"Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ever since reading about how Reelfoot Lake was formed — by a land-altering force of nature — I've wanted to take my family to go explore this hidden treasure. So on a Saturday afternoon in late July, we head to the northwest corner of the state, reaching the town of Tiptonville after a two-hour drive from Memphis.
While waiting to board the pontoon boat for the park's sunset cruise, we tour the Reelfoot Lake State Park’s R.C. Donaldson Memorial Museum and Nature Center. It houses non-releasable raptors and snakes and educates visitors on the history of Reelfoot Lake. While my teenage daughter loves stroking the soft feathers of a young eastern screech owl, my 12-year-old son enjoys posing for pictures by the exhibits.
Reelfoot Lake's history
Armed with bug spray and drinks in our cooler, we board the pontoon boat at 6 p.m. It is a clear evening, perfect for a sunset cruise. Our naturalist guide, Seth Kuykendall, begins the tour with a brief history of how this 18,000-acre lake was formed. It was a series of earthquakes that shook the land between December 1811 and March 1812. The quakes were so violent that the Mississippi River flowed backwards for a short time.
In its wake, the land sank and gradually filled with water. Kuykendall brushes off our fears of the lake's depth by pointing out that despite its size, it's actually quite shallow. While at its center the lake is deepest (18 feet), on average its depth is only five feet. “If you were to fall off the boat, just stand up!” he jests.
As we ride further into the lake, we are welcomed by a canopy of cypress trees. We learn the woody knots growing out of water are actually cypress knees, extension of the roots and not young saplings.
Before the earthquakes, this area was a dense, lowland hardwood forest. As a result, the park’s ecosystem differs from any other place in Tennessee. Reelfoot Lake is actually a flooded forest. While cypress trees flourish here, underneath the water's surface are many submerged rock-hard tree stumps. “That’s the reason you don’t see anyone swimming in the lake, driving fast in boats, or jet skiing,” notes our guide.
As we make our way over the lake, we are startled by fish jumping by the boat. It turns out these shallow, cypress-filled waters make for a very productive fish hatchery; the lake is home to crappie, bass, bluegill, and catfish.
“We have pretty much everything that can be found in the Mississippi River and we can proudly claim that we have more fish per acre than any other lake in Tennessee,” boasts Kuykendall.
The first creature we come across on our ride is a tiny turtle basking on a log. We also marvel at the beauty of white egrets patiently waiting on tree stumps to catch a fish, and watch Great blue herons launch as our boat brushes by. Currently, the lake also has two dozen white pelicans. By fall, thousands will migrate here in time for the Pelican Festival, October 16-18.
During the winter months, Reelfoot Lake is home to one of the largest populations of American Bald eagles outside of Alaska. The park's annual Eagle Festival (held the first weekend in February) offers pontoon rides and photography tours. We learn that the eagles have been active recently, since this year’s chicks are preparing to leave the nest. We also see ospreys swooping right above the water to catch a fish.
During migratory months, the lake fills with more than 100,000 ducks and geese. Duck blinds scattered throughout the lake are proof that this is a favorite spot for waterfowl hunters.
As we glide into a canal that borders a lush, swampy marshland, we spot a yellow-bellied watersnake. Even though Reelfoot is referred to as a snake haven, our naturalist assures us most are not venomous. Other animals you'll find here include raccoon, possum, deer, mink, muskrat, beaver, and armadillo.
Finally, we note a bed of creepy plants decorating the shoreline. Lilies, spatterdock, and lotus are the common aquatic plants blanketing nearly one-third of the lake. These are in full bloom in late June and early July.
Native American history
As we make our way back to shore, our guide points out a hill — an old Indian mound —and talks about the rich Native American history that dates back to mid-1700s. The region originally belonged to the Woodland Indians also known as the Mound Builders. Later, the Chickasaw came here to live but left before the early 1800s.
Near the dock, the boat bumps upon a tree stump. “Just making sure you all are still awake!” our guide says with a laugh. A beautiful sunset completes our journey and I'm thankful to have visited Tennessee’s only natural lake.
Let's Go! • Reelfoot Lake State Park
Visit tnstateparks.com/parks/about/reelfoot-lake or call (731) 253-9652 for cruise prices and reservations.