Lately, I’ve become aware of one side effect of getting older: it doesn’t take much to send my mind back into the past. Often for me, the trigger is a smell, particularly the scent of a flower or tree. On this latest occasion, I was mowing the lawn and caught the scent of the mimosa blossoms hanging over the fence, and I was transported in time across the years to the front yard of an old house on our family farm in Tennessee. It was a shady spot, shielded from the sun by a mimosa, a catalpa, a maple, and an elm tree.
I had lots of fun, and a few adventures, with my friends and family in that front yard. We set off fireworks there, and played softball, and were chased by a skunk once. More than once I was stung by wasps who took a dim view of my throwing rocks at their nests. We were outdoor kids, with forty acres to roam over, and it was glorious. I’ve had to come to terms with the likelihood that I’ll never be a great writer because I had such a good childhood. Overall, it’s an acceptable trade.
In looking back at my younger years and how they shaped my love of the outdoors, one activity looms large: my time in the Boy Scouts. Our troop was very fortunate to have Mr. Dave Vondy as our scoutmaster. Like my dad, Mr. Vondy worked in Oak Ridge in some high-tech job that probably involved weaponry, but he spent one evening a week and one weekend a month riding herd over a motley crew of adolescents and teenagers. Naturally, I had no perspective on this as a kid, but now I marvel at how he found the time, energy, and patience, and I tip my metaphorical hat to any Scout leader. It was a point of pride for Mr. Vondy that our troop camped overnight at least once a month for nine months of the year. We also practiced our fire building and outdoor cooking skills on the ridge behind his house on non-camping weekends, just to keep our skills sharp. Being outdoors, and camping in general, is bound to take you to some special places and to give you some lively stories. Oddly, the worse the experience is at the time, the more vivid is the memory.
One such memory is of a place I didn’t appreciate at the time. Back in those days, O Best Beloved, the mighty Little Tennessee River ran free and unfettered from Chilhowee Dam in Maryville to the mouth of the river, where it joined the Tennessee in Lenoir City. It was a lovely river, much like the Flint River here in north Alabama. It was an easy matter to head a few miles upstream and put in canoes for an overnight float trip, and we did it a couple of times during my scouting years. Our stopover spot was along a grassy patch of river bottom land at the base of a ridge, which featured a large pool known as Coytee Springs.
Even as a child, I recognized that there was something special about Coytee Springs. My regard for the place was based in the present — it was shady and cool, even in the summer, and the large flat grassy area near the river was a terrific place to camp. The main spring itself was remarkable. It was an elliptical pool about 12 feet long and around 8 feet wide, and though none of us waded around in it, it looked to be over 3 feet deep. The water was cold and readily available for drinking or boiling. The main spring also had a sizeable crop of watercress growing on its surface, which was no doubt the first experience with eating watercress for most of our troop. A little stream ran from the pool down to the river. The ridge behind the spring yielded a good supply of firewood for our campfires, and there were a couple of grapevines up on the hillside that made for some good swinging.
On one of our overnight floats in 1977 or 1978, Mr. Vondy took the notion that we’d try traveling light. Instead of hauling our canvas tents, we’d go minimalist and sleep under the stars, with only our sleeping bags and a piece of plastic as a ground cover. It was a cloudy day on the river, but we made good time and reached Coytee Springs with a few hours of daylight to spare. Once there, a couple of different camping philosophies became apparent. The older boys (teenagers all, including yours truly) took an optimistic view of the overnight weather, and tossed down our plastic and offset our sleeping bags to one side, so that we could pull half of the plastic over us to form a sort of water-resistant Boy Scout burrito. The adults in the group, along with the younger kids, scavenged up a bunch of short sticks and twine, and by pooling their resources built a bizarre 30-inch tall labyrinth with sleeping chambers and a pitched, though patchy, plastic roof. The burrito tribe jeered at this elaborate engineering and spent our time looking for arrowheads and generally goofing around.
The rain started around midnight, and at first the burrito method seemed sound, as long as one didn’t move around unnecessarily. After the rain transitioned from a light shower to a more determined downpour, I felt a wet spot down near my feet, and it slowly grew as the rain pounded on. Before long my sleeping bag was completely soaked, and by the bitter cries of my companions I knew I wasn’t the only one in for a soggy, cold night. Even worse, the ragtag plastic labyrinth was holding up well, with the adults and our inferiors sleeping merrily away, oblivious to our misery. They had even dug a shallow drainage ditch so the water wasn’t even seeping in from the sides.
But then their luck changed, as one of the youngsters near the center of the labyrinth rolled over and knocked down one of the sticks supporting the roof. Water rushed in through the gap, causing other sleepers to startle awake, and they sat up and knocked over more sticks, and the whole contraption collapsed onto the shrieking mob. Oh, it was a most satisfying sight for the burritos, and our laughter warmed us for a few minutes. The little ones and the adults clambered out of the wreckage and made a beeline for the adults’ cars, where they spent the rest of the night in the dry. The older kids, of course, pretended that we were all fine, so we tried to preserve our dignity while shivering away until first light gave us the excuse to jump up and start our breakfast fires. Except, of course, all the wood was wet, so we had to wait for the adults to wake up and retrieve the firewood they had stashed in their vehicles.
Now, as an adult, I’m able to go onto the Internet and gain a whole new perspective on Coytee Springs. The adults probably knew it at the time, and maybe they told us, but Coytee Springs was a sacred place to the Cherokee. According to this article by a local resident, the springs were considered to have healing powers, and the site of the springs was so sacred that treaties and agreements made there among the tribes were never broken. I do remember the adults telling us that we wouldn’t be able to canoe the Little Tennessee, at least not as it was, because Tellico Dam was nearly complete and the impoundment of the water would create a large reservoir that would completely cover Coytee Springs. It didn’t seem possible, and a court battle over the endangered snail darter and subsequent court rulings (even one from the U.S. Supreme Court) gave us some hope that our river would remain as it was. But Congress came up with legislation to exempt the dam, and in 1979 it was completed and the villages of the Overhill Cherokee and the sacred springs disappeared under the waters. Google Maps remembers where the springs used to be.
So, there’s no going back to Coytee Springs, except in my memories and in a few lousy photos I took of a place that I thought would always be there. The area upstream of Tellico Dam is now developed on the west side and portions of the east side, but there is a consolation prize. Tellico Lake is now the site of the East Lakeshore National Recreational Trail, a 30+ mile trail system that winds mostly along the east side of Tellico Lake. There’s even a Coytee Loop Branch trail that runs along the top of the ridge where I used to gather firewood and swing on grapevines. Now it’s at the water’s edge.
Just before TVA finished Tellico Dam, they went along the river and bulldozed the river bottoms and up the ridges, so that the trees wouldn’t form snags as the river rose above them. I’ve seen photos of Coytee Springs after the trees were cut down, and they’re painful to look at. But the waters of Coytee Springs still flow, albeit somewhere along the bottom of Tellico Lake, and I hope their powers of healing and peacemaking are still working their magic for my old hometown.