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Boat Bums and River Rats on the Cumberland

If love makes the world go round, it can also cause boat trips. A September family wedding in the Nashville area made the perfect excuse for travel up the Cumberland River. As dedicated boat bums will do, we allowed two to three months for this trip.

In mid-August, we left our home marina, Aqua Yacht Harbor, and spent several days loafing down the Tennessee River. When we cut through Barkley Canal into the Cumberland River and then to Green Turtle Bay Marina, we declared our trip’s official beginning. In fact, the world, to many boaters, begins at this sprawling junction marina that hosts boats coming down the Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland as well as the Tennessee.

Green Turtle Bay also reaffirms that boating is a small world. Our first dock neighbors to arrive were West Virginia boaters we saw here two years ago. Every few days, the neighborhood changed. As the sun set, us transients would carry drinks onto the dock and tell boat stories. Lots of these crews are retired, and the older the better, we say. But just how old are we when Columbus’ ships, the Nina and Pinta, sail into the marina? OK, they were replicas, but did my son-in-law really have to ask us, "Recognize anybody on board?"

We departed Green Turtle Bay. Just another gorgeous day on sparkling, wide Barkley Lake. We took it for granted until we read the words of a farm girl written in the 1960s as Barkley Dam was under construction. She watched Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) surveyors painting the future high water mark on her home and recorded her thoughts: "Two more years and everything we had in this world would be a hundred feet under water."

Next, we pulled into the set for a Hollywood movie, disguised as a sprawling 200-boat marina. Behind Kuttawa Harbor (see August 2012), a row of vintage houses forms a scenic backdrop. Scatter palm trees and beach décor around the marina and you have the movie "Caribbean on the Cumberland," with a cast of friendly natives. A neighbor boater brought us tomatoes from his garden. Another shared his newspaper. We planned to spend one night. Stayed three.

Then, only one night at Prizer Point Marina for fear of foundering on homemade coconut pie. You can’t eat just one slice.

After Barkley Lake, the river narrows, flowing quietly through flatlands and then hills, but our 34-foot Mainship was noisy and crowded with pioneers who insisted on boarding to tell of their travels in the 1700s up and down this major water path into middle Tennessee. Unlike the Tennessee or Ohio rivers, the Cumberland held no serious obstacles to navigation for almost 200 miles, they told us, and land travel, particularly the Natchez Trace, was fraught with peril. As they related the challenges of poling a keelboat up river, they scoffed at us wimps with our twin Yanmars.

We were thrust into the present by towering stacks of the Cumberland City Steam Plant belching white plumes. Soon after, we slowed as the river’s only ferry dutifully crossed back and forth.

In a few miles, we passed the Clarksville, Tenn., riverfront, an ant hill of people setting up tents for the annual River Fest. This is a town that has learned to appreciate its river with a new marina (see Sept./Oct. 2013) and acres of riverside park. Boaters are learning to value Clarksville Marina as a convenient halfway stop between Barkley Dam and Nashville. As we tied up, we noticed the adjacent boater vigorously scrubbing his bow deck. An Asian carp had leaped more than five feet, landed on his deck and spewed fish blood, evidence that this invasive species is now on the Cumberland. Further up river, a contest had netted 50 tons of carp making, "Not even a dent," remarked one fisherman.

Traveling on, we saw debris from the monster 2010 flood. We often heard, "Water came up to here!" At Rock Harbor Marine, (see March/April 2014) we found much of it new as a result of those waters, which rose 52 feet inside this old rock quarry. It is just seven land miles from downtown Nashville, attracting landlubbers and boaters for food and music.

Music City Milieu

Cumberland River at Nashville

Fifteen river miles took us to downtown Nashville docks. With fall festivals and the Tennessee Titans stadium just across the river, reservations were essential. Sure, there is plenty to do in this city, but our favorite recreation was sittin’ on the dock of the bay, gazing across at the colossal (and controversial) Ghost Ballet sculpture and soaking up sights and sounds of a transportation hub: three towboats pushing coal and gravel barges up river and back, 24/7; clickety-clacks from the downriver railroad bridge; a commuter train’s whistle as it pulls into the station up hill; glittering General Jackson, Opryland’s paddlewheel showboat, churning by each evening.

On up river, we locked Annuity through Old Hickory and emerged into a choppy lake, but the most important change was, as the "Music Man" said, "You gotta know the territory." We focused on nuns and cans guiding us along the winding, deep channel that runs through this wide shallow lake. Easy to believe the local who told us that somebody runs aground once a week.

Cedar Creek Yacht Club was our goal, close to the wedding location. We received a warm welcome, even an invitation to Saturday morning’s breakfast, when the board of directors cooks for the members. A rental car took us to wedding events, even though it felt weird to don something besides our shorts and t-shirt uniforms.

Some marinas are friendly villages like Gallatin Marina, a few miles away. Nearing it, we saw docks naked of roofs, steel supports twisted, metal sheets hanging in trees and nearby, a whole new dock under construction. This damage was caused by a January tornado, the third one in recent years, but the villagers were coping in good spirits, apologetic that we could not see them in their best dress. During supper at the marina’s restaurant, Awedaddy’s, diners and owners went out of their way to greet us.

By this time, my captain had an awful cold, so we lingered for recuperation. The second night, I walked to the restaurant for take-out and the owner assured me, "Now, all of us have cars, so if you need medicine or anything just let us know." I wanted to put down roots and never leave these caring folks.

The fact that there are fewer transients on the Cumberland, especially beyond Nashville, that it was post-Labor Day and that this river is relatively unfamiliar — "The Cumberland? Now isn’t that something to do with Nashville?" — makes a trip here more personal.

As it narrows, we are alone for long stretches. The farther up, the truer this is. Lock through Cordell Hull and find another country aptly nicknamed, Little Switzerland. Steep emerald hills, chalets perched atop. Well worth calling ahead for a lockage. Remote Defeated Creek Marina welcomed us, and we enjoyed a solitary anchorage.

On a Saturday, we were back on Old Hickory at Blackjack Cove, two marinas now combined with docks spread out like disjointed fingers. We were on the remote transient dock, but periodic eruptions of cheers told us that boater-football fans were nearby.

Downriver, the Old Hickory lockmaster welcomed us, "Come on in, don’t be bashful." I threw a line over the bollard, telling him we were glad to be here. He replied in his best Minnie Pearl voice, "Mighty proud to be here m’self." A good intro for one more Nashville docks visit.

Downtown is a short stroll. Broadway — a boots and guitar strewn Bourbon Street —good restaurants, museums. Just uphill from the docks is access to several bus systems that whisked us to Vanderbilt, the Parthenon and beyond.

As we headed down river, Coast Guard Securite calls alerted boaters that just above the Nashville docks a towboat hauling a tall crane had hit the cross river power lines. We listened as this drama unfolded, closing the river for three and a half hours.

Returning to Clarksville, we rented a car and drove to an Atlanta meeting. After surviving the traffic on Interstate-24, I knew how the pioneers felt about the perilous Natchez Trace. We were relieved to return to our river life. That evening, a local boater gathered us to watch a manned satellite as it trailed across the sky. We marveled at the sight and reveled in the bond of the boating community.

Our longest run was 68 miles to Lake Barkley Marina. When we tied on Dock 3 and saw barstools pulled up to a Gibson houseboat bow, a loaded buffet table and dockers dusting piles of fish to fry, we knew we had landed in the middle of a party. They folded us right into the festivities.

Next morning. Should we leave? Had we used up all the fun there was? Answer: plenty left, only 20 miles downriver at Buzzard Rock Marina. Maybe it was the bright pastel colors, or the quirky buzzard logo, but for sure it was Mark, who waits on tables at the café and entertains as he whizzes from kitchen to tables.

Leaves were turning when we steered back into Barkley Canal. The captain ceremoniously closed the Cumberland chartbook, and we bid fond farewell to a great river for pioneers and boat bums.

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