Off the Porch: Vagabonding on the Watauga

Aug. 01, 2013 @ 03:04 PM

The green banks of the Watauga were flooded with the recent rains, yet the water was so clean I could see the tops of the forget-me-nots three feet below my kayak. Our guide, Teresa Nidiffer, was telling Charlie and me about how beautiful they will be in just a couple of months when the water recedes and they go into full bloom. The tops of cattails swirled under the boat and Teresa had to talk a little louder because of the roar of rushing water up ahead. I held my boat back a bit and watched her line though the waves and white caps.
With the water so high, all I had to do was keep the kayak straight, but some of the icy water splashed high enough to wet my shirt above the kayak skirt that kept the inside of the kayak dry. At the bottom of the run of fast water, Teresa turned the double kayak she and Charlie were riding in around to face me as I approached. She was smiling and Charlie’s grin exposed a lot of teeth. She turned their kayak back down the river and called over her shoulder, “Now, let’s go pick some of those blackberries I was telling Charlie about.”
Every summer, my Grandson, Charlie Jordan and I take a trip. We call our summer journeys “vagabonding”, from the word that defines a wanderer and the word that denotes joining. Our trips are one on one, the only other participant sometimes being Larry the Wonderdog. The goal is to travel to where we want to go, do what we want to do, and sleep where we find ourselves when we decide to stop. If we possibly can, we boondock. Boondocking is the practice of camping in places that aren’t really campgrounds. This week we were in the Johnson City, Tennessee, area, and since it is summer, we decided a little river float might be a viable addition to our trip. The Watauga River meanders through the area and we chose Watauga Kayak Tours & Outfitters.
The Great Smoky Mountains are a great location to connect with nature, but many of the venues available there began with a passion for the outdoors, and eventually became nothing more than a business. Choosing an outfitter or guide who has everything you need for the trip is one thing, but choosing an outfitter or guide who has a genuine passion for what they do will make the trip even better. Outfitters with a real love of what they do make this connection easier to find. It’s reflected in the lives they lead, and the joy they have from doing what they do is apparent. We made an excellent choice.
I love the outdoors and I’m happy to see others participating in outdoor activities. Often, a vacation trip excursion can grow into a passion for the outdoors, and change a person’s life. Being outdoors puts life in perspective; it reaffirms our connection to the world we live in and this is more important than ever because of the digital isolation provided by technology.
There’s another reason I take my grandkids on outdoor trips, and I believe it’s even more important. I want my grandkids to meet and see the people who live differently from them. I want them to experience humanity in broad strokes. I make it a point on these trips to talk to strangers who can offer a different perspective. I especially like to meet those people who live most of their lives outdoors and see what the experience does for them. I’ve been doing vagabonding trips for eight years now, and every time we meet several people who make a lasting impression on both my grandchild and me.
Our guide Teresa Nidiffer, was one of those folks. Fourteen years ago, Teresa found herself in need of an activity to keep herself active and decided to try a kayak trip. She loved it so much she encouraged her friends to try it and the passion expanded to youth, women’s and church groups. She spends almost every day on the river during the season and a lot of them in the off season. She even kayaks the river in the snow and says it’s one of the prettiest times.
Kids like Charlie see this and I think the impression it makes is a vital part of their development. Later that night, Charlie and I sat at the edge of the woods above a boat ramp and discussed his future. He was unsure of what he wanted to do for a living, he mentioned some past interests but at eleven, he was mature enough to be realistic. At one point, he said, “I suppose I may wind up having a job where I wear a suit to work every day.” There was a certain resignation in the statement that belies his eleven years. He then asked me if I was happy with my choice of careers. Meeting people like Teresa offers Charlie a chance to see an alternative form of success.
On the way home, we talked about the things we did on this trip. Besides our kayak trip, we visited the Gray Fossil Center, and went on a striper fishing trip. We also cooked our own meals, talked a lot, and ate ice cream. We came home closer than ever. On the way home, I described some childhood memories. Charlie told me things his mom, Julie, had told him about growing up with me, her dad. At one point, I told Charlie about something funny he’d done when he was about two. He tole me he couldn’t remember that far back. Things got quiet and then he sat back in his seat, smiled, and said, “I’m just glad that when I get older I can remember trips like this.”
That’s what vagabonding is all about.

Watauga Kayak Tours & Outfitters is the only locally owned outfitter on Watauga River. They started the company in 1998, when Teresa Nidiffer had back surgery. She no longer could do many of the things she loved and decided to try a kayaking trip. Teresa loved it so much she decided to share the experience and began organizing church trips and floats with her friends. Her husband John Dunlap now runs the financial side and operations of the business, and she trains rafting and kayak guides and runs the river trips.
There are 19 miles of the class I and II water on the Watauga that are covered by the company. Our trip would have required some skill in maneuvering the kayak during low water but the company offers trips ideal for families and first timers. In addition to kayak trips, Watauga Kayak offers guided whitewater rafting trips on Watauga River, lake kayaking adventures, guided caving trips, and standup paddle boarding rentals for Watauga Lake.

Watauga, 1409 Broad Street, Elizabethton TN  37643, 423-542-6777,