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Pro kayaker leads Nolichucky River cleanup

Professional kayaker Dane Jackson is pictured pulling a tire out of the river, a common item the volunteers found, along with old railroad equipment, glass, metal and fishing duckies. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Professional freestyle kayaker Dane Jackson returned to Tennessee to lead a river cleanup event in the Nolichucky Gorge on May 25-26.

The 24-year-old was born in Washington D.C., but has called Tennessee home since 2002, and has dominated the kayaking sport by earning over 80 first-place finishes including the Whitewater Grand Prix, ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships and Green Race River Narrows Race in North Carolina.

“I started kayaking when I was two and I really started to kayak a lot more when I was 8 or 9 years old,” said Jackson, whose father Eric Jackson is also a professional kayaker and founder of Jackson Kayaks. “It always seemed like what I wanted to do and over the years it eventually turned into my full-time job, sport and what I do now.”

Jackson shared enthusiasm for the sport, which he said has given him the opportunity to travel all over the world and explore hundreds of different rivers.

“I’ve been to almost every state in the United States,” he said. “I spend about 10 months out of the year traveling in an RV. If I’m not in an RV, I’m generally flying somewhere overseas.”

Uganda, South Africa, Mexico, Canada and Switzerland are just a handful of the countries Jackson has traveled to and kayaked in as he experienced both beautiful waterfalls and dangerous rapids.

“I’ve gotten to see some amazing places in the world,” said Jackson. “Everywhere is different and anytime I get to travel it’s just a great experience,”

Last year, Jackson paid his good fortune forward by organizing a large river cleanup of the Nolichucky River, which runs through Unicoi County, in an attempt to mitigate the unfortunate litter and harmful materials that all too often end up tainting the waterways.

“We really wanted to put on a proper river cleanup,” Jackson explained. “There are community and river clubs that do this once a year, but last year we wanted to bring some light into how dirty these rivers really are.”

Following the success of last year’s event, Jackson returned to the Nolichucky for another cleanup event; he was joined by SA Raft, the Dirt Bag Paddlers, the Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts and several local paddlers and volunteers.

“We had about 20 people both days, which was a big help,” he said. “For the most part, there were hundreds of tires in the river and some are super hard to get out because they are covered in mud and dirt.”

Along with the countless numbers of tires that end up in the river, Jackson said they also encountered railroad equipment, pieces of metal, glass and fishing duckies.

“The Nolichucky River in Tennessee is one of the more popular rivers for rafters and local kayakers, unfortunately between the railroad tracks and roads that run along it a lot of trash is thrown into the river,” he said.

After completing river cleanups such as these, Jackson said it is extremely important to expound upon the dangers of throwing trash or debris into rivers and the far-reaching impact it has on both humans and the entire ecosystem.

“More than anything, it can hurt everything in the ecosystem by killing wildlife, and also deterring tourism,” said Jackson. “With glass in the river people can also cut themselves and metal rebar can be a danger to kayakers. As kayakers, trash in the river is not something we want to see.”

On the Sunday following the cleanup event, Jackson, along with the two kayaking clubs – the Dirt Bag Paddlers and the Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts – enjoyed a day kayaking on the waters that they spent many hours returning to a healthier state.

“The Nolichucky River is one of the prettier gorges in Tennessee with really nice white waters,” he said. “The water is warm and it’s a great community with kayakers and rafters.”

Jackson said he, like other kayakers, partake in the sport simply because they love what they do. He looks forward to leading more cleanup events in the future.

“I hope the Nolichucky is a good starting point to start doing more cleanups around the country,” he said. “For me, kayaking isn’t a very largely known sport and you’re not in it for the fortune and fame. You’re in it because you love it. The people that are in it full-time are in it because they truly love what they do.”