Keith Kirkland 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The Midsouth’s greatest natural resource flows right through us. After more than 35 years of canoeing and rafting beautiful wild rivers, from northern Canada to Costa Rica, the Ghost River section of the upper Wolf River and the six-mile section below the Ghost to Moscow, TN, remain two of my favorite runs. They both feel so wild and exotic, you’d think you’re on a tributary of the Amazon; instead, you’re only an hour’s drive from Downtown Memphis. The Wolf River is a 90-mile river fed by artesian springs. It begins in the Holly Springs (MS) National Forest and meanders north into Tennessee before heading westward to its mouth in the Mississippi River at the north end of Mud Island. Its 100-year floodplain carves a green passage through 90 miles of forests, fields, and urban communities.The upper reaches are lush wetlands of unmatched natural beauty, and its lower stretches contain refuges of undisturbed forest right in the heart of Memphis. As we meander farther into the Wolf’s wetlands, we can better appreciate their tremendous capacity to slow, filter, and store heavy runoff from rains for flood control, while also recharging our drinking water aquifers, the Memphis Sands. The Sands form the bed of the Wolf and its tributaries in Fayette County. Our Wolf River also provides a nearly unbroken corridor of habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals along its entire length. And unbeknownst to many, the Wolf River is the Midsouth’s greatest natural resource. Wild About the Wolf Despite the loss of most of our oldgrowth forests, the Wolf River watershed still provides a healthy home for a variety of flora and fauna. Above us fly large and strikingly beautiful great blue herons and great white Egrets, as well as smaller green herons.Dozens of kingfishers swoop and chatter as they dive and pluck minnows for dinner. For the past three years, one or two bald eagles were sighted, after an absence of nearly 100 years. Small, bright, canary-colored prothonotary warblers and tiny, neon blue indigo bunting birds zip across our canoes and through the trees, as well as beautiful scarlet tanagers. Turkey vultures soar in lazy patterns across the deepening dark blue sky — perhaps looking for lost paddlers. On land, animals such as beavers, river otters, muskrats, raccoons, and the occasional bobcat may be seen, particularly in the early morning or late evening hours.Most live nocturnal lives now. During fullmoon canoe trips, nocturnal beavers warn their brethren by slapping their tails on the river’s calm surface, creating startling loud splashes that sound like cannonballs hitting the river. Lots of beautiful water snakes and the occasional water moccasin lounge lazily on logs and the riverbanks. Turtles are very shy, sunning themselves before slipping off with a noisy splash as canoes round the bend — wary after thousands of years of being the featured soup of the day. Below our gliding canoes, in the clear, spring-fed waters, swim long, slender, and intimidating alligator gar; big, lazy catfish; and also bream, crappie, and smallmouth bass. Less familiar fish include naked sand darters, northern madtoms, grass pickerels, and pygmy sunfish. On the bottom of the river, particularly in eddies, we’ll find up to 25 species of freshwater mussels, including rare ones, such as the southern hickorynut. Floating the Ghost For many years, the surprising wildness of the Ghost River section of the upper Wolf caused almost everyone who attempted to Paddle it get lost — often overnight. Flowing eight and a half miles downstream from LaGrange, TN, to Bateman Bridge near Moscow, it is one of the most varied and challenging wetland canoe trails in the country. This section surprises paddlers with five distinctly different wetland ecosystems.After launching, we enjoy bottomland hardwood forests, thick with large hickories and several wetland species of oaks, including overcup, shumard, and willow. Suddenly, two and a half miles into the trail, there’s a transition into wetland tree and plant species, and the banks are lined with closely spaced tupelo gum and bald cypress trees, forming compact, dizzying rows. Silver- and red-leaf maples, hornbeams, catalpa, and river birch form a canopy over the river as they compete for scarce sunlight along its banks. Depending on the season, look for small piles of open mussel shells where river otter,Mink, and muskrat have feasted along the shore. Also look for beaver scent mounds, made from mud, piled one to two feet high along the river banks and marked with musk to warn intruders. We then see small braids of the river splitting off, disappearing into a dense, standing-water swamp — strewn with a maze of cypress and tupelo gum — before the main channel abruptly dead ends. We enter one of the dozen-plus narrow, twisting corridors that split off into the confusing swamp. There’s only one way that leads us through the one-third mile Ghost River trail (don’t miss the entrance sign). The other channels dissolve into a forest of impassable cypress knees and tupelo gum trunks, surrounded by dense floating islands of itea, a wetland shrub. The river seems to be everywhere, but nowhere — a disorienting fun house hall of mirrors. Hence, the Ghost River name! After I — like most canoers — got lost during a freezing day and night in mid December 1991 and not escaping until near midnight, I and other Wolf River Conservancy members founded and marked the way out the following spring. Once we exit this narrow, twisting wetland corridor, we enter Spirit Lake, reminiscent of a small Reelfoot Lake. Here, we paddle one and a half miles past acres of spatterdock, burrweed, six-foot tall gamma grass, smartweed, and swamp alder, as well as more cypress and tupelo gums. As we cross the lake, look south toward the bank to the large cypress trees lining its shore. They look like spruce and fir trees, and you can almost imagine a moose or black bear stepping out of the woods, as if you were 1,000 miles north within Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Lake area instead of right outside Memphis. Exiting Spirit Lake, we paddle through tricky, narrow, twisting tree-lined chutes before entering the Ghost’s final ecosystem: beautiful open wetland meadows. The canoe trail opens up and it feels like we’re in the Everglades, paddling through clear, fast water and open swamp. Bateman Bridge, two and a half miles east of Moscow, TN, suddenly comes into view, where we make an easy take-out. Not Giving Up the Ghost After others and I discovered this Ghost River trail in 1990, we realized this section’s Significance as one of the few un-channelized river sections left in West Tennessee.After we heard that someone had logged a small section of it, it dawned on us that this section of the Wolf flowed entirely through private property. If the landowner chose to strip the river’s beautiful overhanging canopy of trees and the large cypress, oaks, maples, and hickories lining its banks, there was little we could do. So the Wolf River Conservancy formed a volunteer corps of river guides who shared the Ghost section with WRC members, community leaders, and the press, in hopes of one day saving it. In 1995, our worst nightmare came true.A 4,000-acre family plantation that encompassed five miles of the Ghost River section was sold for $3 million to a timber development firm that planned to strip the timber and auction off small lots for “ranchettes.” We asked if they would sell it. They said they would — for $4 million. Our all-volunteer group had only four months to raise funds to rescue the Ghost. To say we left no stone unturned is an understatement, and our efforts stretched from the local community to the governor Of Tennessee to state and federal wildlife agencies, from inside municipal buildings and private homes to inside our canoes.We not only rescued this 4,000-acre section of the Wolf, but we purchased lands that expanded the area by another 3,000 acres.Without the Wolf River Conservancy and its members and supporters, the Ghost would have disappeared. The Urban Wolf River Greenway In 2004, Charles Askew, one of WRC’s founding members, persuaded the Memphis City Council to fund plans to build a 22-mile, $25-million Wolf River Greenway trail from Mud Island that would follow the Wolf through Frayser, the historic Douglas community, Raleigh, East Memphis — all the way to Germantown then Collierville. Then the plans sat. And sat. WRC launched a campaign to drum up support and enthusiasm for the project, seeking help from anyone who would listen.Memphis Tomorrow, an association of CEOs from Memphis’s largest enterprises, recommended that whenever WRC mentioned the Wolf River Greenway, it should also mention Shelby Farms and the Greater Memphis Greenline, which was developing a hiking/biking trail system along the abandoned railroad line bordering Shelby Farms to the north. Their big picture was that Shelby Farms is positioned dead center within Shelby County. Downtown’s Tom Lee Park would anchor WRC’s Greenway system on the west, and the 2,100-acre, eight-mile Wolf River Wildlife Area (when completed) would anchor the park system to the east. These three major parks — Tom Lee, Shelby Farms, and the Wolf River Wildlife Area — could then be connected to each other by 43 miles of muscle-powered trails of the Wolf River Greenway (30 miles) and the Memphis Greenline (13 miles), forming a large, muscle-powered X across Shelby County and connecting Memphians to their jobs, schools, and smaller parks, as well as neighbors to neighbors. As the 2007 election year dawned, WRC ramped up its publicity efforts even more. A Feb. 8 “Greening Greater Memphis” event proved pivotal. In front of a standing- room-only, overflow grassroots crowd of more than 1,000, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, and Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, committed to finally building the Wolf River Greenway. By the end of 2010, 6.5 miles of the Greater Memphis Greenline and the first mile of the Wolf River Greenway (along Humphreys Boulevard between Walnut Grove and Shady Grove) opened. Shelby Farms built and opened a new pedestrian bridge over the Wolf River, connecting the new Wolf River Greenway to Shelby Farms. Both greenways saw immediate — and growing — popularity. A River Runs Through Us After many years of turning our backs on the Wolf River, we are finally embracing the Wolf as an incredible natural resource that, very literally, runs through our community and us. But the work is not finished. Ongoing support for and participation in the “Green Greater Memphis” movement will transform our urban Wolf into a park and greenway system that connects more than 60 miles of beautiful wilderness river upstream — a river whose verdant wetlands and floodplain forests serve to protect and recharge our precious drinking water aquifers while providing wild, natural protected places for inspiration, recreation, and wildlife. Keith Kirkland is director of membership and outreach programs for Wolf River Conservancy, 452-6500, wolfriver.org. THE WOLF RIVER CONSERVANCY … • is Memphis’s oldest and most successful environmental group, founded in 1985. • is a nonprofit land trust based in Memphis whose mission is to conserve and enhance the Wolf River Corridor and watershed as a sustainable natural resource. • has helped protect more than 18,000 acres along the Wolf River. • provides recreation, advocacy, and educational outreach programs emphasizing the importance of protecting the Wolf River and the Memphis Sands, the source of Memphis’s public drinking water. • is developing the 30-mile, $35-million Wolf River Greenway, a park and greenway system that will connect more than 60 miles of beautiful wilderness that interconnects the Mississippi River to Shelby Farms, Germantown, and Collierville. • is a membership-driven organization that leverages monetary donations with partnerships and grants to carry out its mission. • works to inspire, implement, and enjoy more than $60 million in projects along the Wolf River that, quite literally, runs through us. Take a canoe trip down the Wolf River — and find more information about the conservancy and the resources it protects. Join in lasting efforts to “Green Greater Memphis.” Conservancy membership includes free, guided hiking and canoe trips: 452-6500, wolfriver.org.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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