By Wesley Houp
Editor’s note: What follows is an account of Wesley Houp and Danny Mayer, intrepid paddlers of the Kentucky River watershed, as they branch into Tennessee waters.
By the time we’ve trimmed the gear and bungied loose odds and ends, the sky has turned to pitch, not quite the “bible-black” of Tweedy’s predawn, but close enough. The waning crescent, locked out, fails to backlight the low cloud-cover. It’s only 5:30pm but it might as well be midnight. The magnetic sibilance of shoalwater dilates my pupils as I turn in the current to face the dark downstream. This is Danny’s first Duck River paddle, a stretch we’ve planned for months, and we’ve already had to trim eight miles off the front, concession to wives and children waiting patiently at journey’s end. We’ll miss the Little Hurricane and Fall Creeks, but we’ll still camp tonight at the mouth of Sinking Creek above the nameless island and mussel-bound braids of Shearin Bend. We find our line, hit the chute and shoot down the middle in quick succession, boats for tongues in a manner of articulation, the river, the ultimate grammar, its nominals of stone and deadfall submerging and emerging, modifications lisping and lapping, auxiliary perfect and progressive with modal: “Even when you’re gone, I will have been traveling over the stones for an eternity.”
Danny lets out a joyous little “whoop”, but I’m momentarily distracted; some water finds its way over my gunnels and into my shoes, reminding me of what I’ve forgotten: waterproof boots. My worn out Sperrys sponge up the slosh. At least the night is mild, and with only a thirty percent chance of rain perhaps my feet alone will suffer the indignities of damp. As if to lighten the mood, the bottle of Jim Beam #7 clears its throat: “Shoes come and go, but a river lasts forever. Bottoms up. Downstream and seaward!” Danny drifts up beside me, and we heed the call.
Though Sinking Creek rises ten or so miles due south of the Duck, it debouches from the north, snaking around the outbow of Shearin Bend and doubling back just as the river swings to the southeast and then due south. It’s been two months since my last camp here, and the water has dropped six inches or so. We bottom out no more than fifty yards in and nudge our way through the darkness to a leading ledge of limestone on the south side. The bank is high, twenty-five feet or so, and steep; fortunately, though, the exposed roots of a large sycamore provide a sturdy ladder up to a small relief, and from there, a deer trail angles up to flat ground in the woods. We pack up the gear, four dry bags filled with sleeping bags, inflatable mats, a small tent, and bare essentials for cooking (a single-burner stove, a mess kit, hunting knife, coffee mugs), a soiled, wet cloth bag filled with easy food (two cans of beans, a box of Clif Bars, three tins of sardines, two bottles of water, a Ziploc filled with herbal tea, and a handle of bourbon), another small bag with bungie cords and rope, and a small tarp. We manage the carry in two trips. We stow it all around the base of a scraggily boxelder and start collecting kindling from the deadfall litter. The area is as flat as can be hoped for with a generous layer of surprisingly dry boxelder, hickory and red oak duff. In a matter of minutes, we’ve amassed a small pyre, but it burns niggardly, barely bathing the wooded swale with yellow light that only implies the dark fringe of cedar glade up the hill, south.
Sinking Creek, Tributary Diversions, and Vienna Sausages
Sinking Creek diminishes to a modest trickle this time of year, and seems to disappear altogether just before its confluence with the Duck, leaving its bed of large boulders and intricately etched bedrock shelves mostly dry. From its mouth it bends sharply south then sharply east in a softened “Z” before bending south again. We’re camped in the first of these acute turns, not 200 yards from the confluence. Sinking rises many miles due south of here on Elk Ridge, the high ground that divvies up the rest of south central Tennessee’s waters among the Duck to the north and the Elk River to the south. The Elk then transports its water and material into Alabama and eventually finds the Tennessee somewhere where stars have fallen. The Duck flows in a more or less straight line to the northwest and the western valley of the Tennessee, exhibiting what geologists call persistency of course, with northwest the direction of first intent. In its former life, though, as several theories hold, the Duck flowed northwest all the way to the Ohio River.
A quick-take paddler’s translation of geomorphology: if a river follows an overall steady course-direction over a long enough distance, like the 270-mile Duck, it is less likely that it has followed another course contrary to the original, stratigraphy’s and gravity’s “first intent.” The river goes the path of least resistance, the path of minimum variance over time and space.
Danny lies on his side, nestled into the now-warm and radiant duff, nursing a cold beer. The clouds break low; a few stars breech the canopy. “So what you’re saying is that rivers don’t go out of their way but hurry downstream toward the sea?”
“More or less, excepting cataclysmic upheaval and, in the case of the Duck, major deflection of the Tennessee River due to recession of the sea itself.” I poke a punky log in the heart of the embers.
The prevailing theories of drainage modification for the Tennessee River show it following a Cretaceous course out of present-day Chattanooga, and instead of turning radically north toward the Ohio Valley in present-day Alabama, it continued southwest and joined the Coosa River system, working its way to the Old Gulf Embayment. Etnier and Starnes hypothesize that the enigmatic lower Tennessee probably represents restless and gullible thrums of at least three ancient rivers and two master watersheds. The scenario they support has the antecedent Tennessee debouching its waters into the Gulf Embayment in northern portions of present-day Mississippi and Alabama during the Tertiary. As the Eastern Continental Shelf continued to experience uplift and sea levels receded to the southwest, one of the Tennessee’s northern tributaries captured the northwest-flowing ancestral Duck River. The Duck’s present-day confluence with the Tennessee, they contend, suggests such a capture. At its mouth the northwest-flowing Duck bends radically back to the south before entering the Tennessee, a feature suggestive of radical drainage modification. Normally, tributaries enter at acute angles complementary of the master stream’s course-direction. The Duck, then, for some span of geologic time, was diverted through this unnamed ancestral tributary south to the Tennessee, creating its unorthodox lower configuration. As a result of this capture, the Ohio River lost a major player in its evolving watershed, but only for a time.
During the Pleistocene, sea levels continued to fall as more and more water was locked up by glaciation. As the glaciers fluctuated between freeze and thaw, increased volumes of melt-water allowed the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to gouge deeper and deeper channels, much deeper than those they exhibit today. In its lower portion the ancestral Duck, as if to have the last word in a passing argument, regained a “gradient advantage” over the Tennessee and recaptured the unnamed north-south connecting tributary, and ultimately unified the Tennessee into its historical and strange configuration, its lower section now shunning the south and running unabated north toward a neck and neck finish with the Cumberland River at the Ohio.
Luther, in Our Restless Earth: The Geologic Regions of Tennessee, outlines a similar evolution, only his account leaves out the medial stage when the lower Duck was wholly captured and diverted south. His hypothesis has the Duck maintaining its first intent—a northwesterly flow—and gaining gradient advantage as the Ohio cut below the valley of the Tennessee and eventually redirected the Tennessee’s flow from south to north.
Danny has nodded off in the warmth of the fire despite the steady condensation of my river-blather. I lean back against a boxelder stump, light my pipe, and peruse my topographic charts. Around Branchville and Richmond, three rills form Sinking Creek in the southwest-most corner of Bedford County, followed soon to the north by another small branch slipping down from the heights above Cortner Hollow. On the north end of Cortner Hollow, Cortner Branch rises and flows north in a more or less parallel course and meets Sinking as its primary influence in the upper stretch several miles later. The emboldened Sinking continues north (through three noteworthy braids) and bends course to the northeast and takes on Little Sinking, its primary tributary overall. Little Sinking rise some three miles due south and flows north in a more or less parallel course, a mile east of the mainstream. The creek then, all its principle contributors in order, flows northerly to its Duck River destination, and all told, the Sinking watershed covers a north-south-oriented rectangle of earth, two miles in width, about ten miles in length.
With this important detail out of the way, I can now get down to brass tacks: Vienna Sausages. We decided at an earlier, more critical juncture (when we were already running terribly late) not to worry about hot food. We packed the single-burner for making hot tea in the morning and this seemed extravagance enough. For hunger, I brought tins of processed and, quite frankly, frighteningly finger-like meat-stuff packed in clear jelly. I break the seal on a tin, tear back the top with an unapologetic metallic scrape, and inspect the contents by firelight: a cylinder, a drum, a clip of pale meat bullets. The first one’s always the hardest to extract unmolested, but once it’s removed its absence provides finger-room for niggling a purchase on the others. I proceed in this fashion until all six meat fingers are vanquished. My hunger is sated, but I somehow feel lessened by what was hardly complementary to culinary experience.
I turn over the irony a few times and relight my pipe. Vienna Sausages are antithetical to the reason I seek out river-time at every opportunity. Rivers aren’t packed, inert, covered in gelatin; rivers are never the same way twice. Each experience offers a different taste, a different smell, a different feel. Rivers have always been inconvenient, and to make them convenient we have ruined them, dammed them, leveed them, redirected their flow, regulated them, despoiled them with our effluent, and sucked them dry at times.
But inconvenience is a margin where one can disappear. Vienna Sausages are the epitome of convenience—an unnatural, pulsing pink, interrogative light, the shortest shortcut from base need to fulfillment. Vienna Sausages do not advance us as a species (like, say, a butane lighter does) but hold us hostage to our own complacencies, position us squarely in the center of our own crowded, static predicament. The sound of someone opening a tin of Vienna Sausages is the sound of a hammer drawing back. We’ll never even hear the report. We’ll just wake up dead again, still packed upright in gelatin while rivers, bound and gagged, continue to flow to the seas until they throw off the imposition of humanity once and for all and again go about nourishing the world.