Staff Photo by Dan Henry Cassandra Laracuente, left, takes photos of the Tennessee River Blueway as Holly Sorondo, right, holds her six-month-old grandson Damien Laracuente at the Raccoon Mountain visitors center overlook on Monday.
Don Oliver and Jim Ledbetter paddled portions of West Chickamauga and South Chickamauga creeks over the weekend with a mission.
In their minds, Mr. Oliver, the attorney for Walker County, Ga., and Mr. Ledbetter, an avid canoeist, kayaker and member of the South Chickamauga Creek Alliance, mapped launching ramps and facilities on the North Georgia portions of the creeks. The men hope to add them to the Tennessee River Blueway.
A blueway -- something like a greenway on water -- is the newest eco-tourism and recreational business opportunity.
The push is on to make major extensions to the Tennessee River Blueway's existing 46 miles. The blueway, designated in 2002, now runs through Chattanooga from the Chickamauga Dam to the Nickajack Dam.
But the U.S. National Park Service, along with several multi-state groups and TVA's recreation program officials, has bigger plans. The groups want to grow the Tennessee River Blueway to cover all 652 miles of the river and an equally daunting number of river tributaries, including Georgia's West Chickamauga, South Chickamauga and Lookout creeks, as well as Alabama's portion of the Tennessee River and tributaries such as the Clinch, Hiwassee and Tellico rivers.
"It's a resource," said Jeff Duncan, head of the National Park Service's Southeastern Rivers Program. "Water trails offer the potential for stimulating economic growth by promoting adventure tourism. And unlike a greenway, you don't have to build it. The water's already there."
Making a plan
Last month at the Southeast Watershed Forum in Chattanooga, Mr. Duncan pulled together a room of river experts and enthusiasts to begin listing public land along the potential new water trails and to make a plan.
"This is an opportunity to discuss how water trails are a means for bringing both water awareness and economic development to our region," he told the group, which included members of nonprofit groups such as the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and the Chattanooga Nature Center.
Both the trust and the Nature Center already offer campsites and launches on the river. The Nature Center even has a Paddler's Perch -- a tree house on steroids that offers rowers an overnight stop-over.
At the forum, TVA and Tennessee state park officials agreed to talk with their superiors and begin inventorying public land that already have launches and campsites available or are suitable for facilities.
But Mr. Ledbetter and Mr. Oliver say they need no more convincing.
Mr. Oliver sees potential revenue for the Northwest Georgia towns of Chickamauga and Fort Oglethorpe.
And Mr. Ledbetter believes if the public has ready access to the creeks, people will appreciate the waterways and take more care to keep them clean and unpolluted.
West Chickamauga flows through the towns and beside the Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Park before it merges with South Chickamauga Creek and flows north into Camp Jordan near East Ridge, then on to empty into the Tennessee River in the Amnicola area.
Mr. Duncan said such partnerships are catching on all across the country.
One of the best examples is the Alabama Scenic River Trail, which originates in North Georgia and moves along the Coosa River south through Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico.
Billed as the nation's longest one-state river trail, the nearly 2-year-old 630-mile blueway winds its way across nine lakes, through wildlife preserves and steep stone cliffs to the secluded creeks of the Delta region to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and historic Fort Morgan.
The trail's executive director, Jim Felder, said the group just received a $7,500 grant from the Alabama Department of Agriculture to produce a guidebook for the portion of the Tennessee River that flows through Alabama into the Alabama Scenic River Trail system.
"It lengthens our blueway system to almost 1,000 miles," Mr. Felder said.
And by leveraging the guide money, he expects to receive additional grants to build new launches and campsites, erect signs and promote the waterway effort, he said.
"Our goal is to have campsites about 10 miles apart," Mr. Felder said.
Ruth Thompson, events coordinator for Outdoor Chattanooga, said a riverwide extension of the Tennessee River Blueway through the city is "an incredible idea."
"There is a very big market out there for this kind of experience -- a multi-day paddling experience," she said.
Filling that market will bring families on a budget to Chattanooga, she said.
"Loading up a couple of canoes and camping gear is less expensive that going to Disney World," she said.
But it doesn't mean families don't spend money here.
Ms. Thompson said some adventurers make their first Chattanooga stop to camp on McClellan Island, then they take the water taxi ashore and shop, see the sites, eat at a restaurant, maybe even credit-card camp in a hotel.
The next day, they may take to the river again, spending the night at the Nature Center's Paddler's Perch before they row on to camp in the Gorge before floating on down the river to Hale's Bar to pay for a night in a floating cabin there, she said.
That's the kind of recreational tourism interest Mr. Oliver hopes to see in Chickamauga, where one shore of West Chickamauga Creek is along the boundary of America's oldest national military park.
"There's lots of opportunities for historical tourism there," he said. "Chattanooga has done a good job with its blueway effort so far, and we want to build on their success and extend it on up these creeks."
From Chickamauga to Camp Jordan in East Ridge is about 10 miles as crow flies, he said, but the meandering of the creek makes it about 20 miles on water -- about a 10-hour paddling trip.
So Mr. Oliver has been talking to Fort Oglethorpe officials, hoping they, too, will get involved.
Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Ron Goulart said Monday his city is very interested.
"I'm already excited about it, and I don't even own a canoe," he said. "We're onboard, and we'll be doing whatever we have to do to make it happen."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...