|Cruising the Cumberland|
|Wednesday, June 20, 2012|
Capt. Jesse Caskey transports passengers to river world
The river road that comprises the northern border of Wilson County presents a liquid highway that most locals have yet to navigate.
For those who don’t own a vessel, Capt. Jesse Caskey and his 38-foot-long covered pontoon boat Discovery offers a leisurely option with Cumberland River Cruises.
The Coast Guard-licensed skipper worked at Opryland theme park when it opened in 1972 and was serving as safety manager of the park and the Opryland Hotel when he left the complex in 1985.
“I operated the Sky Ride my first two years. I managed every ride out there and was supervisor for the opening of the Grizzly River Rampage and Screaming Delta Demon. I joke around about the Opryland job. I’m back to being a ride operator, but now I own the ride,” said Caskey, 59, who lives with his wife Elaine in Gallatin.
The aqua lubber started Cumberland River Cruises four summers ago with his 20-passenger vessel that docks at Cherokee Marina within eye-shot of the Highway 109 bridge that spans the Cumberland and connects motor vehicle traffic from Wilson to Sumner County.
Caskey offers two basic tours: the nature tour, which goes upstream to the nature preserve near the Gallatin steam plant, and the home tour, which cruises downstream past Fairvue Plantation where multimillion-dollar homes sprinkle the riverside. (Both cruises offer a peek at country music superstar Reba McEntire’s grand abode.
A third option in summer months is the sunset tour, which glides near the entrance of a cliffside cave so that passengers can observe thousands of bats exiting their home in search of their evening meals.
“The point is to make it relaxing. The ultimate compliment is when people fall asleep,” said the skipper, who refers to his cruises “a taste of the Keys.”
A native of Florence, S.C., he grew up in Paducah, Ky., and earned a degree in science at Middle Tennessee State University. After his Opryland gig, he was operations manager of Water Country USA near Williamsburg, Va. In life insurance sales for the past 23 years, his day job is with Estate Planning Enterprises in Hendersonville.
“I find any excuse I can to get on a boat and ride. This is kind of my fun second job, and I’m trying to develop it to be my retirement job,” he said of afternoons and evenings moonlighting on the Cumberland.
“I’m often asked if we’re on a river or a lake. We’re on both,” reported Caskey, who shares facts and points out places of interest during the river ride.
For example, he noted that the 100-mile-long Old Hickory Lake presents 4,000 miles of shoreline, and that the Cumberland River rolls along for 690 miles. (Cherokee Marina sits at river mile 240.)
The captain pilots his boat at 5 miles per hour along the main channel where the water reaches depths from 25 to 92 feet deep.
On this afternoon’s home tour, Caskey headed downstream. About a mile-and-a-half after leaving the dock, Discovery passed Camp Boxwell Boy Scout Reservation to the left where the grounds were speckled with green tents. (The Scouts were enjoying Mother Nature.)
A bit further down the river, the boat skirted past tiny Bird Island where heron and cormorants nest in the trees. The captain stopped the engine so that passengers could hear and eyeball the water fowl.
A right turn up West Station Camp Creek offered direct observation of plenty of high-priced mansions, residences making up the planned community of Fairvue Plantation, where most of the homes were built in the past 10 years at costs of $1 million and then some. These structures include the humble abodes of U.S. Rep. Diane Black and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Joe Blanton.
Casey mentioned that one of the lots on the riverbank is for sale. The price is $400,000.
The Discovery cruised almost to Douglas Bend, about a half-mile from the Hendersonville city limits before reversing course. One of the historical highlights was Fairvue Plantation, a private residence, that was famous for its race horses before the Civil War.
Almost back to the marina, passengers were treated to a view of McEntire’s riverside mansion (but no Reba sightings). And among the vessels docked at the marina rests Jett Stream, a 1930s’ boat owned by singer Jett Williams, daughter of Hank Williams, that reportedly was used as a backdrop in the classic Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall movie “Key Largo.”
“The ride was real good. I enjoyed seeing the homes,” said Walter Williams, a resident of Blakeford at Green Hills, a Nashville senior living community, who brought his camera and took about 50 pictures of the river, its wildlife and surroundings. “I got the birds, too. I’m anxious to see what they look like.”
As for Capt. Caskey, the Cumberland serves as an escape from the daily routine but it’s more than that.
“I think it’s the peacefulness and the scenery. Every tour is a little bit different because of the people. It goes back to my Opryland days as I enjoy talking to people and cutting up,” said the sailor with a satisfied mind.