Reelfoot Lake is such a peaceful setting today. But once upon a time, the land heaved and rolled like an ocean and the sandy soil along the Mississippi River turned into something like a milkshake. Trees snapped like twigs, and from the tumultuous abyss, sulfurous vapor shot into the atmosphere, creating total darkness.
During the winter of 1811 and 1812, the few settlers and Native Americans who lived in far western Kentucky and Tennessee surely thought the world was coming to an end. The series of shocks was so powerful it caused church bells to ring as far away as New York City and Boston.
From one of the epicenters near the little hamlet of New Madrid, Missouri (hence the name the Great New Madrid Earthquake), the damage radius reached out across 50,000 square miles. Scientists believe this series of quakes may be the strongest in North American history. And it’s in our own back yard.
Out of this cataclysm, something happened that is almost impossible to comprehend. The upheaval caused the Mississippi River to flow backward. Water flooded into a large chunk of land that sank. Reelfoot Lake was born.
The 15,000-acre lake is located primarily in Tennessee with fingers extending north into Kentucky, but it looks like it belongs in Louisiana. White egrets fly above, and little “mom-and-pop” resorts are tucked away in the cypress forests that line the shore.
Out in the middle of the lake, boaters can find more cypress trees. How they got there is astonishing. Cypress trees like moist soil, but they won’t grow from the bottom of a lake. These trees still cling to life after they sank upright nearly 200 years ago.
I travel to Reelfoot Lake whenever I can, drawn to the great fishing and nature photography. I like to rent a small boat and take in the scenery in all its glory. Every time I go there, my imagination runs wild. This pristine, peaceful setting is actually a seismic zone with the potential to put all other earthquakes in the Lower 48 to shame.
Scientists say it will likely happen again. Someday. These thoughts keep me awake when the fish aren’t biting, because something else much bigger may awaken, too. But until then, this place is an outdoor lover’s paradise formed for us to enjoy.
Winter at Reelfoot Lake is a great time to watch bald eagles. Bring binoculars and a camera. Submerged cypress stumps from the earthquake provide excellent habitat for fish, including hand-size bluegill.