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West Fork Red River Canoe Trip

It has been a long time since I’ve done something “exciting and adventurous”. Too long. I drive over a river every day and pictured myself canoeing down it many miles. About 2 weeks ago I decided to get a canoe and fulfill this desire. I texted a couple of the guys from my unit with a message that read something like “Do you want to go on a difficult and highly dangerous canoe trip?”

Preparing the bail the canoe.

They both said yes, though I think they initially thought it was a professional tour outfit. The reason for the danger was that the rivers in Clarksville were above flood stage and were roaring beasts! I was that desperate to break out and do something.

I began to check out the West Fork Red River upstream of Tiny Town Bridge and came to the conclusion that 3 amateurs, 2 of which had never been in a canoe before, would probably die on this portion. There were too many semi submerged obstructions including an underwater bridge or wall which created a 2 foot waterfall. I spent hours checking Google maps, and driving to every bridge and road accessible portion of the river I could. The only doable portion was the downstream portion.

Here I'm scouting a section of the West Fork Red River.

My next problem was that I did not actually own a canoe, so I kept checking out Craigslist and finally found a 17 foot Coleman canoe about 1 hour away. I got him to come down $50 to what I figured I could get for the canoe if I later sold it, and then tied it to the roof of Mighty Merc. We were off. The next steps were to float test it in a body of water (success!) find a take out point (done!) and then get permission from some home owner near Tiny Town Bridge to launch from (achieved!). I spent hours going from store to store looking for cheap life jackets before finally finding some in the PX. I would later find out that the guys didn’t want to wear them.

The canoe was full of water when we bought it, but at least we knew it would hold water. Would it keep it out?

Securing it to Mighty Merc.

The first float test.

On the day of the trip, I dropped off the canoe with Susan’s help, then drove my car to the pick up point. While there I assisted some Koreans who had backed down a muddy boat ramp and then couldn’t get back up. My two compadres arrived and we returned to that canoe in their car. Thankfully in the last few days the Cumberland had dropped nearly 10 feet from peak, and the other rivers had gone down a good bit as well. We launched the canoe about noonish I think and almost immediately came upon some rapids. We reached our maximum speed for the trip of 7.7mph (GPS) and then spun out 180 degrees in the turbulent water. We were all freaked out a tad as we were sure that was going to be the end of us! Thankfully, we had ended up in a bit of calm water and were able to reorient and resume our path.

Here and there we encountered logs and rocks. The most notable bit was Billy Dunlop Park where the water was so shallow in one place we were scraping bottom pretty hard. Our speed was around 3-4mph during this point but was beginning to slow down. Then we saw ahead a huge log jam. With no way through, we had to pull out and go around it. The first challenge was getting up the steep, slippery bank. Mac tried, but failed. It took shoving my fingers into the mud past my first knuckles, and kicking my toes into the bank but I got to the top. I tied off a rope which allowed the others to reach the top. We scouted ahead, then returned to empty the canoe and pull it up. We dragged it across a field and into the trees again, made a small hop across the river to an island, then past another log jam before launching off the island. The river was fairly slow now, and the log jam had taken us over 40 minutes to get around it. We must start picking up some speed.

View of the river.

Trying the climb the hill at the first log jam.

Failed attempt at getting up the steep bank.

Sandoval scouts the island at the first log jam.

We get ready to drag the canoe around the first log jam.

Just before the 101st Airborne Division Parkway bridge we encountered another log jam. Again we had to pull up and go around. Only this time the relaunch point was 8 feet down a steep bank. I secured our stuff to the canoe, then dumped it into the river bow first. Unfortunately, it rolled 90 degrees taking on 4 inches of water. We all thought the canoe would continue to roll over and sink but it righted itself. The few unsecured items floated about, including Sandoval’s loaf of bread sent from his family. I had a waterproof bag but the others had just their backpacks which got a bit wet. Sandoval began to unfasten things figuring he could tip the water out, but I told him we’d have to bail it out. The terrible tragedy was that he ended up opening up my waterproof bag which then got all wet inside… We had only Sandoval’s bread knife and since we lacked a bailing scoop, we had to cut apart a Sandoval’s water jug. He bailed out a couple of inches and we started off. I bailed out the rest of the water as we continued.

Near the second log jam, we found this abandoned structure.

The structure at the second log jam.

Just prior to launching the canoe around the second log jam.

He actually considered riding the canoe down into the river.

Making a bailing scoop.

The rest of the trip was pretty smooth. It was getting late and we paddled down the river as fast as we could to get to the park before dark. Soon we reached the Red River itself, which smelled like sewer. We all became really fearful of tipping the canoe into the disgusting water. Thankfully, we had only about mile to go before reaching the mighty Cumberland. We were all very concerned about getting swept into the current and blowing past out take out point, but this did not turn out to be a problem. We reached the take out point quickly as we were moving at 4-5 mph.

The Cumberland River.

Approaching our takeout spot.

Great trip, can’t wait until the next one!

The author.

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