The trip north from the center of Tennessee to the area north of the Land Between the Lakes near Paducah, Kentucky was a nice drive through the multiple towns to the west of Kentucky Lake. We actually drove past Murray State University, which we are familiar with from their multiple appearances in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but never knew where it was located. We arrived at another Corps of Engineers campground on the extreme northwest shore of Lake Barkely by 1:00 in the afternoon. Our initial impression of the campgrounds was pleasant as it is located in a beautiful location on the shore. However, our impression soon changed as we approached our campsite. While it all looked inviting, we found the paved road to be extremely narrow with tight turns that barely accommodated the RV that was bordered on the uphill side with a deep concrete ditch. It would not have been too bad if our campsite was near the bathrooms as the parking in front of the bathroom would have given us room to maneuver. Unfortunately, our site was right on the beginning of a curve with two trees blocking any kind of straight shot into the site. My first attempt to back the RV in was a complete disaster as I had no room to swing the truck around once I got the RV pointed into the site. I had to pull back forward and try again coming in very shallow. Once again I was not able to straighten out the truck before the back end of the RV threatened to hit a tree. By this point I was about convinced there was no way to back into the site. Willing to try one more time I came in VERY VERY shallow and pulling the truck forward multiple times to get it lined up with the RV. Thankfully a neighbor came over to give us a hand and with his help I could ignore the RV itself and concentrate on just the truck. Between the three of us we finally managed to get everything lined up and backing straight into the site. Once in, our opinion of the campground immediately improved and we enjoyed watching the families of Canadian geese that frequented the area between us and the lake.
Last spring we visited the south end of the lakes but confined our attention to Fort Donelson and Fort Henry on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, respectively. These forts were instrumental during 1862, the early part of the Civil War. This year our goal was to explore the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area. So we started out with this in mind on Tuesday. We stopped at the Welcome Center on the north end of LBL and obtained information about the hiking trails and sights to see. Here we learned that the main Visitor Center was quite a distance away at the center of LBL, which made sense, but also convinced us to spend our first day in the northern part of LBL rather then starting with the Visitor Center as we normally do. Our destination was the Woodlands Nature Station which offered hiking trails and a small zoo of native animals. As you enter the area there is a short hike through the remains of Hematite Furnace that we stopped at first. This is a short interpretive hike through what remains of the community of Hematite and the iron furnace. Back in the 1830-1840s this area Between the Rivers was renowned for its high quality pig iron being produced from the 7 large iron furnaces. Hematite iron ore is a high yielding ore and was located very close to the surface. Along with easy access to limestone and the abundant oaks and hickories for charcoal it was a prime area for iron production. Employing around 200 workers a small community grew up in the area. The Civil War put an end to this industry and the remaining population became relatively isolated. All of the buildings are now gone and all that remains are depressions in the ground. It is not clear whether this was natural or whether the federal government destroyed the buildings when LBL was established in the 1960s as they did with any existing homes that were not physically moved by the owners.
While the Woodlands Nature Station could be described as a small zoo of native animals, it is really a rescue facility for animals that cannot be released into the wild. The most common reason is they were family pets that never learned how to survive on their own. Along with small exhibits inside of reptiles, snakes, and fish, the outdoors garden is impressive. Notable exhibits included the bald eagle that thinks it is human, the coyotes, and a mating pair of red wolves. There are also exhibits of deer, turkey, and multiple raptors and owls. We even had the privilege of talking with a Naturalist as they fed their opossum and found out a lot of what they do at the Station.
On Wednesday we got a 6:00 start to the day to explore the Elk and Bison Prairie down near the Visitor Center. This is a 700 acre enclosure where the Forest Service is attempting to reintroduce a small herd of bison and elk. Prior to the invasion of European settlers, the native Indians maintained most of the area as an open prairie to promote the bison and elk herds. These early settlers often commented about the abundance of game in the area until their farms wiped them all out. Using prescribed fire and seeding of grasses, the Forest Service is attempting to recreate the prairie. Even with a nice paved road circling through the area it is recommended you visit either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the bison and elk would be feeding. We drove the loop three times in the hopes of spotting them, but only managed to see a small group of 3 elk near enough to the road to see them. We saw no sign of the bison until we were leaving the area two days later along the fence line bordering the US highway that cuts through the middle of the LBL from east to west. We were certainly disappointed even though we enjoyed our cold breakfast we ate in the truck.
Not wanting to call it a day we drove back to the Woodlands Nature Station to take in a two mile loop trail around Hematite Lake. Unfortunately, the boardwalk along the upper end of the lake was damaged in a storm, so it was a one-mile hike in and then back out instead. As the hike was along the shores of the small lake, it was an easy trail and quite enjoyable for a mid-morning walk. Before leaving for the day we drove to a picnic area near the north end for lunch. Following lunch we explored the scenic drive with views of Kentucky Lake at the north end. Although there were numerous turnouts and small parking lots, the Forest Service is going to have to cut some of the trees on the shores of the lake. The views of Kentucky Lake were very limited. With the early start to the day, we did all this and still returned to the campground by 2:00 for a relaxing afternoon.
Thursday we spent relaxing in the campground, so on Friday we headed back to the LBL to explore the Visitor Center and the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living Museum south of the Visitor Center in Tennessee. We started with the Working Farm and spent all morning wandering the grounds and speaking with the living interpreters. I was impressed with the entrance station that was built into the side of a hill with grass growing on top. This obviously kept the inside much cooler which consisted of a small gift shop and a couple of exhibits about living on a farm in the 1850s. Outside was the farm itself. We watched an interpreter plowing a small tobacco field using two mules and a home made harrowing plow that consisted of boards in a V shape with iron spikes to drag through the earth. We talked with an interpreter spinning wool from the onsite sheep, another interpreter making a fancy table cloth on a loom, and finally an interpreter doing leather working. The most interesting aspect of the visit was the use of heirloom breeds of chicken, sheep, hogs, ducks, cattle, and mules. They only part that was not authentic to the time was the two houses on the property. This was done on purpose to show the lifestyle of a small family living in a one-room log home versus a two story, multi-room dog trot home for later generations as the family grew. It was a very pleasant morning talking history and lifestyle with the interpreters. There is an advantage to visiting these places during the middle of the week with few other tourists. I should mention there was a small group of elementary students there that we managed to stay out of the way of, for the most part.
During the afternoon, we finally visited the Visitor Center as our last stop in the LBL. Once again, I was somewhat disappointed as there was very little to see or do at the Visitor Center. They do have a series of exhibits that provide a brief history of the area, which answered a lot of question I had about how the Recreational Area came about. As I expected it was basically a land grab by the Federal Government, starting with the TVA during the Depression. Granted the area never really recovered from the Civil War and there were only a few thousands residents in the 170,000 acres between the rivers, but still LBL was created by displacing these families. Kentucky Lake was completed in 1940 and through the use of the Eminent Domain principle, the federal government condemned the flooded land, having to forcibly removing the inhabitants. Plans were soon started to also dam the Cumberland River to the same depth as Kentucky Lake so a canal could be built between them without the use of locks. This would obviously flood even more of the land, displacing most of the rest of the inhabitants who basically lived near the river anyway. The feds did a better job of compensating the owners and even moved their homes or businesses from the area. However, this all took a lot of time so it was not until the 1960s that Barkley Lake was formed. Many of the homes were moved and the rest were destroyed by the feds leaving the new LBL with recovering second growth forests. Today it is a beautiful location with many recreational opportunities.
We really enjoyed our week exploring the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area, but decided to spend the weekend in the campgrounds. Saturday was spent with laundry and cleaning, but Sunday was spent just enjoying the weather. This was especially true since the weather decided to just skip spring all together. A couple of weeks ago it was a prolonged winter with snows in the mid-west, but now temperatures are nearing 90 with records likely to be set next week. We were certainly not looking forward to the trip on Monday with expectations of temperatures over 90 degrees.