Riding The Crest

by David Wilson


This story was first published in an issue of Messing about in Boats magazine.


I don't even remember what year it was. 1983 I believe, all I'm sure about is that it was the time of the truly biggest flood in years on the Cumberland, late April or early May.

My sister and mother both live in Hendersonville, TN near Old Hickory Lake. Shirley, my sister, agreed to drive my truck & trailer back to her house after the launch. I used the Old Lock 3 Access Area launching ramp, which is not a very good one due to its exposure to wind and 2 miles of open water above Old Hickory Dam (CRM 216.2)*. The boat was a 1979 MonArk model 1860. I removed the middle seat and built a cabin that was a 2 x 2 and plywood walk-thru affair that looked like two tables in the center of the boat. It had drop-down side & door tarps, an aluminum cover for the roof walk-thru, and two 30" wide full-length cabin bunks. Flooring of 1/2" plywood was added between the bunks and in the cockpit area from the rear of the cabin to the front of the aft aluminum bench seat.

Main motor was a rebuilt 72 Johnson 25 HP with manual start & tiller steering. A nearly new Evinrude 8 HP was carried for backup, which I still own. It Also had a Hummingbird depth recorder, spotlight, anchors, paddle, life jacket, and throwable seat cushion. For this trip I loaded it up with 5 gallons of water, a Coleman camp stove & its fuel, cooking utensils, food for 5 days, 3 changes of clothes, rain gear, sleeping bag, a first aid box that included a snake bite kit, a potty seat mounted on a foldable stand that used plastic bag inserts, soaps, rag, towel, flashlite and fishing rods. U.S. Army Engineer Nashville District supplied me with Cumberland River Navigation Charts. An alarm clock, portable AM-FM radio, pencil & paper were also taken along for companionship.

Old Hickory Lock's hours of operation were from 6 am to 6 pm, so I was able to be locked through about 7 o'clock that morning. The lock personnel commented that the table tops were probably for pulling commercial fishing nets, so I let them think that. They were close to being correct. The boat was still registered as a commercial fishing craft. I had originally bought and used it for pulling mussel brails...another story. When the downstream lock doors opened to let me out, I got my first of many surprises that day.

The MonArk 1860 has a 60" bottom and its sides rise in about a 2:1 ratio giving a 7 foot beam at the gunnels making it a real safe big-river boat. Below the dam, with all floodgates open, the wave action was tremendous and I had to gun it to ride with it and keep steerageway. I guess 3 feet would be a good estimate of the wave heights for about 200 yards below the dam. The rains had stopped about 2 days before and the weather was clear and beautiful. I had given little thought to the river level still being that high as the waters from upstream were just now adding to the flood crest.

Down the flooded Cumberland we commenced, and at a fairly good clip at that. The driftwood was everywhere, and there was no chance of getting the boat up to planing speed. I switched to the 8 HP motor to save fuel. Somewhere between the mouth of the Stones River (CRM 205.8) and present day Opryland (CRM 197.3), on the right descending bank, a woman was out in her back yard clad only in pajamas picking up something. My "Hey there" startled her, as she certainly didn't expect anyone to be traveling the flooded river. After gathering her wits and pajamas about her, she waved back.

Dodging driftwood, safe top speed was about 4 mph greater than the river current, which by my calculations was running over 8 mph. There wasn't any river traffic at all in Nashville (CRM 191). The General Jackson Showboat hadn't been built, nor had the water taxis moved to Music City yet. Commuters were moving right along on the Cumberland River bridges as I passed beneath them.

Bridge piers are a real danger for small boats at river flood stages. The main L&N Railroad bridge pier (CRM 190.4) is centered in the river and built of massive blocks of rock in the old style. It is enormous, because it must bear the weight of 1/3 of the bridge when the channel swing span is opened to allow passage of towboats, showboats, and tall cruisers, especially in times of flood. There wasn't a whole lot of clearance between the bridge and the water this day. Thinking the huge eddy below the pier was "really cool" I steered in its direction, until I began to feel it actually pulling the boat towards it. Hitting the throttle, I quickly got away from its grasp, and knew I had been lucky to learn that lesson the "easy way".

From Nashville to Rock Harbor Marina (CRM 175.4) I began to notice an increase in the quantity and variety of "tree trash", i.e., driftwood, paper, styrofoam, boards, etc., that were lodged in the top limbs of the normal bank line trees. With the river at flood stage, it would be a good time to clean it up, because a crane would be needed at normal pool stage. I began to design a super "litter-picker" boat in my mind.

At Rock Harbor, I was in for another surprise. Refueling was the major reason for stopping there, but that was out of the question. The docks were in a real mess, and boats in their slips were in danger of being sunk as docks changed position and dipped into the water with mooring lines that were too short or already broken. The only guy there said there would be no charge for tying up for the night, but they couldn't be responsible for whatever may happen. I slept with one eye open that night and listened closely to the banging and squeaking from the half-sunken docks.

At first light I left the carnage and went about a half mile downstream, then far enough into the tree line to avoid the main current, before having oats & coffee for breakfast. It was a beautiful time of year, trees were budding, birds were heading North again on this crisp, clear morning. Hopefully, I could top off my gas tanks at Ashland City, Tennessee.

Traveling along at just over idling speed, I was still making over 8 mph with the current. The trash in the trees had still not diminished much. The Ashland City dock just above the State Hwy 49 bridge (CRM 158) looked deserted. I eased up to it and looked around for any signs of life, to no avail. Pulling away from the dock, the current pushed me into shallow water and the motor skeg raked a hard bottom for a few seconds. Back in the middle of the river I checked the aluminum prop for damage, and it was fine, but some paint was chipped on the skeg. I really hated that it happened with the motor being so new.

The mouth of the Harpeth River (CRM 152.9) flew by and I began to look out for Cheatham Lock & Dam (CRM 148.7). As I saw it, I eased toward the lock on the right descending bank. The river width above and below Cheatham Dam is about the same, so there was no diminishing of the current due to a wider pool above the dam. I could see that the river was flowing over the dam, and stayed as far to starboard as possible aiming for the ladder at the beginning of the lock wall. Behind the ladder was the cord to pull for requesting lockage. Having no marine radio, I knew I had to stop and pull the cord at the ladder. Another lesson was about to be learned!

If I missed the ladder, the chances of turning the boat around and coming back upstream were 50-50 using the 8 HP motor, which I failed to realize at the time. Any miscalculation could bring a swift and sad end to both the MonArk and myself. Taking the motor out of gear and drifting quickly towards the ladder, I had to get to the front of the boat, and fast. One chance to grab it was all I had! I could feel the strain on my ankles as they pulled the boat to a stop below the ladder. Using all my strength, I jockeyed the boat in a position to tie it off to the ladder and then pulled the lockage request cord. A very close call this time!!

Soon the massive doors opened and I idled into the lock chamber and tied off to one of the floating pylons. They are designed to rise & fall as the water level in the lock chamber changes. I didn't hear the "toot" they gave when the lower lock doors were opened. My mind was mulling over the close call at the ladder and I was ashamed of myself for letting it happen. The lock lady said, "They're open" and pointed at the lower doors when she came over to my boat. I said, "I'm sorry, but the water level hardly changed". I had been watching the pylons and waiting for them to go down, which of course at flood conditions and water going over the dam, they didn't go very far, maybe a foot at best!

Below Cheatham, it was another bumpy ride, with wild eddy currents sending the boat first one direction then another. I think I said "Yahoo, ride 'em cowboy" as we bounced along. Enjoying the scenery, dodging driftwood, and the beginning of a real worry about finding fuel occupied me as we voyaged on towards Clarksville, Tennessee. If no gas could be found at Clarksville (CRM 126), could any be found anywhere?

As I pulled into an opening behind the private boat club dock (CRM 132.3) just above Clarksville, I thought I saw someone. He was amazed to see me traveling on the river, but they too couldn't refuel me. He said my best bet would be at the Cumberland City Ferry landing. I knew I could make it that far, so off I went again.

The river was getting wider now, and the location of the true channel was getting harder to determine. At one point, I thought I heard engines behind me, but it was a really large cabin cruiser that was beside of me. It had slowed down to pass me, or to check me out, but was about a quarter mile from me on the other side of the river. As he resumed full throttle, his wake looked to be 4 feet tall even at this distance. I just shook my head, having seen driftwood consisting of whole trees.

Upon Reaching the Cumberland City ferry (CRM 104.2), it was fairly obvious why the ferry was out of service. Neither ramp was exposed, and the water level on the city side of the river was not that far from the main highway through town. I saw a gasoline station sign and pulled the boat up on a gently sloping grassy bank. Taking two fuel cans, I walked across the highway to the store with the sign. The proprietor said, "I saw you pull in and was afraid you was gonna need some gas, but we don't sell it anymore. We should'a taken the sign down, but since we didn't, I'll drive you over to another station and we'll get some." With that said, he closed up his store and we went and purchased the gas. He told me this was the 2nd highest level he had ever seen the river at. He also said that he doubted if anywhere downriver would have any gas, and that it would be hard to find any boat ramps that weren't underwater to haul the boat out at. A really fine gentleman doing a favor for a stranger.

Nightfall was fast approaching and I needed a safe place to spend the second night. I found a reasonable place about a mile past the Cumberland City Steam Plant (CRM 103). Nosing thru the tree tops of the original left descending bank, I saw the top of a fence line. Tying off to tree limbs, I determined to use the fence as my water level guage that night. If the river began dropping too fast, I would need to move quickly to avoid being grounded. I need not to have worried; it only dropped six inches that night. Shortly before bedding down, I saw a snake swimming along looking for something to climb up on, so I raised the motor out of the water. I was really tired from the days events and the lack of a sound sleep the first night. Many voyages later, this axiom still seems to be true for me; The first night is not a good sleep.

About 1 am, the rudest and most startling awakening I've ever experienced began. For about a full minute I couldn't figure out what the unusual, loud, and ominous sounds were. As I was about to untie the boat and get the heck out of there, it finally struck me. The sounds must be coming from the Cumberland City steam plant....maybe they were letting off steam or something. Strange new sounds in strange new surroundings can really get your adrenalin pumping!

A recent vacation gave me something to compare it to. If you've ever been to New Orleans and taken the dinner cruise on the true paddlewheel steamboat "Natchez", about 10 o'clock as the cruise is ending back at the dock, it lets off steam in a series of toots that are so loud they shake the whole boat, cause even the water to vibrate, and the echo of the sounds bouncing off the buildings of the city of New Orleans lasts four and a half minutes! We were staying at a motel 7 miles from the boat, and the next night I could easily here it that far away. The Cumberland City steam plant was about 1/3 that loud, but loud enough to scare the you know what out of most anybody the first time they hear it.

Next morning after a leisurely breakfast, I cleaned up the boat and myself, watched a commercial fisherman fighting the current working his way upstream with a boat load of buffalo fish, and headed downstream. By now, the realization that this trip would be cut short was sinking in. I needed to find a usable boat ramp on the right descending bank, so off we charged. At Dover, Tennessee (CRM 89) I pulled the boat into the paved parking lot of a U.S. Corps of Engineers Base and talked to a guy there who agreed with the store owner. He mentioned Bumpus Mills as a possible take-out site. There certainly was no question about turning around and going back upriver, the driftwood & current killed this idea early on.

Pulling in to Bumpus Mills Marina (CRM 77.3) that evening, I checked out the ramp and made the call to my sister. Her husband & she would come and get the boat & I at noon the next day. The guys at the marina couldn't believe I had come all the way downriver from Old Hickory Lake. I left Bumpus Mills with some night crawlers, hoping to get in a little fishing. Upstream a short distance and across the river I found a good anchorage in a cove out of the current and below a high bluff. The fish were biting. They were only small catfish & yellow perch, but fun to catch. As the sun was setting and I settled into the sleeping bag for the last night, I could hear what sounded like firecrackers going off in the distance. Thinking about it, I couldn't figure out why, it sure wasn't a holiday. This trips excitement was not over yet!

I don't know how long I had been passed out, but once again, new, strange, very loud noises had me sitting bolt upright out of a deep sleep. This time I thought I knew what it was for sure. Firecrackers! Local teenagers must surely be throwing them at me from the top of that bluff! The noise was very close, and very loud. Only one thing to do to stop it, so naturally I did it, making another lesson learned, this time the "hard way". After sliding back the cabin roof cover a ways, I fired a round straight up with my "snake gun". For a full five minutes, I was stone deaf! Well, at least that was the last of the firecracker sounds. About a year later, I may have learned the true source of the sounds. It had to be beavers, working their way upriver against the current and slapping their tails to gain momentum.

Next day was a little fishing in the morning, loading up the boat and heading back to Hendersonville. On the way back we stopped at a nice restaurant, and I realized that this first voyage was just what it was meant to be: "a learning trip cut short".

Postscript:
I bought and always use a marine radio for lockages now. Strange noises still get my attention, but no more panic responses are made. A few calls to the Corps of Engineers, TVA, or other river navigation authorities are always made prior to embarking. The camera is not forgotten. I named the MonArk "Blue Heron" and reconfigured it for cruising. Check the "Photos" section of this personal website.

Happy Voyaging!!

* CRM is an abbreviation for “Cumberland River Mile”.The mileages shown are distances from the mouth of the river, where the confluence with the Ohio river takes place.