Written by Ben Sergent, an avid outdoorsman who kayaked all of Center Hill Lake and the Caney Fork River in 4 days.
Edited by Joyce Cook
First and foremost, I would like to start out by thanking you for coming across this writing and taking the time to open up the adventure I created and explored. This is about my journey exploring the Caney Fork River and all that is involved, from the springs that flow out of the Earth as waterfalls that are the tributaries, to the river, to the caves that create that mystery of where the water goes and comes from, into the bigger body of water that is Center Hill Lake. Spending each year studying a different river has become my hobby due to the pure love I have for Mother Nature. This I developed as a little boy getting lost for hours until I knew it was supper time. I would wear nothing but shorts as a child in the woods; it was something common for me and discovering what I daydreamed would to be explored.
My inner child took a back seat around age 12-13 when Sports overtook my love and interest for nature. I come from a very athletic family and we played all sports and was very involved with being competitive. When I turned 12, I started boxing; then at age 14, I got my first glance at Mixed Martial Arts. I carried that all the way until I was 31 years of age where I retired with an amateur record of 10-2 and a professional record of 7-1 traveling the United States, fighting towards being a World Champion one day in my weight class of the welterweight division (170lbs). I enjoyed the ups and downs from living everywhere to create such a strong work ethic and the will to push through anything. That all came to an end due to an injury and landing a job that kicked started my career.
Extended Kayaking Treks & Exploring Tennessee Rivers
I feel very lucky to have stepped so easily into the normal life. Yet, I felt like I was missing that thrill and competitive edge I had been so used to having in my life. I moved to Nashville to prepare for my last fight and fell in love with the hometown feel I knew from growing up in Eastern Kentucky. I was already acclimated to city life, due to my travel in cities throughout the states during my MMA career. So, Middle Tennessee gave me a taste of all I enjoyed from place to place. I am not completely sure when it clicked to tap back into my inner child, though it has become the best thing that ever happened to me. Positive energy along with a thrill for getting dirty and calculated danger of exploring the waterfalls, hikes, and finally a gift to myself – a kayak.
Pushing the limits as far as how hard I can test my body, being naturally competitive, I began kayaking different stretches from my 17-hour straight kayak trip from Percy Priest Dam Stones River out to where it feeds into the Cumberland River. Kayaking past downtown Nashville all the way to Cheatham County and stopping at Pardue Boat ramp completing 60 miles with 2 stops and two thunderstorms. I studied and kayaked the entire Harpeth River which was a 5 day and 4-night trip of pure challenges to complete the 119-mile river that snakes through 5 different Counties in Middle Tennessee. In my mind, accomplishing these trips and many more, I felt were satisfying my inner child and wild side that was still hungry for a challenge.
I began structuring my trips and what I was going to explore next by taking the time to study an interesting river each year. Last year was the Harpeth River and this year I decided to explore and study the Caney Fork. I began by analyzing the body of water through Google Earth and creating my own maps, that evolves once I start putting my eyes on the landmarks in person. Google Earth helps me look through how my game plan is going to work with scouting out the river. Then I’m on foot! I drive around to the beginning areas of the river knocking on doors, getting to know the local areas/businesses along with the locals that are always full of life when talking about the river and what the river means to them. No matter what your differences are in life as an individual, I have learned you can connect with people by talking about nature, which is something special. I meet a lot of interesting people along with State Park Rangers, who are always passionate about talking with someone interested in what they do; listening to their stories and the generational stories they carry with them.
Then I go back to Google Earth and start putting “Hear Say” to my maps. This helps me visualize how I am going to start my trips. Every River is completely different; for example, East Fork Stones River and Percy Priest Lake were a bit simplistic to where I just kayaked start to finish. The river had no obstructions like The Harpeth did to slow me down or any dry points where the water went underground that the Caney Fork River does in the first 36-mile stretch. Following up with the Harpeth River, the first day I was able to kayak the river, picking up my kayak along with everything I brought 7 times to climb over fallen trees along with storm debris, and walking in the riverbed for 9 miles, dragging my kayak. The Caney Fork River, from what the locals were saying, the river goes underground leaving no surface water to kayak, along with class 3-4 rapids that my dog, Harry, and I are not going to navigate through with my simple kayak. Yes, I have a co-pilot and he is a German Short Haired Pointer that is a year and 6 months old. So, with the river going under-ground and rapids, I start looking at ways and routes to hike this section. The section is 36 miles of thick forest, cliffs/bluffs, rapids and dry riverbeds. I took the 36 miles and it split up perfectly into 4 different parts.
The first part started at Clifty Bridge in Crossville, 12.9 miles. The second day of this trip I luckily realized I was in a tight spot, understanding and reading the land with no service. I know that there is always something at the top of a hill these days. Luckily, I climbed the cliff side and came across what I now call Sky View, the end of a logging road, and was able to navigate my way back to Clifty Bridge.
The second trip I ran into the landowner walking that same stretch that finally leads up to the logging road to Sky View. I met him along with his 12-gauge shotgun while he was off-roading, scouting out and studying his hunting ground. He asked what I was doing on his land and I let him know all the details. His face lit up and he could not stop talking about hiking and the stories he had with the beautiful stretch of river. I told him I was cutting through his land just to get back to what I call Sky View, to hike back down alongside the river to continue my exploration. He seemed to be worried for Harry and my safety while being on his land, so he gave me a ride to my starting point. I started off there and ended that trip at the base of Scotts Gulf Road. This ended up being a very tough thick bush hike but only took one day. Fortunately, right before that trip, I discovered Scotts Gulf Road that went all the way to the river. I strongly do not encourage anyone to drive down this path with minimum off-roading experience.
The third hike started at the bottom of Scotts Gulf Road, the first day navigating alongside the river until setting up camp at Caney Fork Campground, the base of Virgin Falls Trail Head. The second day, Harry and I hiked up the strenuous path to where the car was parked. With some of these trails and routes I have someone pick me up at the end of my adventure and then drop me off wherever the trip starts.
The fourth trip was easy since I was able to set up the parking arrangements. This trip being the last of the four was going to be a complete circle. Starting where I parked at Whites Cave Road, at the entrance of Rylander Cascades Trailhead. This was also a one-day trip to where I hiked to Virgin falls from the back way, then headed down to the campsite that was the end of the third trip. I followed the river all the way to Mitchell Ford Canoe and Kayak; I hiked to my car on the beautiful country gravel road, Whites Cave Road.
Camping Gear & Food Supply
Each time I have completed these hikes, I better understood what I did and did not need. I have always packed well, with the minimum number of items; yet I am still able to condense my hiking/camping gear into even smaller portions each time. When Hiking in the unknown and not knowing exactly where you will be camping, it is a good reminder to realize that campfires are not necessary. I do not like to leave anything behind or any trace behind. Harry and I sleep in a hammock tent which packs light and does not leave a print on the ground. For many other reasons why a hammock works is you never know when or where you will be stopping in thick woods to camp. It is a given that you will always have two trees to tie up to and not relying on flat perfect tent ground. As far as what I bring to eat? I live with the Philosophy that we need to create awareness on our eating habits and how everyday life has stretched our stomachs to indulge with too much comfort food at all hours of day/night.
In camping and exploring, I always pack what I see as a way to eat less food. I take enough for potentially being out for longer than expected, but my trips are never based around thinking about food. I only eat to nourish myself and give back the nutrients and fuel my body needs to have in order to function. I usually force myself to eat 2 cliff bars each day, have some type of energy gel for the energy and electrolytes. I may even have some trail mix to replace one of the cliff bars and a few sour patch kids or worms. I stay somewhat on top of hydration but not to a point of getting waterlogged. With that being said; I will have a handful of trail mix in the morning or a cliff bar and my energy gel with a good amount of water to wash it down. Then lunch will be a cliff bar along with water. Around supper time, it is time to start ending the day and searching for two trees to set up camp. I do not eat at that time; my focus is to create a safe campsite to lay my head.
Preparing for the Trip
Transitioning into the kayaking side of the trip, from the strenuous hiking alongside the river, with anything, you must be prepared for what you are getting yourself into. I took two weeks and adjusted myself with prepping for what will become my 111-mile kayaking trip. Even before these adventures start, I continue my weekly sessions with my chiropractor, Ryan Abrahamson, at Abrahamson Chiropractor & Wellness, Hendersonville, Tn. and physical therapist, Josh Wilson, Enhanced Physical Therapy, Gallatin, Tn, any bad habits that may cause injury. Being a retired professional fighter and 36 years old, I must put my health first, no time for a risk of injury. I focus on my posture, along with using being mindful of what my body is doing and how it’s responding.
Every year I choose the first or second weekend of September, allowing any Hurricanes we may have southeast of us to run its course and wait out the rain we get from those storms. This allows the storms to pass and helps the water to still be up and moving. Nothing worse than walking a dried-out riverbed with a kayak for miles.
Beginning the Journey
I began my kayaking trip, dropping my car off at Carthage Cumberland Boat Ramp, at the very end of the Caney Fork River. This is where the Caney Fork flows into the Cumberland River. I had a good buddy, pick me up from there, leaving my car behind and we headed to the very beginning of the journey that is come! Getting all the feelings of anxiety, nervousness and thoughts of not really wanting to do the trip kicks in on the way to Mitchell Ford Canoe and Kayak. But these are normal emotions we endure with doing anything that is a success or failed situation. Just like sitting down and writing this, I had the same emotions, but I just do it. One step at a time and before you know it you are finished and it is complete. We get to the start and make sure I do a practice float to check that my kayak is going to be able to carry myself, Harry and what I packed. Adam, my good friend that dropped us off, waves goodbye and we are off.
The first day I was only able to get in 10 miles due to my original ride backing out morning of; but later in the trip, day by day, I realized it was for the better. This part of the river flows comfortably under three bridges that have river access points. Very quiet, along with Private Property signs and very nice river homes, I was happy to see the mouth of Calf Killer River emptying out helping with a little extra current. Around 7 pm, I started scouting out banks to set up my hammock. I stay away from Private Property signs and the obvious yards or close houses nearby. I kind of think to myself, If you are going to take the time to post Private Property signs, I’ll leave you alone. I found a nice little area, set up camp, having cell service, I let the people who keep in touch with me for emergency, I’m alright and look at the weather for the night.
Turns out the first night is a thunderstorm. I am cautious about a potential flash flood, so I reset my camp up about 3 feet higher up on the bank. Due to the tarp and just naturally always warm, I lay in the hammock with Harry sweating. Once the winds that carry the storm hit, Harry and I are in heaven. He stops huffing and puffing and my sweat starts to dry. As the rain gets heavier and heavier, I hear a little thing breathing right underneath me in the tarped off area. I smack the tarp above me to scare the animal away but after the second time, since it’s raining, and the little fella is making the cutest noise, I realized he wants a good night’s sleep. Turned out to be a midsize Raccoon and I did not mind sharing our sleeping space. Waking up the next morning at 6 am with the rain still coming down, Harry and I cuddled for 2 more hours. What an amazing nap! Laying in a hammock, cuddling my sweet dog and hearing the rain hit the tarp. When the rain stopped, Harry and I got up and packed up camp with the rainwater still making its way falling off the leaves to the ground; one of my favorite times to be in the woods. Looking at the levels of the water from the storm from the night before, it seemed to have only risen 1-2 feet from the day before.
Second day I continue my path the rest of the ten miles, this area has some amazing boat docks and houses; the locals consider this part a Lake. I would have to agree with that because it’s as if the flow of water completely stops and opens wider. Before you come to Cottens Marina, you will come across Rock Island; due to erosion, this island is slowly falling into the water. For now it appears to be a sturdy and interesting landmark. When Harry and I came ashore to Cottens Marina, the owners and workers were cleaning up the area and talking about the storm we had the night before. Of course, I get caught up in conversation about the storm and my adventure. I enjoyed stopping at this marina, very clean, nice gift shop and they serve food if you are looking for a place to eat. At Cottens Marina, I have it worked out to where I meet one of the Rock Island Rangers that I had been discussing this trip with for about 6 months. He has helped me know the history, nature and laws along with anything I may need. Since there is the TVA Dam along with Great Falls and Twin Falls, the ranger met me at this location to be dropped off at Sandbar Beach and Pavilion area, or what I call Rock Island Recreational Area. The Ranger, Ethan, and I have a good chat about my adventure thus far. As I head off, right across the water I spot three Otters just laying around cleaning themselves. This is the first time I have spotted Otters and they do not seem to have a care, just go about doing their own thing. As I kayaked a little further, what is officially Center Hill Lake, I come upon Horseshoe Bend Marina! I already have good memories from this Marina/Campsite; few years prior my girlfriend and I camped here for my birthday. Being a Halloween baby, naturally it was a good time to camp and visit this place. They setup a projector and huge white screen to watch scary movies. I think the first movie was Hocus Pocus and afterwards, everyone went back to their campsite. The second movie was The Blair Witch Project and being the only two watching that movie outside in a perfect outdoor setting, made for a memorable moment for us.
Like always, I must go in to get stickers and I get to talking to the lady that was working there. She is one of the sweetest humans I have ever met. I did not have to ask for any insight about what is to come. She let me know all the details including natural landmarks and how many miles each place is from one to another. Coming to Horseshoe Bend Marina really made the start of Center Hill Lake for me. I very much thanked her for that.
As I go further along in my journey, checking out all the waterfalls that are flowing due to previous rains, I fight the wake that the large boats are creating on the Lake. Just for a heads up, when I do these trips, I do not expect any boats to slow down or be overly nice. I realize I am in their world and I need to paddle close to the sides of the banks and when the Lake or River hooks and curves, I cross the center and cut in on the other side.
I felt like I was losing my vision due to starring down at waves and navigating through rough water when a pontoon boat came somewhat near my kayak as I was paddling away. I hear “Ben! How is everything going! How’s Harry doing?” I think I recognize the voice and wave back and saying everything is good and that I apologize, that I cannot see well, I ask who they are. A fella stood up and yelled. “Jackie from Horseshoe Bend Marina was talking about you” Long story short, she was excited about hearing my journey along with helping me out, and told them, “So, if you see a guy kayaking that’s Ben, and he has his dog Harry with him.” The kind fella invited me to his houseboat to shower and stay the night at Pates Ford Marina. Pates Ford Marina is a very nice marina that has a full restaurant and live music. They had their stickers stashed away but we found them! I was pretty happy about the shower due to the night before knowing I was in poison ivy and poison oak really bad. Writing this I still have poison ivy and chiggers, but it feels good to be able to feel life. I know the shower did help.
It is always interesting being on what is almost a pilgrimage journey. People do not know anything about you and with each step and word they look to make sure you are respectable. They don’t know a thing about me; but see me dirty, smelly with my eyes being in a daze from being out in nature. It is kind of funny gaining new ground and meeting new people and finding common respect.
The third day starts off with two cups of coffee on a wonderful houseboat and gifts from my new friend. Mike gave me a waterproof map of Center Hill Lake that we were analyzing the night before and a poncho. Day three was supposed to have tough thunderstorms. So, he was being kind and sent me off with some help. As far as how I do in extreme weather, my thoughts on the subject are I am in water and going to get wet. I do not fight it so tapping into my inner child, I just wear shorts and sandals. I do not need sunblock and if I have any issues with bugs, I just get wet. It was still little a nice gesture and I will hold onto to the poncho…. Who knows? Maybe for a rainy day!
My journey continues through much more of Center Hill Lake. This part of the Lake I saw so many water access points with clear waves pushing up onto the banks. Next Marina coming up is Four Seasons Marina, kind of out in the middle by itself it seemed to me. I very much liked stopping here, great little shop for supplies and the typical tourist stuff that I love, along with a nice bank to park the kayak for some much-needed stretching and moving around. I do like to stop every 5 miles to get good stretching in and play fetch with Harry. Once we left Four Seasons Marina, we ran into Sligo Marina which is what I heard through my trip getting remodel and being bought by Pates Ford Marina. This part of the trip was just getting mileage until the Lake really opened up; right past Sligo Marina is where the Lake becomes a lot of fun and tricky. Right past where the lake splits, you can take a right and a little way up from the island you will first come across Fancher Falls and then Burgess Falls. When you come upon Cookeville Marina you know you’re in the right area.
I love exploring waterfalls when it’s thunder storming or at least raining. I have never really cared about it needing to be a perfect hot sunny day to be out in nature. These two waterfalls are a big attraction and worth going to go see. I snake along the peninsula that is on the left-hand side of the large island. This spot was awesome for a swim to get away from the bugs and to have a cliff bar. The day was coming to an end and I needed to find a place to set up camp. I found another Peninsula and from what it appeared on the map, it was an Appalachian Center. This area in particular is just awesome to kayak around. The officers that check on the waterways who also make certain you have a life jacket, went past me, then turned around and came up to me. They greeted me and was very nice, as the waves started hitting my kayak, the Officer asked if I had a life jacket and to show him. I had to maneuver around Harry to pull my life jacket out, it was getting to a difficult point. Then finally out of all that balancing, transitioning all my stuff, I showed him. I made a joke, “that it became a natural sobriety test,” we laughed, and we continued on.
Fourth day and I am loving where I woke up. Packed everything up, went down to the water to use my filtration system. The water is so clean and clear in this area, the water pumped faster than I have seen it pump. I was so determined to do everything I could to get to Center Hill Lake Dam. The river widening out and was beautiful, but I could not wait to switch up the scenery. I continued my course through the wide parts with a very still lake since I’m kayaking on a Tuesday. I swing by the Fancy Hurricane Marina because I knew this place would have a cup of coffee as well as tons of stickers. After that stop I passed by Alan Jackson’s old estate; I somehow got lost tucking myself in one of the hollers. Seeing Hidden Harbor, but not having much time out of my determined day to swing by, I paddled and pushed and finally got to Center Hill Dam right at 1:45 pm.
I flagged down a Forest Ranger that has a ton of knowledge about the dam, Center Hill Lake and the other side of the dam, the Caney Fork River. He let me know that they just turned on two generators and that was obvious once we got to the drop off point. To take me all the way to my car was the dark, eerie, fogged up and somehow clear water. This last shot only took me until 7 pm to accomplish. The first 12 miles were pretty clear, then started to be muddy farmland. Every time I come out east for some exploring, I see kayakers going under the I-40 bridges. Nothing from what I saw around had any kayaking access point and I didn’t have any stopping points, even if I wanted. The banks were so overgrown, if Harry and I wanted to stop, we wouldn’t have been able. I calculated this section correctly, if the current is as strong as it had been, I would have no problem tripling my time and accomplishing the trip in this day. Ten miles left in this last run and a strong thunderstorm was unleashing some pretty powerful lightening 5 miles up. I put my life jacket on and had my water pump for my kayak ready as to where I’d pump the water out of my boat if there was too much rain due to the storm. Also, not to forget, that in the water, there were so many whirlpools and under currents, I did not much care for this section due to the danger of this section.
Completing the Journey
As I gain more ground towards the thunderstorm, I luckily see it heading North East and away from me. This left me with a beautiful pink and purple sky that bounced off the water. Five miles to go, I do the very last big hump in the river and come upon the Cumberland River. Always seeing the last bridge, knowing I parked under is always such a magical relief because I have accomplished my journey. I never get to express that and tend to forget but I suppose right now writing this, I didn’t forget.
Somehow, I get the energy from the excitement of getting all my stuff transferred from the kayak to the car, with a smile on my face. Harry and I did 26 miles straight through that murky odd water to finish our journey. Now it’s back to the real world and came home to a wonderful light dinner and forced a shower before bed. The little boy within me hasn’t gone anywhere. He is still alive and well and accomplishing his adventures.
After reading my adventure you probably have questions for me. One maybe: Would I do it again? Answer: I would definitely do the trip again, but only in sections. I do plan on enjoying Center Hill Lake and getting some friends to join me with a kayaking/camping trip. My suggestions for kayaking Center Hill Lake; any enjoyment on a smaller scale would be to start at Cane Hollow Recreational Area and kayak to Burgess Falls. Also, one that’s a step-up for navigating Center Hill Lake is Fancher Falls. Check out Cookeville Marina and go from there. I have been pretty vague about my adventure and giving interesting landmarks to kayak or hike because the experiences and secret places I find are special to me. The people I meet that share their stories with me to do what I do is very dear to me. I find it hard to share those with anyone. After the Harpeth River trip, my intention was to write a book about the history, location, other stories and my own adventure of everything I came across and did. I have all my interviews recorded and have listened to how many people cried in joy about their experiences. Their tears are due to what people have done to the river that makes me hold on to what I have. Sometimes sharing things isn’t the best outcome. Maybe only having those memories and experiences, I will one day share it to someone who is eager to learn for their own journeys.
I love everyone that has been a part of the Caney Fork and Center Hill Journey. I took away tons of knowledge, secrets and special places to hold onto. If you do go out and want to create your own stories, please take a trash bag with you because what we explore isn’t loved by everyone. I encourage all that read this to lose yourself in nature to a point once you see trash it hurts your feelings. Be kind to Mother Nature and cleanup after those that don’t see her beauty.
You may ask what’s next for me. What River am I looking at next? I will explore the Ocoee River. The River is 93 miles with three different sections. Instead of kayaking or hiking the first two sections, I will be having a friend that’s a white-water rafting guide take me on my path. Both sections are 2.5 miles long and the last section will be the long push to the larger river it feeds into. Harry will be on the third leg with me but not the first two parts. I will be hiking the mountains to find the springs that create this river and cannot wait!
I thank you so very much for reading my adventure.
Ben Sergent is a local outdoors travel writer based in Tennessee. If interested in other articles or to have Ben write for your publication, get in touch.