Like It Used to Be
If your first thought on reading this article’s title is “Don’t bison belong out west?” you’re not alone. The eastern half of the United States is so civilized and has been so settled for so very long in our short national history, we’ve lost sight of the native biology of our home country. We’ve cut down, plowed under, dammed up, overrun, and tamed it to our uses for so many years, we forget how the land was before human interference.
Land Between the Lakes (LBL) was created to restore some of that natural history. A national recreation area, LBL is comprised of 170,000 acres of forested and open land located between Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Lake Barkley on the Cumberland River. Eight to twelve miles wide and forty miles long, LBL is located between Grand Rivers, Kentucky, at the northern limit and Dover, Tennessee, at the southern end.
LBL is the largest inland peninsula in the US and ecologically diverse for its size. It includes bottomland forest, uplands, prairie, wetlands, and lakeshore. Surrounding, within, or over LBL are:
210,000 acres of water in the two reservoirs (together Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley form the largest body of fresh water between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico);
500 miles of trail, 300 miles of shoreline, and 200 miles of paved roads;
Some 1,300 flora species and 55 species of mammals including bobcat, beaver, fox, river otters, and coyote; and
The easternmost principal route of the Mississippi Flyway, bringing thousands of migrating birds to the area in addition to an abundance of native fowl.
In the 1970’s 700 acres were enclosed in LBL and then burned and reseeded repeatedly to reestablish a prairie grassland lost to cultivation and fire suppression by the mid-nineteenth century.
Within this acreage, once native flora flourished again, elk and bison were reintroduced to create an unblemished natural experience familiar to the area’s earliest native people.
Not All History Is Nice
When the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dammed the two rivers to create reservoirs and dug a connecting canal at the northern end, flooding the ridged and fairly high land of western Kentucky and western Tennessee in between was not the issue; the Authority wanted to create a recreational paradise. Unlike other TVA projects that moved families from their about-to-be drowned homes and communities to spread rural electrification or prevent episodic catastrophic flooding, this effort did not bring a universally acknowledged good to those it affected.
The forced removal of entire communities for other people’s pleasure was not well received, and the creation of the park is recent enough (President Kennedy designated this national park in 1963) that sentiment among some of those affected still runs against the park’s existence. Some 5,000 people were displaced by the park’s creation. More than 240 cemeteries, many of them small, private, and family are eloquent reminders of the years before the park’s creation. No private residences remain.
In the mid-1990’s the TVA handed responsibility for LBL to the US Department of Agriculture; its Forest Service operates the park for the two million visitors who camp, hike, fish, hunt, and ride in the restored environment each year.
Seeing Elk and Bison
The Elk and Bison Prairie is open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk. The speed limit on the three-and-a-half-mile loop of the Prairie is very slow, but you will not mind. You will want to take your time, stopping and waiting, stopping and watching, absorbing, observing, moving back in time. This is a Zen kind of tourist activity. Cameras for still shots and video are a must. The entrance fee is $5 per car and you may stay as long as the park is open.
Cool weather is a better bet than hot for seeing animals on the hoof. To glimpse bison it helps to be lucky. As herd animals they like to move around to graze, which takes up three or four hours of each day. You can see their wallows and sometimes catch them napping or “bathing” there.
The good thing is, if you see one bison, you’ll probably see them all. Not so the elk, although if you spot several does, a buck is sure to be nearby. Elk are usually more mobile during the last hours before dusk. Bugling season (think mating season with sound effects) occurs from mid-September to mid-October in the afternoon hours.
Forest Service monitors are erstwhile prairie shepherds, protecting the animals from visitors and vice versa. Along with volunteer monitors, Forest Service staff answer questions and do their best to make sure visitors catch sight of the large beasts and other prairie denizens or find the best hikes in the rest of the park to see wildflowers at their peak. While touring the Prairie, you and Fido must stay in the car, although heaven knows what glorious scents your pet can detect through an open window.
Hear Elk Bugling Here:
To visit the Elk and Bison Prairie at Land Between the Lakes, drive .8 mile north past the Visitor Center at Golden Pond on Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway “The Trace” (Tennessee)/US Highway 68/KY 80 (Kentucky).
Once you’ve had your fill of Prairie experience, explore the rest of the park. The fishing is fantastic—largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, bluegill, among many—the fish diversity in the Tennessee River is the greatest in the US. The land is a hunter’s paradise (check at the Visitor Center for license and season information) and bird life is abundant—expect to see bald eagles, gulls, ducks, geese, hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, great blue heron, ospreys, owls, and more.
The Golden Pond Visitor Center, open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, can guide you to The Homeplace (a look back in time at rural farms in the nineteenth century), advise about hunting regulations, suggest birding opportunities, and provide other information.
Once you’ve had enough of terra firma, enjoy one of the many shows at the Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory inside the Visitor Center. Or just look up at night. You’ll see the stars the way they used to be seen from a vantage point like none other.
SEE MORE LAND BETWEEN THE LAKES IMAGES HERE