Catching a Wild Elephant: Tennessee’s Piney River

By George Lindemann, Jr.

There are several “Piney” River/Creeks on the Cumberland Plateau. The Piney River near Spring City, Tenn., is on the Walden’s Ridge portion of the Plateau. Its headwaters join with Moccasin Creek, Bumbee and Duskin creeks, before finding the confluence with Soak Creek and flowing through Spring City into the Tennessee River. In 1970 the Bowater Southern Paper Corporation donated the land to the State of Tennessee. The Piney gorge is designated a Class II Natural-Scientific State Natural Area. Two of the Piney’s tributaries, Moccasin and Bumbee creeks contain federally endangered Laurel Dace minnows. I have never seen one but look hard every time I drive by these watersheds. Piney is my paddling wild elephant, hard to find and harder to “ride” when you find it.

I began dreaming of paddling the Piney River after having already paddled other nearby-more-accessible creeks like Whites Creek and Piney River tributary, Soak Creek. My paddle buddies and I had often studied maps of the long, deep, and remote gorge that the Piney flows through.

Eli stops in a midstream eddy to enjoy the longest bluff on Piney River

Whitewater of the Southern Appalachians gives Piney a rare five-star rating. The dramatically tall gorge walls, coupled with miles of Class IV rapids told me that Piney was at the top of my to-do list. Piney flows through the plateau’s Southeastern deciduous forest. This means that there is more water in the river in the winter and spring. Once the trees bloom, they tap the groundwater, reducing whitewater flows. A creek paddler, like a surfer, plays a never-ending game of watching weather patterns and temperatures. As I studied my computer screen, I also hoped that the rare perfect storm that would place enough rain (not too much and definitely not too little) in the Piney gorge would also fall on a day when I could get out of the office.

So, my rafty friends and I only had a few months to see it before it was gone again with the changing seasons. Other than a few explorers and one guidebook, most people I paddled with had never caught Piney in its full glorious flow. This is partly because it lacks an online river gauge; the only way to truly know if the river was running was to drive by and actually study the water levels in person.

Typical paddling trips on the Piney River start out on Moccasin Creek, one of the primary headwater tributaries. This Creek flows through fairly flat plateau topography, covered with big beautiful trees. It is generally pretty open space, as the river hasn’t yet started to begin the descent through the Cumberland Plateau rock layers. After about a mile, Moccasin Creek joins with Piney River. This is where the real whitewater rollercoaster ride begins.

The fun starts with a big drop known as Guardian Falls and continues its action-packed whitewater ride for the next few miles. We smashed our little raft into big breaking waves and maneuvered it through tight slots in the rocks. There, the creek gives way to flowing, but calmer water allowing us the chance to appreciate the bluffs, the giant hemlock trees and the ancient hardwood forest.

Crisler Torrence and Josh Gape at the camera while George admires a cascading tributary.

Between the rapids and the rocks, we were able to navigate a narrow path; the fast bedrock slides kept the raft speeding along as we descended deeper into the gorge. The walls of rock began to tower over the river and half way down we were treated to a true gem of Cumberland Plateau geology – a rock house. The hard, horizontal rock layers exposed by the etching of the river formed an imposing cliff cantilevered over the raging waters. We pulled over and took a break to enjoy this amazing natural wonder. Little trickles of water continued to rain on us from the rock ceiling above, accentuating our immersion in the ecosystem. After a few more rapids, we began to nuzzle up to a sheer, flat wall rising 100 feet to the sky and seemingly running forever. As we passed under the Cumberland Trail swinging bridge, the gorge walls began to recede. We hadn’t seen “civilization” since we put on the river a few hours back; physically and mentally exhausted, we all knew that we had been privileged to experience one of the most well-preserved and scenically spectacular rivers in the Southeastern U.S. After several years of trying, I finally caught my wild elephant: Piney River.

For more information: see American Whitewater’s listing as well as info on the USGS site.

George Lindemann, Jr. is a businessman, philanthropist and conservationist who loves the outdoors and believes nature should be protected but accessible to and enjoyed by everyone. George donated 1,000 acres of his Coal Creek Ranch, including part of Soak Creek, a tributary of Piney River, to Tennessee. That donation completes a section of the Cumberland Trail State Park. He continues to advocate for the expansion of the Wild and Scenic River program. He’s the Conservationist of the Year 2017 in Tennessee and recipient of the Communitas Award for Social Responsibility.


The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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