This story was oringinally published in the April/May 2015 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Chattanooga was born of the Tennessee River… native Americans were living, farming and hunting its shorelines long before written records. European explorers navigated the dangerous Tennessee River Gorge—through rapids known as Deadman’s Eddy, the Pot or the Skillet—for travel and trade.
As a port and river crossing, the Tennessee River in Chattanooga was a primary objective during the Civil War, those battles bringing about the deaths of tens of thousands. And later, TVA was created to harness the river’s endless power and protect the homes and businesses of those who built too close to the water.
In spite of its significance in our history, during the 20th century, most Chattanoogans simply considered the Tennessee River an obstacle to get across, or a giant water hazard waiting to flood their homes.
In 1992 came the birth of the Tennessee Aquarium ℹ️, a re-creation of the Tennessee River and its headwaters. It was the catalyst that inspired a new way of thinking. In 2003 then-Mayor Bob Corker took it to the next level, creating the Outdoor Chattanooga initiative and inspiring a $120 million investment to build Chattanooga a new front porch along the riverfront.
Suddenly it became clear that the Tennessee River meant more to Chattanooga than serving as a roadblock.
“Build it and they will come,” is a famous line from the well-known movie “Field of Dreams.” Obviously we didn’t build the Tennessee River, but we made it so everyone can touch it, and suddenly the people came.
Swimmers who specialize in “open water” flex their muscles against its current. Boaters, big and small, ply the river to visit downtown Chattanooga, or to watch the headline acts during the Riverbend Festival ℹ️. Anglers catch record-class bass, catfish and bluegill literally in the shadow of the Tennessee Aquarium. Kayaks, canoes and paddleboards skim across the surface like swarms of waterbugs. It has even been designated the “Tennessee River Blueway,” part of a National Scenic River Trail.
The Tennessee River, and the recreationists who use it, are making our city stronger and stronger every day… figuratively and literally. Consider Ironman Chattanooga ℹ️ – one of the most grueling tests of physical endurance there is, starting with a 2.4-mile swim in the Tennessee River. Most of us might hesitate to call that “recreation,” but don’t tell that to the participants who often commit their lives to training for the races.
One of those is Marissa Bell, once a championship rower for UT Knoxville. As one of about 200 members of the Lookout Rowing Club, Bell is on the river rowing whenever the weather allows. However, she recently added swimming to her regimen after committing to the Ironman 70.3, better known as a Half Ironman, to be held in Chattanooga for the first time this May. She says she really didn’t know how seriously Chattanooga took the river when she moved here three years ago.
“When I got here I thought, ‘You mean I can do all this? This great venue, one of the top rowing venues in the country.’ It blows my mind what all happens [on the river] here,” says Bell. She says Chattanooga’s acceptance of the river is 180 degrees out from what she experienced in Knoxville.
“It’s really the accessibility to the water,” she says. “The river runs through Knoxville but it’s set back from the river. You almost don’t know the river is there. But in Chattanooga it’s sort of the heart of the city.” She says her days on the river are in part to keep in shape, however she says it is more about fun. “Rowing bringing about an almost hypnotic peace of mind. You can get lost in the sounds of the boats, the paddles in the water, the sliding seats,” she says. “It turns into a rhythm that really does turn into a Zen-like experience.”
While the joys of the river in Chattanooga were a surprise to Bell, on the opposite side of the coin are Dawson Wheeler and Marvin Webb. As the co-owners of Rock/Creek they saw the opportunities of the river long before most others.
“When Dawson and Marvin started Rock/Creek in 1987, they actually bought out an old paddling shop called Canoeist Headquarters,” according to Mark McKnight, Rock/Creek marketing director. “They took the canoe shop (Creek) and added (Rock) climbing equipment like pitons, ropes and carabiners.” From that tiny shop on Hixson Pike, Rock/Creek has five stores in the region with a sixth opening this year. Much of that business is thanks to Tennessee River recreation.
According to Philip Grymes, executive director of Outdoor Chattanooga, the city’s organized river events attract more than 15,000 people a year to the Tennessee River. That is just the organized events. It does not include the thousands of weekend warriors paddling, swimming, boating and fishing on their own.
Businesses have been quick to take notice. Created in 2006, Scenic City Fishing Charters (www.ScenicCityFishing.com) recently expanded to a full-time, year-round operation. And, Ray Gorrell who owns River Canyon Adventures near Suck Creek (www.rivercanyonadventure.com), says he’s renting kayaks and standup paddleboards every summer.
“I started out thinking I might rent a few to locals,” says Gorrell. “But I was shocked by the number of tourists who come. The next thing I knew, I was having to go out and buy more boards and kayaks.” He says last summer his 40 kayaks and 20 paddleboards were completely rented out virtually every weekend.
If you go near the water any at all these days, you have seen the proliferation of standup paddleboards, also known as SUPs. “Stand-up paddleboarding represents totally new business for us and the outdoor industry at large,” says McKnight. “SUP started as a small niche sport and has come on the scene as a very popular activity for all ages and skill levels. People go out after work and just run around Maclellan Island a couple times, while others make it their primary sport and paddle long distances year-round.”
We would be remiss if we didn’t include the folks on the water who have been there for decades – namely boaters and fishermen. Sam Simons moved from Indiana to Chattanooga in 2006. An avid fisherman even before he moved here, Simons was just like Bell – astounded by the incredible opportunities he found.
“Every day I’m on the water I have the chance to catch monster catfish, trophy smallmouth bass, huge bluegill or crappie,” says Simons. “My friends in Indiana are constantly amazed by the pictures I’m always sending them, and some come to visit every year just to go fishing with me.”
In February, Gabe Keen broke the 60-year-old Tennessee State Record Largemouth Bass. He caught the historic fish in Chickamauga Lake. The huge largemouth weighed 15.2 pounds breaking the previous record set in 1954.
Keen’s fish was an indirect product of a Florida bass-stocking program in Chickamauga Lake by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. That program has been so successful that it is now being expanded to several other lakes, including Nickajack and Watts Bar.
While nearby coldwater streams have always attracted most area fly fishermen, more and more are finding their way to the Tennessee River. For fly fishermen, and spin casters, fishing kayaks represent another new business opportunity for Rock/Creek.
“Absolutely,” says McKnight. “We’re probably selling as many fishing kayaks this winter as any other kind of boat. We hosted our first kayak fishing tournament last year and that event will return on August 29.
After decades of being ignored or neglected, now few can deny that the Tennessee River is a gold mine of opportunity putting much of the “scenic” in the Scenic City. Fishing, motorboats, dragon boats, canoeing, kayaking, SUPs, Ironmans or open water swims – it’s all happening in Chattanooga—because a river runs through it.
Story and photography by Richard Simms