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Three reservoirs on the Little Tennessee River in northwestern North Carolina and Southeastern Tennessee offer some of the most spectacular wilderness scenery in the eastern United States. The Finger Lakes of the South - Cheoah Lake, Calderwood Lake and Chilhowie Lake - provide hydroelectric power to Alcoa, Inc. for operation of its aluminum smelting operations. Ideally situated at the boundary between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest, the three 'stairstep' reservoirs impound nearly 3000 acres of water along almost 30 miles of river.
Immediately above the Cheoah Reservoir, Fontana Dam and Lake corral another 29 miles of the Little Tennessee River. Fontana Dam was originally planned as a fourth hydroelectric generation unit for Alcoa, but the urgency of World War II resulted in that dam being built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, with power produced going to Alcoa for 20 years. As the Fontana Dam controls water levels on all four reservoirs, the complex has a unique arrangement between the TVA and Tapoco, the hydroelectric generation division of Alcoa. Because the complex resides in two states, reciprocal arrangements for fishing regulations have been worked out for Calderwood Lake.
The Finger Lakes of the South have no development along their shorelines. A number of primitive campsites are located along the shore, many of which are accessible only by water. All three have boat launch sites which are suitable for small fishing boats, canoes and kayaks. The dams serve to slow down the river, widening the waters into pleasant pools of scenic wonder teaming with fish. The wooded and rocky shoreline is overlooked by limestone bluffs in some areas, while others feature gentle slopes under the canopy of trees. Because the lakes are deep, pure and cold, they have become excellent trout fishing destinations.
The two southern lakes, Cheoah Lake and Calderwood Lake, support an excellent coldwater fishery, while Chilhowie Lake is considered a cool-water fishery as it is a bit warmer. Periodic water releases from the underwater penstocks create an environment with high oxygen levels ideal for trout. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency regularly stocks Calderwood and Chilhowie Lakes with rainbow trout and has stocked lake trout in the past. North Carolina stocks Cheoah Lake.
Calderwood Lake, smallest at 541 acres, straddles the state border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Although sandwiched between the two other finger lakes, Calderwood Lake is the deepest with depths of 190 feet on the lower end of the original river channel. One anomaly often commented on by fishermen and river paddlers is how cold the water often is. This is caused by the water releases from deep in Cheoah Lake above the dam, bringing cold water rapidly into Calderwood Lake's warmer near-surface waters. When the hydroelectric generators are not running, the near-surface waters warm up rapidly from warm overflow top-water coming over the dam. Wise fishermen use the scheduled releases to time their fishing activity for warmer water periods when trout approach the surface to feed.
The Calderwood Lake dam was completed in 1930, creating a reservoir with steep, rocky sides. The primary game fish are rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, lake trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, black crappie and rock bass. Because of the reciprocal agreement between the two states, fishing licenses from one state are honored by the other for boat anglers. Those fishing from shore must have the correct state permits. Calderwood Lake is the middle Finger Lake of the South and is difficult to access by road except at the upper end of the lake near the Cheoah Dam. The road itself can be difficult during inclement weather. Those who make the effort are richly rewarded by excellent paddling, several scenic primitive campsites accessed by water, and many small waterfalls that can be reached from the rough trails through the woods. A favorite landing spot is the campsite at Slickrock Creek in the Joyce Kilner Slickrock Wilderness.
Cheoah Lake, uppermost of the Finger Lakes of the South, forms directly below the Fontana Dam. Constructed in 1919, the Cheoah Dam was the fist dam in the series and was featured in the 1993 movie The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. Although there is no development on Cheoah Lake itself, nearby Fontana Lake features a small village and several campgrounds and resorts. Lodgings may be found in the hills overlooking the lake, and bed-and-breakfasts are popular here. The 644-acre lake offers excellent fishing for trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie and rock bass. A scenic highway runs the length of the reservoir, but only one boat launch ramp is available near the Fontana Dam. Campers take advantage of several rustic campsites along the shore.
Located entirely within North Carolina, Cheoah Lake is a favorite with canoe and kayak paddlers. A canoe portage is provided around the Cheoah Dam onto Calderwood Lake. Both Cheoah Lake and Calderwood Lake are quite remote, with the nearest towns of any size being about 30 miles away over dificult roads. Reaching the Cheoah Dam from the north entails a highly scenic and extremely twisting trip south on US 129 through an area known as the 'Tail of The Dragon'. A favorite of motorcyclists, this road is the bane of inexperienced truckers who are sometimes sent that way by dispatchers relying on GPS; it is nearly impossible for long tractor-trailers to make the hairpin turns and steep hills along the route but, because it is a US Highway, most maps mark it as a truck route. These are likely the only travelers who don't enjoy the scenic road in good weather. The few country stores and convenience stops along the way will provide not only cold drinks for visitors but the latest stories of hapless truckers.
Chilhowie Lake is the northernmost of the Finger Lakes of The South. The last built, the dam was completed in 1957. Chilhowie is the most easily accessed and therefore the most popular of the three lakes. Largest at 1734 acres, Chilhowie Lake has two beaches, picnic areas, several boat launches and fishing piers. A canoe portage is marked around the Calderwood Dam upstream. Chilhowie Lake provides part of the boundary between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest. Great fishing for several varieties of trout and bass is also found here. Although trout fishing is excellent, bass are also abundant, and a few walleye are caught.
Chilhowie Lake is relatively shallow, with a maximum depth of only about 50 feet, and an average of 20 feet or less. This 'finger' on the finger lakes is a bit wider than the others, reaching almost a mile across. Chilhowie is much closer to towns than the other two reservoirs; Maryville, Lenoir City and Louden are all within 30 miles. This makes Chilhowie Lake the most likely day trip for visitors who can find lodgings in any of the nearby towns. Of course, several rustic campgrounds are also provided as are day use areas.
Maryville is large enough to have several hotels and motels, while local guest rentals can be found nearby. The area around the Finger Lakes of the South is rich with the history of the Cherokee and the unfortunate site of many battles that resulted in the loss of their homeland. The famous Cherokee town of Chilhowie lies buried beneath the waters of Chilhowie Lake, giving the lake and dam its name. The entire area is dotted with reminders of the rich history of the Cherokee people in the area. Other historical remnants include famous moonshiners and backwoods folktales.
A lucky few find real estate available overlooking one of the Finger Lakes of the South, although no one is allowed to build close to the shore. In the summer of 2012, Alcoa Inc. announced its plans to sell the reservoir system with its hydroelectric capacity to a renewable energy provider. It is unlikely that a change in ownership will substantially change access or operations along the three-lake chain. The Finger Lakes of the South will be here for future generations to enjoy.
*Statistical information shown is for Chilhowie Lake. All statistics come from the Alcoa official sites.
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