Duck River in Tennessee

by  guest-paddler

A self-supported trip created by guest-paddler

Trip Overview

This was originally planned as an extended trip down the entire length of the river from Normandy, Tennessee to the Tennessee River, about 240 miles. Unfortunately weather and the cancellation of my paddling buddies force the shortening of the trip. The drive from Tallahassee, Florida to Shelbyville/Tullahoma, Tennessee was relatively quick. It took about seven hours from Tallahassee not counting stops. My wife, her father, and I made the trip.

After checking into a motel in Tullahoma we drove out to the start point at the Dement Road bridge, between Tullahoma and Shelbyville. This is good access point with a gravel parking area. There is a cement ladder here, but the best canoe/kayak launch is under the bridge just down stream from the ladder.

After scouting this, we drove down to Shelbyville to check out the dam and the portage around it. This portage involves a carry of about 75 to 100 yards. The best place to reload and launch after the carry is on a gravel bar just below the dam.

We turned in early in order to get a start at dawn. My wife needed to get on the road home in order to be at work the next day, and I didnt want her to be driving too late in the evening.

We headed over to the river, at Dement Bridge, about 7:00 AM. My father-in-law had by now started referring to this as demented bridge, perhaps his assessment of the whole exercise.

There was frost on the boat, but the weather was clear with a predicted high of about 70 degrees. It was great weather for paddling. By the time that we drove to the river, loaded the boat, and launched it was about 9:00 AM. This was a little later than I wanted, and it caused me to rush the packing. As a result, I left a bag of essential cold weather clothing that contributed to my ending the trip much sooner than planned.

Within the first half mile, I came to a blind 90 degree bend in the river with the sound of water rushing over rocks. While I was aware of a drop ahead from my previous reading about the river, I was a little surprised when confronted with the reality. I pulled over, got out, and scouted the stream. This turned out to be a relatively easy run in the boat so I hopped in, lined up, and shot the first of what turned out to be about 50 drops over the 60 miles of river that I covered.

The pool and drop nature of the river surprised me. My research indicated a relatively free flowing river with occasional riffles. I paddle a 16 foot Prijon Seayak. This is a very stable, straight tracking boat that handles waves and big water quite well. It is great for paddling most Florida rivers. It does not do as well when running rivers requiring sharp turns and avoiding rocks by nimbly side slipping across a current. By the end of the 60 mile trip, I collected several scrapes that look as though they will require some filler.

There were a large number of wood ducks and mallards along this section of the river, along with kingfishers, deer, one mink, numerous turtles, and uncountable shells of the mussels for which this river is known. Coming around a bend in the river I saw a deer and heard it let out a squeal something like a startled pig. This is the first time I have heard a deer make any noise other than a snort.

The few miles downstream from the US 41A bridge to the head of the pool above the Shelbyville dam were more challenging than the first ten miles of the trip. The channel divided, gravel bars occurred more frequently, deadfalls and sweepers abounded concurrent with overhanging vegetation. Along this section I discovered that the best way to get through the drops was to pull the rudder up to increase maneuverability. The current will catch a down turned rudder and pull the boat places that you dont want to go. A log protruding from the river bank caught me full in the chest. Thank God for secondary stability. After this, the rudder came up before each drop.

About two miles before the Shelbyville dam, the river again slows and forms a long pool. This is a section that seems to be within the city limits. I had been trying to identify a suitable campsite just prior to this, but had no luck. There is definitely no place to camp within the city above the dam and very few below. This late in the day left me too tired to appreciate the scenery and I still had a portage ahead.

I reached the dam at about 6:00 pm with the light fading. I unloaded, toted, and reloaded as quickly as possible. Fortunately a man and his wife drove up in a new Buick and helped me to carry the boat around the dam. He was from Alabama and in town looking at homes. He is retired from the military and planned to move closer to Murfreesboro to be near the Veterans Hospital. I assessed that married Buick drivers should be reasonably stable non violent people, so I had no reservations about asking him for help.

Darkness was closing in and I got in the boat and continued looking for a place to set up a tent. The local homeless population seems to have taken the best spot so I kept going and just a few minutes before dark, I pulled in to a rock ledge under a bluff and set up the tent. Foam sleeping pads are a wonderful invention.

The weather forecast for the next day predicted showers for the morning and high winds and heavy rain for the evening. I decided to get up at first light and hit the river in order to beat most of the bad weather. I also decided that if I could get an early enough start, I would try to pull in for the evening between 3:00 and 4:00 PM.

This was not a restful night. I do not recommend setting up a tent inside a city limit unless you are a kid in your familys back yard. Apparently I was below someones house. This someone owned a very large, loud hound that made its presence known about 2:30 AM. He also let me know of his whereabouts at 3:00 AM, 3:15 AM, etc. The city trash collection trucks also run early, making their pick ups before dawn. And there is a train yard somewhere close by.

I had covered 22 miles at an average moving speed of 3.3 miles per hour. Not bad.

The day started out with rain. I was able to get the tent down and stowed with minimal dampness. I launched the boat just at the start of a light shower. The wind was beginning a few fitful gusts but the bluffs along the river protected me from much of the effects. The grey weather and forecast for rain throughout the day contributed to no people being on the river. I saw no one at any point throughout the day.

Once out of the city limits, the river became a much prettier place to paddle. There are some beautiful high rock bluffs with caves and undercuts. There were also some tricky drops to run. Most of these were class I drops with an occasional class II, no problem for the proper boat. I found myself however, being cautious and pulling out frequently to scout many of the drops. It is unnerving for a Florida boy to look downstream and see what appears to be a gap in the river.

These gaps are the optical illusion of a 12 to 18 inch drop that is easily floated by staying in the V. Not so easy is deciding which channel to follow when going around a gravel island, especially ones with blind turns. One channel may only be an inch deep over gravel. The next channel may be deep enough and straight but lead to a strainer or sweeper. Then another may involve negotiating a series of 50 to 90 degree turns with most of the current pushing in directions that you may not want to go.

Despite the runoff from the rain, the water in the river was relatively clear. I could see the bottom of the shallower sections down to about four feet. Many sections of the river were running less than three feet in depth at this time of year, giving me a chance to appreciate the makeup of the river bed. There were frequent sections of what appeared to be solid rock, however, most of the bed appeared to be gravel. Drifting through some of the pools, I was able to spot some small mouth bass near the surface. While resting along a gravel bar, I was also able to spot some of the small darters that rescued this river from a dam proposed by the TVA in the 1970s but later canceled during the Carter administration.

The question for this days travel was Do I enjoy the scenery while going through the pools or do I spend the time thinking about what may be at the next drop? Had the weather been warm and dry, this would have been a great part of the trip. Plenty of wildlife was along the banks and the bluffs and fall leaves were spectacular. The continued drizzly rain took the edge off the enjoyment of this. Negotiating the drops would have been a pleasant challenge in warm weather. The absence of a companion increased the consequences of mistakes at the drops and increased the need for caution. This caution required frequently exiting the boat with each exit increasing the intake of water into the craft due to rain, wet shoes, etc.

This weather and caution also had me keeping the camera in the boat. I would like to have gotten more pictures, by this was not possible without the possibility of ruining the camera.

About 3:00 PM, the skies began to darken more ominously and I began looking for a place to camp. About 4:00 PM I pulled in to a gravel bar that rose to about two and one-half feet above the river level. This seemed sufficient height above the possibility of rising water, however, I had a nagging feeling that I should have found a spot higher above the river. Fatigue and deteriorating weather conditions had a lot to do with the decision. I wanted the tent up and a hot meal before heavier rain would hit.

Setting up the tent went quickly enough and everything was reasonably dry at this point. I made a mistake in taking out my clothing bags from the waterproof compartment of the kayak. As the evening progressed and the rain and wind grew heavier, dampness began to seep into the clothing. It was also at this point that I discovered that the bag with my cold weather clothing was missing. This left me with nothing but short sleeved cotton shirts for the trip. They dont call cotton death cloth for no reason. When damp, cotton takes a long time to dry and sucks out body heat. This was not a good situation when the weather reports for the coming few days indicated more rain and temperatures plunging into the 30s.

As night progressed, the wind and rain increased. I carried a radio with a weather channel and I occasionally turned it on for alerts. Apparently this part of Tennessee was experiencing the remnants of a Pacific tropical storm that had already flooded parts of Texas. Winds were steady at 35 miles per hours with gust up to 45 miles per hour. About 100 miles east of my location someone had recorded a wind gust of 105. Throughout much of the night I would stick my head outside the tent and shine a flashlight on the river to see if it was rising. A possibility of a flashflood existed. There was also no cell phone service along this section of river.

About 3:30 AM the winds and rain slackened and I slept until 8:00 AM.

I arose to find everything damp except the food bags that I left in the kayak. Some breaks were visible in the clouds, but brief light showers were still occurring. I got the stove going and fixed some coffee and had a meal replacement bar for breakfast.

As I packed, I realized that I had covered about 44 miles total since leaving Dement Bridge. Moving at about 3.2 miles per hour, I calculated that I could make the 15 miles to Henry Horton State Park by mid afternoon without too much strain. I would then have the option of staying at the camp ground or in the lodge in the park. Given that I was wet and cold, the thought of staying in a warm, dry room was very appealing.

The weather gradually improved throughout the day. The rain slackened from a drizzle to a mist and soon to a hint of sunshine. As the weather improved, so did my appreciation of the sights along the river. I passed many high bluffs crowned with red, golden and orange foliage, indicating that the fall season had arrived. I passed one bluff with a very large cave in the wall. Unfortunately, there was a very large orange no trespassing sign hung right across the mouth. While I have no desire to walk inside a cave, I would like to have landed and at least looked in the mouth.

The amount of wildlife seemed to increase along the river. I frequently saw fish striking insects at the surface of the water and occasionally glimpsed what appeared to be two to three pound smallmouth in the water. Wild turkey are on the increase in Tennessee. As I rounded a bend in the river, it became common to see groups of 3 to 5. At one point, I counted a flock of over thirty turkeys on a large gravel bar. This is easily the largest flock of wild turkeys that I have seen.

Another delightful treat was spotting a pair of otter playing in the river. They seemed cautious, but unafraid of my approach. They would cruise a few feet under water leaving a trail of bubbles then pop their heads out of the water to see if I was still following them. I was told that otter had been trapped out and had only recently been seen back in the Duck River.

For the third day, deer appeared along the river.

I arrived at Henry Horton State Park about 1:30 PM just in time for a last minute run through the buffet line at the restaurant. I must have looked a mess, hat on, wet clothes, but with a smile on my face. The restaurant staff seemed unfazed at my appearance. I was also the only person at this hour so there was no risk that I would offend other customers.

After a quick hot lunch, I went to the lodge to book a room. Despite my appearance, the staff accepted my credit card and I booked a one night stay with the option of staying longer should the weather and river conditions dictate. The staff at the lodge was very helpful and understanding and called a ranger to bring a truck down to the boat landing to transport my kayak and gear about a half mile to the lodge. It must have been a slow day for the rangers. By the time I walked back to the boat, three rangers were there and very pleasant and helpful in loading the boat.

At this point, I began to assess the probability of continuing the trip. The weather report for the next day was for great weather, but was tempered by the forecast for torrential rains the following day and a long term forecast of two days rain for each day of good weather. I decided to wait to talk with Doug Murphy, executive director of the Duck River Agency before making a final decision, which by this time was leaning heavily to postponing the rest of the trip till late spring or early summer.

The total mileage covered was 60 miles at a moving average of 3.1 miles per hour.

I used this day to dry out and repack most of the gear and to think about continuing the trip as planned. The day started out misty, but around 11:00 AM began to clear. The afternoon turned out to be warm and sunny and would have been beautiful traveling weather.

I called Doug Murphy at the Duck River Agency and he offered to come by that afternoon and scout the dam at Milltown. Doug has recently assumed directorship of the agency after a long stint with the Tennessee Valley Authority. In part, I believe he came to meet the person who was obsessive enough to want to paddle the length of the Duck River.

On our way to Milltown, about an eight mile drive from Henry Horton Park, we discussed the conditions of the river. He is actively trying to establish education programs for young Tennesseans about the river and its importance as a wildlife and economic resource. Water quality is extremely important to the communities within the watershed area who draw their drinking water from the area. For example, the pool above the Milltown dam is the primary source of drinking water for the community of Chapel Hill. Anything that flows or is tossed into the river upstream could adversely affect the water quality.

The state of Tennessee maintains a boat landing about 200 yards downstream from the dam. This landing is a good put in for a trip through part of the scenic section of the river to Columbia. A foot path leads to the dam itself. The dam is about 15 feet high with a fish ladder built in to the right side. We were scouting from the left bank, however and could not get a good look at the bank on that side. The left bank above the dam is lower, but still offers a steep pull out very close to the overflow point. We were not able to scout the few yards further upstream due to the impending darkness, but safety concerns might dictate finding a spot to pull out a few yards upstream. This would mean bushwhacking a carry of probably 300 yards through what appears to be a bramble covered bank. It would also involve a lift over a four foot retaining wall and a carry down an unstable and deteriorating concrete and gravel bank. Though more strenuous, this may be a safer portage strategy.

Doug was very encouraging concerning the trip and was in favor of continuing. He likes to be out on the river in November when the weather is cool, the leaves are down, and the water level is at a manageable level. He also would do about 10 miles per day as opposed to the 17 that I allotted for the trip. His mileage suggestion definitely allows for more leisurely drifting and fishing and a greater chance for enjoying the river. He tries to avoid early spring due to the probability of flooding with the river often rising twenty feet above current levels.

After our ride to Milltown, I sat down and evaluated the possibility of continuing the trip now or postponing the rest until late spring or early summer. The boat and gear was functioning as planned. There was no problem with this aspect. My health was good and the fact that I could be in the boat for six or more hours comfortably was very encouraging. The boat is great. The fact that the companions that I had hoped to have on the Milltown to Columbia leg were not able to make the trip at the last minute was also a factor. The weather forecast, which has since proven accurate, of temperatures running ten to twenty degrees below average, with frequent rain was a definite negative. The loss of cold weather gear to combat this was also a major factor.

The bottom line is that this is supposed to be fun. I can handle cold if I am dry. I can handle wet conditions if I am warm. I can handle cold and wet for a few hours, but I do like enduring cold and wet together for an extended period of time if I have a choice in the matter. Also, if I had someone to share the trip with and to rely on in case of emergency also is a major factor. Given these two factors, the trip, which had a very encouraging beginning, had ceased to be as much fun and I elected to postpone continuing the trip until May or June when the weather warmed up and water levels are normally at a reasonable level.

I will be back and am beginning to make plans.

A few safety notes: Care should be taken to select a craft that can handle sharp turns as well as cruises through long still ponds.
It is also advisable to avoid the flood season (Spring) when the river can rise over 20 feet above its normal levels.


Henry Horton State Park near Chapel Hill, Tennessee has both river front camping and a full service lodge with restaurant. The lodge is about 3/4 mile from the boat ramp at the park.


Prijon Seayak with rudder.




The Dement Bridge Launch site is located near Normandy Tennessee between Shelbyville and Tullahoma. It is most easily reached from US 41A from Normandy Road.


The Duck River agency in Shelbyville distributes maps showing access points to the river. The Tennessee Road department also has a series of county maps on the internet that show the river and details to roads near the river.

Trip Details

  • Trip Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)

Trip Location