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A Journey back into time at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge


February 4, 2012



Odd looks, raised eyebrows, and more than a couple of – ah – interesting comments are not uncommon reactions when an immediate, resounding “ABSOLUTELY!!” flies out of my mouth in answer to the frequently asked question: “So, you REALLY paddle year round?!”


While the season truly has no bearing on my decision to get the hull of my boat wet or not, for me, there’s nothing that quite compares with a (Southern!) winter’s day on the water, particularly when said opportunity is a visit to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge (HWR) and the overwintering cranes!


Managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for over 60 years for waterfowl, the HWR sits at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers. Considered the best place in North America to view Sandhill cranes, lucky birders may also have opportunity to sight frequent traveling companions of the Sandhill cranes. Whooping cranes may also be observed, and with dubious compliments (?!) to a so-called “wrong turn”, lucky birders may happen to catch a glimpse of a rare Asian Hooded Crane (which has never before been recorded as being sighted in North America.)


The HWR and surrounding lands are also rich in Cherokee history.  This area is near the center of the Cherokee Nation, and during the Cherokee Forced Removal (the Trail of Tears), nearby Blythe’s Ferry was a debarkation point, serving to move many thousands of Cherokee and Creek across the confluence to begin their forced journey west.


All of that in mind, we loaded up gear, piled into the car, and settled in for day of wonderment…


With one particular put-in in mind, we serendipitously stumbled upon a newer, nicer (for our purposes, anyway) one on the way and quickly made good use of it!  While the prehistoric, cacophonous chorus of sandhill cranes played in the background, boats were offloaded, gear was unpacked, sorted, loaded and donned, ferrules were adjusted, and we were on the water.


Paddling across the channel to the boundaries of the HWR, several Sandhills flew over and around us.  At the far side of the channel, we could see a small flock of Sandhills with four Whooping cranes keeping them company.  Though the protected status of the Refuge prohibits boaters from entering the boundaries between November and March, we were well rewarded for our winter foray with some visual treats.  As we neared the boundary of the HWR, the cranes all began taking wing singly, and in pairs and larger groups.  A six foot wingspan is truly awe inspiring… Once, floating by with the current, I was able to glimpse a Whooping crane as he seemed to be standing sentinel, peeking through the trees at us.


Oblivious to the cold, for several hours we were all immersed in wonderment at the nature of these amazingly beautiful creatures.  The occasional grace note of a hawk, bald eagle or whooping crane could be heard throughout the day, but the sandhills stole the limelight with their steady call.


Finally, time drawing short, we began paddling back towards the put-in.  Though we had been watching the building clouds and feeling shifting winds all day, clear skies were to be had as we were loading boats to leave.  Ironically, though, the imposing weather while we were on the water was fitting for spending the day with such ancient beauties, and the day could not have been more perfect.


Samantha Christen

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