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Off The Beaten Path: Reelfoot Lake

“A lake the earthquake created,” is Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee. Prior to 1811 this scantily populated corner of Tennessee was a swampy area of cypress backwoods near the Mississippi River. In 1811 and 1812 several violent earthquakes shook the eastern states — the New Madrid Earthquake. It toppled houses and chimneys in Tennessee and Kentucky, broke dishes and shook houses in Illinois, and it is said to have rung a bell in Boston. A 500 acre portion of Tennessee sank some twelve feet, allowing the Mississippi River waters to rush into the depression. With such a catastrophic deluge the Mississippi River was said to have run backwards. (N.B. An examination of the map of that river shows that today it runs from south to north in oxbows at least five places in Tennessee.)

Reelfoot Visitor CenterReelfoot Lake is today a 15,000 acre shallow lake with some sections more swamp than lake.  The Reelfoot Lake State park is divided into 10 segments along 22 miles of the shoreline.  Although the park is a mere 280 acres, there is 18,000 acres of wildlife in the Reelfoot Lake area. Migratory birds rest there on their way south along the Mississippi flyway. Egrets, Blue Heron, ducks of all varieties are found, including Bald Eagles and several other endangered species. Bird watching is especially productive. Fishing, canoeing, wildlife viewing, and hiking are popular. The state park campground with 86 sites has electric and water hookups and boat ramps.

Bald EagleNature and interpretive programs are offered in summer. The Visitor Center museum provides many exhibits describing all aspects of the lake’s short but colorful history, prehistory, wildlife flora and fauna, and geology.  Various events are offered such as nature talks, boat tours, specials events such as Pelican Festival in October when the white pelicans migrate. Eagle Tours in January and February are the big winter attraction.  The Visitor Center and Museum have nice exhibits on the (sometimes violent) history of the area and the wildlife.  In addition behind the visitor center are aviaries and cages for birds recovering from injuries or no longer able to survive in the wild.  A number of eagles, hawks, and owls were in residence.

P1100635 (Small)We have seen cypress trees in the southern states, but were surprised to see the large number of cypress so far north, their knees jutting out of the water. The challenges of navigating a lake full of stumps resulted in the invention of the Reelfoot Lake Boat.  Today, the design is still manufactured and sold by one local boat builder. It is an unusual cross between a flat bottom canoe-bow boat with a front-facing rowing position. The oars are segmented on a linkage that gives a reverse action to the rowing stroke, so the rower can see obstacles easily. Most of these boats have a put-put gas engine that runs a propeller shaft, protected by a submerged flat steel plate. This shape allows the boat to pass over snags, cypress knees, and floating logs without harm.

Reelfoot Lake 2Students of history may recall that the earth tremors of 1811 and 1812 were seen by the American Indian leader Tecumseh as an ominous and foreboding sign that his days were numbered and defeat at the hands of the white man was now sealed. As leader of the Shawnee Confederacy, he fought with the British in the War of 1812 against the Americans and was killed in battle in October 1813 in Canada.

P1100675 (Small)Today Reelfoot is an out of the way place with much to attract the fisherman, birdwatcher or nature lover. There is a lot to explore by canoe or kayak.  There are a number of short hiking trails.  The state park campground has beautiful views of the lake and some lakefront campsites as well.  Although duck hunting was a major source of income for residents in years past, the ducks we encountered were quite unafraid of people.

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