story by Melinda Lejman | photos courtesy of Wolf River Conservancy, wolfriver.org
September is a unanimously anticipated time of year for Mid-Southerners. As temperatures fall, families return to a more predictable pace, patios once again take center stage as the optimal gathering place for social hour, and the scenery begins to hint at a debut of vivid reds, oranges and golds. It’s easy to take all of this for granted as a reward for surviving the sweltering heat of the Memphis summer. It’s also the perfect time to take advantage of outdoor recreation, as cooler temps and dazzling displays of foliage entice even the most steadfast lounger to get outside.
The Wolf River is a gem, partially hidden but crossed almost daily by the thousands of commuters who pass over one of its bridges. Maintained by the Wolf River Conservancy, the spring-fed river rises in North Mississippi, making its way through Fayette and Shelby County, and eventually emptying into the great Mississippi. Formed in 1985 as a land trust with the express purpose of protecting the river and its watershed areas, the Wolf River Conservancy now protects 16,000 acres of river and floodplain from being developed or destroyed through mining. “We focus on conservation, recreation, and education,” says Jim Gafford, the Conservancy’s Outreach Director.
The Mineral Slough trail and boardwalk (above) traverses a bottomland hardwood swamp characteristic of the Wolf River floodplain. The Ghost River section is an area where the river seems to disappear, widening into a swamp. Otherwise, there are several spots along the river to take out for breaks and photos. Though paddling is not too difficult, navigation is tricky, especially the Ghost River section. Guided paddle trips are plenty through the area outfitters (see list below). The Wolf has been named one of the best wetland canoe trails in the country.
It wasn’t as simple as forming a trust, however. The land had to be bought from a timber company and the price tag was $4 million. The state provided $3 million towards the purchase of an initial 4000 acres of river and land around the Beasley Plantation in LaGrange. The Memphis Board of Realtors allocated $10,000 as well. “I guess they’ve got environmental awareness in their blood,” says Gafford. As the deadline approached,and the Conservancy was still far from closing the gap in funding, they were saved by the goodwill of an unlikely donor. Babe Howard of Millington Telephone stepped in despite advice to the contrary from financial advisors and family, and the land trust was formed.
The river was once called Neshoba, a Native American word for grey wolf. From Michigan City, Mississippi to downtown Memphis, the Wolf offers ample opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors and witness firsthand its wonder. The Ghost River section, which starts in LaGrange and meanders to Bateman Road, offers a smooth ride and picturesque views of cypress trees and wildlife. This nine- mile section is the hallmark of the Wolf and showcases five distinct ecosystems, including bottomland hardwoods, shrubby wetlands, cypress- tupelo swamp, open water swamp, and grassy wetland.
On the first Saturday of every month, the WRC hosts group paddles open to members of the Conservancy from all skill levels. The class-one river promises no whitewater, but fallen trees and debris can sometimes make for an interesting trip, so it’s best to check the website for details beforehand. If you’ve always wanted to canoe the Wolf, but don’t have much experience, there’s no reason to be intimidated. “Every trip we get people who have never canoed before and a lot of people who have never been on the Wolf,” says Gafford. “If we can just get them on the water, then they’ll quickly learn.”
Every WRC paddle is led by a certified guide who demonstrates safety precautions and ensures no one is left behind. Canoes, life jackets, and shuttle service are all included. Pack a lunch (and a change of clothes, just in case!) and you’ll be set for an enjoyable float. If you’re renting from an outfitter you can make similar arrangements. Be sure to check out the WRC website prior to your trip for more information on what to expect.
“It’s had a bad rap for all these years” Gafford says of the historical perception of the Wolf. “That had to do with the fact that we had a lot of agricultural runoff, chemicals, things like that.” However, water quality is improving. “We’re getting better,” says Gafford, “Even if we have to have laws that make us do it.”
The WRC isn’t just a river show. The Wolf River Greenway is perfect for hiking, biking, and enjoying the hardwood and wetland areas along the river. This corridor of protected green space links with the Shelby Farms Greenline and will eventually connect neighborhoods from downtown to Collierville. Nature lovers won’t want to miss the Greenway Arboretum located near Walnut Grove and Shady Grove in East Memphis. This level one arboretum includes over thirty different species of trees native to the area.
As almost any Memphian can attest, there’s something for everyone in our beloved city, no matter age or interest, and the Wolf River and its Greenway are no exception. Make the most of the great outdoors this fall and embrace the wilderness that makes Shelby County an attraction to natives and visitors alike.
Foggy morning on the Wolf River
UPCOMING WRC EVENTS
- Become a WRC member and join an upcoming First Saturday paddle. Membership begins at $35 for individuals.
- Check out WRC’s Drink a Beer, Save a River series in collaboration with Memphis Green Drinks!
- Sign up for the Fall Eco paddle on Saturday, October 21. This fundraiser is a short trip through the Ghost Section of the Wolf River and includes gear, a guided tour, and a catered dinner.
- Enjoy the Fall Colors paddle on Saturday, October 28.
- Mark your calendars for the WRC’s annual Greenway Soiree on Saturday, November 11. This fundraiser supports the programs of the Conservancy and includes live music, a live and silent auction, dinner, and drinks.
- The WRC also facilitates team building events, youth and adult education programs, and many volunteer activities, such as an annual tree planting and river clean-ups.
LOCAL CANOE OUTFITTERS
- Wolf River Canoe Trips: 901.877.3958
- Ghost River Rentals: 901.485.1220
- Outdoors, Inc., Union Ave. and Cordova locations 901.755.2271 (Cordova Location)
- Allen’s Kayaking Adventures 202.717.5701
For more information on WRC events and programs, go to wolfriver.org