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Backpacker Magazine – BACKPACKER.com Online Exclusive
Once an impassable, swampy "ghost river," now a paddler's dream.
Little-Known Fact: The Wolf River Conservancy offers University of Memphis Continuing Education courses on the Wolf River.
There I was in the middle of a river, in the middle of the night, nearly getting rolled out of my canoe by belly-flopping beavers. The full moon sat high in the clear sky, illuminating the low, forested banks and our watery highway as if it were twilight. We could easily see 30 yards in all directions, but somehow we kept missing those beavers. That is, until they leaped ever-so-ungracefully into the water, just missing the sides of our canoes and splashing us with the muddy waters of West Tennessee's Wolf River.
This was my first trip down the Wolf's headwaters, and I was amazed at the difference from the monotonous, channeled and engineered Wolf that empties into the Mississippi River just a few miles from my home in Memphis, Tennessee.
The portion of these headwaters most frequently canoed, a 16-mile stretch from La Grange to Moscow, Tennessee, offers visitors a museum-like exhibit of different habitats. In places, the Wolf meanders several feet below a steep bank of bottomland hardwood forest. Elsewhere, sawgrass fills the shallow portions of the channel, as the low banks turn to mud and sand. Then, about a third of the way through these headwaters, the Wolf River vanishes into a disorienting, canoe-swallowing swamp and a deep-water lake.
It is this swamp ~ or more specifically, the trail that was finally found through it ~ that has in the past few years garnered the river considerable attention. Known as the Ghost River section of the Wolf because the channel disappears into a maze of standing water cypress, tupelo gum, and itea bush, the swamp has for centuries been considered impassable.
Amazingly, it wasn't until 1990 that a trail was finally blazed, making the trip from La Grange to Moscow not only practical but safe. However, the canoe trail nearly died in its infancy. In late 1994 a developer/timber company purchased 4000 acres of property along the river encompassing several miles of river bank. The company planned to clearcut the land and sell the property for "ranchettes." In early 1995 a dramatic, last-minute and still ongoing fundraising effort helped the state purchase the property for $4 million as the seed for a park.
Caution, though, should still be exercised. One missed trail sign and you could find yourself lost like so many explorers before you. The entire trip from La Grange to Moscow can be done in two days at a fairly moderate pace.