139 Cumberland River


Within a few hundred yards we went from the wide sweeping Ohio River to the narrow twisting curves of the Cumberland. The Cumberland’s riverbanks, being closer, look higher and steeper than those along the Ohio. It was probably psychological but the tree colors seemed brighter. The change was refreshing. The Cumberland feels friendlier. We’d taken the Cumberland because the Tennessee River being a bit shorter and straighter between the Ohio and the first lock gets all the tow traffic and the tows have priority over pleasure craft.

Barkley Lock is impressively overpowering as massive doors yawn slowly open to swallow Odyssey inside its almost three football field (800’) length. Damp slimy walls tower above reducing our sky view to a far away blue rectangle framed by dark lock walls. From the Kirkfield Lock on the Trent Severn Waterway in Ontario it had been downhill to the Ohio River. The two locks on the Ohio River are only 10 and 12 feet, so coming into Barkley Lock with its 57-foot lift is quite an attention getter. Ruth eased us up to the floating bollard, and I secured us amidships for the trip up. Behind us the lock doors quietly sealed shut. The ride up was smoother and faster than some of the lower lift locks we’d encountered.

That 57’ lift makes a dramatic change in how the Cumberland River looks and feels. The narrow swift flowing Cumberland River below the lock and dam become Lake Barkley above with little current–at least until we got some distance from the dam and lock and the Cumberland River emerges again.

Looking for exercise we walked into Grand Rivers and stocked up on groceries. Heavy stuff went into the backpack that we traded off carrying between town and the Green Turtle Marine about a mile away. Ruth carries the backpack to town empty, and I get to carry it back loaded. The exercise is great, but instead of feeling thinner, I just feel shorter.
The navigable portion of the Cumberland River ends after four locks at mile 380 at Celina. Our river exploration plan was open-ended with the only constraint being to get above Cheatham Lock before it’s scheduled closing for eight days of maintenance.

Rapidly shoaling water changed our minds about attempting to try one tempting looking spot not listed as an anchorage. A bit further up river we tucked into an anchorage listed in our cruising guide. We liked its wilderness feel with a boat launch just barely in view to provide some interest without any wake. By dinghy we went ashore at the ramp and walked the access road for a bit to enjoy the woods, get some exercise.

Wasp nest along the river shore

Wasp nest along the river shore

Curiosity got the best of us as we enjoyed the anchorage for a second day. The dinghy stopped against what proved to be a very soft slippery mud shore. Stepping carefully I worked closer toward the object that had caught our interest in the binoculars. The paper wasp nest was a classic, perfectly formed with a steady stream of wasps coming and going. I got a picture and then with great difficulty pulled one sticky mud laden foot out of the ooze and squished my way back to the dinghy. The afternoon project became mud removal.

The lodge at Lake Barkley State Park constructed from Cumberland quarried rock and local trees sits like a jewel beside one of the bays off the Cumberland. We stopped for breakfast enjoying what every boater loves–a meal with a beautiful view of water and forest.

 Bluffs on the Harpeth River at sunset

Bluffs on the Harpeth River at sunset

At Cheatham Lock the lockmaster reminded us the lock would be closed for eight days. We cleared the lock and just at dusk threaded our way into the Harpeth River and dropped anchor in front of an impressive stone bluff. Another cruising boat, the first we’d seen in days was anchored a short distance away. We stayed a second day, enjoying the rock formations up close by dinghy and just sitting and watching the sun change the colors and highlights of the rock face.

We reached Nashville just as NOAA began talking about hurricane Ivan coming through eastern Tennessee. We stayed one day then heeded the dockmaster’s advice mixed with tales of logs and debris clogging the dock if the water rose and headed up river through Old Hickory Lock. Anchor High marina fills a small bay with covered slips and a floating restaurant. We tucked in behind the fuel dock safe from any current and debris to wait out the effects of Ivan. On the VHF the Coast Guard announced the Tennessee River had closed to all navigation because of high water and the volume of water flow. We lucked out; got just a bit of rain. The water went up about a foot. Ivan had hit the Tennessee River drainage basin, but missed the Cumberland River basin.

It was the weekend, and we were impressed to see a number of houseboats pulling out of their slips to enjoy the sparkling weekend now that the Ivan was history. Hours later we discovered many of them had gone about 100 yards and were now rafted at the yacht club just across the marina channel. We did find a bit of a hint of what weekends could be like in season on the river as we tucked into a tiny cove and watched boats work their way into the embayment and form rafts for a party weekend.

 Some of the many bluffs along the Cumberland River

Some of the many bluffs along the Cumberland River

Old Hickory Lake with its proximity to Nashville is lined with huge homes set on large lots. It was a sharp contrast to the wilderness river we’d been enjoying. Civilization faded away as the lake changed back to a river. We were soon enjoying green forests with the river edge sharply defined by rugged low rock bluffs.

Our cruising guide lured us on with entries about the best scenery being above the Cordell Hull Lock. We exited the lock to vistas of rugged hills and lush green valleys. It was indeed beautiful; however, as we continued up river we were soon back into flat country and routine river views.

We passed the tiny town of Granville and a short while later at about mile 348 we decided to turn around and start back down river. As Grandville came up again we decided to stop and explore. Like so many towns along the river, boater access was nonexistent. We anchored off, dinghied ashore and were met by the town welcoming committee–a local dog who immediately adopted us. We walked around town discovering the general store on our computer street atlas was only opened for the summer town festival; that all the dogs in town had somehow been alerted and were now loudly passing on the warning that strangers were in town; and that the mini market sold only gas, chips, candy and pop. We made the town a bit richer by buying chips but could not find chip dip. A dog that had adopted us during our walk was still waiting as we exited the store. He followed even closer hoping for a handout as we headed back toward the dinghy. The dog laid along the bank watching us raise the dinghy and anchor and start down stream. We looked back and could see him still watching as we rounded the bend.

Nashville the second time was much more fun. We did the tourist thing and walked the country western section of downtown looking at all the souvenir shops, cowboy boot shops and of course bars with live music and line dancing. Our interests ranged wider, and we soon found the farmers market and the bicentennial park behind the capitol building which to us were much more interesting.

We asked the bus driver if we were too late to catch the bus to Cheekwood Botanical Garden once a private estate, now a show place for the public. The driver immediately got on the phone and confirmed we were on time and showed us where to make the transfer. Our next bus driver told us we were on the maids’ bus and it became evident as we passed huge homes on multi acre lots along the bus route. We loved Cheekwood, and spent the day looking at the beautiful gardens and touring the house now converted to an art museum. On our return bus trip it was evident we were indeed on the maids’ bus. Frequent stops were made between stops to pick up regular customers waiting in front of the homes where they worked.

One last stop dropped us off near an art festival. There were outstanding works on display. I even found a new coffee mug to replace my mug of twenty years that had cracked. The festival was at Centennial Park, which contains a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Nashville is known as the Athens of the south.

It wasn’t a surprise to learn that Cheatham Lock wasn’t opening on schedule. We stopped for fuel at Rock Harbor, a marina built in a rock quarry. There was a rabbit warren of covered slips. For the first time we docked in a covered slip. It was an interesting experience. Small things like our satellite radio and GPS didn’t work because of the sheet metal roof. However, it was very nice to do work on deck in full time shade, and we were much cooler with the boat being in the shade.

Cheatham Lock announced they would indeed open on their new scheduled date, but at 9 PM. We elected to again anchor off the bluff on the Harpeth River, which now in retrospect is our favorite anchorage on the Cumberland. The next day we showed up at the lock with two other cruising boats, evidently all that had been cruising the upper Cumberland for the past ten days. We locked down and began enjoying seeing the Cumberland from a new perspective as we headed downstream to start up the now opened Tennessee River.


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