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Cruising the Cumberland River: spring ushers in an exciting boating season with a timeless cruise that pairs the South's historical past with its vibrant present.


The Cumberland River is a splendid 696-mile aquatic trail that winds its way through some of the most beautiful locales in the Southeast United States. Flowing from east to west, the Cumberland River emerges in eastern Kentucky on the Cumberland Plateau with a wild stretch of rapids, shoals and the 63-foot Cumberland Falls, carves its way from southeastern Kentucky into northern Tennessee and ultimately moves back into Kentucky's western waterway region before emptying into the Ohio River to the west of Smithland, Ky.


The Cumberland River (once known as Warioto by Native Americans and Shauvanon by French traders) received its official name in 1748 from Dr. Thomas Walker to honor England's Prince William (Duke of Cumberland) and cuts its own intriguing route through the storied pages of American history.

Due to the initial efforts of Richard Henderson, The Transylvania Purchase and the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, the area emerged as a passage for hunters and settlers making their way west. The purchase opened a vast territory (composed of all the land between the Cumberland River, the Cumberland Mountains and the Kentucky River, situated south of the Ohio River) to an adventurous group that included the legendary Daniel Boone.

Even though The Transylvania Purchase was later dissolved, other explorers continued their westward journey, establishing settlements along the Cumberland River that grew into modern waterfront communities. In 1780, James Robertson and John Donelson led a group of settlers to a majestic site overlooking the river and founded Ft. Nashborough, which later became Tennessee's capital city of Nashville.



The region also witnessed the intensity of war where many strategic battles of the Civil War were fought, and ruins draw visitors to the river's edge today. And as one of America's first commercial waterways, the Cumberland became a viable vehicle for riverboat trade via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.


The Cumberland River boasts a 381-mile navigational channel comprised of a series of locks and dams as you navigate through the Kentucky and Tennessee landscapes. Fred Myers, an avid cruiser and author of several books who calls Florence, Ala., his homeport, has a wealth of information gathered from firsthand experience.

"We have logged a little over 30,000 miles on the inland river system and have done the entire Cumberland several times," he said. "It's an intimate river. It tends to narrow down; the channels run so close to the rock walls that you can literally reach out and touch them. The navigational channel ends at Celina, Tenn., and I don't recommend going beyond this point, unless you've got a shallow-draft boat."

According to Myers, whose "The Cumberland River Cruise Guide" is a good onboard manual, the river welcomes almost any make and model boat to traverse its relatively unchanging course. "The navigation channel is a minimum of 9 feet with upward of 20 to 50 feet along the way, and there are some anchorage spots that must be navigated carefully. One of the things that is characteristic of the Cumberland is that very, very little of it changes. The waterway stays pretty consistent over the years."



When charting a course for this inland destination, it's important to include several publications in your gear bag. Jeanie and Wes Quigley made their initial Cumberland River journey last summer aboard Miss Ruby, a 42-foot custom-built raised pilothouse trawler outfitted with a single 450 hp Commercial Workboat engine by Scania. Their trip began in early August at Lake Barkley, ended at Cordell Hull Lake and returned to the Tennessee River in late September. "We took our time, and we met a lot of good people."


Wes emphasized the need for some key materials that he and Jeanie found helpful: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer charts, which indicate depths and bridge elevations; fishing charts for nearby lakes, which show anchorages in better detail than the Corps charts; and "The Cumberland River Cruise Guide." "The last two are available at area marinas," Wes said.


For boaters traversing the Great Loop or regional enthusiasts looking to explore new ports of call, the Cumberland River affords a captivating excursion as it flows through mountains and rolling hillsides and blends delightful rural or exciting city scenes against a backdrop that mixes the past with the present.

Myers, who cruised the river aboard a 34-foot American Tug powered by a single Cummins 330 hp diesel, explained that there are two ways to enter the Cumberland River: from the Tennessee River or the Ohio River. "The first (way) is through a free-flowing canal a short distance above Kentucky Lock & Dam on the Tennessee River. The canal connects Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River with Lake Barkley on the Cumberland." Great Loopers can easily gain access from the west--the second way to enter the river--with a detour off the Mississippi River, cruising past Cairo, 111., then turning in to the Ohio River, traversing #53 and #52 locks/dams, passing Paducah, Ky., until reaching the mouth of the Cumberland River at Smithland, Ky. From there, the river takes you into the western Kentucky waterway of Lake Barkley. "Either way, you will be very close to Green Turtle Bay Marina, a favorite gathering place for cruisers," Myers added.

Trailerboaters or people who house their boat in nearby marinas can choose from several start/finish points for an east or west cruise depending upon destination and schedule itineraries. Whatever course you plot, a timeless collection of venues is waiting with diverse sights and sounds.



Clarksville and Nashville, Tenn., rank up there as favorite stops, each boasting a diverse ambience that lures boaters to their ports.

Clarksville lies 40 miles northwest of Nashville and encourages mariners to tie up at its Courtesy Boat Dock (complete with power) at the Cumberland RiverWalk, adjacent to McGregor Park on Riverside Drive. "Simply call the Parks and Recreation Department and ask if you can stay there," Jeanie Quigley said. This redressed waterfront is close to Clarksville's historic and downtown areas, making it an ideal spot to take in the region's natural beauty. "It's just lovely along the entire waterfront," Jeanie said. "There's a park with picnic tables and a nearby boat ramp. It's great for local boaters and transients alike."

The area offers an array of things to see and do while splurging at the restaurants and boutiques that dot Franklin Street. A visit to the Cumberland River Center, with its mesmerizing mural, "As the River Flows," that charts the history of this magnificent river, is a must, and snapping a photo of Tennessee's celebrated Customs House Museum should be on any visitor's list. Its distinctive architectural style makes this former postal facility the second-most photographed building in Tennessee. "The pavilion showcases area history, and the Customs House, within walking distance, has wonderful exhibits that are well worth seeing," Jeanie said.

Be sure to schedule plenty of time to explore Nashville, the vibrant riverfront capital of Tennessee. "It's clearly the focal point of the river," Myers said. "It's a friendly town, a large town that has never lost its country feel." Situated at Mile 190, the city is also strategically located along the river--it's the halfway point of the entire navigational pathway. Music City beckons music enthusiasts to enjoy the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, see a show at the Opry Entertainment Complex (home of the famous Grand Ole Opry and Acuff Theatre) and visit the legendary Ryman Auditorium (original site of the Grand Ole Opry), while sports fans can take in an NFL showdown at nearby Titans Stadium if it's football season.

If you like history, stroll along the river to the site of the original Ft. Nashborough for an educational adventure, or treat yourself to one of the area's great restaurants for a taste of the South. Complete your stay by experiencing a night at The District and Printers Alley (its name comes from the 13 publishers and 10 printers housed here at the turn of the 20th century) for blues and country music performances.


Old Hickory Lake is just a short cruise from the bright lights of Nashville and is a destination in its own right, with an amazing water tour of homes belonging to music industry stars and several marina facilities dotting its 440-mile shoreline.

"Drakes Creek has a travel lift, but it's important to know it's the last repair service facility on the Cumberland going toward Celina," Wes Quigley said. He also noted that full-service Creekwood Marina offers all the conveniences of home, as well as fuel and inexpensive floating dock space.

If you want to slow your pace, the area offers excellent spots to drop anchor and simply relax. "There are some great anchorage spots, especially a favorite of the locals ... Castle Rock. It's noted as such on the charts. Just look for the crowd of boats nearby," Quigley added.

Civil War enthusiasts will no doubt want to stop at Dover, which marks the site of the historic Battle of Ft. Donelson. However, make note that you're going to need a dinghy to make your way ashore, since the area doesn't have public docks.


The Quigleys say the people and incredible points of interest are what the Cumberland is all about. One of Wes's recommendations includes Cordell Hull Lake at the base of the Highland Rim on the Cumberland. Its scenic mountain bluffs, countryside vistas and relics from the Civil War era lure boaters to the area.

"Defeated Creek, on Cordell Hull Lake (just above the lock), is a great place. We anchored there and then took the dinghy ashore at the Army Corps Park," Wes said. Another spot he suggests lies on the Cumberland's western edge. "At Buzzard Rock Restaurant [in Kuttawa, Ky.], there's good food and live country music on Friday and Saturday nights. The marina welcomes boaters with lots of transient dockage. The friendly faces along the Cumberland River really make the trip."

Jeanie shares his enthusiasm for the region and sums up their memorable excursion this way. "We can talk forever about the Cumberland River, the places we've been and the great people we've met. The river is the journey, and it gives you a new sight at every turn. Cruising the Cumberland River is like cruising a piece of ribbon candy ... it winds and twists back and forth ... it's sparkling and beautiful at every turn."

Myers finds the western segment around Grand Rivers, Ky., to be an interesting locale. "On the lower end of the Cumberland, there are four or five marinas along the east side [within the western segment]," Myers said. "Each one is a little different, and boaters might want to spend time at these area marinas." And for those tackling the entire river cruise, Myers has this suggestion: "The topography is always changing ... flat banks, a lot of hills. And on the upper end, there's a peacefulness and solitude that you don't find on many rivers."
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Title Annotation:feature: cumberland river
Author:Kenyon, Bobbye
Publication:Boating World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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