The Ghost of West Tennessee
Some say the river runs through a cursed cypress swamp; others claim they still see Yankee soldiers fighting rebels in the darkness. No matter what the truth is, Keith Cole, Executive Director of the Wolf River Conservancy in Memphis, Tennessee, says the Ghost does not disappoint as one of the best paddle adventures west of Nashville.
Drifting the cool, dark swampy waters shaded among 100-foot moss-draped cypress trees, you understand how the Ghost section of the Wolf River could have gotten its name. It’s spooky beautiful. Few Valley water adventures provide paddlers the opportunity to enjoy such a diverse ecosystem less than an hour from the heart of a major urban area—in this case, Memphis, Tenn.
“The Ghost River is one of the jewels of the Wolf River watershed in West Tennessee,” says Keith Cole, executive director of the Wolf River Conservancy in Memphis. The Wolf River Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust organization that’s been dedicated to the protection and enhancement of the Wolf River and its watershed as a sustainable natural resource since 1985.
The Ghost section is part of the of the 105-mile Wolf River watershed. It originates from a natural spring at Baker’s Pond in the Holly Springs National Forest in Miss., and flows northwest, meeting the confluence of the Mississippi River at the north end of Mud Island in downtown Memphis.
“For centuries, the upper sections of the Wolf River located in Fayette County, Tenn., have been largely unspoiled by human hands—never having been channelized or exposed to industrial pollution,” Cole says. “The pristine beauty of the river is what attracts paddlers to the Ghost section of the Wolf River.”
The only passage through the Ghost section of the Wolf is via canoe or kayak. Cole advises that paddlers should not try to use motorized craft, rafts or tubes because these types of vessels cannot negotiate the many narrow twists and turns and the cypress “knees.”
Paddlers enter the Ghost section at the LaGrange, Tenn., access. (Take Hwy 57 east to LaGrange, turn right at the flashing yellow light, and continue down the hill to the bridge).
“For most paddlers the Ghost is a four- to six-hour adventure,” says Cole. He recommends a guide for first-time Ghost paddlers. The Ghost can be tricky to navigate for the first time. The Wolf River Conservancy has a very robust Volunteer River Guide program [complete with written certification]; guides can help paddlers of any skill level.
Shortly after putting in at La Grange, paddlers will see some indications of human encroachment. After that there is little evidence of civilization.
“Depending on the time of year you paddle, at Sign No. 1 we often see the bald eagles that have returned to the Wolf basin,” said Cole.
Sign No. 3 is known as the “lunch stop.” Paddlers often stop here to eat and rest. To get there you need to turn right at the sign and paddle up a small tributary stream for about 20 yards. This is one of the only places on the Ghost for beaching canoes, picnicking and resting. The sandy-bottomed stream offers an excellent opportunity to cool off and relax.
Cole reminds paddlers to “please leave the site cleaner than you found it.”
The final mile of your Ghost journey contains the fastest flowing waters on the Wolf River. As the river begins to flow rapidly west, it empties into an open grassy wetland. “Here is where paddlers will encounter saw grass and alder shrubs, as well as wading birds like herons and egrets,” says Cole.
The takeout point for the Ghost section is easy to find because it is at Bateman Bridge. Parking is available.
The Ghost boasts some of the most beautiful wetland water trails in the country. In less than nine miles, you will see five distinct ecosystems and diverse wildlife. Visit wolfriver.org to learn more about paddling the Wolf River and other activities and events the conservancy supports.
Follow the Ghostly Signs
“It’s easy to lose your way in the Ghost because of the disorienting maze of willow, cypress and stunted pumpkin ash,” says Cole.
Along the river there are several indications that water is being diverted off to the left, into what appears to be deep river channels. Cole cautions paddlers: “Don’t make the common mistake which early French explorers often made and paddle into these entrances because it only leads you into deep swamps.”
If you take the wrong route, passage down the river is virtually impossible. “Always looks for the blue signs and white trail markers,” says Cole. Conservancy volunteers keep up the signs, numbered 1 through 6, and white trail markers visible along the route. Lost paddlers are rare due to the Conservancy’s efforts to keep the well-blazed water trails open.
Cole says there is cell phone service available along the Ghost. But, medical emergencies and lost paddles are infrequent.
Photo courtesy of the Wolf River Conservancy.
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The Wolf River Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and enhancement of the Wolf River and its watershed as a sustainable natural resource. Since its founding in 1985, WRC has been able to protect about 15,000 acres within the 100-year floodplain of the Wolf River; it protects the underground aquifer system which provides the Memphis and Shelby County citizens with their clean drinking water.
WRC was instrumental in launching the Wolf River Restoration Project by the Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate the effects of channelization, and has inspired Germantown, Collierville and Memphis to create greenways along the Wolf River. One of WRC’s most ambitious projects is the current public/private partnership with the City of Memphis in the construction of a 22-mile continuous greenway following the meanders of the Wolf River.