An Unscheduled Trip Down Chickamauga Gulf

The North Chickamauga Creek Gorge, located 15 miles from downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a beautiful deep central gorge cut into the sandstone plateau of Walden’s Ridge. It is approximately 10 miles long–steep, and rugged with forested slopes and very limited access. This gorge is the upper portion of the 32-mile North Chickamauga Creek, one of the main tributaries of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga.

The North Chicamauga Creek Gorge
The North Chickamauga Creek Gorge

When I lived there the local name for this place was “Chickamauga Gulf,” or just “The Gulf.” It was totally wild and remote, as much of it still is. The view of it on the topographical map serves to show its twists and turns, but can’t portray how steeply and ruggedly it is cut into the mountains it drains. Being adventurous, I often laced on my boots and hiked, climbed, and rock scrambled the gulf. And when I learned to fly a small plane . . . well, I’m ahead of my story.

When you live in a small town and fly a small plane, people sometimes ask you to “take them up.” I loved doing that, especially with people who had never flown before. I once landed in the cow pasture of a farmer who lived on the land his ancestors had farmed for generations. But he had never see it from the air until the day I took him up. I knew it was an experience he would remember the rest of his life. We soared and circled like birds on the wing. His excitement was unquenchable.

But once there was a young boy who showed no excitement whatever. In fact, he appeared bored by the prospect. His grandmother had arranged this ride and he made sure I knew that he had flown a lot and this was no big deal for a guy like him. At first I thought I’m make a quick loop around the airport and deposit him back where he came from. But then another idea came to me.

I climbed and headed out across Walden’s Ridge toward the shallow beginnings of North Chickamauga Creek Gorge, chatting nonchalantly about unrelated matters. I had done this several times before, always

The plane that made this trip
The plane that made this trip

alone. I tried not to show my own increasing tension and to mirrow the young man’s bored demeanor. We eased down above the treetops and then the white water of the creek and began to follow the snaking turns. Then we were below the trees that topped the gorge on either side, and banking sharply left and right as on a crooked mountain road. As the gorge got deeper, we flew down lower to where you were looking up at the cliffs on either side–if you could get a view at all.

This had the intended effect. Holding on for his dear young life, his words, in approximate order, were “Hey!!” and “What are you doing?!” and “Are you trying to kill us??”

He did not wet his pants as far as I could tell. But I think it was close.

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