Kayaking on Fontana Lake – September 2008

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While it’s not a recent trip, it was still a trip worth posting about! Some friends and I went out to Fontana Lake back in September 2008 for a multi-day kayaking and camping trip. Many miles were paddled and much was learned about this massive scenic lake.

As the title states, this trip was back in September 2008…mid-September to be specific. That’s useful info to anyone reading this that’s trying to plan a kayaking trip on Fontana Lake. Lake levels are the name of the game on this lake. Since it’s a man-made lake created by the Fontana Dam, the levels are all over the place compared to a natural lake. During extreme periods (heavy rain or dry seasons), the level can change by as much as 6″ to 1′ in 24 hours. Here’s a link to the TVA’s lake level monitor. If you’re planning a trip, learn how to read that guide and use it in your planning. Normal water level is somewhere around elevation 1700. That’s about where the treeline is on the shore. As the water level drops, the more lakebed/shoreline is exposed and put between you and suitable camping ground. The water level was around 1673′ when we went out leaving a challenging 30’+ of muddy rocky lake shore to traverse when we wanted to pull up camp!

But enough about the technical stuff…
We originally had an aggressive 4 or 5 night loop trip planned (see the map on the left below for the original anticipated route). Due to the difficulty of finding a suitable campsite (because of the low lake levels), we decided to cut it short by 2 nights. The map on the right, beleow, shows the actual route and campsites. We eneded up camping in the vicinity of sites 90 (the first night) and 86 (second and third nights). The actual campsites were unreachable by kayak, so we had to find suitable ground as far up into the Creeks as we could. I know it’s a big no-no to camp outside of a designated site in the National Park, but what are you gonna do when the furthest you can get upstream is still 1/4-1/2 mile away from the campsite?! We made sure to leave no trace and not damage any sensitive areas (camping on accumulated silt bars that are usually under water for several months of the high water season). A big downside of camping outside of a designated site is having to improvise bear hangers for the food bags; that can be challenging. Be sure to bring strong rope and scope out a good hanging spot well before dark. It’s no fun trying to string up a backpack in the dark!

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Overall, this was a great trip: fantastic scenery, not too harsh of a paddle, and perfect weather (no rain and 50/75 degree temps). The only downside, like I’ve said, was the low water level making it impossible to get the kayaks all the way upstream to the actual designated campsites.

We parked the trucks and put in at the Fontana Marina. Free and relatively secured parking is offered at the boat ramp. From there, we headed straight up into Eagle Creek toward GSMNP campsite #90 (bypassing the “island” campsite #87 which was completely inaccessible due to the steep banks being exposed and the fact that you’d have to leave the kayaks far out of sight and earshot–something I’m not cool with doing). We were able to paddle to within about 1/4 mile of campsite #90, but it was not practical to portage the kayaks up to the campsite…way too rocky and too much gear. Instead, we made camp on a silt bar with decent access and safe storage of the boats. From there, we backtracked down Eagle Creek, hung a left (eastward) and hugged the north shore, then hung another left (northward) and headed up into Hazel Creek. Again we paddled as far upstream into Hazel Creek as possible, passing an exposed old bridge structure (rising above the water surface by about an inch or so–enough to make it impassable without exiting the kayak and pulling it across from the shore). We set up camp on another silt bar complete with bear tracks all around! I had doubts about the site as it was relatively exposed to the wind sitting in the middle of the stream valley. I set back out and headed downstream a little ways in search of a better campsite–a search that was quickly ended when I came across a black bear foraging around an area I was scouting on foot! We made due on the silt bar and set up a decent campsite.

The following day, we decided to stay put and check out the area. I knew there was the old town of Proctor was nearby along with remnants of old homesteads and old mountain cemeteries, so a few of us set out on a short day hike to check it out. The most visible piece of history left from the town is the Calhoun House which the National Park Service barely keeps standing to allow park workers to shack up over night while working in the backcountry. Maybe 1/3 mile up the improved path from there (I believe it’s the Lakeshore Trail) is the first cemetery. Not far up the trail from there is another old cemetary. I’d never seen such a piece of history before, so it was fascinating to check out the names and dates of the former homesteaders buried there. From Confederate Army vets to the town’s namesake family (the Proctors), you’ll find a lot of interesting tombstones.

That night, we decided to cut the trip short and head back the next morning. The steep exposed muddy and rocky banks were just too bothersome to deal with after a long paddle–plus, we knew our planned last campsite (#87) was pretty much unreachable, so we’d be left with trying to find an improvised site. We broke camp and made a bee-line for Fontana Marina.

I would love to get out and try another trip–maybe even the same route–when the water level is up higher (at least in the 1690-1700 range, or early May through late August).

For more details about the Lake and my tips and suggestions, check out my Fontana Lake Kayaking and Camping Tips post.

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