The Duck River: God's Gift to Tennessee
Since I live just a stone's throw from the Duck River, in Shelbyville, I decided it was time to write an article about it, which would require research and a chance to get to know it better. The Nature Conservancy says the Duck River is "the richest river in varieties of freshwater animals on the North American continent." This bounty makes the Duck River God's gift to Tennessee.
The Course of the Duck River
The Duck River meanders through 284 miles of Middle Tennessee, originating from an area known as the Highland Rim, at an elevation of nearly 1,200 feet. This area was the traditional home of the Chickasaw Native Americans, known as fierce warriors, as opposed to their closest relatives the Choctaw, who were a more agricultural tribe.
The Duck follows a winding course from east to west. The largest town on the Duck River is Columbia, with a population of nearly 40,000. Otherwise, it flows through mostly rural uninhabited regions of Tennessee's Central Basin and Western Highland Rim.
It meets up with the Little Duck River, a minor tributary, in Old Stone Fort State Park in the city of Manchester. The park is named after one of the oldest (2,000 years old) freestanding Native American structures in North America. Evidence shows that this area of Tennessee has been inhabited by Native Americans for nearly 8,000 years.
Below Old Stone Fort Park, the river enters shallow Normandy Reservoir. Below Normandy Dam (a stretch I kayaked recently), it goes through my town of Shelbyville, then Henry Horton State Park near Chapel Hill. A 37-mile stretch in the Yanahli Wildlife Management Area, from near the Maury/Marshall county boundary to Iron Bridge in Columbia, was designated as Tennessee's second Scenic River.
The Yanahli Wildlife Management Area, 12,600 acres, was designated for public use in 2002, by the TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency). "Yanahli" is a Chickasaw word that means "to flow."
The Cheek's Bend cave system in the Yanahli Wildlife Management Area covers an area of 50 acres. Rummage Cave there has a series of five oval "rooms" 15 feet high by 30 feet wide, perfect for tribes of indigenous people to live in. Archaeological research by the University of Tennessee shows that small bands of hunter/gatherers used the Cheek's Bend caves for over 10,000 years.
The river traverses a small dam at Columbia, and continues on through Tennessee. Its main tributary is the Buffalo River, named for the buffalo fish that inhabit its waters. The Buffalo River was the first National River designated in the US, and is the only non-impounded river in the State of Tennessee. It joins the Duck near where the Duck empties into the Tennessee River, near the town of New Johnsonville.
The Duck River, while offering visitors a beautiful and diverse landscape, is also full of life. Locals in Shelbyville told me many times that the Duck River has the most diversity of species of fish in the United States. Upon further research I found that it has 151 species of fish, 55 species of freshwater mussels, and 22 species of aquatic snails. Photos of 21 of these freshwater creatures are featured in this National Geographic article.
Because mussels are very sensitive to pollution and are actually thriving in the Duck River, their presence goes a long way in providing proof of the water quality of the river.
Many larger animals use the Duck River ecosystem, including river otters, minks and beavers. Many species of birds thrive, such as osprey, hawks, herons and the wide variety of ducks from which the river gets its name. Bald eagles, the symbol of American freedom, can often be seen along the Duck River.
Many endangered species of plants and animals live in or around the river. Some of these animals and plants include the birdwing pearly mussel (Lemiox rimosus), the leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa), the limestone blue star (Amsonia tabernaemontana var. gattingeri), and the limestone flame flower (Talinum calcaricum) to name a few.
A rare species of wood rat, plus gray bats (a threatened species), live in the area of the Cheek's Bend cave system.
Floating the Duck River
Floating down the Duck River is a peaceful and enjoyable experience for any outdoor enthusiast, whether you are there to fish or just enjoy the scenery. There are many ways to enjoy this river's diverse ecology, but renting a canoe or kayak offers the best view and is friendly to the budget. A canoe and kayak rental company in Columbia, run by Tennessee native Steve Tyndall who helped me when I was writing this article, is one of several that offer affordable trips down this beautiful river.
Here is a list of boating access points.
The Yanahli State Park portion of the Duck River offers boaters long deep pools that alternate with shallow stretches of mini-rapids. Many different species of trees line the banks, including cedars, sycamores, willows, and oaks. This area is also great for catching small game fish, such as smallmouth bass, striped bass, rock bass and what locals call redeye, a hybrid bass. Catfish are also abundant.
The Meandering Duck River Near Columbia, TN
Office of the Yanahli Wildlife Management Area