Alternating between basking in the sun and swimming in cool water, sipping through the afternoon of sport, leisure, and good company with the sole aim of not thinking about anything but the present. Sail unfurls, with boats across the lake following the wind in similar pursuit. Dragging my hand through the water as the boat heels slightly, casting wake like the path of the sun through the afternoon sky. This is freedom.
THE LAKE ITSELF…
The majority of Lake Watauga’s 6,340-acre coverage falls within Cherokee National Park, leaving it largely undeveloped and, as a result, noticeably clean. The Tennessee Valley Authority oversees much of the Lake Watauga development and usage. This lake has served as a reservoir and hydroelectric power source since its completion in 1948 following a construction hiatus during World War II. The confluence of the Roan Creek, Watauga River, and Elk River being dammed has provided recreation and utility for decades. By most accounts it is one of the cleanest lakes in the United States, devoid of the high selenium concentrations and other toxins which render the fish of many lakes unsafe to eat in any quantity. Many conservation groups take issue with the damming of rivers, as it impedes the spawning of anadromous* fish, and can cause some other environmental problems. That said, hydroelectric dams provide a relatively clean form of energy production and secure water for the many uses of surrounding municipalities, as well as agriculture. There are tough decisions to be made in the way of conservation, with valid arguments coming from many parties, and Watauga Lake is perhaps a good example of a compromise of values and pragmatism.
THE TOWN BENEATH THE LAKE…
The town of Butler was settled by John Honeycutt in 1768. It was an area rich in natural resources including ample rivers to power the various mills that were essential to the economy of the region.
The town’s name was finalized as Butler, after various iterations since the founding of Jackson County, in honor of Roderick R. Butler of the 13th Cavalry regiment of the Union Army following the Civil War.
Throughout its existence, the town has been subject to flooding as a result of The Watauga and Elk Rivers proximity. Some of the most useful aspects of nature can also cause the most destruction, and in 1940 a “killer flood” ripped through the town causing immeasurable destruction. In light of this, the Tennessee Valley Authority decided that the area was unsafe for habitation and planned a dam that would submerge the town of such great history. In 1948 the dam gates were closed, and the town of Butler is now a mountain bound Atlantis still remembered well by the citizens of the area.
The Butler Museum serves to memorialize the town and its people. An “all volunteer museum keeping the town of Butler alive” as described by Trula Haley, an integral member of the staff. Open during the spring and summer, it serves as a reminder that even small town history bears importance in the greater annals of Americana.
Striped bass and sturgeon are examples of the anadromous fish often disrupted by damming. In some cases it has been proven that at least striped bass have the potential to breed successfully in closed freshwater habitats. Otherwise they are stocked from hatcheries and still very tasty. The deep flooded valleys and remnant tree structures provide essential habitat for striped bass, as well as trout stocked by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Striped bass hang out at greater depths than their smaller counterparts requiring downriggers* to have much success catching them. Trout tend more towards the peripheral shadows and structures and are a blast to catch with light tackle or fly rod. Fried whole or poached in beer, light in both color and flavor, trout is an excellent eat for even those who “don’t like to eat fish.”
There is ample recreation to be had to supplement the sportfisherman, such as sailing, watersports, and bobbing.* This last activity bridges the gap between meditation and sheer laziness. A noble pursuit that rewards one’s recreational efforts of the day with the ability to imbibe, recline, and watch the sunset simultaneously. It will ease the pleasant aches that follow skiing and tubing, giving the “bobber” an underwater cloak of cool from which to enjoy the outdoors and beat the heat.
The wind is collected and distributed throughout the taut sailcloth, DaggerBoard dropped as the craft planes up, arcing through a valley-turned-lake, amid mountains that continue deep beneath the surface.
Sailing small craft is relaxing and relatively inexpensive. Older, yet well maintained, sailboats of both the single hull and catamaran varieties can be acquired within the manageable range of $2,000-10,000; including trailers to tow them around to the many water resources of the southeast. Sailing provides the additional benefit of right of way given to boats under sail, prompting jet-skis and motorboats to give a considerate birth to those guided by a more natural power source. Sailing a smaller craft doesn’t require a lot of training. Contacting a sailing club nearby is a simple start to a very rewarding pursuit.
While sailing can provide a soothing getaway, there is also a strong tradition of community, competition, and ample hand waving between boats. The Watauga Lake Sailing Club organizes regattas and competitions amidst different classes of boats. One such event is the Leukemia Cup Regatta, a union of sport and samaritanism.
Don’t want to be at the mercy of the wind? Pontoon Boats are available for rent from several marinas around the lake. Any time you are renting a boat it is advisable to do a quick test run in a nearby cove. Cut the motor and crank it again. It can spare a lot of midlake heartache. While there are quite a few options, we had a great experience with Thomas at Fish Springs Marina. His boats are more or less new, clean, and pretty luxurious. He has a pretty sweet gig, hanging out at the lake and watching his customers come back in with smiles on their faces.
Suitable for both family and more debaucherous pursuits, a pontoon boat is a ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’ with roomy seating, spacious decks, and a collapsible awning to escape the sun or the occasional shower. Watauga Lake has many small coves and inlets to enjoy the cool water and mountain sun, some of which have small beaches for sunbathing and the occasional pebbly sandcastle.
Cherokee National Forest provides public access and camping to many parts of the lake. Established campsites and hiking options are plentiful. The Appalachian Trail skirts Watauga Lake for section hikes and some through hikers take a “zero” (zero mile day) in the area to cool off and collect themselves.
Watauga Lake serves many pursuits and utilities. The regional recreation mecca benefits both visitors and locals with low cost yet high quality experiences. The income generated helps support a way of life that otherwise would be lost with the reduction in mining and other industries, in a manner conducive to preserving the majesty of an ancient mountain range and relatively new lake. In a world where water security and energy independence are rapidly becoming more essential, it is a pleasure to adventure in a place that serves small communities and the greater region in such diverse ways.
A couple days out on the water blows away the stresses of day-to-day life. Food cooked over fires seldom disappoints, and even if it does you eat it anyways. Having fun makes you hungry. You feel a little more rugged, a bit sunburned, and most likely sore from splashing and dashing. The world will still be there when you get home, and yet tackling it seems easier with the infusion of clarity and calm from a good adventure. There is a sense of fulfillment that comes with even a brief return to nature, and heading home that satisfaction lingers with a feeling that even a well needed shower won’t wash off.