By Tom Adkinson | Photography courtesy of David Haggard and Tom Adkinson
It’s quiet now where Mother Nature’s hissy fit created Tennessee’s only natural lake.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ classic “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” should be Reelfoot Lake’s theme song to acknowledge why this hauntingly beautiful natural wonder exists in the far northwestern corner of Tennessee.
The place really did shake in the winter of 1811-1812, when the largest earthquakes on record east of the Rocky Mountains made the Mississippi River flow backward and rang church bells half a continent away in Boston. There were almost no westward-pushing American settlers present for the temblors, but the quakes left plenty of proof they happened.
When the quakes hit, a lowland cypress forest sank even lower, and the Mississippi River flooded in, toppling ancient trees inside a natural basin. That left a shallow lake littered with the corpses of giant trees that simply do not rot when they stay underwater.
Distinctive-looking cypress trees, some pre-dating the earthquakes, tower into the sky at the lake’s edge. They grow in shallow water and are easily identified with their wavy bases and peculiar knees (vertical cone-shaped growths) sprouting from the roots.
Reelfoot is Tennessee’s only natural lake. The TVA and the Corps of Engineers had nothing to do with its creation. It is a gem, although small by TVA and Corps standards — 18,000 acres compared to nearby Kentucky Lake’s 160,000 acres.
For more than a century, Reelfoot has been a magnet for fishermen and waterfowl hunters. It remains popular for those folks, but people with other interests are discovering this destination.
In recent decades, it became famous because of a few wintering bald eagles. They came south to forage for fish since Reelfoot seldom freezes. In the 1970s, people made pilgrimages to see the rare visitors.
Today, North America’s eagle population has rebounded so much that there are approximately 50 nesting pairs around Reelfoot. It’s more common than not now to see America’s national bird here. Scout for them yourself, see some on a Reelfoot Lake State Park pontoon boat trip, or spy one as a bonus while on the lake with a fishing guide otherwise seeking crappie and bluegills.
Billy Blakley started guiding in 1982 at the tender age of 14. Fish with him, and you’re bound to go home with fillets in your ice chest.
“I have it great — 10 months of fishing, two months of hunting waterfowl, and lots of time to show people eagles, eagle nests, ospreys and beautiful scenery,” he says. “I’ll fish one end of the lake to the other. I don’t care where, as long as I catch some fish.”
Blakely guides out of Blue Bank Resort, the largest and most diverse property on Reelfoot (traditional hotel rooms, cabins, a bunkhouse sleeping six, a retreat cabin sleeping 15, and even a honeymoon cabin).
Until recently, fishermen and hunters were the primary reason Blue Bank and other lodges existed, but times are changing, according to Blue Bank owner Mike Hayes.
“We have reinvented ourselves in the last five years,” Hayes says, explaining how he upgraded his restaurant’s menu, introduced live music with local entertainers on weekends, scheduled crafts festivals and wine tastings and even added a butterfly and hummingbird trail. “We needed to bring in a totally new market. We needed a place nice enough for families.”
The butterfly trail is a huge success, attracting thousands of monarch butterflies in summer and then an avalanche of the delicate fliers in September, when a three-day butterfly festival is scheduled, complete with an Iowa State University butterfly expert as a speaker.
“If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be planting flowers for butterflies, I’d have said you were crazy,” Hayes says.
The state park’s pontoon boat sightseeing trips (reserve space online) are a perennially popular activity, according to ranger David Haggard, who in 35 years at the park has become a well-regarded nature photographer and observer of area changes.
“Two markets have exploded,” Haggard says. “First is nature photography, made possible by digital cameras. You can capture so much here — eagles, white pelicans (especially in September and October) and beautiful sunrises and sunsets. If you can’t get good photos here, just throw your camera in the lake. Second is canoeing and kayaking. Reelfoot is ideal for paddling because it’s small and there aren’t big motorboats and jet skis because the sunken timber makes them illogical here.”
Change comes gradually at Reelfoot, and tradition is respected. For instance, Boyette’s, one of the few substantial restaurants on the lake, marks its centennial in 2021, the Hayes family has been receiving guests at Reelfoot for five generations, and Blakeley is approaching 40 years on the water.
Reelfoot remains in a bit of a time warp. The pace is slow. It’s not fancy. It’s a bit off the beaten path, although just a hundred miles from Memphis. It’s a place to relax, gear down, chill out — and trust nothing shakes too much.