Photos and Essay: Paddling on One of America’s Most Endangered Rivers

Written by: John Guider, with notes by Jon Bash

Sunlight on Rocks and Stream, Spencer Creek, Franklin, TN
Photo by © John Guider 2003

Editor’s Note: The on-ramp to the country’s oldest “highway” system was nothing more than a downward sloping dirt bank for the artist/photographer John Guider as he set out on an amazing journey down five rivers from his home in Franklin, Tennessee to New Orleans. With an empty journal and camera in tow, Guider started his journey on the Harpeth River in Tennessee, one of American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers of 2015. Below is an excerpt from Guider’s journey down the “life-providing waters” of the Harpeth River.


The seven days I spent making my way on the Harpeth River while paddling solo by canoe from my farmhouse in Franklin, Tennessee, to the legendary riverbanks of New Orleans were some of the most spiritual times I ever have spent in my life. The genteel late summer watercourse offered a view of our world, both profound and serene, giving me a sense that Eden possibly did exist after all; it was we who had just stopped looking for it.

Terry with Fishing Pole, Harpeth River, Cheatham County, TN
Photo by © John Guider 2003

There were times when the adventure was exhilarating, like when an eight point buck at full gallop lunged himself into the river, splashing the water only feet from my bow, swimming mightily to the opposite shore before losing itself forever into thick brush that lined the banks. The experience happened so unexpectedly and quickly there was no time to react with a camera but to only hold the paddle and try to comprehend the beauty and thrill of the moment I had just witnessed.

Exposed Tree Roots on Riverbank, Williamson County, TN
Photo by © John Guider 2003

The river was full of life. Kingfishers and green herons zoomed along the unobstructed water super-highway, while blue herons solitarily fishing the shallows would greet me at almost every bend. The gracefulness of their flight with their long outstretched wings contrasted sharply to their disapproving screeches as they took temporary shelter in the limbs that towered high out of reach. The usual suspects of ground hogs, raccoons, opossums, and squirrels roamed the banks in the warming late afternoon light, the stealth of my canoe not disturbing their routine. I saw golden redhorse, with their scales sparkling like diamonds, fishing and cooling in the turbulent shallows at the foot of the Class I rapids that helped me hone the skills necessary for the more troubled waters that lay ahead.

Young Mother and Baby in River, Harpeth Narrows, Cheatham County, TN
Photo by © John Guider 2003

In the mornings, I awakened to a fine ethereal mist that rose over the water and watched the otters as they roamed the river, the new babies obediently trailing their mother copying each and every move. I was pleased to see that they were as curious about me as I was of them. Moments later, wild turkeys flew from their roosts in the tree branches that surrounded my tent and regrouped as a flock to begin their morning forages.

Opening Through Bank and Tree Branches onto Harpeth River, Williamson County, TN
Photo by © John Guider 2003

The intimacy of the river was accentuated by riverbanks that rose above my eyesight and obstructed any views of civilization’s encroachments. Except for a few bridges and power lines, I had a view of America as seen by the first settlers and felt the same excitement and wonder of discovery they must have felt. Nature drowned out any industrial noise, and free of cell phones and radios, I spent my days revitalizing my body and spirit in the life-providing waters that only a river like the Harpeth can truly provide.

Guider’s three month, life changing journey was later documented into his companion coffee table book, The River Inside.

This June, John Guider set out on the last leg of his recent 6,500 river mile solo canoe trip of the Great Loop, a path that started in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and will lead him through Chicago, then down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers through St. Louis to his final stop in Cairo. Follow John’s Midwest journey on Facebook.

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