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Big Fun on Small Town’s Barren Fork

Cool respite from stuffy summer doldrums; Backwoods-style river adventures inside McMinnville city limits

Set amidst a remarkable panorama of thickset woods, rolling pasturelands, rugged mountain slopes and soaring yonder plateau scarps, McMinnville has for two centuries served as a regional hub of commerce, culture and active leisure.

Writing for the intro to the 2009 “Images of America Series” photography book celebrating the town’s bicentennial, authors Monty Clell Wanamaker and Chris Keathley described how “the sheer exceptional beauty of the ancient and mystical mountains and forests with their spiritual attributes” mesmerized early 19th Century travelers and settlers in what is now Warren County.

So too did “the numerous rivers and streams overflowing with fresh water” that twisted down valleys and cut through the land.

“It was that beauty and grandeur of the region that enthralled the area’s first white settlers,” wrote Keathley and Wanamaker, who passed away at the age of 79 in January. “It would draw to its wilderness many anxious, industrious and learned men who had come to build their homes and lives. And so it was that McMinnville came into being.”

You could say the area has always attracted people who appreciate exploration and seek adventure.

Mickey Heath at Smooth Rapids

So in 2012 when four hometown buddies who grew up together decided to start up a kayak-rental and shuttle service to help introduce visitors and locals alike to the aesthetically fertile Barren Fork and Collins Rivers, they were actually on pretty solid ground historically.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boathouse

Early on, they really didn’t envision their enterprise evolving into a full-service launchpad and laid-back landing zone for paddle sport river recreation. It started off just a side hustle from the back of a pickup.

“We bought some boats and were renting them out of our truck — when we’d make a little money we would invest it back in the company,” said Mickey Heath, who along with Michael Lockhart and brothers Jimmy and Todd Barker founded the company that came to be Smooth Rapids.

Located just a few blocks from Main Street McMinnville and the town square on a formerly rundown piece of backstreet river-bottom residential property, today Smooth Rapids is a buzzing restaurant, campground and outdoor music venue.

These days, renting 100-150 boats makes for a pretty good weekend, Heath said, adding, “If you were to tell me that six years ago, I would have said you were crazy.”

Smooth Rapids Outfitters sits on the banks of the Barren Fork River, which gathers from a web of runoff veins in western Warren County. It flows eastward for 23 or so serpentine miles before meeting the Collins River, a tributary of the Caney Fork, just east of McMinnville. The Barren Fork’s lower eight miles shape a lovely and languid course through and then around the edge of town.

Smooth Rapids is aptly named. The lower Barren Fork’s mostly unhurried currents make for typically mellow paddling, requiring only elementary navigation maneuvers.

“This is not whitewater kayaking. It’s more lazy river floating — that’s what the rivers around here are like,” said Heath.

The beauty is hypnotic, though, somehow enhanced by the knowledge you’re floating near a population center, which is often easy to forget as scenes of secluded sylvan riverscape float placidly by.

Learning to Love to Float

Because of the Barren Fork’s gentle descent grade, beginners of all ages can get the hang of handling a kayak in short and safe order.

Smooth Rapids puts a special emphasis on hosting and organizing floats for kids. Getting youngsters out on the water, piloting their own boat, can be a highly enjoyable confidence-building experience they’ll long remember and draw on.

Heath said all the Smooth Rapids crew tend to “love pretty much everything to do with the outdoors.” So introducing kids to the river who may never have had an opportunity to paddle before is exceptionally rewarding, he said, especially if they’re from more urbanized areas or at-risk backgrounds and maybe don’t often get the opportunity to get out and genuinely encounter nature.

As for the food-serving side of the business, Heath said the river “feeds our restaurant.”

Their decision to open a restaurant was based on straightforward and consistent observations made though firsthand market analysis. “When people get off the water, they are typically hungry. When they get here, they are ready to eat,” Heath said.

The moving-waters theme is apparent on the Smooth Rapids restaurant menu, where you can dive into a fleet of appetizers and craft brews. The entrée list contains a boatload of chicken baskets and sandwiches with names like the River Monster, the Riviera, the Daytripper and the Barren Fork Burger.

Confluence of Commerce and Recreation

In addition to their aim of luring people into a lifelong paddling habit, Smooth Rapids is seeking to promote greater visitation to the region by hosting festive outdoor events like the Aug. 3-5 reggae festival and the Sept. 22 McMinnville Mountain Crawl, an annual endurance-testing “adventure race” consisting of caving, biking, and kayaking around the vicinity.

Heath said he’s big believer in the idea that the rising tide of Warren County tourism commerce will ultimately lift more than just Smooth Rapids’ boats. All McMinnville profits from raising the area’s profile for dynamic outdoor-recreation potential, so it behooves local businesses to work together to make everybody’s visit a memorable one, he said.

“We really consider ourselves partners with the other restaurants in town — we don’t look at them as competition,” he said. “We all work together, because if somebody is going to come into town, maybe like to take in a show at Cumberland Caverns, then they may go to Collins River BBQ on Friday night and then come eat with us on Saturday night and then go to another restaurant on Sunday afternoon. This is what you want, everybody working together to keep that out-of-town traffic in the community having fun and spending money.”

To get in touch with Smooth Rapids, call 931-452-9251 or visit online at smoothrapids.com.