Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Kim Trevathan
Kim Trevathan's books are Paddling the Tennessee River: A Voyage on Easy Water and Coldhearted River: A Canoe Odssey Down the Cumberland, both published by the University of Tennessee Press. He teaches at Maryville College in East Tennessee but is from the godless flatlands of western Kentucky.
Navigating by the Stars up Citico Creek
Wandering through a grocery store, lost in the task of gathering ingredients for a tomato and eggplant casserole, I came upon Drew Crain, a biologist at Maryville College, where I teach. He was staring at the shelf in front of him. He’d harvested a bunch of cucumbers from his garden, he told me, and couldn’t find the pickling spices. I glanced at the shelf and spotted the package right away. Sheer luck. An accident. Only then, after I’d done him this small favor, did I venture to ask Drew to accompany me on a night paddle. He jumped at the idea. Drew is like that, up for anything. I was excited, he was excited, and now all we had to do was pick a time and a place.
My first thought was to paddle up Abrams Creek from Chilhowee Lake, which is a segment of the dammed Little Tennessee River, up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. This would be a straight shot up a narrow cove to what I remembered as a distinct demarcation of flat water and downhill mountain stream. It would be a safe, easy paddle of a few miles, and I was thinking that we might see or at least hear a bear. The other put-in I was considering was below Chilohowee Dam, on upper Tellico Lake, where we would cross the lake to the mouth of Citico Creek, a maze of passageways that had entertained me on a couple of daylight excursions a few years previous. I’d been searching for two rocks in southwest Blount County, near Citico Creek, that Donald Davidson, author of a two-volume history of the Tennessee River, described as representing the twin monster hawks of Cherokee myth, Tlanuwa. I didn’t find the Tlanuwa, but discovered the following: trout browsing water clear as an aquarium; a hornet’s nest hanging like a work of art—a pale urn-like shape, paper thin, standing out among the lush summer greenery—and the place where the creek began to trickle over gravel into the dammed reservoir, where the natural force of the stream resurrected itself against the artificial dam that created the lake, what I was calling a Liminal Zone. I didn’t tell Drew about the Tlanuwa or the hornets, but I did say that finding the mouth of Citico and ascending to its Liminal Zone would be the more challenging of the two choices.
“Whatever you think,” he said. “I’ll just follow you.”
Wary of so much faith in my nighttime navigating skills, I told him I would guarantee nothing. In fact, getting lost was commonplace for me, the paths I sought opening up only when I surrendered my sense of direction.
A waning gibbous moon was scheduled to rise around 11:30 on the Tuesday night we agreed upon, but I picked up Drew at 9:00, just before dark, loaded his kayak on top of mine and cinched the plastic hulls down tight. We headed south out of Maryville on curvy Highway 129, traveling toward the Dragon’s Tail, a treacherous section above Chilhowee and Calderwood Lakes, where fairly often motorcyclists went airborne off the mountain, their last ride. Drew broke a silence of a few minutes with this question: “So Kim, what made you decide to start kayaking at night?” He asked it with the same curious tone one might use to inquire why someone played badminton in thunderstorms.
Drew he knew a bit about my upstream quests of the past four years. At a condo he was renting with his family near the mouth of the Edisto River, he put me up for a night and gave me news both exciting and disturbing: I would see alligators the next few days. (He neglected to tell me that they’d be in the water with me, not on the bank at a safe distance.) At the Edisto, as I had on rivers across the country, I was paddling from where the rivers pooled, either as a result of dams, or in this case, the ocean, to where the current resurrected itself. These transitional zones were of interest to me because often, especially on dammed rivers, they represented a kind of triumph: the purity and flux of nature reviving itself against artificial stasis—the dammed reservoir. Liminal—a term used in anthropology to describe a transitional state, from boy to man for example—packed the metaphysical punch I was looking for to describe these places. Belden Lane, in his book Landscapes of the Sacred, describes it as “having left one place, one conventional state of being, and not yet having arrived at another…caught betwixt and between.” In pop culture, it’s embodied by The Twilight Zone, the 1950s TV series that host Rod Serling, cigarette in hand, introduces in his clipped narration as "the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition." What I’d found over the years didn’t always affirm my expectations, and sometimes I never found the revelation and aesthetic wonder that I sought. But having seen remarkable phenomena such as a solid neck-high fog bank at the Liminal Zone of the Nantahala River and the glassy silent current of the Clearwater River at the head of Salmon Lake in Montana, these discoveries kept me seeking. Going up creeks at night was the latest phase of this larger journey in my life.
I struggled to answer Drew’s question: it wasn’t because I was bored with daytime paddling, not at all, though in the dog days, when lakes fill up with motorboats and the heat wilts and blurs the landscape, paddling in the cool sanctuary of nighttime had begun to appeal to me. “It’s different,” I said, the best I could manage at the moment.
We arrived at the Harrison Branch boat ramp two hours before moonrise. A couple of empty boat trailers indicated that we would have company out there, not really a comforting thought for a kayaker among motorboats. We slanted toward the upstream tip of the island where the Overhill Cherokee village of Citico thrived as early as the 16th century. Now, mostly underwater as a result of Tellico Dam, along with farms and homes and the free-flowing Little Tennessee River, Citico would be unrecognizable to Cherokees such as Little Carpenter, who traveled to England with Sir Alexander Cuming in the 18th Century and met King George; Dragging Canoe, his son, who warned that the whites’ continued expansion would be “dark and bloody”; Hanging Maw, warrior turned truce maker at this very place in 1782. Now, behind the “Do Not Disturb” warning sign, only buried tools, bones and spirits dwelled in what was left above water, a swampy sliver of land, dense with brush and small trees. The boat ramp security light cast a narrow white beam across the lake, and we left our headlamps off in an attempt to adapt our vision to starlight.
Drew, who said his wife Holly was a bit worried about this night paddling business, assured her that here “at least there aren’t any alligators.”
He then told me that he caught alligators in South Carolina for his dissertation research.
“How do you go about catching an alligator?” I asked.
“Depends on the size,” he told me. “If it’s a big one, you use a harpoon. Little ones, around four feet long, we’d catch by hand.” I tried to imagine Drew, slight of build and mild-mannered, extracting writhing oversized reptiles from dark swampy waters with his bare hands.
“That’s really hard-core,” I said.
A few minutes later, the treeline of old Citico village blocked the glow of the security light, and Drew, the guy who used to catch alligators, said, “This is scary.”
For a minute I worried that he might have been referring to something specific with the pronoun “this,” as in “this whirlpool” or “this strange glow,” or “this beast I cannot identify.”
By “this,” he meant the strangely disorienting sensation of paddling waters at night. It relieved me that someone as knowledgeable as Drew, someone who could identify most of the noises we heard, who could figure out our direction by consulting the stars, would have the same feelings I’d been having at night on the water. “Scary,” for lack of a better word, described the mixture of thrill and fear that navigating through the darkness elicited.
I’d been on two night paddling excursions that summer, both of them in western Kentucky, where I grew up, both of them on reservoirs in the Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area between the Cumberland and the Tennessee rivers. I’d fished these lakes with my father, as a boy, and it was this that drew me there, at night, on the chance that I would rekindle those memories, perhaps sense his spirit there. Many cultures believe that the spirit world is accessible through rivers and lakes, that the voyage to the afterlife involves the crossing of a river. To Native Americans, the wilderness harbors spirits. When you go to a place like Citico Creek or Energy Lake—especially at night—and it is the same or nearly the same as when your ancestors paddled it, you are connected in an intimate way with past generations. Gerard Baker, former superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Park and a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, put it this way in Ken Burns’ film on America’s national parks: “sacredness means you can go in there and walk as your ancestors did…you can feel the spirits.”
As I paddled the second lake, the one called Energy, a dense fog intensified the darkness of the moonless night and rendered my headlamp useless as I paddled toward Crooked Creek, the source of Energy’s pool. In this state of heightened awareness—my legs tense against the kayak’s footrests, my paddle strokes feathery and slow—something drew me further into the slough at the back of the lake, something lured me through the darkness with a presence as tangible yet ubiquitous as the shifting shapes of the fog. I had wandered into what is known as a spiritscape, I think, fraught with numina, “spirits, deities, or a divinity inhabiting sacred sites which have certain powers that are commonly described as supernatural or magical,” according to the book Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture. Though as far as I knew, Crooked Creek slough was not listed on an official roster of sacred sites, as say, Machu Piccu in Peru or Stonehenge in England, there was a vibe out here that suggested, no insisted on something beyond the “natural.” I’d felt this before, on the water, but never so strongly as I did here, at a place so intimately linked to my personal history with the natural world. What I sensed had no particular identity. It was neither good nor evil, and I can’t say that it was benign or passive, either.
I’d kayaked Energy in the daytime a few days previous, and even then the maze that led back to the Liminal Zone was eerie and private, several deer coughing and crashing through the brush, as if indignant of my invasion. But going there at night transformed the same journey, humbled me and raised my awareness of the possibilities of journeying blind, groping toward ideas and language and feelings that you might not be able to grasp fully, that were obscured by the daylight. I still wasn’t sure if I’d return to Energy at night, but I knew, after that trip, that I’d have to sample other night waters, and that having someone else along—a scientist no less—might help me affirm and articulate what I was seeing, hearing, and feeling at night.
As Drew and I approached one of a few entryways to Citico Creek, skeletal trees and swamp-monster-shaped bushes loomed up ahead. I didn’t mention it, but I was thinking of the giant hawks who, according to legend, menaced the Cherokee, kidnapping their children and creating chaos. A medicine man solved the problem. Lowered into their nest by warriors, he threw four baby hawks into the river, instigating a battle between the Tlanuwa and Ukteena, a giant river-dwelling serpent, horned and winged. Ukteena devoured the baby hawks and the Tlanuwa plucked it from the river and tore it to pieces. They carried it upward, into the sky, and were never heard from again.
Drew gestured vaguely in the direction of an opening that led from the darkness of the lake to the greater darkness of the creek and its encroaching banks. “Does this look right?” he asked.
I said I thought that looked exactly right, and then I admitted I had no idea. It in no way resembled the friendly little passages that I’d seen in the daylight. But we went on ahead into this darker place where the frogs and barred owls raised their voices in protest. Even though it was difficult to make out the banks without a light, we could feel them closing in, sense the change from the open lake to the tighter passages that resembled the enclosed rooms of a house.
The Cherokee believed in an underworld that warriors entered by way of the pools of rivers and streams. Once there they rode giant rattlesnakes as if they were horses.
I didn’t know about the underworld, but I was doing my best to avoid going there, to stay oriented and upright by taking it slow and keeping my eyes sharp, ears perked. After an hour on the water, I was still feeling a bit shaky. I would be talking to Drew about something and ask him a question, to which he would not respond. Then I’d turn my little lamp on, and he’d be fifty feet ahead, a tiny, faint moving shape, having a conversation with me that I couldn’t hear. He had a tendency to go a lot faster than me, and I was paddling faster than I wanted to keep up. Who wants to be alone in the dark?
When I caught up with him, Drew identified constellations: the Big and Little Dippers, Scorpius, Cygnus the Swan. By locating the North Star, he figured out where the moon would rise, roughly at our backs as we headed into the creek. He told me what kind of frog was making a sound like castanets—a cricket frog—and he distinguished between the two barred owls calling at the periphery of the maze and the great horned owl that started up a warning call further in.
It was good to learn these things, to be with someone who was generous with his knowledge. Gradually, a glow emerged from the darkness ahead that Drew could not identify. No matter how grounded one is in science and the world of fact, it’s difficult not to think of the supernatural, even of alien life, when you see something you can’t identify in the woods. We did not speak of these possibilities. Our noses solved the mystery: burning wood. Campfire! We turned on our headlamps, not wanting to startle whoever had found this a fitting place to spend the night. A young man standing near the water’s edge told us that he’d just seen a big snake. He was poking around with a stick as if to bring it up to show us. His girlfriend stood on higher ground, her hands up over her mouth. At what seemed a location too proximate to the four-foot high flames, they had a twenty gallon blue plastic jug of what I guessed was gasoline. Pulled up on the bank was a johnboat with a small outboard motor. The young man said they’d motored across the lake (before dark, of course) and come upon this place, a hump of cleared land where people had camped before. He told us we could go a good ways farther up the creek but that there would be a lot of fallen trees blocking the way. He wished us luck.
We paddled a winding passageway that seemed to go on for miles. Spiders’ eyes glowed green from invisible logs. Fallen trees and stumps emerged suddenly in the darkness, our hulls sliding across the submerged ones, tilting us toward oblivion, a good reason to go slowly. Downriver, near the confluence of the Little Tennessee and the Tellico rivers lived Dakwa, a giant fish that overturned a canoe full of warriors and swallowed one of them whole. The warrior cut his way out with a mussel shell he found in the great fish’s belly and was unharmed except that Dakwa’s belly juices scalded the hair off his head, rendering him forever bald. Citico Creek, narrow but thus far surprisingly deep, seemed a good place for Dakwa to arise, nighttime the perfect setting. What you can’t see, the imagination fills in, bringing to life the myths of the ancients, those who lived so much closer to the natural world than we do now, we who take an excursion on weekends, perhaps more frequently in the summer, as if nature were some place you had to “go” to, away from the world we have created apart from it.
Drew and I came to a place where a fallen sycamore blocked the entire channel, only about twenty feet wide, and we concluded that it was time to turn around.
Back at the campsite, the couple’s fire glowed feebly, a faint lamp in the encroaching darkness. They lay beside each other, not touching, staring at the stars, and we slipped past them without a word. Back on the main lake, around midnight, the moon glared flaming orange through a column of clouds, and then cooled to vanilla as it floated into clear sky. Drew let out a yell, startled by a large fish that rolled to the surface right next to him. He remarked that this was “a blast.”
“I think that girl was a little freaked out by us coming up the creek like that,” he said.
“I don’t blame her,” I said.
“Something about being out here at night heightens the senses. You really have to pay attention to every move.”
Exactly. And this got me thinking about better answers to Drew’s question about how I got started night paddling and, more importantly, why I was still doing it. The trip itself seemed answer enough: the sounds of nature, amplified and unfiltered; the infinite depths of the becalmed waters; the cool air, amazingly free of insects; and the way you adapt, after a while, to navigating through the oblivion where imagination goes into overdrive, stirring up whirlpools that contain giant serpents with horns.
Yet to relegate the monsters of Cherokee myth to mere imagination seems dismissive, as if myth is irrelevant to the modern world, our enlightened minds dominated by fact and concrete evidence, by infallible numbers and probable forecasts and the absolute certainty with which we deliver our opinions. There were reasons the Cherokee told and retold these stories for centuries. They meant something. The creatures and their battles explained things about nature, which for them commanded reverence and fear, incited respect as well as conflict. Even though a monster like the giant serpent Uktena might seem the embodiment of evil to us, Davidson and others note the Cherokees’ reverence for snakes. That they created these myths seems a testament to their attempt to explain what can’t be seen but felt, those emotions that arise in us at times when we are most sensitive to our surroundings, our senses heightened and tuned in to possibilities beyond what we have experienced in our air-conditioned homes and offices, our backyards and our measured playing fields.
In her book Living Stories of the Cherokee, Barbara Duncan explains the reasons behind the ceremonies and stories of Cherokee culture: staying in balance, which includes “staying close to the earth and all our relations.” We maintain balance by “taking time to dream…by recognizing our dark and light sides…understanding ourselves and our place in the world around us.”
The fallen sycamore blocked us from the transitional zone, and we did not feel or see the current of Citico Creek assert itself against the inertia of the lake’s pool. Sometimes, you have to yield to nature’s blockades. Still, finding the mouth of Citico and going up it to what more closely resembled the creek that the Cherokee had lived beside was accomplishment enough. In truth, everything beyond the campfire seemed Liminal and Otherworldy, as if we were somehow poised between the present time of our put in—the security-light illuminated concrete boat ramp on the dammed lake—and the myths and legends of the past, when man’s impact was minimal, his efforts more in harmony with the power and mystery of nature. In a sense, we traveled back in time going from Tellico Lake up Citico Creek, and nighttime intensified that sense of a journey beyond the literal.
Drew was hooked on night paddling, he said, and started trying to think of new places to night kayak, what made one place more suitable than another. Abrams Creek was still a possibility, and Drew thought that we very well might see bears on that trip, though it would be a long paddle, four miles or so out and back. He remembered a place called Notchy Creek, off the Tellico River arm of Tellico Lake, not far from its confluence with the Little Tennessee River, where Dakwa swallowed the warrior. Perhaps a little fishing would be in order.