Open book with photos of the Tennessee River and county road.


Pictured above, Embroidery: Threads and Stories, pages 74-75: (from left to right) Piney Creek, Tennessee River backwater, Limestone County, Alabama, photo by Abraham Rowe. Spiral screen print design, photo by Robert Rausch. County Road, Limestone County, Alabama, photo by Abraham Rowe.

The Tennessee River has shaped the human experience in northwest Alabama for over 12,000 years. Native Americans gathered sustenance from the river’s waters in the form of fish, shellfish, and waterfowl. They moved further from the river’s banks during the seasonal floods and then moved closer to the river when the waters receded. They left behind huge shell mounds—evidence of their consumption of the many species of mussels found in the river—and the remains of the clay ovens they cooked in. While shallow and rocky as it traveled through northwest Alabama (giving the region the name the Muscle Shoals), the river also provided an opportunity for travel and trade for indigenous communities. 

When white migrants—many of them bringing enslaved people with them—arrived in the region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they saw this stretch of the river as a hindrance to economic progress. From the earliest years of Alabama’s statehood, the United States Congress, as well as plantation and business owners in northwest Alabama, sought to address the now “problematic” Muscle Shoals. For over a hundred years, white men attempted to tame the river that indigenous people had lived alongside in a symbiotic relationship. They constructed canals, a railroad around the Shoals, and finally a network of dams that allow humans to exert a high level of control over the water of the river. In constructing the dams, humans changed the shape of the river, putting the Muscle Shoals deep under water and widening the river to over a mile at some points. 

These two stories—one of survival and one of conquest—leave out an important part of the river’s history in our region. While people may have relied on the river for food and for economic development, they also found ways to enjoy it. Despite the fact that there is no photographic proof of river recreation until the late nineteenth century, it is simple to see people having fun in the river’s shallow waters, fishing for huge catfish, and exploring the tributaries that feed into it. Today, the recreational value of the river is only now being fully understood and appreciated. Two regional recreational initiatives—the Tennessee RiverLine and the Singing River Trail—are working to create more opportunities for people to get out on the river and explore this incredibly biodiverse landscape. 

There are many options for exploring the Tennessee River and its tributaries while traveling through northwest Alabama. Boats, canoes, and kayaks are available to rent from several sources and offer a great deal of freedom.

Wheeler Wildlife Refuge in Decatur offers paddlers a variety of places to explore, with boat ramps dotted throughout the refuge. On the water, there are many different bird species (especially in the winter when many migratory species stop off in the refuge), beaver lodges, and, perhaps, even an alligator. Limestone Bay, which is also part of Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, is easily accessed from Mooresville, located in Limestone County. The bay is home to herons and egrets; ospreys and eagles are also seen often in this area. Walking around the historic community or taking a ride out on the gravel roads of the refuge is a great way to explore the landscape surrounding the river. Bike rentals are available at Southern Carnage, located right in Mooresville.  

The Morgan County Rescue Squad operates a kayak rental and shuttle service on the Flint River near Decatur and Hartselle. The Flint River Canoe and Kayak Trail is part of the Alabama Scenic River Trail and crosses over portions of Wheeler Wildlife Refuge. Joe Wheeler State Park in Lauderdale County offers kayak rentals as well. The lodge and marina are located on First Creek, which feeds into the Tennessee River, giving paddlers the opportunity to explore miles of undeveloped shoreline on both bodies of water. However, the state park is a well-liked launch for fishers, so watch out for boaters. In Florence, Cypress Creek is the most popular spot to paddle. The creek played an important role in the development of the textile industry in Florence. During the 1820s and ‘30s, the first mills in the region opened along the creek. While the textile industry eventually concentrated in East Florence after the Civil War, remains of one of the old mills are visible when paddling down the creek. Beardo Outdoors offers rentals and a shuttle service, as well as guided paddles (the full moon paddle they offer during the summer is an especially popular paddle with visitors and locals). Alloys Park in Colbert County now offers kayak rentals thanks to the Colbert County Commission. Exploring the waterways of northwest Alabama provides a different perspective on the history and culture of our region.

Written by Carrie Barske Crawford
October 2022

Carrie is the director of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and an affiliated faculty member in the history department at the University of North Alabama. She teaches courses in exhibit design, museum interpretation, and women’s history. She is also an avid hiker, backpacker, kayaker, maker, gardener, and equestrian, and a dear friend to the Alabama Chanin and Project Threadways teams.


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    1. Alabama


      Thank you so much for your comment! There has been so much written about the music of our area. If you’ve not seen the documentary Muscle Shoals, that’s a great place to start. They river is woven through the storytelling of that piece. With Project Threadways, we are constantly looking for how the river, textiles, the region, and beyond influence one another. Check out the upcoming symposium here:

      Natalie and all of us @ Alabama Chanin and The School of Making