Travel

Water over rocks

  • Sep 30, 2012
  • 612 words
  • 3 minutes
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Photo: Tyrone Burke

A drop of rain that falls on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau can remain in motion from the moment that it parts with the clouds until it rejoins the sea at the Gulf of Mexico. There isn’t a single natural lake to slow it down in the entire state. Water seems to be falling everywhere you look on the plateau. Innumerable creeks and rivers dance their way down through deep channels they’ve carved into the rugged tableland that bridges eastern Tennessee’s Appalachian peaks and the sweltering lowlands of the Mississippi delta in the state’s west.

“Every one of these gorges — we call them ‘gulfs’ in the southern vernacular — every one has a creek,” says Stuart Carroll, an interpretive specialist at Fall Creek Falls State Park. “Erosion from them is how this landform was created in the first place. And the water has to get down here somehow. That means that if you hike up pretty much any of the creeks in the park, eventually you’re gonna come to a waterfall.”

Carroll is picking a path upstream, scrambling between the boulders that litter the riverbed and hopping over the water that foams in between. He’s leading the way towards Cane Creek Falls, one of six in the park. It isn’t the tallest waterfall I’ve seen on this hike, but with a deep, shaded pool and a 25-metre-tall curtain of falling water in which to splash away the southern heat, the falls are one of the area’s most popular swimming holes.

“We don’t exactly encourage people to swim at the waterfalls in the park, but obviously they do,” Carroll says, gesturing toward several dozen people already in the water before peeling off his ranger uniform to join the crowd. “And we don’t stop ’em.”

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Photo: Tyrone Burke

Swimming beneath the spray of the falls and onto a rock ledge tucked behind its liquid curtain, Cane Creek’s soothing flow reminds me of the hands of a welltrained masseuse. The cliffs and forests and splashing swimmers blur into a verdant impressionistic vision of a perfect afternoon in Appalachia. From this tranquil vantage point, it’s hard to imagine gentle Cane Creek swelling into a raging torrent. But like all of the area’s watercourses, it sometimes does.

“The creeks around here all are rain fed,” Carroll says, “so it can be hard to predict when they’ll be at their highest, but the water levels we get in the park can be pretty impressive, especially in winter or early spring. We get whitewater kayakers then. Not too many, but some. Again, we don’t encourage it, but we don’t stop ’em.”

For the less intrepid visitor, the nearby Caney Fork River provides a safer boating alternative. Earlier this year, the whitewater kayaking playground hosted one of just three stops in the sport’s freestyle world cup. The dramatic Great Falls Gorge showcases the power that this waterway can have, but as my kayak bobs in the flat water below the river’s cascading descent, its force isn’t exactly awe inspiring.

“It’s not a big-water river — it’s just a really fun place to play,” says Jeff Leach, a newly arrived Caney Fork local and an avid whitewater kayaker. “There’s a tonne of waterfall drops just up in there and breaking waves. I could drop the waterfalls in there all day long. And what I love about Tennessee is that you can run the rivers here all year-round. We haven’t really had a winter to speak of the past few years, and some of the best whitewater we have all year comes mid-winter, when just about everywhere else the water’s icy cold.”

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