The Powell River is the second-largest un-dammed river in Tennessee and on this cold and clear day, it looks every bit as wild and free as it is. Swollen and muddied by rains just a couple of days before, the Powell flows deep and wide in Claiborne County, just south of the Kentucky state line.
On this day, kayaks and canoes are racked, unused, back a few yards from the river. The water is too cold and fast for even the heartiest soul. The spot where the kayaks can be found, the Well Being Conference Center, is only accessible by a long, single-lane gravel road along the river outside the town of Tazewell. The center is quiet on one of the handful of weekends each year when its rambling campus along the Powell is not in use for a retreat.
But in a few short weeks, the Well Being Center and the Powell will be busy, as kayakers and canoeists splash their way along the 12-mile course for this year’s Powell River Kayak and Canoe Regatta, set for April 29, 2023. The Well Being Center is the launching point for the regatta, which benefits the Powell River Blueway Trail.
The regatta is the first held since 2018. Three of the races since were called on account of Covid, said Don Oakley, president of the Well Being Foundation, and the 2019 event was called off because of high water and unusually cold weather. “We had to call if off at the last minute because of potential hypothermia … because of the potential for people flipping their canoes. You don’t want that to happen when the water is cold,” he said.
In the four years the race was held before the recent cancellations, Oakley said, proceeds from the race helped benefit the creation of river access points from which people can launch canoes or kayaks.
“In the last seven years we created (or improved) seven new access points on the river, working with landowners and Claiborne County,” Oakley said. The effort also received a $50,000 grant from the state tourism commission to help develop access points.
The regatta is both a 12-mile race for those inclined to race and a recreational river trip for those who don’t want to race. Oakley said people come from five states to compete in nine classes and the recreational trip.
“We had almost 100 boats the last couple of years and maybe 40 spectators,” he said.
Some of the regatta participants are impressive athletes, said Carson Williams, owner of Riverside Rentals, a canoe and kayak business and the take-out point for the 12-mile race.
“Several years ago, they had an Olympic athlete and he did the 12 miles in about 96 minutes,” Williams said. The race typically takes more than two hours to complete. Prizes this year include $150 for the first-place finishers in each category.
The river, river trail, and center present a powerful opportunity for a natural experience a little more than an hour from Knoxville.
Bursting with Life
The Powell River flows from southwestern Virginia and into northeastern Tennessee, where it and the Clinch River feed into Norris Lake. The Clinch River is the other un-dammed river in Tennessee.
“We are a hidden gem, literally,” said Karyn Clark, CEO of the Claiborne Economic Partnership. “The regatta not only brings something for our people to do and a way to enjoy the Powell River, but tourism dollars.”
Oakley cited Powell River Blueway Trail information that noted that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services said the Powell was “one of the most biologically diverse rivers in a temperate climate anywhere in the world.” The river is home to 100 species of fish as well as turtles, beavers, river otters and a diverse group of plants.
For people who are accustomed to natural sights like the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Powell River is refreshingly under-used, Oakley said.
“Nine out of 10 times, we never see another person” while canoeing or kayaking, he said. “We see some pastures and cows here and there.”
It’s busier on the day of the regatta. Oakley said earlier years drew up to 100 boats from a six-state area. About 70 volunteers put on the regatta, with duties including registration and race timing and breakfast for people who camped at the Well Being facility the night before. Spectators are pretty much limited to the launch point at the retreat center and end point at Riverside Rentals in Harrogate.
Farm into Retreat Center
The Well Being Center sprawls over 160 acres along two and a half miles of the Powell River. The property was purchased in 2008 by the Well Being Foundation, created by Oakley and his wife, Patty Bottari.
The property is a former farm; a grain silo and old barn remain. Besides the conference center, the foundation has built tiny homes for lodging guests and Appalachian Trail-style elevated sleeping shelters along the river.
Although it’s a little more than an hour north of Knoxville, the center is quiet and peaceful, with its location miles from the twin towns of Tazewell and New Tazewell. The drive to the center takes you past marinas and small businesses until you reach the single-lane gravel road that leads to the center itself.
“We consider the Powell River a real asset to the community,” Oakley said. “It runs for about 70 miles through the county.”
Recreational use of the Powell has “been challenged by a lack of public access to the river because of the topography,” he noted. “That’s one of the goals of the event – more access points.”
The Powell River Blueway Trail is a way to see the river and the surrounding area.
“The regatta brings a lot of people into the area,” said Williams of Riverside Rentals.
Russell Essary, owner of Stanifer Drugs, one of the sponsors of the event, agreed. “It seems like it helps our community.”
Clark with the Claiborne Economic Partnership said that community involvement in the organizing and managing of the regatta has been limited in past years because Oakley and his people “know how to organize it. He knows what to do and he did it.
“I very much hope that starting next year we’ll have a lot of people that step up and we get more people in our area involved in the planning process in the years to come,” she added.
Oakley said events like the regatta, which draw interest from a wide area, can have a real impact on Claiborne County.
“Tourism is one of the areas the county seeks to promote,” Oakley said. “There are lots of natural places for people to come. Norris Lake is a great spot for boating, picnicking, there are plenty of hiking trails and the river offers excellent fishing. They’re lightly used and you can experience being on a river in its natural condition.”
Registration to participate in the Powell River Kayak and Canoe Regatta is available online.
Keith Roysdon is a Tennessee writer of books and news and pop culture articles. For the Daily Yonder, he’s written about moonshine, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, economic development in rural areas and TV shows like “Yellowstone.” His third co-authored true-crime book, “The Westside Park Murders,” was named the Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. The fourth book in the true crime series is due from the History Press in 2023.