After eight years of persistent, backbreaking work, the entire navigable length of the North, South and West Chickamauga creeks have been cleared for paddlers thanks to the work of local volunteers logging hundreds of hours on area streams.
"We are all volunteers, and we used our own equipment," Eric Fleming, 28-year member of the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club and leader of paddlers devoting time to the effort, said Monday in a phone interview.
Fleming said he and others put more than 1,900 hours into the work, and now it's time to get the word out to fellow paddlers there are newly-cleared water trails and travel.
"We used to just paddle on the Tennessee River, Sale Creek and Soddy Creek - it was just basically flatwater paddling, and the boats were longer and we used to paddle long and fast down through the Tennessee River Gorge," said Fleming, 72.
Fleming organizes and leads paddling trips for the club, but new technology threw the group a new wave.
"When the paddleboards started coming out around 2013, we found that all the young people with good backs and good knees and good balance were switching to paddleboards. They were very competitive with kayaks as far as speed, and they're cheaper and easier to transport and store," Fleming said.
That good news for paddlers was bad news for the canoe club, he said.
"The average age of the group was getting older and older, and we were losing members. We weren't getting any new people coming in because they were all going to paddleboards," he said. "As a way to rejuvenate the paddling trips I was leading, I decided to clear a section of the creek."
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Fleming said he focused his efforts on a small piece of West Chickamauga Creek in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where a couple of paddle put-in ramps were installed but the creek remained a mess for paddling.
"That was 2014, so me and a buddy ran a trip just to check it out, and it was awful. There were log jams that were 10 feet high and 20 feet deep," he said.
The work was slow and difficult, and Fleming got some help the next season to start working to clear about 4 miles of that portion of the creek, he said.
"We cleared it from Dietz Road downstream to Camp Jordan" in East Ridge, Fleming said, noting with a laugh that the link then gave residents in that part of Georgia a watery path to the Gulf of Mexico via West Chickamauga Creek in Georgia to South Chickamauga Creek to the Tennessee River and on to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Fleming, a native of South Africa, has lived in the Chattanooga area for more than three decades and had experience in sailing and scuba diving before taking up paddle power.
With that early accomplishment, Fleming and anyone he could wrangle into the creek were on a mission to make the area's other major creeks accessible to paddlers, he said. Sometimes the work was mostly trash pick-up, while other times chainsaws were needed.
North Chickamauga Creek appeared on the accessibility radar after a canoe launch ramp was installed several years back, but paddlers found they couldn't travel very far before meeting up with obstructions.
(READ MORE: Petition launched seeking Tennessee Scenic River designation for North Chickamauga Creek)
Fleming and others had helped keep paddling safe in the area of Greenway Farms in Hixson, but the path all the way to the Tennessee River was still blocked here and there, and it soon became part of the access mission, he said.
The work on North Chickamauga Creek was completed in April, and Fleming said the effort to expand paddling access also grew over the years to include parts of the Sequatchie River between Pikeville and the Tennessee River, and the Conasauga River as it winds its way from the Blue Ridge Mountains through Dalton toward the Calhoun area.
Fleming's effort inspired others, among them B.G. Smith, an Ooltewah man who grew up in the Niagara Falls area and started paddling when he was 13.
"I was watching what he was doing, and I thought, 'I can do that,'" Smith, a member of the canoe club and one of those slogging along the creeks to make a way through, said Monday in a phone interview. "So I jumped in with him for about five years."
(READ MORE: Chattanooga joins coalition of towns hoping to make the Tennessee River a distance-paddling mecca)
Smith and Fleming worked together on North Chickamauga Creek to make it safer for paddlers. Smith said paddler safety is the primary goal of the work, but the club needed to woo younger oar-wielders, too. Older paddlers owe new ones the benefit of their experience and safety work.
"There are a lot of newbies on the water that don't understand the activity or the dangers," Smith, 70, said.
— Inflatable belt-pack life jackets need to be worn with the device in front of the body.— Inflatable life jackets are not approved for anyone under age 16.— Do not overload your boat.— Other rules, regulations, and laws may apply — be sure to check.Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Eliminating natural dangers helps make sure everyone gets the most from the experience, he said.
In total, the work made about 100 miles of local streams accessible to paddlers, though new blockages crop up all the time, especially in stormy weather, Fleming said.
That part of the work is ongoing, Fleming said.
Fleming thanked all the volunteers who pitched in over the years on behalf of the paddling public that will reap the benefits for years to come.
It's satisfying work Fleming has found hard to stop.
"I said I was going to stop doing it when I'm 70, and now I'm 72," he laughed.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.
TENNESSEE PADDLE SPORTS LAWS
Human-powered vessels such as canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards fall under state law.— An approved, wearable life jacket for each person must be readily accessible. Throw cushions do not meet this requirement. Life jacket(s) must be on board, not attached by a line or leash.— Children under 13 years old must wear life jackets while underway. Drifting is considered underway.— All paddle craft must be able to exhibit a white light or lantern after sunset or during times of restricted visibility.— Boaters’ state registration cards must be on board if boat is propelled by motor or a trolling motor.— A fishing license is required for anyone age 13 or older assisting or attempting to take fish.— It is unlawful to throw or sink litter from a boat. If a boat turns over, all contents must be retrieved.— It is unlawful to use or possess drugs or controlled substances while boating or paddling.— People under 21 may not use or possess alcohol.— No person shall interfere with the safe operation of any motorboat or vessel.— All boats are subject to inspection.— All navigation rules apply.— Keep a proper lookout at all times.Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency