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Novice explorers discover 'Northwest Passage' to restaurant on Pigeon Forge river

Jeff Bobo • May 27, 2020 at 6:00 PM

Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, on Saturday, May 23, 2020, a group of intrepid explorers from Kingsport departed the Riverbend Campground in Pigeon Forge, floating along the Western Prong of the Little Pigeon River with limited knowledge of what lay ahead.

Our plan was to discover the “Northwest Passage” between the campground and the Apple Barn restaurant. Unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, no one in our party had done a bit of research, looked at a map, or knew if the river even led to that destination.

For all we knew, we were floating to Asheville, N.C., or maybe the Gulf of Mexico.

There was no turning back

The voyage reminded me of the Joseph Conrad novel “Heart of Darkness,” in which protagonist Charles Marlow travels through the thick jungle up the uncharted Congo River — except that in our voyage we had the occasional riverside condominium complex jutting out of the impenetrable wilderness.

Marlow recounted, “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. … The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.”

In other words, this was a one-way voyage. Once we began, there was no turning back. The current was too swift, the rock ledges were too steep and the tree-lined shoreline impassible. It was Apple Barn or bust (as in busted floats).

“Most likely to perish first on the voyage”

The party consisted of first-time kayakers Tyler Brooks, who led the way, and his wife, Ashley, who was described by the others as “expendable” and “most likely to perish first on the voyage.”

Ashley attempted the expedition in a kayak built for a child and almost immediately began taking on water, bringing along no means with which to bail it out.

Exerting minimum effort during the expedition were their daughter Keirsten and her friend Nava, who shared a $10 double tube from Walmart filled with snacks in the middle cooler that they definitely weren’t sharing. Tyler pulled them through most of the danger areas, or they would have been shipwrecked and lost for sure.

Bringing up the rear were Trevor Brooks and his daughter Marley Belle, who shared another cheapo Walmart double tube and had the wisdom to lie back and watch how the others managed the treacherous obstacles ahead of them and learn from our mistakes.

And then there was me on a flimsy Walmart tube float, who decided to tag along at the last second because someone had to survive and explain to the coroner what had happened.

A bump on the bum was the least of our worries

We had been at that same campground the previous weekend when the river was mostly ankle- to knee-deep, and a tubing expedition would have been impossible. On Saturday, however, the creek was up a good 18 inches in most spots thanks to almost nonstop rain.

Still, I hit my bum on a rock a couple of times in the shallows, and learned to straighten my body like a plank when necessary to keep my rear end out of danger.

On this journey, a bump on the bum was the least of our worries. We had no idea what we were floating into. A waterfall? A sewer treatment discharge station? The mountain people who inspired the film “Deliverance”? Who knew?

The natural predators of cheapo Walmart floats

What we discovered were five major bends in the river. As we approached each one, the current wanted to slam us into the shore, where we would be met by rocks and tree limbs — the natural predators of cheapo Walmart floats.

Tyler and Ashley had paddles for their kayaks. Keirsten and Nava held on to the back of Tyler’s kayak. Trevor had a big stick to put between himself and danger. As for me, there were only the oars I was born with, which meant a lot of frantic hand-paddling.

The unmistakable sound of rushing water

Then we’d hit a slow, calm area, and be like, “Wow. This isn’t so bad.” About the time our nerves had recovered from the last near disaster, we’d hear the unmistakable sound of rushing water again up ahead.

Imagine riding Smoky Mountain River Rampage at Dollywood on a $10 Walmart float with jagged rocks and trees sticking out of the water.

At one point we came upon a tree downed across the river. I followed Tyler’s route around the treetop close to the shore and hit my bum on a rock, but thankfully didn’t pop the float.

Ashley chose — for reasons known only to her — to go under the tree in the spot where the limbs and leaves were thickest. And Trevor, having seen that none of his predecessors made the right choice, picked the correct (and most obvious) route under the section of tree where there was less foliage.

Worried that this river didn’t lead anywhere

The only part that really scared me was the very last set of rapids. There were two large, jagged rocks sticking out of the water. I had been preoccupied with my own paddling and didn’t see how Tyler and his group made it through.

There were two options, and I had to make a split second decision because the current was swift. I chose to go between the two rocks, rather than between a rock and shore. That turned out to be correct, because as I shot through that gap I noticed float-killing limbs and rocks just below the surface of the water beside the shore.

At one point I was getting a little worried that this river didn’t lead anywhere. We went a LONG way without seeing any signs of civilization. Then I noticed the smokestack of the Titanic Museum sticking out above the tree line and I knew we weren’t lost.

I should also mention that the water was very cold, and after 90 minutes my feet and my bum were numb.

You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert

Then, when I had nearly given up any hope of ever being dry and warm again, I heard Tyler yell, “There it is! We’re here!”

Success!!! At long last, we had proven that there was an incredibly dangerous, freezing cold, 90-minute alternative route to the five-minute drive between the Riverbend Campground and Apple Barn restaurant.

History books might not treat our discovery as kindly as they did Louis and Clark, and that’s OK. We survived our own personal “Heart of Darkness.” I’d like to see Sacagawea paddle through freezing cold rapids for 90 minutes on a Walmart float.

Joseph Conrad, in a passage from “Heart of Darkness,” best summed up my thoughts on the experience.

“You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert. ... Afterwards he arose and went out — and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again.”

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