Oftentimes these stories begin with me begrudgingly agreeing to host a ride. Not so much this time, although getting to the point of actually executing it was entirely different. The whole notion of the “Dam Tennessee Ride” came out of me trial testing our “Long Hauler” Auxiliary Fuel System Kit on the then-new 2020 Kawasaki STX 160LX over two years ago.
Having already pushed the STX over 180 miles on a single trip using the tank system, I thought a more grueling test was pertinent so I launched well before daybreak and successfully traveled 443 miles on a single day. Doing so required keeping the naturally-aspirated Kawasaki pinned wide open for most of the day. Yet, after 12 hours, pushing the ski to near-empty at half way, we came back home victorious.
This feat got the conversation going. “When are you going to do that ride again?” folks would ask. I hadn’t really planned a “return trip” but was up for it. After a hurricane in Louisiana and restricted travel bans, an impromptu date was scheduled, February 25th, 2022. Then the rains came. Tennessee’s Cumberland River valley swelled nearly a dozen feet and the river churned frothy and littered with debris.
Even the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) took the extra measure of padlocking the gates to the launch ramps. “Sorry guys,” I stated in an Instagram video. “The ride ain’t happening.” Many asked to push it back a month, which I obliged. Unfortunately, temperatures were still struggling to raise above 50-degrees and the planned date of Friday, March 25th looked to be a chilly one.
The half dozen enough to join me were equally as daring as they were bonkers. Chris Stone drove down from Illinois with his Ultra 310X. Chris had our auxiliary fuel kit equipped and a spare jerry can, giving him at a very best well over 36 gallons of capacity. BJ Doolittle had come up from Texas with his heavily modified RXT-X but was struggling to get a problematic iBR module to operate correctly.
Dean Adler, who had joined me on our previous Panhandle ride, came down from Michigan with his GTX 230 and handmade rack holding three Jaz Racing fuel jugs. Doug Meyung drove down from Kentucky with his new ’22 GP1800R HO without his snowboarding pants. He donned every scrap of clothing he had with him, but by the end of the day, his exposed legs were deep purple.
RJ Whitford drove in from Minnesota with his GTX Limited 300 exemplifying the Boy Scout’s motto of “Be Prepared.” RJ’s Sea-Doo was chocked to the gills with every tool and spare item you could’ve needed on such a journey. I, of course, was aboard The Watercraft Journal’s ’21 RXP-X 300 equipped with twin Sure Can gas cans heavily strapped to a LinQ-equipped Kool PWC Stuff rack.
Leaving at 6:30am didn’t happen, as Dean and BJ fought to get the iBR motor to work. Burning precious daylight, Dean wished BJ the best and raced down the ramp. Wanting to make up time, we raced down the Cumberland towards Nashville’s downtown riverfront. The skyscrapers crept into view above the cliff faces and soon sped past and as approached Rock Harbor Marina.
Filling up here was necessary as the more optimal stop, Clarksville Marina some 30 miles down river, wouldn’t open its doors for another two hours. Stopping before the lock meant we could run faster and try to catch up a few minutes. The automated pump generously splashed 93 octane with a swipe of the credit card. This would be the last premium grade fuel we would find all day.
Northwest of Nashville is Ashland City, marked by high-stretching cliffs and rolling hillsides. It wasn’t long before Clarksville Lock & Dam came into view. A few tugs of the alarm chain failed to beckon the lock master, so I got on the phone (thank goodness I had some cellular signal) and asked him to open the gates. Amazed to see five PWC in 40-degree weather loaded to the gills, he opened up.
Locking through took little time and we were back on our way. Again, because Clarksville Marina was closed, we hoped to reach Lake Barkley Marina another 80 miles up into Kentucky. The goal was not to replicate my previous 440 miles but reach Land Between The Lakes and double back, totaling roughly 380 miles. Calculating the mpg of our other riders, I knew already that wasn’t going to happen.
Things weren’t going smoothly at all, and we were only a quarter of the way done. Hitting the wake of a passing barge too aggressively, I lost a GoPro camera with some irreplaceable footage. The mount for my phone broke, but the lanyard held on (unlike that of the GoPro), forcing me to put the phone back inside the glovebox. We splashed in our reserve tanks passing Palmyra and Cumberland City.
Almost exactly at where the Cumberland opens into the mouth of Lake Barkley, the Sea-Doo speed control seemed to fail – if only for a second or two. The throttle cut out, sending me into the bars, and the slowly crept back up. Throwing up my hand, I circled the group so I could double check the RXP-X. Seemingly self-healed, I waived us forward but not before RJ waved me over.
“Hey, Kevin. Chris is out of gas,” he cautioned. “How bad?” I asked. RJ shook his head. Chris was just slowly creeping up on the rest of us, and none of us had extra fuel left to share. I pulled out the phone. No signal. The Garmin GPS that I carried was nowhere near as sophisticated as other GPS trackers most folks use, but did manage to materialize small blue icons everywhere a marina was located.
At first glance, the prognosis was grim. Then scrolling outward on the screen a small blue dot appeared east of us nearly two miles inland. Curious, I tried to zoom in on the marker. It read Bumpis Mills Marina. “Guys,” I hollered. “There’s a marina less than two miles east. Let’s see if they’re open.” RJ suddenly lit up, “Yeah, I think I saw a sign for it a little ways back.” Sure enough, inlets from the river fed into a small lake and into a delta where Bumpis Mills sat.
The lone attendant stood on the deck of a sturdy 20×20 shed tethered to a floating dock. “It’s a little cold outside for you boys, ain’t it?” he laughed. Doug, who was suffering from the cold worse than all of us nodded a “yes.” A single gas pump read 89 octane. At this point, none of us cared. We splashed in what octane boosters and additives we had on hand and poured in enough fuel to get us to Lake Barkley Marina, our halfway point.
“Barkley’s about 25-30 miles north. But the wind is up, so it’s gonna get bumpy,” our friendly dockmaster cautioned. He had joked that he hadn’t planned on coming in to work that morning, but remembered he needed to pick up some receipts. So our arrival when he was present was almost synchronicity. We thanked him for being open, the heat of his office and the gas and went on our way. And true to his word, the lake conditions we “up.”
Lake Barkley is the eastern half of the Land Between the Lakes (the western half being the Tennessee River). For the most part, Barkley is a sporadic route of shallows and sand bars with a deep barge route cutting a serpentine through it (carved originally by the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers). Following the buoys is a bit of a game as they seem to zigzag – particularly when going 45-50 miles per hour.
The RXP-X 300 with a set of RIVA Pro Series sponsons fared rather well sluicing through the turbulence, but the others were being hammered. Stopping to regather our group, I realized we had nearly overshot the entrance to Cave Pond and the Lake Barkley Recreational Park, where the marina was. Jetting in we found the marina at last, passing a few bewildered fishermen along the way.
Two teenage boys stood awestruck at the modern 4-strokes pulling into the dock. Like the other before, the only available fuel was 89 octane, so additives were generously blended in. Each of us took the time to top off jerry cans and auxiliary tanks as the return route was non-stop to Clarksville, over 100 miles east. Explaining our route to the attendants made us sound like Apollo astronauts. One of the boys exclaimed, “Boy! I’ve never been to Nashville, even by car!”
We snacked, used their immaculate bathroom and soaked in a little heat inside the store before heading back out. Heading east meant riding against the current and into a headwind, which spelled rougher conditions and worse fuel consumption. I assured everyone that we had just under 90 miles until Clarksville, which all of us could make. It was 1pm by now and frankly, I wanted to get off of the water by 5pm, so I asked to up our pace back to 50-55mph. That wouldn’t happen.
Lake Barkley wasn’t going to let us off easily. Everybody was taking a beating. My GPS mount being the final of my three to snap off. Thankfully, a daisy chain of zipties and quick reflexes caught it before breaking free. With my offshore experience I knew two things: speed reduced the beating as the ski will pound over the tops of the crests, and riding on your feet would reduce the impact on your spine. I encouraged all to follow suit, but I still pulled far ahead.
Reaching the mouth of the Cumberland, the water calmed as the treeline blocked much of the headwind. We regathered again and journeyed up the winding path towards Clarksville. Like clockwork, whenever the river veered due east, the water whipped into a frenzy and the poundings would resume. And as it twisted north or south, the water will calm. In one of these rough patches, Chris would lose one of his GoPro 10’s into the river. Gone was more footage.
Although all of us (but Doug on his Yamaha) were being pinged by our low fuel alarms, none of us wanted to stop to splash in our reserves prior to reaching Clarksville. As the shoreline began to increasingly populate with homes and businesses, the bridges crossing the river flew overhead as the mouth of the marina came into view. The RXP-X was down to a single bar, so to be expected, but Chris’ Ultra was well into the fuel cell, having drained the auxiliary tank again.
Clarksville Marina was newly refurbished and the paint still smells fresh. And once again, all that was available was 89 octane, so in came the fuel additives. Octane boost is a little bit like snake oil, promising far more than it actually delivers – trying to compensate for the protective qualities that leaded fuel once provided. The main concern wasn’t fuel mileage but preventing detonation, as our supercharged skis don’t respond well to low quality, low octane fuel.
Idling out of Clarksville, a few fishermen watched in curiosity as a half dozen watercraft pulled into the river. This was our last scheduled fuel stop for the day with a little over 90 miles left until Old Hickory Lock & Dam. Barge traffic all but ebbed, leaving us a pretty unbroken path to downtown Nashville, around the bend toward Opry Mills and alongside the General Jackson paddle boat, all fun landmarks for tourists to see.
I had used up most of my patience and frankly, was ready to be back on solid ground. We had a few spats with rough water, a constant blast of cold air and just waaay too much fuel burned. I’m not complaining, but all of us were ready for the day to be over. None of us had ever ridden a ski completely dry of fuel (which is terribly detrimental to the in-tank fuel pump) and we hoped this wouldn’t be the day – but things were getting close.
Constantly conferring with the GPS, the dam appeared on the tiny screen to be “just around the corner” but corner after the corner, the dam still remained out of sight. The Sea-Doo was down to one fuel bar and my digitally-set clip of 60mph wasn’t helping my consumption any. Dean Adler on his GTX was just as low. Doug was sitting pretty with plenty of fuel, of course, but Chris’ Ultra was deep into the factory tank with his auxiliary already dry.
Zero bars left… This was a first for Dean and I and something we didn’t want to see much longer. We were finally rounding the last corner, and the dam had materialized. RJ had stopped and splashed in a few gallons from his backup cans unbeknownst to me. With the ramp in sight, I squeezed the throttle a little tighter and coasted the rest of the way until the bow made a gentle thump against the muddy bank.
A final glance at the Garmin had the total trip at 341 miles at just under 11 hours. What cost us our goal of 400 miles was our average moving speed, which per the GPS, read 44mph. While each of us burned fuel differently, the RXP-X fared an average of 4.4mpg, which wasn’t great (but nowhere as bad as others). Nobody suffered an injury – besides Doug’s frostbitten legs – and no ski experienced a mechanical failure.
Rides like these are my favorite kind of experience. They push you to ride through unfavorable elements, extreme conditions and your own pain and exhaustion. They are truly endurance rides. Most ride casually, for fun and socializing, and that’s great. But when it comes to a rider’s ride I’ll take another Dam Tennessee Ride any day of the week.