By Thomas Fraser
In many respects, the United States and Native American nations before it were carved out by paddle blades.
Rivers provided transportation, communications, sustenance and avenues for exploration. They were the genesis of cities large and small.
Americans grew apart from the rivers that watered and nurtured a modern nation, their connections cut by outward growth and industrial development along riverbanks.
Only recently have the great continental rivers again become the centerpieces of redevelopment and modern recreation. One such effort officially launched in Knoxville on May 21 aims to further connect communities in four states with their river again.
A bale of turtles watched from logs embedded in the sediment of the Tennessee River (or more precisely, Fort Loudoun Lake) at Suttree Landing Park near downtown as officials from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky celebrated the creation of the Tennessee RiverLine, which will establish continuous paddling, hiking and biking trails along the 652-mile length of the reservoir-regulated river.
The initial effort, which will include enhanced launch and takeout sites, signage and navigational aids, 60 publicly available kayaks, campground enhancement, and publicity, is largely funded by a $400,000 investment shared between the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Valley Authority. The National Park Service is also a partner in the project.
Seventeen private and public groups of the RiverLine Partnership are committed to furthering the development of the trail, including the Nature Conservancy. Other supporters include Muscle Shoals National Heritage Areaand the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
“These partners have brought so much to the city of Knoxville,” said Mayor Indya Kincannon specifically of UT and TVA during her public remarks at the well-choreographed event in the well-groomed park with the downtown skyline visible under a clear, blue sky to the northwest.
“The Tennessee RiverLine is a continuation of our vision for what makes a healthy city: (which includes) parks and recreation,” she said, also touting the economic, therapeutic and spiritual benefits of ready access to outdoor recreation.
“During this past year, we’ve had a really hard time, dealing with the pandemic, and one thing that has helped me, and so many members of this community, is being able to be outside: being on the river, being in our parks,” Kincannon said.
“That has helped us get through some challenging times, and that’s going to help us into the future.”
The city center of Knoxville, which like many early frontier cities was settled in large part because of its proximity to the then-wild river, is about four miles below the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers, where the Tennessee River begins.
It’s also Mile 0 on a paddle trail intended to restore community contact with the river via water and land in the dozens of towns and cities along its riverine route and develop economic investment along the way.
The 652-mile project has headwaters at UTK. A College of Architecture and Design student, Journey Roth, developed the initial plan as part of a studio exercise in 2016.
Brad Collett, an associate professor in the UT Department of Plant Sciences, and a teacher in the UT School of Landscape Architecture, is the director of RiverLine.
Roth’s vision “has since been cultivated by additional students and faculty,” Collett said during an interview after the ceremony had concluded.
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