The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

All forward: Tennessee RiverLine paddle trail offers world-class recreation and reconnects the valley with its river heritage

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Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and University of Tennessee, Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman launch the Tennessee RiverLine.  Thomas Fraser/HellbenderPress

RiverLine dedicates itself to recreation and retrospect on the storied Tennessee River

In many respects, the United States and Native American nations before it were carved out by paddle blades.

Rivers provided transportation, communications, sustenance and avenues for exploration. They were the genesis of cities large and small.

Americans grew apart from the rivers that watered and nurtured a modern nation, their connections cut by outward growth and industrial development along riverbanks.

Only recently have the great continental rivers again become the centerpieces of redevelopment and modern recreation. One such effort officially launched in Knoxville on May 21 aims to further connect communities in four states with their river again.

A bale of turtles watched from logs embedded in the sediment of the Tennessee River (or more precisely, Fort Loudoun Lake) at Suttree Landing Park near downtown as officials from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky celebrated the creation of the Tennessee RiverLine, which will establish continuous paddling, hiking and biking trails along the 652-mile length of the reservoir-regulated river.

The initial effort, which will include enhanced launch and takeout sites, signage and navigational aids, 60 publicly available kayaks, campground enhancement, and publicity, is largely funded by a $400,000 investment shared between the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Valley Authority. The National Park Service is also a partner in the project.

Seventeen private and public groups of the RiverLine Partnership are committed to furthering the development of the trail, including the Nature Conservancy. Other supporters include Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

“These partners have brought so much to the city of Knoxville,” said Mayor Indya Kincannon specifically of UT and TVA during her public remarks at the well-choreographed event in the well-groomed park with the downtown skyline visible under a clear, blue sky to the northwest. 

“The Tennessee RiverLine is a continuation of our vision for what makes a healthy city: (which includes) parks and recreation,” she said, also touting the economic, therapeutic and spiritual benefits of ready access to outdoor recreation.

“During this past year, we’ve had a really hard time, dealing with the pandemic, and one thing that has helped me, and so many members of this community, is being able to be outside: being on the river, being in our parks,” Kincannon said. 

“That has helped us get through some challenging times, and that’s going to help us into the future.”

Reconnecting

The city center of Knoxville, which like many early frontier cities was settled in large part because of its proximity to the then-wild river, is about four miles below the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers, where the Tennessee River begins.

It’s also Mile 0 on a paddle trail intended to restore community contact with the river via water and land in the dozens of towns and cities along its riverine route and develop economic investment along the way.

The 652-mile project has headwaters at UTK. A College of Architecture and Design student, Journey Roth, developed the initial plan as part of a studio exercise in 2016.

Brad Collett, an associate professor in the UT Department of Plant Sciences, and a teacher in the UT School of Landscape Architecture, is the director of RiverLine.

IMG 8072 3Tennessee RiverLine Director Brad Collett discusses the paddling trail and its additional amenities with news media during a kickoff event Friday at Suttree Landing Park in Knoxville.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Roth’s vision “has since been cultivated by additional students and faculty,” Collett said during an interview after the ceremony had concluded.

“It challenged the region to rethink the way we see and experience the Tennessee River. And that has resonated with the university leadership in its land grant mission to affect the quality of life in our state and in our region.”

In terms of infrastructure to enhance and delineate the paddle trail experience, Collett said a main goal is to simply better utilize and publicize what is already in place for the public.

“Regionally, there are more than 500 access points on the Tennessee River,” he said.

“Many people don’t know where they are; they don’t whether they can use them; they don’t know how to use them.” 

Cities, counties and towns connected by the RiverLine are challenged or committed to develop public access points and other amenities in their communities along the paddle trail, which runs through four states and a vast valley region home to 4.5 million people.

Thirty-five cities and counties along the route are enrolled in the RiverTowns program and have pledged to do what they can to enhance the RiverLine from beginning to end.

The paddle trail itself will continue to develop into “a truly comprehensive system. But then, we also want to connect people to the river,” Collett said, through greenways and riverside parks (such as Suttree’s Landing), pavilions, trails and campgrounds.

“Connection was my keyword,” said Roth of her studio project, which is a regular practicum of sorts for architecture students. She graduated from UT in 2017 with an architecture degree and now works for peadon finein, an architectural firm in Charlotte.

She drove along the entire length of the river from Knoxville to Paducah to brainstorm, research and develop the project. She was touched by the people and places she encountered, and the historic ties of the valley region to the river. 

“We started at the river; now we are able to come back to it.”

Seventy other students with assistance from UT faculty in the colleges of architecture and agriculture eventually followed her lead to bring the project to fruition.

Did Roth imagine her academic work would lead to such a wide-ranging recreational, public health and environmental initiative?

“Never in a million years,” Roth said in a phone interview.

Reinforcing

The bottom-up realization of the RiverLine is the “essence of what it means to be a great university and what it means to be a land-grant university,” Chancellor Donde Plowman said in her public remarks.

“What differentiates us from other big universities is the mission to serve the people of this region and of this state.”

Part of that mission is to light fires in students in hopes they will aspire to improve at least one small part of the world, she said. 

“Students come here to learn, to be changed,” Plowman said. 

“This project is such a great example, of faculty like Brad and his colleagues who invested in these students, and listened to some students who said, ‘Hey, you know, we could do better with this river in Tennessee. Lives could be better. Life could be better for people.’ That came from students.”

While overall focus may be on the river itself, the RiverLine runs through adjoining public lands totaling 700,000 acres, including nine national park and U.S. Forest sites; seven national wildlife refuges; and 300,000 acres of TVA recreation land, according to RiverLine.

“For those of us who manage outdoor recreation, whether it’s a city, a state park, whether it’s a national park, whether it’s TVA public land, we are all connected,” TVA Vice President of Land and River Management David Bowling told the crowd gathered for the dedication of the RiverLine.

“Anything we do as one entity impacts the other. 

“An organization like Tennessee RiverLine gives us an umbrella, gives a way to all be connected under one common theme, and one common purpose, and that’s to promote recreation along this 652 miles of the Tennessee River,” Bowling said.

“This meshes with our mission of service to the people of the valley to promote the environment and promote economic development.”

TVA estimates that outdoor recreation along the Tennessee River corridor generates an economic impact of some $12 billion a year; the hope is that the Tennessee RiverLine will encourage even more economic investment and tourist spending.

Many areas adjoining the river are in urban landscapes, or under rehabilitation from previous industrial use or other human impacts. 

Hundreds of thousands of acres, however, are in a natural or near-natural state, home to native wildlife and habitats in biodiverse ecosystems ranging from aquatic habitats to temperate forests, bottoms and wetlands.

It’s a living laboratory and natural research corridor, Collett said.

“The Tennessee RiverLine is (also) an infrastructure of environmental stewardship, raising awareness of threats posed to the river’s health, microplastics pollution, invasive species, shoreline erosion and habitat loss, and inspiring new generations of river stewards,” Collett said during his public remarks.

Reflecting

One of the first known people to complete the entire 652-mile paddle trail  since the formal announcement of its inception and development in 2019 was present for the event.

Jeff Wunrow, who lives in Nashville, paddled the entire stretch in a 15-foot kayak with his cousin, Jon Wunrow, who paddled a 13-foot canoe. They spent 35 days on the water, and portaged around just two locks: Wilson and Chickamauga, the latter largely because river freighters were stuck in a seven-hour traffic jam.

Upriver wind was the biggest challenge, he said, as well as a significant amount of still water in the reservoirs.

They camped six nights a week, and ate food they were easily able to readily resupply. 

“The big thing is finding a place to camp, and we really relied heavily on TVA wilderness land for that. A vast majority of our campsites were on TVA land.”

Wunrow, who writes a blog about his padding adventures, said he also relied on phone applications to identify suitable public camping spots.

But problems were tempered by sunsets, sunrises, solitude and tranquility, and the human connections made on the river and its banks.

“I just love paddling and being outside, and what I’ve learned on these big trips it’s really about the people that you meet. They are the ones that make the trip,” Wunrow said,

“There are a lot of people you might not share political views with, but at that moment, it’s just humanity.”

IMG 8053 5A man absorbs the extent of the Tennessee RiverLine before a kickoff event Friday at Suttree Landing Park in Knoxville.

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