First lets meet our paddlers. My wife and I in an '85 Old Town Tripper. That's a big, long 17' 2" tandem canoe. We paddled with another couple in a Discovery 158. (Obviously that's 15' 8" in length). My wife and I are intermediate paddlers with many years experience while our friends have only been in a canoe on maybe 4 other occasions.
Where? We paddled the uppermost runnable sections of the Clear Fork River in northcentral Tennessee. Our put in was Gatewood Bridge and we ran a double section down past Peter's Ford to the next takeout at Brewster Bridge. The Clear Fork combines with Tennessee's New River to form the better known Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The whole Big South Fork area is a paddlers paradise with many trip options for every skill level.
Water Level: 600 on the Clear Fork gauge at the USGS website. (which compares to 1800 cfs for the Leatherwood Ford gauge on the Big South Fork also on the USGS site) This is more than adequate flow. I am told that minimum for this run is 200 cfs on the Clear Fork Guage/1000 cfs BSF)
Trip Description: Putting in at Gatewood Bridge we had a nice long pool initally which put our friends at ease and gave us all a chance to get comfortable. The river here is narrow and intimate with boulders lining both sides of the river. We are still somewhat high on the Cumberland Plateau at this point, but the river is showing signs of cutting into the rock. Our first rapid was a two-foot drop through a narrow chute. Very easy and fun. The scenery has become quite beautiful with the clean green water rushing and splashing through the boulders. The rapids became quite frequent, some quite long. However, they were not dangerous and not terribly difficult. At one point we were forced to go left around a large pile of rocks because the straight path had too many ill-placed boulders to get through. Probably should have scouted before committing, because my wife freaked out midway through the detour and grabbed a tree branch fearing that we were going to crash into some large boulders downstream. (I didn't think that was going to happen but I played along) We ferried over to the boulder pile and carried through. Our friends portaged the whole thing on river right. More nice rapids followed. The wives chose to walk three sets of these nice rapids giving me and my friend the opportunity to run each of those rapids twice. The last mile and a half before Peter's Ford Bridge was the best stretch of the day with one rapid being a borderline class III. All other rapids are II or II+.
Below Peter's Ford, the river settles down a bit with some long pools interspersed with small rapids. This section had maybe the longest rapids of the trip however which was fun, giving us a chance to practice eddy hopping to exercise our water reading skills. In all we paddled about 12 miles and never saw a soul. The water level was perfect for our skill level. Not too low to be overly technical, yet not too high to push us into any of the omnipresent boulders. I highly recommend this trip (particularly the section from Gatewood to Peter's Ford) for anyone who is looking for exciting but not scary whitewater or who enjoys a beautiful escape from civilization. The Peter's Ford Bridge marks the boundary for the federally managed Big South Fork National River Recreation Area, so canoe camping demands consideration as well. Below our take-out at Brewster Bridge the river picks up gradient as it gets more serious about falling off the plateau. I have yet to paddle that stretch, but I have heard that it is wonderful as well. Just a bit more intense. If you do put in at Brewster Bridge, do not miss your takeout at Burnt Mill or you will be heading into the biggest water in all the BSF area. Below that hairy gorge section (say, from Leatherwood Ford downstream) the BSF becomes calmer and is more suited for mild whitewater and canoe camping. There are about 25 more miles of paddling before you begin to encounter the backwater of Lake Cumby.
We stayed at Pickett State Park near Jamestown. I have stayed there on several occasions and love it. They have several "rustic" cabins that were built of stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 30's. They have been updated with plumbing and electric yet have that great, old rustic smell and feel. They also have newer "deluxe" 3 bedroom cabins that are huge. All have fireplaces and free wood, grills picnic tables yadda yadda yadda. Camping can be done there as well or inside the BSF at a number of developed campgrounds or at private campgrounds (one I have stayed at is Laurel Campground)
I don't know where you are coming from so hey, get a map. Basically this area lies just west of I-75 in central Tennessee just south of the Kentucky line. For those who are familiar with Lake Cumberland find that, then go upstream. If you get to the dam you've gone the wrong way.
I used Bob Sehlinger's Canoeing guide to the streams and rivers of Tennessee vol 2 (or was it vol one?) Anyway it's the red one and not the blue one. I also obtained a very nice map from the feds at the Big South Fork visitors center. Go online and they will send you the map. Please note that the section from our put in at Gatewood Bridge to Peter's Ford (the more fun section) is not within the federally managed area and hence not on that otherwise great map)