Saturday, October 27, 2012

Reel Foot Lake - a Drowned Forest

Reel Foot Lake, along the Mississippi River in Western Tennessee,  is an unusual body of water. It's classified as a "natural" lake, since it wasn't created by a man-made damming of some river. Instead, it formed when the great earthquake of 1811-1812 dropped the bottom of old river bed, and the river flowed upstream to fill the lower area.
Look at the curved shapes in the lake (at the red A). They indicate old oxbow bends in the river. To the left is the big oxbow bend currently taken by the river at the point where Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri join. In fact, one part of Kentucky can only be reached by going into Missouri these days. It used to be joined to the rest of the state, but the river moved since the maps were drawn.

In 1811, these river beds were swampy areas filled with bald cypress forests. The bald cypress is a very unusual tree. It's a conifer, which usually means an evergreen tree, but these trees drop their needles each fall to become "bald" in fact!

They grow huge "buttressed" supports to keep them steady in the boggy areas they favor. Cypress knees grow up in the water around the base of the tree. Much speculation says they help the tree obtain air when the roots are under water. Another theory is that they help support the weight of the tree in soggy soil. Notice that you don't see the knees when cypress are planted in your neighbor's yard. The lake is normally only about 5 feet deep, but drought hit Western Tennessee this summer, just like every place else, and currently the lake is only about 3 feet deep. The water levels are clearly visible on the lake shore knees.

When you look across the lake, you see small cypress trees growing in the middle of the water, beside mystery objects. I asked David Haggard, our guide, "Are they rocks? Are they birds?" No they are the stumps of cypress trees that lived here 200 years ago when the lake was formed after the earthquake, and so are the surviving stunted trees. (Thump!) You see, bald cypress trees don't rot when covered by water. (Bump!) The dead logs only rot when exposed to the air, so as long as the lake stays at its normal 5 foot depth, the 200+ year old stumps are covered in water, and safe from further decay. (Rrrrrrr! Tilt! Splash!) Some of the trees themselves are still alive after 200 years, but their growth has been stunted.

What are the sound effects, you ask. That's what it sounds like to take a boat into the lake when it's this low. Even though David skillfully steers around most of the stumps, some are still hidden below the water's surface, and we find them only by running into or over them. In fact, he has a special "four-wheel drive" boat, which seems to be a combination flat-bottomed John boat, with a Jeep-like 2 blade motor, enabling it to climb up and over any stumps and logs in the way. He drives slowly when he knows the water is low, and faster when going through the old river channels which have fewer stumps. I'd love to see those idio__, excuse me, those boatmen, from Kentucky Lake try to come here with their big outboards, or some junior idio_ with jet skis! They would ruin their boat and dump themselves into the water in about 3 minutes!

The really shallow parts of the lake are home to American lotus and water lilies, growing at a depth of only 3-4 inches! The keel on his motor keeps the blades from becoming entangled in the plants, or getting stuck in the mud, although a few times he had to tilt the blades at an extra shallow angle to keep from becoming stuck.

In the summer, the lotus grow one stalk with a huge leaf, and another stalk for the flower/seed pod.

By now, all we have are brown dry leaves, and brown flower pods that look like shower heads. The acorn-like seeds make a wonderful rattle when one of the pods breaks off, landing in the bottom of the boat. The mini-forest of dried leaves and pods provide excellent hiding places for the water fowl coming here for the winter. You don't see the coots and ducks until they actually take off en masse with a loud whirl of wings. Duck season will start in a few weeks, but I'm betting on the ducks. They can only be shot if they leave the water. David says there is a six duck limit per hunter, and the limit is allocated among the different species depending on how rare they are. Hunters have to learn to recognize them on the wing flying at full speed, something I certainly can't do.

Dawn is a wonderful time to enjoy the lake, with pink clouds and incredible reflections in the water. What a terrific way to start the day. We thanked David for taking time off work for our tour, and he said he preferred being on the lake to staying in the office all day! You can always do paperwork when it rains!

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