The Land Between the Lakes
The Land Between the Lakes. The name itself procures a majestic picture: untouched wilderness as far as the eye can see. Creatures crawling, birds flying, the wind kicking up leaves, making brittle sounds in a wood so vast and deep that the animals there don’t know people exist. The sun peaking out on the horizon, sweeping across the ground and lighting up the water, sparkling and misty in the early morning light. Wild and picturesque meadows splattered with yellow and purple flowers, while a gigantic and hairy bison lying down in the grass turns its massive head at you and stares blankly with dark, animal eyes and sticks its tongue out to lick its nose. The iconic sound that everyone in the great state of Tennessee is familiar with: the coo of the mourning dove and the loud chorus of cicadas as the air shimmers, the warm thermals creating pockets of air that hawks use to lazily float around in the sky. Such is the meager description of Land Between the Lakes, a 170,000 acre forest land reserved for the bison and elk and the animals that live in between. The great outdoors are anything but quiet: whether it's an animal growl, snort, or caw, the scurrying of small critters, the wind stirring up the dust, or the loud groan and creak of an old tree and its old branches, nature is anything but quiet. But a great stillness happens there. A calm that can only be described as content comes over you in that expanse; when the world seems so small, it’s good to put yourself in a place to remind you that the world is actually a lot bigger than we think.
Cypress took a tour of the land between the lakes, with the help of Jennifer Wheatley, Communications for Land Between the Lakes. Wheatley took Cypress to tour the day activities along the main strip of road that cuts right through LBL.
“Land Between the Lakes was created as a National Recreation Area in 1963,” according to Area Supervisor Tina Tilley. “Many people have been able to enjoy this special place since that time. We celebrated over 50 years of providing recreational opportunities and environmental education in 2013 and look forward to many more. Generations of families visit Land Between the Lakes and create memories.” The Tennessee Valley Authority (or TVA) created Lake Barkley. After which, the beauty of the land led TVA to relocate the surrounding towns in the 170,000 acre area. One of these towns was Golden Pond, which gave the Golden Pond Planetarium its name. People moved, dams were created, and towns were flooded, washing away a lot of memories of the people living there. But the creation of the area was not done in vain, and the sacrifice for Land Between the Lakes makes its purpose that much more important.
South Bison Range
The first stop on our tour, Wheatley drove us to the South Bison Range at LBL, since it was still early enough to catch a glimpse of the bison before they took cover from the heat of the day. Though it was technically fall, LBL is not immune to the Indian summer that Tennesseans experience during most of the first half of the fall season: unseasonably warm weather during the day, with temperatures dropping at night. With this kind of weather, the best time to experience any sort of activity with the wildlife is either early or late in the day.
We pulled up to the fence at the South Bison Range, happily spotting the bison well before we stopped the car. Slowly walking up to the fence with my camera, for the first time in my life, I came upon a heard of the gargantuan North American bison. As with coming close to any massive animal, their presence was felt as well as seen; their mass evident as the air bent around their shapes in the misty meadow in the midmorning sunlight. I waited a moment before taking any pictures because I wanted to really experience the bison. Cameras are unable to capture just how big a bison is: its huge muscles on its back and shoulders make its head appear to bend to the ground. Its bulbous, wet nose is as wide as a human hand, and its skull obviously massive and thick.
Bison are heavy animals. Weighing in at 2,000 pounds (or 1 ton), bison are surprisingly agile. They are the largest land animals in North America and used to populate most of the continent, until overhunting drove the bison to near extinction. Through conservation efforts, the Land Between the Lakes and places like it have successfully brought the population back up.
Brandon Spring Group Center
The next stop on our tour was the Brandon Spring Group Center. Located at the southern area at Land between the Lakes, the facility is open to groups wanting to stay within the LBL boundaries and experience nature at LBL. Richard Lomax, the Center’s director, showed us around the different dorms and common area, “The dorms have bunk beds and showers, and everything is cleaned every day. We want people, especially kids, to enjoy the outdoors.” The facility also has campfire areas, paved play courts, an amphitheater, and other outdoor amenities. The Center overlooks Lake Barkley and Bards Lake and groups have access to fish, swim, and canoe. But the center doesn’t only provide a place to live: “We teach outdoor classes,” Lomax said. “Kids love it, and they get to learn about things you can’t teach in a classroom. We teach them how to figure out where they’re going with a compass and what to look for in case they ever get lost.” The Brandon Spring Group Center was founded in 1974 by the Brandon sisters, who were passionate about the outdoors and wanted generations after them to experience and enjoy West Tennessee wildlife.
Woodlands Nature Station
Woodlands Nature Station was our next stop. The Nature Station is a learning center for Land Between the Lakes. The Nature Station features exhibits in its “backyard” of the different animals native to the area. They have a bobcat, owls, a red-tailed hawk, a bald eagle, deer, a red wolf, a coyote, a opossum, amphibians, reptiles, and so much more that an entire article can be written about it. The animals on display have been rescued and are released if the recovery is successful and they are imprinted. Animals who are rescued but are not imprinted stay. Imprinting occurs naturally, and it is simply the term used for an animal who has learned to take care of itself in the wild.
The Nature Station offers a variety of information on the animals that live not only at the exhibit, but also the animals who live in LBL and the West Tennessee and Kentucky area. The workers (called “naturalists”) are happy to give presentations with the animals and answer any questions you may have. Claire is a naturalist at the center and gave Cypress a presentation on both the screech owl and the red-tailed hawk. When Claire held the tiny screech owl, she waved her hand in front of its face, the owl didn’t respond, “This little guy is imprinted, but we kept him. As you can see, he doesn’t respond to my movement. We think he’s almost completely blind, but he can see shadows in the light.” Claire moved the screech owl into a sunny patch of light and waved her hand in front of his face again. This time, the tiny owl flinched, but its eyes remained unmoving. Claire divulged information about this bird and that bird as we made our way down the trail. One by one while holding the owls and hawks on a special glove, Claire had the birds flap their wings, showing off for the audience.
Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory
Pulling up to the planetarium, the most eye-catching structure is attached to the building: a large, cylindrical building, which is the theater. This houses the presentations given by workers at the planetariums. Visitors get to watch the constellations in the night sky, and laser light shows are put on by the planetarium regularly beginning from Memorial Day weekend and ending at the close of the year.
The Homeplace 1850s Farm
The Homeplace 1850s Farm begins at a regular-looking museum at the very entrance. Displays of old equipment and tools from the 1850s in the western region of Tennessee fill the building. But the Homeplace begins as you step out the back door and make your way down the trail. The day was sunny and warm. To the left was the farm, where dead stalks of corn saluted in the dirt. To the right, one of two original log cabins at the Homeplace...and a woman who looked as though she stepped out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, sitting in a rocking chair and holding a chicken. The Homeplace is known as a living history museum. Workers dress in period clothing and actually run the farm: from planting to picking to canning to shearing to forging to cooking to plucking to baking and everything in between. All of the crops are grown from heirloom seeds (the original types of seeds in the area at that time), and all of the livestock are breeds of animals that would have lived in the area at that time. It’s an understatement to conclude that the farm is authentic. Visitors are able to walk around and look through all of the rooms and ask any questions from the workers. They also encourage people to experience the history and help out with some of the chores, the most popular for the kids being “Feeding Time On the Farm,” where kids can help feed the animals. The Homeplace raises its own crops, much like an actual farm would back in the 1850s, and food is stored for the winter.
The Land Between the Lakes offers more than what is listed in this article. There are also a multitude of campgrounds, lakes, hiking, biking, and walking trails, fishing piers, and hunting grounds. You can plan an entire vacation at LBL, or just drive through the main strip and enjoy the scenery surrounding you. Admission to the daytime activities described in this article are generally around $5. Camping reservations will have to be made and paid for in advance. The main El and Bison Prairie costs $5 per vehicle, but the South Bison Range is free. Discounts and packages, along with any and all information you may need to know about LBL will be listed on their website at landbetweenthelakes.us. There are also other resources, such as maps, information on hours of operations, rules and regulations within LBL, and any news or updated information that you might need. The Land Between the Lakes has more than 1.5 million visitors annually, so why are you missing out on all the fun. As their website says, it’s a vast woodland playground and should be enjoyed and experienced--”Come Outside and Play!”