Bob Cherry is no stranger to long boat rides, having navigated thousands of miles of inland waterways over the years.
But when the retired captain puts in at Knoxville, Tennessee, next weekend with his buddies Sherman Jones and Sterling Edwards to boat the 652 miles of the Tennessee River ending in Paducah, the trip will be special.
They’re doing it in a pontoon.
“I’ve been doing this all my life, just been kind of a river rat,” said Cherry, the son of the late Paducah mayor of the same name.
“We’ve always done lots of adventures like this, and we’ve always played on the water.”
Cherry has made the trip from Knoxville to Paducah before, but on bigger vessels. This time, he said, it’s just as much an encouragement for river tourism as it is for his own enjoyment.
“A lot of people think you’ve got to have a great big boat to do it,” Cherry said, calling a pontoon “the average man’s boat.”
“Any man in this area could get hold of a pontoon boat and make this trip.”
Cherry and company plan to boat between 50 and 100 miles each day, depending on weather conditions, stopping off in various communities along the river to eat or shop, and letting tourism crews join the party in certain stretches.
Julie Graham, a project manager for various Tennessee River tourism initiatives, praised the “deep and rich” history of the river, whose largest tributary originates in Virginia.
Graham said the Explore Tennessee River Valley social media pages and tennesseerivervalleygeotourism.org will feature some video and content from Cherry’s trip.
“We’ll be covering things like stopping off in these little communities that dot the river,” Graham said.
The Tennessee RiverLine project, which aims to promote recreation on land and water along the river, chose six “pilot communities” to be featured along the waterway. Paducah is one, considered mile zero on the river where it joins the Ohio River.
McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer said the river is an integral part of the area, whether because of the locally-based river industries that impact travel and industry worldwide or for the recreational opportunities the waterways offer.
Clymer said the county has been working to install facilities at various points on the Clarks River, a tributary of the Tennessee, for recreational purposes, and he hopes Tennessee River tourism can increase interest in those facilities.
“The Tennessee River line is … also about the tributaries. It’s also about land that adjoins the Tennessee River,” Clymer said.
“I think people really don’t realize how our economy is affected in a positive way by that river.”
Cherry said he plans to kick off the trip Friday, with Memorial Day weekend being the unofficial kickoff of boating season.
He recalled a trip he took to New Orleans as a Boy Scout, and said the thought of pontooning the Tennessee “makes my inner child giggle.”
“It’s three old codgers filling out a bucket list,” he said.