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An Offseason Visit to Dale Hollow Lake

“Dale Hollow Dam and Lake was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938 and the River and Harbor Act of 1946. The project was completed for flood control in 1943. Power generating units were added in 1948, 1949 and 1953. The project was designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and built by private contractors under the supervision of the Corps…. The dam impounds a length of 61 miles of the Obey River creating Dale Hollow Lake with 620 miles of shoreline, 27,700 acres of water, and 24,842 acres of land for recreational opportunities. ” — US Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District

Dale Hollow Lake is named after William Dale, a government surveyor who came to the region to survey the border between Tennessee and Kentucky. He settled in the region and later drowned in a boating accident while taking part in the War of 1812. That drowning would prove prescient. The land was originally the region of the Cherokee tribe, and retains its natural beauty, though the Cherokee and William Dale would hardly recognize the place now, hundreds of feet underwater in places they once walked.

The shoreline is controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers and protected from development, largely preserving the area as a pristine natural environment. Beyond the shoreline, development is grabbing hold of the region, but the lake remains a beautiful statement for preservation, even as it conceals what it stole away. There’s a town named Willow Creek under this lake, built before the Revolutionary War, a ghost lingering below the water hinting at times past. We forget sometimes, living in our moment of now, that there was so much we don’t know about what was here before us. The region whispers its Cherokee and early settler history when you stop and listen.

Being out on a boat on a raw Late October day, it was easy to listen. The hundreds of houseboats, pontoon boats and fishing boats were largely dormant at marinas. I imagine in summer the area is a bit “Ozark” crazy, but we couldn’t have seen more than a half dozen other boats out on the water with us, all of them fishermen. Off-season has it’s perks.

Turning off the engine, you quickly drift past slate and limestone beaches created when they lower the lake for the winter. The shoreline is composed of countless bits of broken slate, brittle and pliable underfoot. This doesn’t seem a great place for walking barefoot, but as with anywhere, when you dress for the environment it makes all the difference. Walking on those broken sleet beaches was fascinating and wonderful.

And I do wonder at this place. The region is going through an identity crisis of sorts. On the one hand, you have the people who have always been here: farmers and hunters and people scraping together a living in an area desolately beautiful. On the other hand you have land speculators scooping up property at ridiculously low prices (for a New Englander) and building vacation and retirement communities. Just as the lake swallowed up Willow Creek, there’s an entire community here that is slowly drowning in change, and reacting to it as you might expect. Trump and “Let’s Go Brandon” signs are everywhere, crime is rising as some misfit locals break into vacant houses packed with luxury goods. There’s friction in change, and the changes here are accelerating. Like the lake, some will drown in it, and others will find opportunity to flourish.

Hilltop turned island
Pillars of slate exposed when lake is lowered in winter
Dale Hollow Lake is split between Kentucky and Tennessee
When the lake is lowered it exposes a slate and limestone “beach” worth exploring

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