, I might add. She got really good at hopping out of the boat for a pit stop at places where I couldn’t get out and even hurdling back in from some distance.”

Passing through Hardin County on the Tennessee, Kim and Maggie sat in the lock chamber at Pickwick Landing Dam, waiting for it to fill when suddenly Maggie’s grace was eclipsed by excitement.

“Everything was going really smoothly as they filled up the Pickwick lock and lifted us. Then the operator leaned over the wall above to tell me which direction he wanted me to go on the lake. Maggie put her paws onto the lock wall, pushed the boat out with her back legs, and fell in the chamber. She briefly put her paws on the gunnel but almost turned us over.”

Maggie strikes a pose moments before the plunge. Photo: Kim Trevathan

Unable to return to the canoe, Maggie headed for open water.

“She started swimming through the big gates to the lake beyond. I called her and called her. The lock operator had to stop the gates from opening because I think he was afraid she’d get caught in the big hinges.”

She eventually returned.

“I hauled her in by the handles on her life jacket. She was dead weight, exhausted. And after that she would not fully immerse herself in the water, which worked well for my purposes as she did great in the other seven locks.”

Land, however, was another challenge.

“She ran off a few times, most prominently on Wheeler Lake for about an hour, long enough for the people who found her to call the number on her collar.”

Maggie would also bolt for people.

“We got out on the bank for a break and this guy comes by in a motorboat to check on us. He puts the bow of his fishing boat into the mud bank and Maggie takes off for him, jumps up into the boat, and embraces the guy, who is sitting at his outboard motor. He’s wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap and she’s up in his face, almost knocking the cap off. Thankfully he was a dog lover, delighted by the embrace. I worried the whole trip whether she was going to get me killed jumping up on people like that.”

Maggie making friends. Photo: Kim Trevathan

Even the cows captured her fancy.

“We camped on the bank near a herd of cattle. At this point in the trip, I’d stopped letting Maggie run free, and had her on a 20-foot lead. The cows came down from the pasture to meet Maggie. She danced around them and touched noses until she was exhausted. I bet fifty cows came down, a few at a time, and went back up the bank to the pasture after greeting her.”

Trevathan leaned back and enjoyed the show.

“I just sat in a camp chair and laughed. She loves all animals, which was a bit of a problem when she tried to make friends with a raccoon who was pretty clearly afflicted with distemper.”

There’s nothing like making new friends, especially for a puppy. Photo: Kim Trevathan

Whatever the woes, Trevathan prefers paddling with a pooch.

“I don’t mind having humans along, though I prefer them to have their own boats. Having a dog along for a long, sort of crazy trip like mine, up the Tennessee, is great because, as far as I know, she doesn’t judge me or question decisions. It’s easier and simpler having a canine along than a human who has different ideas about how to go about things.”

A hard-earned afternoon snooze toward the end of the journey. Photo: Kim Trevathan

“She really taught me how to loosen up and have fun,” he says. “At camp, she would run up and down the shoreline wallowing in the sand and picking up driftwood–some really large pieces–to throw in the air. No matter how cold or hot it would get, she was always ready to go and loved being on the water.”

Maggie was a quick learner.

“The most important thing for me was to train Maggie so that she would be still in the canoe and not turn us over. She also knows what ‘get in the boat’ means, as well as ‘get in the middle.’ She caught onto that really fast, for some reason. When I said, ‘move to the middle,’ she knew exactly what I meant. Treats help.”

However, treats didn’t solve all problems.

“She confounded me by running off and doing normal dog things, like wallowing in rotten things and throwing sand into the tent while she dug holes.”

More pluck than most, Maggie wrangles an oversized piece of driftwood into camp. Photo: Kim Trevathan

“She’s a tough dog. Not once did I doubt that she would make it. She had her own version of complaining, but she withstood all the adversity with grace and stoicism. Her enthusiasm and her energy were also a great model for me; I’d get tired and cranky sometimes when things seemed beyond reasonable.”

Finding places was rest was often problematic.

“We often were challenged with finding a place to camp on the river and we camped in some pretty unsavory places when there wasn’t a state park or a private campground or a suitable island to stay. We also camped illegally a few times in city parks.”

They also paddled some nights.

“We paddled all night when the wind was relentless. Maggie did fine in the dark, under a full moon.”

Mark Twain, another river man, wrote, “The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven not man’s.”

Trevathan has learned that a dog can also be a lady and like Twain, Trevathan prefers the companionship of pooches.

Look for Trevathan’s eventual book about his trip, tentatively titled, Beyond Looney Island: Paddling the Wrong Way up the Tennessee River.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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