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Liminal Zones

Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin

Kim Trevathan

Publication Year: 2013

After the death of his paddling companion, a German shepherd–Labrador retriever mix named Jasper, Kim Trevathan began a series of solitary upstream kayaking quests in search of what he calls “liminal zones,” transitional areas where dammed reservoirs give way to the current of the rivers that feed them. For four years he scoured the rivers and lakes of America, where environmentally damaging, and now decaying, man-made structures have transformed the waterways. In this thoughtful work, he details his upriver adventures, describing the ecological and aesthetic differences between a dammed river and a free-flowing river and exploring the implications of what liminal zones represent—a reassertion of pure, unadulterated nature over engineered bodies of water. Trevathan began by exploring the rivers and creeks of his childhood: the Blood River and Clarks River in western Kentucky. He soon ventured out to the Wolf River, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland, and other waterways in Tennessee. In 2008, he looped around the country with trips to Indiana’s Tippecanoe River, Montana’s Clearwater River, Oregon’s Deschutes and Rogue Rivers, and Colorado’s Dolores River, as well as adventures on such southeastern rivers as the Edisto, the Tellico, and the Nantahala. To Trevathan, paddling upstream became a sort of religion, with a vaporous deity that kept him searching. Each excursion yielded something unexpected, from a near-drowning in the Rogue River to a mysterious fog bank that arose across the Nantahala at midday. Throughout Liminal Zones, Trevathan considers what makes certain places special, why some are set aside and protected, why others are not, and how free-flowing streams remain valuable to our culture, our history, and our physical and spiritual health. This contemplative chronicle of his journeys by water reveals discoveries as varied and complex as the rivers themselves.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press


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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-11

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pp. xi-xiv

I began a journey alone the summer after my traveling companion Jasper died. A German shepherd/lab mix who tilted his head back and forth when you talked to him, Jasper canoed with me thousands of miles, including 652 down...

Part I: A Season Bereft

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1. The Big South Fork: Productive Failure

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pp. 1-10

Drought, heat, and humidity plagued the summer of 2007, a good season to stay indoors and read about river trips rather than embark upon them. From late May onward, haze hung over the valleys and the rivers and obliterated the...

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2. The Nantahala: The Liminal Unveiled

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pp. 11-19

Drought, heat, and humidity plagued the summer of 2007, a good season to stay indoors and read about river trips rather than embark upon them. From late May onward, haze hung over the valleys and the rivers and obliterated the...

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3. My History with Dams

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pp. 21-29

Among a class of bright students, you can have a pretty good debate about dams—their benefits, the damage they do—and it helps if you transport students somewhere that they can actually examine one of these engineering...

Part II: Road Trip of Rivers

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pp. 31-49

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4. The Concept

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pp. 33-38

In retrospect the summer of 2008 was not the best time for a road trip across America. Gas was on its way up to five dollars a gallon; the country, on the eve of a contentious election fraught with racial and economic anxieties, seemed...

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5. Easy Water: The Tippecanoe and the James

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pp. 39-52

The toughest boatmen were the French Canadian voyageurs, who not only paddled themselves downstream on rivers that no European had even seen, but paddled and poled and roped their way back upstream from where they...

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6. The Rogue’s Embrace

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pp. 53-66

“What’s there to do in Sisters?” I asked the waitress after I’d settled onto a stool at the counter, where I could watch the cook prepare my breakfast. The waitress, pretty far along in her pregnancy, seemed to be enjoying her job at the...

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7. Aesthetic Convergence:The Clearwater and the Deschutes

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pp. 67-83

After you take a long trip, people always want to know the best place you visited, the one you remember the most. That’s almost always a complicated question for me, particularly on multiweek trips, which usually yield a bunch of ...

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8. Reconsidering the Liminal: The Dolores, the Conejos, and a Fractious Campground in Folsom, California

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pp. 85-124

These three places—Folsom Lake in California and the Dolores and Conejos rivers in Colorado—got me rethinking the concept of the liminal. By the time I got to the town of Folsom (yes, that Folsom, famous for its prison), which was...

Part III: Brackish Waters

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9. Big Lagoon to Maple Creek: From One World to Another

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pp. 127-132

When I was ten, in 1968, my father drove me and my mother to California to visit her sister, Emmy Lou, and Emmy’s husband, Mike, who lived in Beverly Hills. We left western Kentucky in a 1965 aqua-green Oldsmobile Delta 88, a...

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10. Fear, Delusion, and Peace on the Edisto

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pp. 133-141

I was driving toward Edisto Beach on a flat, patchy two-lane that passed through hamlets dark in the shade of live oaks, Spanish moss drooping in lacy clumps like spirits dropped from the sky. Modest frame houses, some on raised...

Part IV: Damaged Waters

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pp. 143-161

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11. Seeking Damaged Waters

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pp. 145-147

I don’t confine myself to the pure and unadulterated in rivers—“scenic,” “unspoiled,” or any of those other adjectives that we use to separate the idyllic from the homely ones, those rivers we’ve judged less deserving of being set...

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12. Up Pistol Creek

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pp. 149-156

Because they rarely show their power unless engorged by heavy rains, urban creeks often hide from citizens’ sightlines. Sometimes they are all but obliterated by channelization and concrete, the trees and brush along their banks ...

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13. Finding and Smelling the Pigeon

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pp. 157-162

You pull off the interstate onto a hidden road that leads to a clearing where they store salt to melt ice. It’s June 2009. There is not one, but two barred gates across the path through the woods down to the lake, Waterville or Walters,...

Part V: Night Paddling

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14. Hematite

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pp. 165-175

With the widening of the information superhighway and the ever-expanding role of technology, its presence apparently essential for minute-to-minute existence, we’ve become a culture that thinks it knows it all, knows how to do...

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15. Energy

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pp. 177-183

I got to Energy at 10:30, just as the waxing crescent moon was about to drop below the horizon of the swamp I was heading for. It blazed orange on its slow descent, as if aflame. The stars shone in great numbers, crisp in their celestial...

Part VI: Company

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16. With Libby on Hematite

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pp. 187-192

I started this project in solitude, convinced that it would be best to forge my way upstream as far as I wanted without having to consult with or worry about anyone but my own fool self. After a while, around four years, to be more...

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17. Navigating by the Stars up Citico Creek

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pp. 193-198

I was wandering through a Maryville grocery store, lost in the task of gathering the ingredients for a tomato and eggplant casserole, when I came across Drew Crain, a biologist at Maryville College, where I teach. He was staring at the...

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18. Warning: German Shepherd in Bow

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pp. 199-208

I was not seeking a replacement for Jasper when Norm arrived: a fully grown but scrawny German shepherd, smelling like desperation and dog pound, his vertebrae protruding like stepping stones. As Julie led him from her car to our front...

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19. Final Thoughts

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pp. 209-213

I returned to the Nantahala River liminal zone in the summer of 2010, three years after that first trip when I entered the cool fog bank, and the carp swam up to my boat in the suddenly clarified water. It was this place that got me ...

Epilogue: Letters

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pp. 215-218


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pp. 219-221

E-ISBN-13: 9781572339910
E-ISBN-10: 1572339918
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572339538
Print-ISBN-10: 1572339535

Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Description and travel.
  • Trevathan, Kim, 1958- -- Travel -- United States.
  • Rivers -- United States.
  • Dams -- Environmental aspects -- United States.
  • Canoes and canoeing -- United States.
  • Limnology -- United States.
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