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TN History for Kids

Chattanooga by canoe


There are different ways to see a place. You can fly over it; drive through it; walk through it; or ride your bike through it. On this unusual virtual tour we will see Chattanooga by paddling through it. We'll start on a small tributary and take our canoe down to where it merges with the Tennessee River, then to downtown Chattanooga -- a distance of about seven miles. Along the way we might learn something about history. If all goes well, we won't tip over (after all, we have a camera on board).

So why Chattanooga by canoe? Because of the four large cities in Tennessee, Chattanooga has done the most to encourage use of its river and to make the river its centerpiece. Chattanooga has miles of footpaths and bikepaths along the river, an island park near the middle of town, a spectacular walking bridge that crosses the Tennessee River downtown and an aquarium that focuses on the animals that live in or on Tennessee's rivers. In fact, Chattanooga refers to its series of river parks as a blueway. And the city of Chattanooga's parks department has a division (called Outdoor Chattanooga) that organizes outdoor outings such as this canoe trip.

Our journey begins on Chickamauga Creek, a lazy tributary of the Tennessee River. The nice folks at Outdoor Chattanooga put us in in a Chattanooga suburb called Hixson (and they make sure we have lifejackets on). It's a hot day, but Chickamauga Creek is shady and cool. In fact, the water in North Chickamauga Creek is cooler than most creeks because, slightly upstream from here, a large underwater spring pours into it. That spring used to serve as the main water source for the town of Hixson.

The creek doesn't have much of a current, and we have to paddle to move along the glassy water. Along the way we pass a couple of houses that have decks facing the river, but that's the only sign of human habitation we see. During this first leg of the journey we can't get over how quiet it is. Things are so peaceful that we are startled by the sound of a fish jumping nearby.

We round a bend and the scene changes. We hear the sound of a major highway. The creek widens, and ahead we see two bridges crossing the river, an industrial site to the left and power lines to the right. It's pretty exciting actually. I'm sure that the people driving by above, who are on their way to work, wish they were on a nice canoe ride like us.




As we leave the peaceful Chickamauga Creek behind our senses are really overloaded. To our left is Chickamauga Dam, one of the Tennessee Valley Authority's more important dams. The dam is undergoing construction, and it's in full tilt as we paddle our boat out into the big river. We see many cranes lifting stuff here and there. By the way, the big round brown thing you see here is called a mooring cell. Barges and towboats attach themselves to mooring cells while they wait to go through the dam.


We make our way around to get a better shot of the dam itself, which is a pretty amazing site from this angle. This is a huge dam, and has to be. Before a dam was built here, downtown Chattanooga flooded with some regularity.
History: The Tennessee River used to be wild in this part of Tennessee, with dangerous currents and eddys that made it a nightmare for boaters. The Tennessee Valley Authority changed all that, and made certain that the river was navigable all the way through Tennessee.

During the course of the day, we will go under seven bridges. Some of them are kind of non-descript highway bridges that don't make you reach for your camera. This railroad bridge, however, did make me want to take a picture; the maze of steel involved made me contemplate how hard the engineeer worked to design it in the first place.








Now out onto open river, we notice buoys for the first time. Buoys are objects that boats use to navigate with. Along rivers, red and green buoys mark the locations of a river's current (which is where the river is deepest and flows the fastest). A canoe obviously doesn't have to stay in the current, but a big boat does.

As we head down river, we'll have red buoys on our left and green buoys on our right. There is a way to remember this. When you talk about ocean travel, shipboard captains look for buoys to help them find the safest way to enter port. Coming from the ocean into a bay, or into a river, they know that the rule of thumb with buoys is "RED, RIGHT, RETURN." We, on the other hand, are now heading DOWNSTREAM, just the opposite direction that a shipboard captain would be using when he brings his boat into port.

However, we decided to avoid the channel as much as possible and stay near the left bank of the river, where we saw all sorts of interesting things. First we ran into a series of public fishing docks that are part of the Tennessee Riverpark, which is part of Chattanooga's blueway system.




We saw these men fishing, who waved at us.






At the top of all these rocks, you can see a walking and biking path along the river with people on it. This bike path goes all the way to downtown Chattanooga! To learn more about it, click here.





These geese were not happy with us as we came past their secluded beach.

History: It was right about here, where the Tennessee River passes the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek, that Mrs. Ephraim Payton gave birth to a child back in March 1780. However, that baby did not have a long life. You can find out all about the Donelson Party's journey in the booklet The legend of Big Foot Spencer and other stories.



Here are some long-abandoned mooring cells that were obviously once part of a very active industrial site owned by Quaker Oats. It's been so long since they were used that you can see weeds growing on them.





This is interesting -- a little waterfall that pours right into the Tennessee River. We discovered later that this is actually industrial discharge, which means it is water that comes out of a factory building directly into the river. So this water is probably inspected by someone from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to make sure there isn't much pollution in it.




The opposite side of the river (to our right as we head downstream) appears to be a bit more, well, gentrified. Here are some houses along the bank. Not too shabby. This area is known as Heritage Landing, and these homes were built in the 1980s.


Before we know it, we start to see the Chattanooga skyline. Here is the Erlanger Medical Center.






But the river still had another treat in store for us. It is called McClellan Island -- a nature preserve very close to downtown Chattanooga. We stopped our canoe here and had lunch. Though tempted, we decided not to explore the trails because the poison ivy seemed to be everywhere, and we weren't wearing socks and tennis shoes.

History: Before the river was dammed up, you could walk to this island during the summer and early fall (when the river was low), and it flooded when the river was high. In those days, homeless people lived out on the island. Eventually, some of the people who lived in homes nearby Chattanooga got tired of looking at them, and they pooled their money, bought the island, and made the homeless people leave. Those people subsequently sold it to a man named McClellan, who in 1954 sold it to the Chattanooga Audobon Society. Today the island is a nature preserve; with permission, you can camp here. Click here to learn more about it.


Now we're really in the heart of Chattanooga. Here's a paddleboat known as the Southern Belle. A century ago there would have been vessels that looked like this one up and down the river that were used for transporting goods and people. But today boats like this are used for sightseers.





Check out this building in downtown Chattanooga, which turns out to be the Hunter Museum of American Art. I wonder if the people who visit it realize that they are on top of a cliff?





Here is the walking bridge through downtown Chattanooga. Impressive! This is known as the Walnut Street Bridge. It was originally built in 1880 and was changed to a walking bridge in 1993.




And now for one of the most beautiful sites in Tennessee. Here it is, the Tennessee Aquarium, with fountains in the foreground. And in case you are wondering, we didn't paddle into the fountain (not with a CAMERA!).

By the way, if you want to learn more about the wildlife that lives along the river, some of which we've seen today and most of which remained unseen under us today, the aquarium is the place. Click here to be taken to its web site.







Thus ends our journey into Chattanooga by canoe. We were tempted to go further, downstream and around Mocassin Bend, into to the area that used to be known as "the suck," and then into the so-called Grand Canyon of Tennessee, but it's been a long day. One thing's for sure: this was a great way to see a city. You learn a lot when you get out of the car and see a place from a completely different angle.

Tennessee History for Kids would like to thank Phillip Grymes and Tiffany Ellison of Outdoor Chattanooga for their assistance in making this virtual tour possible. To learn more about seeing Chattanooga by Canoe, call Outdoor Chattanooga (a division of the Chattanooga Parks Department) at 423-643-6888 or go to their web site here.


Chattanooga by canoe

Chattanooga is located Hamilton County.