When Dr. Andreas Fath started the Rheines Wasser project to swim and analyze the water quality along the entirety of Germany’s Rhine River in 2014, he began in Switzerland’s frigid Lake Toma. At the time, he was surrounded by the geographic grandeur of the Alps and dipping into water that was a breathtaking 44 degrees.
For TenneSwim, the American analogue to Rheines Wasser, Dr. Fath has encountered far different conditions. In the Tennessee River, the currents are slower, the water is far warmer and the landscape is more rolling hills than towering peaks. But today, he enters a stretch of river where, if he squints and looks … just … right, he may feel surrounded by some shadow of the Alpine splendor that marked the start to his German project.
Wilkommen, Dr. Fath, to the Tennessee River Gorge (TRG).
For 26 miles — an aquatic marathon — Dr. Fath’s strokes will propel him through a geographic feature referred to as “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon.” The fourth largest river canyon east of the Mississippi River, the TRG sprawls over 27,000 acres of land (42 square miles), with its namesake river winding, serpent-like, through a lush landscape overlooked by towering stone bluffs. It will be, without a doubt, one of the most visually impressive chapters of Dr. Fath’s journey.
In addition to its beauty, the Gorge also is home to dozens of archaeological sites, 1,000 varieties of plants and a proliferation of wildlife, including 184 species of birds, 63 species of mammals and 193 species of butterfly. If he can spare time between strokes, Dr. Fath may be lucky enough to spot large birds of prey, including Broad-winged Hawks, Osprey and Bald Eagles, all of which have been sighted in the Gorge. Additionally, he’ll be sharing the water with many endangered species, including the Pink Mucket Pearlymussel (Lampsilis abrupta), Upland Combshell (Epioblasma metastriata) and Anthony’s Riversnail (Athearnia anthonyi).
For more than 30 years, the natural beauty and ecological riches of the TRG have been preserved thanks to the stewardship of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, which has protected 17,000 acres of this natural wonder. And for more than 10 years, the Tennessee Aquarium has introduced more than 250,000 passengers to the majesty of the Gorge with daily cruises aboard its high-speed catamaran, the River Gorge Explorer. So even as the current carries him farther from Chattanooga, Dr. Fath may enjoy a bit of belated cheering on from passengers aboard today’s cruise.