Wolf River, Tennesee

Once an impassable, swampy "ghost river," now a paddler's dream.
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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.

Contact Information:

Wolf River Conservancy

Box 11031

Memphis, TN 38111-0031

(901) 526-9653

Location:

The Wolf River lies in southwest Tennessee. Moscow is about 35 miles east of Memphis.

Getting There:

To reach the western terminus for the full two-day trip, take TN 57 east from Memphis to Moscow. Park at the boat ramp next to the highway on the western edge of town. To reach the eastern put-in, turn south on Yeager Road at the La Grange town square and proceed for about 2 miles to the river. If you want to split the trip, turn south on Bateman Road, just before entering La Grange, and continue for about 3 miles to the river.

Seasonal Information:

Spring and fall, when the flora color is at its best, are the recommended seasons. Spring brings the fresh, brilliant greens of new growth while fall can provide a thousand shades of red, yellows, purple, and orange. Temperatures in these seasons average in the 70s and water level is great for floating. Heavy rains in April and May may cause the river levels to rise to dangerous levels. Check conditions before setting out on trip.

As summer approaches, temperatures may get up to 100 degrees F with high humidity, and the river level tends to be low. If you decide to make the trip in winter in freezing temperatures, you'll be rewarded with a great show of migrating waterfowl.

Wildlife:

Wildlife is plentiful throughout this entire stretch. Whitetail deer, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and rabbits abound but are largely nocturnal. During warm months, snakes are everywhere, while a host of bird species, including great blue herons, kingfishers, and pileated woodpeckers (some with three-foot wingspans), live here throughout the year. Within Shelby County, the Mississippi kite - an endangered species - has been discovered to nest in the Wolf River Greenway. The Wolf is also home to the playful river otter, and a large population of belly-flopping beavers.

Look for small piles of scattered, opened mussel shells left over from mink and muskrat feasts. Beavers also leave their mark with scent mounds ~ piles of mud one to two feet high along the bank.

The river is known for outstanding largemouth bass, crappie, and bream fishing.

Insects:

Mosquitoes and other insects are rarely a problem during the day.

Plant Life:

Flora ranges from hardwoods to sawgrass to cypress, water lilies, tupelo gum, and itea bush. Silver and red leaf maple, ironwood, and river birch nearly create a full canopy over the river as they compete for scarce sunlight along the banks.

Facilities:

Currently there are no designated public camping areas along the river. Most of the land along the river is privately owned, but camping is available 30 minutes east of La Grange off Hwy. 57 at Big Hill Pond State Park (800/421-6683).

To rent canoes near the Ghost section of the Wolf River, contact Ghost River Canoe rentals, Inc. (901/877-9954, e-mail cstahl411@aol.com)

Canoes are also available through Wolf River Canoe Rentals (901/465-2975) and A.J.'s Canoe Rentals (901/753-6426).

Parking:

Parking information is available from the park office.

Permits:

No permits are needed. Licenses are needed to hunt or fish.

Policies:

Contact park office for information.

Hazards:

  • Watch for fishing lines.
  • Hunting is allowed at the wildlife management area, so be sure to check seasons with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (800/372-3928).
  • The middle section near Collierville-Arlington is prone to log jams.
  • Most snakes encountered are common water snakes, and rarely are water moccasins seen. But learn to check overhanging logs and limbs before passing under them and watch when stepping. Do not kill snakes when encountered. For those particularly paranoid, carry the $15 physician recommended Sawyer snake bite kit.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Information is available from the Wolf River Conservancy.

Other Trip Options:

  • After La Grange, the Wolf heads south and crosses the Mississippi border, flowing into Holly Springs National Forest.
  • And while you're in the area, take a walk through La Grange, a historic registered town.