Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Tennessee Mountains
By Vernon and Cathy Summerlin
[Fig. 10] The Obed Wild and Scenic River system is a unit in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, one of only seven such units within the southeastern United States and the only one within Tennessee.
Located in Morgan and Cumberland counties, the Obed winds through a deep sandstone gorge with walls that sometimes tower up to 400 feet above the riverbed. It is a unique scenic resource, with unusual geologic features and an abundance of plant and animal life. The total acreage proposed within the unit is approximately 5,057 acres, which includes portions of the waters, stream bed, and lands adjoining 45.2 miles of the Obed River, two of its tributaries, Clear Creek and Daddys Creek, and the Emory River. To date, over 3,000 acres have been acquired, and it is possible that the total acreage could be expanded in the future to protect the water quality in some of the Obed's major tributary streams.
The area has historically rebuffed settlers, mainly because of the rugged terrain and poor soil. However, it was a rich seasonal hunting ground for the Indians and longhunters, and that portion of the river that passes through the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area still abounds with game and fish. This part of the unit is closed during the months of February and March and is closed to all except hunters during the big game hunts in the fall and spring (see Catoosa WMA, page 64).
[Fig. 10(5)] The Obed/Emory River system is a free-flowing river system of clean, clear water cut deeply into the Cumberland Plateau and is a major drainage system of the northern half of the plateau. It took millions of years for the streams to cut into the hard sandstone caprock. The rivers are celebrated for their steep gorges with undercut gorge walls, semi-truck_sized boulders, narrow and blind passages, and whitewater drops.
The Obed/Emory requires skillful maneuvering. Many a craft has been bent and broken when water crushed it against the rocks. Much of the river is inaccessible and there is only one way outwalking. Careful planning, studying the route, and meticulous preparations will save you much discomfort, and even your life. But running the river system is the one way to see the natural beauty sculptured and forested over the last 200 million years. Huge hemlocks, white pines, rhododendrons, and mountain laurels make up this canyon forest. Deer, turkey, hawks, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and copperheads make their living here too.
This Obed/Emory River flows without the assistance of dams to provide current. The dry season is the time to plan, not navigate. A good rain will raise the water level within hours, providing exciting whitewater access to the scenic gorges that run through a true wilderness.
It's 35 miles from the put-in at the US 127 bridge on the Obed River to the take-out at Nemo's Bridge on the Emory River. Only the most skilled try the first 10 miles of the run from US 127 to Adams Bridge on Genesis Road north of Crossville. Select the section of river that suits your paddling expertise.
Although there are other rivers in the Obed/Emory River watershed to run, none takes on the mystique or offers better bragging rights than a trip down the Obed/Emory River, which contains the only Class V rapids. Daddys Creek, Lower Islands Creek, Crooked Creek, Crab Orchard Creek, Clear Creek, and White Creek offer exciting runs ranging from Class II to Class IV rides.
This is the uppermost run on the Obed River, but, of all the runs, this is the one to avoid because of the level of difficulty. Also, this wild and scenic section in Cumberland County is not part of the official National Wild and Scenic River. This 10-mile stretch is known as Goulds Bend Run.
It begins with an easy float until the bottom drops out to a descent of 80 feet per mile. Goulds Bend Run contains the most complex and difficult rapids to negotiate. Knucklebuster and Hellhole rapids rate a Class IV. The rapids named the Esses, or SSS's (two sharp 90-degree turns) should be portaged on the right. Monte Smith, in his book A Paddler's Guide to the Obed/Emory Watershed, calls the Esses a Class V. Bob Sehlinger and Bob Lantz in their A Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to the Streams of Tennessee, Volume II, rank it a Class IV. To err on the side of safety, consider it a Class V.
Expect many Class II rapids in this run as well as a couple Class III rapids. The first 1.5 miles could be considered boring, flat with little current, but the middle 1.5 miles are too difficult for novice paddlers. At the end of the middle section is Billy Goat Bluff rapids, a difficult Class III. It should be scouted before attempting to run it. The last section of this run to Potters Ford is fairly placid.
The run from Potters Ford to the Obed Junction where Daddys Creek flows into the Obed River is a long run with many Class II rides and one Class III. Two dangerous places to be aware of are two undercut rocks. A skillful paddler should be able to avoid these at times of moderate water flow. Smith recommends this section to those running the river for the first time, but he states it is a moderate to difficult run requiring whitewater experience.
This is the outstanding run. Below the confluence of Daddys Creek the water volume doubles in the Obed River, the gorge steepens and deepens, the scenery is gorgeous, and there are the 90 Right-90 Left, the Ohmigod!, and the Rockgarden rapids prefaced by many difficult Class II rides. This run is for experienced paddlers only.
The Omigod! is a notorious craft-killer. It should be scouted on the left. Most paddlers forego the thrill of running the Rockgarden, a Class IV ride, and portage around itit's a man-killer.
Next is the confluence with Clear Creek that forms a long run of rapids, but the life-threatening thrills are over. Many difficult Class II rapids and two Class IIIs are coming, the Keep Right and the Widowmaker. Class IIs complete the last section of the Obed River before it gives way to the Emory River.
The Emory River, much smaller than the Obed River, enters quietly and bends sharply to the right. The remaining river mile to the Nemo Bridge has two Class II rides. About 200 yards below the bridge is a Class III ride called Nemo Rapid.
Before running any of the Obed/Emory River sections consult with an experienced outfitter or the Obed Wild and Scenic River headquarters in Wartburg. Be aware that the class of the rapids will increase with increased river flow.