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Fall Creek Falls Hotel Demo Delayed

Shuttered lodge complex still scheduled for razing by end of year

The anticipated date for demolition to commence on the old inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park has been pushed back to at least the end of this month, according to state officials overseeing the project.

The plan had been for crews to start dismantling the 1970s-era hotel and conference complex by next week. But word now is that, because “contract negotiations took a little longer than expected,” the project won’t begin until the end of this month.

A spokesman for Tennessee’s Department of General Services said this week that work teams will likely begin removing the old hotel’s interior by the beginning of September, a process that should take about three weeks. When that’s complete, they’ll start tearing the buildings down.

“At present we expect it will take a little less than two months to tear down the structure, haul off materials, and secure the site,” Dave Roberson, director of communications for the department, wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun.

Roberson said the Brentwood-based company Bell and Associates Construction is handling the project.

The state’s plan is to build a new hotel and open it sometime in 2020.

The total cost of the project is expected to run close to $30 million. The old lodge ceased functioning in April.

Fall Creek Falls Park Manager Jacob Young said there’s been a noticeable falloff in visitation to the park since the inn and restaurant shut down, especially during weekdays. He said staff are expecting the typically busy autumn to fade into winter off-season faster than normal as a result as well.

Check back with Center Hill Sun for updates.

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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.

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Design for New Inn at Fall Creek Falls Unveiled

State aiming for August demolition

The public has gotten a first glance at what the proposed new hotel at Fall Creek Falls State Park is supposed to look like when it’s completed.

Architectural renderings of the new facility were released this summer by the agency that oversees state parks management.

The new inn is intended to summon a more hospitable ambience than the old, which was built back in the early 1970s in a sullen, concrete-gray style known as “Brutalism.” Reminiscent of mid-20th Century Soviet-bloc architecture, the old hotel emitted a distinctly drab spirit. A recurring observation was that it more resembled something like a psychiatric hospital or penal institution than a congenial lakeside retreat befitting the sublime character of Tennessee’s most popular state park.

Lodged Where?

The design drawings for the new inn envisage the new structure integrated more harmoniously into the wooded, water’s edge habitat on the gently sloping banks of Fall Creek Lake.

The facades on the new 95,000-square foot inn will consist of “timber framing, stonework details and extended height windows,” which will complement “the natural setting of the park,” according to a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation press release from June 21.

The finished lodge will have three floors and contain “various indoor and outdoor gathering areas including larger meeting and conference space.” The grounds will include “paths connecting the facility to existing recreational trails.”

Construction is anticipated to begin later this year and finish by the summer of 2020.

The new restaurant will serve up an expansive vista of Fall Creek Lake, and guests can dine on a scenic terrace overlooking the water if they chose. The building will also include a bar and lounge area, as well as banquet spaces to facilitate conferences and group retreats.

“The inn is designed to provide spacious views of the lake and of the park’s natural forest that will evoke long-lasting memories for visitors,” said an executive from Earl Swensson Associates, a Nashville-based firm overseeing the project.

But first there’s the matter of demolishing the old building, which although it closed for good on April 1, is still standing as of this writing.

“Right now the schedule calls for demolition to begin August 15, and to be complete by October 31,” David Roberson, spokesman for Tennessee’s Department of General Services, said in a July 10 email.

“The Fall Creek Falls project, which includes demolition of the existing inn, has been in the planning and design phase since May,” he wrote. “A contract for the project is now being finalized, and once it is signed the general contractor will hire various subcontractors, which will include a subcontractor to handle the demolition.”

“Since the contract is not complete yet, we don’t know final cost, nor the cost of the various elements of the contract, such as the demolition,” Roberson added.

Costs Climbing

The total estimated price tag of the demolition-and-rebuild project is now $29.4 million. However, that number has been trending upwards over the past couple years since the Haslam administration first announced plans to tear down and replace the old hotel.

Initial projections called for spending $20-$22 million on the project. Last year the figure was revised to $25 million. The latest, nearly $30 million price tag, was put forward by TDEC in the spring.

“The estimated overall cost of the inn project, which has been in the works for nearly three years, has varied over the course of that time based on a variety of circumstances and variables,” TDEC communications director Eric Ward wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun.

The Haslam administration’s initial proposal was to outsource the new facility’s operations to an outside concessionaire, an idea that drew vocal opposition both locally and in the Tennessee Legislature. But the idea only fell fully flat when in 2017 not a single company offered a bid on running the new hotel and conference center.

Gone for now are both the outsourcing proposal and any expectation that the state will get help footing front-end design and development costs on the new facility.

Ward said “the project was originally part of a potential concessionaire agreement, where a private concessionaire would have theoretically shouldered some of the cost, thereby reducing the cost to the taxpayer.”

“Other factors that have influenced the estimated cost over time include inflation and the cost of demolition and construction materials,” the TDEC spokesman added.

Local Economic Benefits Anticipated

The state has forecast the new inn, restaurant and conference center will generate $278,000 annually in local taxes, which is $90,000 a year more than the old facility.

“In the short term, construction activity will bring an estimated $14.7 million in construction-related taxable spending to the area along with more than 100 construction jobs,” according to TDEC’s June 21 news release.

The 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls park straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe Counties, both of which are considered economically “distressed” by state and federal agencies.

TDEC officials say the old hotel was running occupancy rates below 40 percent. The average hotel occupancy-rate nationally was 65.9 percent in 2017, according to industry estimates used by the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. In the Southeastern United States, the 2016 average was 61.4 percent and in Tennessee it was 64.5 percent.

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Adventure Tourism Mecca in the Making

McMinnville-Warren County looking to cash in on wealth of outdoor riches

It’s almost always possible to imagine better living arrangements or conditions than one’s current circumstances.

But recognizing that the grass isn’t really always greener somewhere else often enables a person not only to enjoy a more contented and fulfilling existence in present time and place, but also to realize that opportunities exist right in one’s own backyard that others may in fact tend to envy.

To that end, business and political leaders in McMinnville have commissioned a comprehensive report demonstrating that, when it comes to the economic potential of tourism in the area, the grass is already pretty green in Warren County.

And it has the potential of getting greener all the time.

The “Adventure Tourism Plan for McMinnville-Warren County, Tennessee,” released in March after more than a year in the making, lends persuasive and meticulous support to a view that’s been dawning for the past decade on many who call the area home.

The plan’s thesis is this: As a result of its location and surrounding natural features and recreational assets — with hills, mountains, scenic rivers, lakes and exceptional beauty abounding that “cannot be created by the hands of man” — Warren County is distinctly suited to take advantage of Tennessee’s thriving tourism industry, with McMinnville serving as an “adventure hub.”

“Due to McMinnville-Warren County’s geographic location on the Eastern Highland Rim and at the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, natural resources are in abundance with the Collins, Barren Fork, and Caney Fork rivers, Cumberland Caverns – a United States National Natural Landmark, and eight state parks/natural areas within 50 miles,” according to the plan, which was written by Griggs & Maloney, a Murfreesboro-based environmental-engineering planning and consulting firm.

Paid for using part of a $28,000 state tourism development grant, the Adventure Tourism Plan functions as a strategic blueprint for business, community leaders and entrepreneurs to grow the local tourism economy. It also serves as an impressive “inventory of places and activities” already attracting visitors heading out on Tennessee highways looking for adventure.

McMinnville Mayor Jim Haley

“For a long time, our community didn’t really see our natural beauty and our environmental assets as really a selling point,” said McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley. “But over the last few years, more and more people have been starting to see that using the mountains and caves and rivers and great climate and lushness all plays into a bigger picture. Those things already are here, we don’t have to build them, and opportunities are basically endless. So there’s no reason we can’t use that as an asset and strategy of get other people to come and appreciate it as well.”

Tapping TN Tourism

The backdrop for the bigger picture is that the Volunteer State as a whole is doing quite well in the realm of tourism development.

Tourism is among the state’s most booming economic sectors, with expenditures from the estimated 110 million people who visited Tennessee surpassing $19.3 billion in 2016, the most recent year comprehensive data is available. That was up 4.7 percent over the previous year, and marked the 11th consecutive year that tourism topped a billion dollars in state and local sales tax revenue.

In 2017, Tennessee earned a ranking — for the fourth consecutive year — among the Top 10 travel destinations in the U.S. And last year it was also deemed the fastest-growing state in America for international travel.

Visitation and spending by nonresidents in Warren County has been rising the past several years as well, as has attendance at state parks in the area, like Rock Island, South Cumberland and Fall Creek Falls.

While “laying a roadmap for the next 20 years” for tourism development in McMinnville and Warren County is a central purpose the adventure plan serves, Haley added that it can also be read as a promotional initiative for the entire region.

“We have to quit thinking of ourselves as singular units,” he said. “When people come to McMinnville, they might decide to go up to Sparta to the Calfkiller Brewery or over to the distillery at Short Mountain. When someone is coming to Cumberland Caverns or the Isha Yoga Center or they’re coming here for the Muskie Tournament or one of our other music venues, or if they’re just floating down the river, they’re not worried whether it’s Warren County. They don’t know if it is White County, Van Buren County or Warren County. All the rivers converge at Rock Island.”

As large metropolitan areas in Tennessee and beyond continue expanding as time goes on, “more and more people are going to be looking for outdoor opportunities,” said Ryan Maloney of Griggs & Maloney, the agency that drafted the plan.

Undoubtedly, more and more are going to discover that the Upper Cumberland is a “jewel,” he said.

Choose Your Own Adventure

An “adventure tourism trip” is generally described by travel-economy analysts and marketing industry professionals as one in which an individual, family or group travels to an area outside their normal realm of day-to-day lifestyle preoccupations for the purpose of engaging in some form of physical activity in a natural environment or as part of some “culturally immersive experience.”

Adventure tourism encompasses more than just higher-energy, adrenaline-elevating activities like rock climbing, mountain and road biking, caving, backcountry backpacking, zip-lining and kayaking — all of which are common activities in or around Warren County. It could also involve consciousness-elevating pursuits like simply exploring some new natural landscape or setting out to gain improved knowledge of, or a better appreciation for, how people live or used to live in a place of historical or ecological interest.

“The definitions of adventure tourism vary as much as the activities,” explains the plan, which catalogs a dizzying index of adventure-seeking pursuits one can embark upon in the vicinity.

Among them are kayaking, rafting, canoeing, paddle boarding, trophy sport fishing, motorized water sports of all manner, road cycling, mountain biking, skydiving, cave exploration trips, zip lining, bungee jumping, geocaching, target shooting, hang gliding/paragliding, historical tours and a spectacularly scenic yoga sanctuary boasting the largest meditation hall in the Western Hemisphere.

“Within 45 miles a visitor can explore eight state parks, access over 125 miles of hiking trails, mountain bike trails, kayaking, numerous waterfalls, caves, zip lining and ropes courses, numerous fishing opportunities, an 18-hole golf course, and a 1,500 to 2,000 year old stone fort,” notes the report. Also nearby are “two recreational lakes and three rivers that could easily be listed as wild and scenic.”

Besides all the natural beauty and recreational draw of the area, visitors are also lured by “the cultural resources that represent the heritage of the communities (that) are the tangible link to the past generations who established McMinnville-Warren County many years ago.”

Many activities, places and events that “meld heritage and adventure together to form a more experience based tourism” are in Warren County, the plan states. And McMinnville in particular — a “quintessential small town” with an attractive and active downtown and “tree lined streets” — is ideally stationed as a jumping-off point for adventure tourism throughout the region.

“McMinnville is unique in that it can function simultaneously as both a hub and destination within Warren County and the surrounding region for Adventure Tourism,” according to the plan, which notes that four major urban population centers home to an estimated 2.92 million people are within an easy two-hour drive of downtown McMinnville.

“Just as the natural beauty and the landscape of McMinnville-Warren County has created business and commerce that is still evident in the landscape today, more and more people, both residents and visitors, are coming to experience and interact with the natural beauty of the area and experience the small town main street feel of McMinnville,” the plan’s authors wrote.

McMinnville is, in fact, one of 35 nationally accredited “Main Street” communities in Tennessee.

Mandy Eller, McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce president.

Like Mayor Haley, Chamber of Commerce President Mandy Eller is among those who believe it makes sense to market McMinnville and Warren County more energetically to visitors seeking physically active getaways and rewarding cultural experiences.

“That is an opportunity for the whole Upper Cumberland — maybe we can build it as a model and then they can do it across the whole region,” she said of the Adventure Tourism Plan blueprint.

Eller, who grew up the daughter of a nurseryman and then became the wife of one, said she’s always been engaged in the community. But she acknowledges there were times as a younger adult when she took some of the region’s beauty, history and outdoor recreation for granted. But once she had children of her own, Eller said she became determined to instill in them a sense of pride in their hometown and county. That in turn led her to discovering things about the area for herself that she never knew.

Her impression now is that she’s immeasurable fortunate to live and raise a family of her own in a land of unbounded allure, potential and promise.

“We are completely spoiled here, we really are,” Eller said.

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No Time Like National Trails Day to Take a Hike

Nature lovers go ambling together along America’s footpaths June 2

Whether you’re a seasoned trail trekker or just looking to get your feet dusty for the first time in a stretch, there’s a day designated just for getting people together to enjoy a nature walk.

On the first Saturday of June for 25 years, the American Hiking Society has promoted a nationwide gathering of hikers of all ages, abilities and experience levels to discover or rediscover a sense of beauty and adventure along a local public-lands footpath. Thousands of the trail-marching meet-ups are hosted throughout the country.

The concept for National Trails Day is to connect people with a wide range of trail activities on a single day. Organizers of the coast-to-coast events say that sometimes all people need to get enthused about hiking is someone to show them what’s available – or biking or horseback riding or any other trail activity, for that matter.

National Trails Day is a “collective effort to connect people with trails,” he said.

“We encourage a wide variety of events, and not all of it even has to be hiking related,” said Wesley Trimble, a program coordinator for the American Hiking Society. “Basically, any kind of trail activity that is muscle-powered, whether it be hiking, biking horseback riding, is something we promote.”

National Trails Day is also envisioned as an event to spur volunteer interest in repairing and improving trails. Last year AHS helped coordinate more 1,500 hikes and trail-maintenance events, with activities in all 50 states. This year’s goal is to improve 2,802 miles of trail across the country — the distance across the United States.

“It’s easy to hit the trail and enjoy being outside without thinking about the tremendous effort it takes to advocate for, plan, build, and maintain the nearly 250,000 miles of trail crisscrossing America,” said Kate VanWaes, director of AHS.

Tennessee’s coordinator for outreach programs and special events at state parks, Morgan Gilman, said National Trails Day is one of a handful of days throughout the year when all state parks organize activities around a common theme

“National Trails Day is one of our signature events at all of our state parks – and it is all about getting people out and enjoying our trails,” she said.

And there are plenty of trails to choose from: together, State parks across Tennessee boast more than a thousand miles of walking paths.

Some parks will offer leisurely strolls; some strenuous. Some parks are doing clean-up hikes and others are more history oriented, she said

In addition to promoting the thoroughgoing benefits to health and well-being that hiking provides, National Trails Day provides an outstanding opportunity for park managers and staff to showcase something that makes their sites worthy of designation as special places in Tennessee, Gilman said.

And when it comes to having a lot to offer, Tennessee’s state park system is among the best in the country. Last year, the National Recreation and Park Association named Tennessee as one of the four best state park systems in the country for demonstrating excellence in management, stewardship and program development.

“On National Trails Day, the parks tend to try to highlight the aspects that make them unique,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to maybe explore a new trail or volunteer to help clean up or do maintenance on one of your favorite trails.

Events include activities such as hikes, trail runs, bicycle tours, horseback rides, volunteer trail projects, activities for kids, and much more.

“We have a variety of things that they are trying to tap into at all the parks, but it is just a great day to celebrate trails and hiking,” said Gilman.

To find out what’s going on at a state park you’d like to visit, go here for a calendar of events and contact info for all Tennessee’s individual park headquarters.

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Warren County Angler Nets All-American Honors

Vandagriff earns national recognition capping outstanding high school career

A McMinnville student who considers Center Hill Lake his home waters has been named to the 2018 Bassmaster High School All-American Fishing Team.

Samuel Vandagriff, a senior at Warren County High, is among just 12 young anglers from the around the country — one of only two from Tennessee — to earn the prestigious recognition.

He landed the All-American designation after his name rose to the top of a nomination pool consisting of more than 465 names. The Bassmaster organization executives who made the selections said their criteria included not just on-the-water skills and success, but also dedication to academics and good citizenship.

“Samuel also leads off the water in his school, church and community, participating in things like hurricane relief, Habitat for Humanity and Relay for Life,” said David Lowrie, Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation High School state director. “Samuel provides leadership for Warren County’s fishing team and sets an example for other Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation high school and junior anglers.”

Samuel will now get to compete against other Bassmaster All-Americans at a special high school tournament being held in conjunction with the professional 2018 Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest beginning May 17.

J.W. Holt, a teacher at Warren County High who serves as the school’s fishing-club faculty advisor, described Samuel’s All-American award as “a very huge accomplishment” that has been terrific both for the school itself and building youth enthusiasm for competition fishing.

“It’s brought us a lot of attention, and put us in a good spotlight,” said Holt, who helped organize the Warren County High School bass club’s launch six years ago. Holt said the fishing club, for which Samuel serves as president, has been growing every year.

“It’s really unbelievable and amazing how it has taken off,” he said.

Holt said Samuel, who turns 18 this summer, has been a tournament standout since he started fishing with the club as an eighth grader, when he was part of a nationally ranked duo with another astute young Warren County angler, Hunter Bouldin, who’s now on the FLW circuit.

“Samuel is very persistent and he practices a lot — he just has a knack for it,” said Holt. “He’s really good at what he does, and he’s one of these kids that can handle pressure. It always seems like he’s on top of things.”

Learning the Ways of Lunkers 

Samuel said he’s been fishing for as long as his memory serves. He credits his dad and grandfathers for teaching him tricks for tracking down and hooking fish early on that have continued to serve him well.

One of the keys to tournament fishing success is versatility, said Samuel. He advises youngsters who want to make a name for themselves boating big bass to get comfortable with all kinds of angling tactics and techniques.

“Putting your time in is pretty much the biggest thing,” he said. “Figure out what you’re best at, and then once you figure that out, work on learning new stuff.”

A big secret to consistent tournament success is “getting good at fishing everything,” he said.

“I catch a lot of fish shallow, but then again I like catching them deep just as well,” said Samuel. “Most people can either do one or the other — they’re either out there deep or up in the trees. They don’t go back and forth. But not every tournament is going to be won shallow and not every tournament is going to be won deep. You’ve got to be able to fish all of it.”

Family Values Fishing

Samuel’s parents, Barry and Shannon, obviously have a lot to boast about these days — and not just because of Samuel’s successes. Their younger son, Matthew, is Samuel’s fishing partner and a rising star himself. Samuel and Matthew have qualified for nationals every year they’ve been fishing together. Last year they placed fifth in the Bassmaster National Championship tournament.

Barry also serves as their coach and manager. “I buy the gas and drive the boat,” he said. As Samuel puts it, “He’s always our boat captain.”

It never took much coaxing to interest the boys in wetting a line when they were little, Barry said. Both got pretty serious about it “as soon as they could hold a pole.”

“I guess it’s in their blood,” he said.

In the fall, Samuel is planning to attend Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. Ironically enough, the only other 2018 Bassmaster High School All-American from Tennessee — Jacob Woods of Lenoir City High School — intends to go to TTU as well. Samuel said he and Jacob have become good friends over the years and expects they’ll be fishing partners in the college tournaments.

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Kayak Fishing Tourney Underway at Rock Island

If you’re looking to test your angling talents against other paddling bass stalkers, then take note: Rock Island State Park is hosting a season of kayak-fishing tournament events this year.

Ranger Allen Reynolds is supervising the Rock Island State Park Kayak Bass Fishing Series 2018, which cost only five bucks per date to enter, or $20 for all of them.

“This year is something of a trial effort, we’re trying to generate interest and build on it from there,” said Reynolds, himself a fisherman who says there’s an abundance of fish and diverse water-types and aquatic habitats holding fish in the area, not to mention a range of fish species.

Using the “hawg trough” and photo method for fish measurement, the competition point-system is focused on the three main black-bass species: largemouth, smallies and spotted or Kentucky bass. You can a contact the ranger station at least a day ahead of a tournament date to rent a hawg trough.

There’ll also be a prize awarded at the end of the year for “most unique fish” as well. Reynolds anticipates that could end up being a gnarly looking muskie, since the launch point for certain tournament dates is the Kings Ramp on the Collins River, just south of the RISP main entrance. The Caney Fork’s tributaries above Center Hill Lake are renown for their mean and stealthy pike-species predators lurking in the currents.

Tournament No. 2 in the series begins this Saturday at 5:30 am at the RISP boat ramp.

The other dates are as follows:

  • May 5 — 6am-1pm (Rock Island State Park Boat Ramp)
  • June 9 — 6am-1pm (King’s Landing Boat Ramp)
  • September 8 — 6am-1pm (Rock Island State Park Boat Ramp)
  • October 6 — Final Event, Time and Location TBA

In addition to hopefully introducing angles to exciting new fishing waters around Rock Island State Park, one of Reynolds’ motives behind organizing the tournament series is to “level the playing field” for people who may want to participate in fishing competitions but aren’t already all-in with high-dollar investments.

“There are a lot of guys that really like to fish but maybe don’t have a big bass boat or whatever,” he said. “I think that’s the appeal of this kind of fishing.”

For those new to the sport of kayak fishing who want to test the waters before plunging in and buying one of their own, kayak rentals are available in the area.

While it’s billed as a kayak fishing tournament, it’s probably more aptly a described as a self-propelled personal watercraft competition. According to the rules, only human-powered vessels are allowed, like canoes, kayaks, paddleboards. No electric or gas motors permitted and all fish must be caught from the boat.

Both fly-fishing gear and traditional rods and tackle are permitted. However, only artificial flies and lures are allowed. No live (or formerly alive) bait can be used, said Reynolds.

Unfortunately, the famed “Blue Hole” between Center Hill Lake and Great Falls Dam isn’t really accessible for the tournaments, said Reynolds.

“If you put in at our boat ramp (on Center Hill Lake) you would have to do some dragging with your boat and it is not really safe,” said Reynolds. “Everybody wants to go fish the blue hole in a boat, but it is just too dangerous. I have had to deal with too many rescues of people who were unaware of what happens when the water comes up. It catches a lot of people off guard.”

Reynolds said he’s angling for corporate sponsorship as the tournament grows, but so far it’s mostly supported locally. Chances are, though, if kayak fisherfolks start showing up in numbers, Eric Jackson will probably take notice. Jackson, a world-champion freestyle kayaker turned competition bass angler, lives in the realm of Rock Island, and the headquarters and manufacturing center for his paddlesport boat-building company, Jackson Kayak, is located just up the road in Sparta.

Contact allen.reynolds@tn.gov to learn more about the tournament, or visit the RISP Facebook page.

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Putnam County Gov’t Gets Good Comptroller Report

Putnam County has secured a place among just over a dozen Tennessee counties to earn a “clean” audit report from the state agency charged with examining local-government fiscal affairs.

Ninety of Tennessee’s 95 counties have been audited since the last fiscal year ended on June 30. Only 13 have been declared free of accounting discrepancies and defects in spending oversight.

Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office issued a news release last week declaring that Putnam County’s financial management — as well as that of Lincoln and Louden — has recently been reviewed without identifying any “weaknesses or deficiencies in government operations.”

Elected officials from Putnam and other counties that earn clean audits deserve appreciation for making a serious commitment to “accurate financial reporting and clear checks and balances that help protect taxpayer money,” according to the comptroller’s office statement.

“A clean audit is a positive sign that a county government in on track,” Wilson said. “I commend all of the elected officials, leaders, and county staff who have committed to a well-run government. This is an accomplishment worth celebrating.”

Putnam County Executive Randy Porter indicated he was obviously quite pleased with the audit results, saying that one of his “primary goals” upon taking office in 2014 was to work toward a clean audit.

“This is really significant for Putnam County, as we know this has not happened in the past 25 years and possibly never,” Porter said in an emailed statement. Making Putnam County government more fiscally responsible “has truly been a team effort” among all the county’s elected leaders and department employees, he said.

On average, Tennessee counties examined this year by state auditors received 3.76 “findings” of fiscal failing or budget-management blundering of one sort or another. That number is an improvement from the previous fiscal year, when the state average per county was 4.26.

The other counties besides Putnam, Lincoln and Louden awarded recognition for state auditors finding no fault in their administrative financial affairs this year are Bedford, Blount, Franklin, Gibson, Giles, Marshall, Rutherford, Tipton, Unicoi and Williamson.

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Coming Soon: New Trails at Edgar Evins State Park

‘Storybook trail’ nearing completion; ambitious mountain biking runs planned

Rangers and volunteers at Edgar Evins State Park are working on two new trails that’ll likely boost the park’s appeal to visitors young and not-so-young alike.

Scheduled for completion by the end of May, the “Reading Ranger Story Trail” near the Interpretive Center will give kids and their parents an opportunity to stretch both their legs and imaginations.

A storybook trail, as it is also called, is a relatively short and easy path with blown-up pages from a children’s book posted along the way. You have to keep walking to get to the end of the story.

Tennessee’s first state park storybook trail opened a year and a half ago at Long Hunter State Park on Percy Priest Lake.

Childhood Development, Early & Often

That trail was the brainchild of Ranger Leslie Anne Rawlings, who built on a concept called “StoryWalks” that originated in Vermont a few years ago. There, the idea was to separate the pages from actual books and affix them along trails for kids to discover.

Rawlings has taken the idea a few steps further — and made it bigger and more weather-resistant. She has secured permission from children’s book publishers to enlarge and outdoor-proof the pages so they will last a long time.

Inspiring early appreciation for the outdoors and amplifying a child’s desire to read for pleasure are ideally where the storybook trails ultimately lead, said Rawlings. She also hopes they will encourage more communication and cooperation between state parks and public libraries.

Trail-building starts with “flagging” a path.

Other parks besides Edgar Evins are planning to build new storybook trails or repurpose existing ones.

“Eventually, we hope to get to the point where we can trade our stories around among a lot of different parks,” said Rawlings.

The Edgar Evins storybook trail, which is a pretty easy quarter or so mile loop, is located across the street from the Interpretive Center. A trail ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for June 2 in conjunction with the park’s celebration of the American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day.

Who Wants Mountain Biking Trails?

Turning Edgar Evins State Park into an inviting mountain biking destination is something Kenny Gragg has been saying is high on his to-do list since he took over as park manager last winter.

He reports that about six new miles of multi-use backcountry trail is now in the course-plotting phase, and it’ll be designed principally with mountain biking in mind.

Volunteers are necessary to make good, sustainable trails as inexpensively as possible. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)

Justin Vaughn, a native of Putnam County who’s worked at the park six years, admits he’s no expert on mountain biking. However, he knows where to go for advice and assistance from mountain biking mentors. The crew at Outdoor Experience’s Caney Fork Cycles in Cookeville, as well as Middle Tennessee’s SORBA chapter, a network of bike trail enthusiasts, are lending energy and know-how to help ensure the project’s success.

“What I am hoping to do is keep costs as low as possible while providing the best trail possible to park visitors,” he said. He’s hoping all or parts of the trail could be open for riding by end of this fall or early next spring.

Vaughn predicts the chances for timely completion and epic results will no doubt be enhanced if calls for volunteers are heeded among interested communities when the word goes out.

“That is something that is part of the planning process — figuring out where I am going to get volunteers,” Vaughn said. “But part of the reason we’re building it is that interest in biking trails is growing. A lot of people come to us and say they’d like to see a trail here. We’ve listened to those visitors and we’re working on it.”

(Feature image: Ranger Leslie Anne Rawlings with local children at Long Hunter State Park. Photo by Jason Allen)

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Boom Times for Black Walnut

Prospects brighter for giant provider of wood, food and forest shade

As it often turns out, for better or worse, the future just ain’t what it used to be.

But in the realm of hardwood forest health, that actually ought to be a big win for the tall, dark and handsome black walnut, which is certainly no stranger to the wooded hillsides, valleys and ridges of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region.

Not so long ago, though, it looked like dismal days indeed lay ahead for the opulent heartwood of the eastern U.S. heartland. A tiny twig beetle was casting a long and ominous shadow out over the horizon, potentially menacing the survival of many millions of black walnut trees across their native range.

Given the appalling pandemic that befell and felled the American chestnut, and the ongoing disaster unfolding as a result of the emerald ash borer’s baleful spread, anxiety among forest health experts soared back in the early years of this decade when a malevolent blight called thousand cankers disease, or TCD, was discovered in the Knoxville area.

Thousand cankers disease is described by scientists as a “disease complex” that is native to the western United States. It is an arboreal ailment that scientists say results from  “the combined activity” of a fungus (Geosmithia morbida) spread by the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis).

Walnut twig beetle

A disease that primarily affects black walnut trees, TCD gets its name from a pernicious propensity to inflict numerous small ulcers or “cankers” on trees. If proliferation of the cankers brought on by the beetle’s “overwhelming attacks” goes unchecked, it will kill the tree.

Of particularly worrying concern when the twig beetle and TCD was detected in Tennessee was not only that the pestilence had not yet been observed east of the Mississippi, but that the Volunteer State essentially constitutes the very core of black walnut country.

“Tennessee is roughly in the middle of the native range for black walnut trees,” said Steve Powell, the state’s chief entomologist. “So when it was found in 2010, it was really unfortunate.”

Tennessee’s Division of Forestry estimates there are 26 million mature walnut trees growing throughout the state’s countrysides, and another 1.3 million in urban areas, representing a combined standing economic timber value of $2.84 billion.

Forest Fears Festering

The sinister dread primarily bugging scientists, conservationists, loggers and forestland owners after the discovery of thousand cankers disease in east Tennessee was that black walnut trees were facing a crisis similar to that currently witnessed with emerald ash borer, which is now in more than 60 Tennessee counties. EAB is a bonafide “catastrophe” for ash trees wherever it appears, according to Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Steve Baskauf.

“The emerald ash borer has been expanding its range throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada at a steady pace and there is currently no way to stop it,” Baskauf wrote in 2015. “All attempts at quarantine or creating ‘firebreaks’ have failed. The only real question is when the EAB will arrive in an area. It’s like a giant steamroller slowly rolling down a hill towards your house. You can see that it’s coming and you know that when it gets there, it’s going to smash your house. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Fortunately for black walnut trees, though, TCD isn’t EAB.

While TCD has in fact ravaged black walnuts in the Western United States, those trees are not native to that environment. They were historically introduced from the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“The pioneers took their black walnuts out west and planted them,” said Alan Windham, a plant pathologist with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “They had black walnuts in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — usually planted along streams and rivers.”

Windham said it appears now the black walnut’s devastating susceptibility to TCD in the West looks to be greatly exacerbated by natural environmental stresses as a result of the drier climate out there, which greatly inhibits a tree’s ability to fight off and survive the condition.

No Place Like Native Home

The wetter Eastern U.S. climate is, by contrast, more to the black walnut’s liking than the arid west.

Trees here appear much more capable of fending off the disease — and even recovering after a TCD infection sets in, which is uncommon in the West, said Windham.

“When TCD showed up here, there was an assumption that the same thing would happen here that happened there — that it would be very damaging to the species,” Windham said. “But here we are, more than seven years later, and it really hasn’t moved much from the initial location in Knox County. The good news is that we have had a totally different experience with thousand cankers disease in the Eastern United States than what the scientists who had followed it out West were perhaps anticipating.”

While black walnut trees are not as plentiful in Tennessee as in some states, especially further north, they nevertheless play a crucial role in forest ecosystems and wildlife habitats here. Demand for the delicious nuts, among both humans and fulltime forest-dwelling fauna — like squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and bears — is robust.

And like sapling shoots invigorated with the spring, walnut timber prices are reaching ever upward. Demand for the exquisite, richly-grained black walnut wood, especially for decorative veneer, is “extremely strong right now,” said University of Tennessee extension forester David Mercker, who tracks Tennessee timber prices as part of his job.

“It increases almost on a weekly basis,” he said.

And that has been the case for a while now. “The loggers and mills just can’t get enough of it,” Mercker said.

Jonathan Boggs, who manages a woodland resource consulting firm based in Dickson County, said that while it’s true walnut trees are currently fetching premium prices, don’t assume you’re in for a tidy and effortless payday just because you have one growing out on the lawn in the subdivision where you live.

“Believe me, I get two or three calls a week from somebody that’s got a walnut tree in their front yard and they’ve been hearing the same thing that everybody is hearing, that prices are real high,” said Boggs. “The reality is that it may be worth something if you’re willing to cut it down yourself and take it to a mill. But you’re probably not going to get a buyer to come and cut a single tree — or even a few trees — out of your yard. It just isn’t going to be feasible for them to do that.”

Boggs added, though, that if you’re a logger or a landowner contemplating a timber sale, a 25-foot walnut log that’s at least 24 inches on the small end might yield $10 a board foot. “There could be 500 board feet in that tree, so in all reality it could bring $5,000,” Boggs said. “But most yard trees aren’t going to have that quality or board feet in them.”

A forest-grown black walnut tree is “going to have better characteristics” than an urban tree — like “not having any low-hanging limbs,” he said. “They self-thin themselves in the woods.”

Going for Nuts

For some rural landowners and freelance foragers, the nuts are basically just another crop to harvest when they start dropping in the fall.

The two Upper Cumberland black-walnut buying-and-hulling stations in 2017 were Jackson County Farm and Garden in Gainsboro, and at local rancher Brent Hewitt’s place near Morrison in western Warren County. Both sell their walnuts to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri.

“The flavor of black walnut is very rich and robust, very distinctive from English walnut,” said Brian Hammons, the company’s third-generation president. “Chefs are increasingly intrigued with what that flavor will do in their dishes. So they are using it more and more all the time.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, launched the operation in 1946 after he tracked down a used nut-cracking machine for sale in Tennessee and hauled it back to his hometown in the Ozarks, whereupon he started buying walnuts from whoever wanted collect them and bring them in to him.

Today, the Hammons company buys 20-30 million pounds annually. Last year they bought black walnuts from more than 235 hulling stations across 15 states.

Jacob Basecke, vice president of marketing and sales at Hammons, said 2017 was “a really, really strong year in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio.” Hammons purchased about 731,465 pounds out of Tennessee.

“The 10 year average is about 475,000 pounds, so it was up last year,” Basecke said.

Hewitt, whose hulling station is located about 10 miles west of McMinnville, said he’s been rolling in black walnuts ever since he got into the business five years ago. Like all Hammons-backed stations, Hewitt paid his clients $15 dollars per hundred pounds in 2017, post hulling. Five years ago the price was $13, he said.

“This was a good year,” Hewitt said. Although it could have been even better were it not for some frost-loss, he said. “I done almost 200,000 pounds. That’s about the same as the year before,” he said.

In fact, he actually took in a few hundred more pounds in 2017 than 2016. “I lacked just 306 pounds from having 200,000 pounds this year,” Hewitt said. “Last year I think I lacked thirteen-hundred.”

For Jackson County Farm and Garden, this year in fact wasn’t as good as last, said store manager Alana Pippin. They hulled 95,000 or 96,000 pounds, she said. In 2016 they did 103,000.

“The always say you’ll have a good year, then one bad, then a good one and then a bad one again,” she said. “Some years it’s good, some years it’s not. This was kind of an off year, so hopefully next year will be better.”

Black walnuts are actually alternate bearing, Call it “alternutting,” if you like. They tend to produce noticeably larger average crops every other year.

A lot of people bring in harvest hauls from neighboring counties,  and often those taking particular advantage of the black walnut buy-up are families and individuals of modest means, Pippen said.

“People will drive pretty far to come down here,” she said. “And a lot of times you can tell that they really need the extra money.”