A few hundred yards from Ross’s Landing, where nearly 3,000 Cherokee Indians were loaded onto ships and taken west by steamships 177 years ago, Dale Stewart crawled into his kayak on Monday afternoon.
Stewart, an adventurer and survival educator from just outside Asheville, N.C., will attempt, over the next two months, to follow the route those Cherokee struggled through as a part of the Trail of Tears water route on their way to Oklahoma.
After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, four detachments of Cherokees left from near Ross’s Landing, named for Chief John Ross, who established a trading post on the Chattanooga bank in the early 19th century. Ross and his family were a part of the final group to leave in June of 1838, and his wife died just outside of Little Rock, Ark., on the journey.
The route taken by Ross and others, which Stewart will follow, winds south to Muscle Shoals, Ala. along the Tennessee River, then north on the Ohio River and back down the Mississippi. He’ll eventually head west on the Arkansas River, with his final destination set for Fort Smith, Ark.
Stewart will be aided by thousands of dollars of gear, generous hosts along the way and plenty of places to refuel with water and food, but the goal is as much awareness as adventure.
“I wanted to do something with the Cherokee, with the Indians,” Stewart said. “I started looking, started doing some research at the Cherokee museum and ran across the water route. … I found out it had never been done. … I’ve been planning and everything now for almost a year.”
He’ll raise money for a children’s home in the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, N.C. and has scheduled stops in multiple cities along the way where he'll give talks about what he's doing and why.
During his travels, Stewart has spent time living with indigenous people on six different continents. He’s recently returned from a trip to Belize, where he was attempting to uncover truths about Dec. 21, 2012 end-of-the-world predictions.
“The Mayans think it’s a great way to get tourists down there,” he said with a dismissive laugh.
It’s the knowledge, and the survival aspects, of these different cultures that draw him into more exploring.
During this trip, which has a roughly estimated end date of Aug. 20, he’ll camp along riverbanks, sometimes in private owners' land, sometimes in rural areas or near marinas and small towns. He’s also loaded with solar-powered chargers, cameras and GPS “spot” technology that will allow him to blog and update followers of his website on his up-to-date location.
More than anything, though, he’ll be alone.
“I know I can paddle it, I know I can do that,” Stewart said. “I know how to read the rivers, I’m confident with my ability on the river. It’s the mental fatigue that you get into after a while.”
“It gets back to the survival and what I teach in survival techniques—it’s really the mental aspect. You can have the greatest gear in the world, which I have. You can have the greatest training, but at some point, it comes down to the decisions you make along the way.”
This trek isn’t expected to strain physical boundaries of endurance or stretch the limits of what water travelers have accomplished before—Stewart himself has already floated the entire length of the Mississippi.
It will provide awareness and add another level to his knowledge and training in various survival techniques.
“I have always been fascinated by the fact that most indigenous tribes, including the Native Americans, are survivors,” Stewart said. “If you look at the Cherokee, on the Trail of Tears and on the water route, they were realists. They said, this is what happened, we’ve been removed from our homeland and planted in Oklahoma. But they immediately started building schools and started rebuilding their lives. I think that survival mindset—I’ve always had a link to with them.”
Stewart floated downstream Monday afternoon, Coolidge Park on his right and the original Ross’s landing on his left. The bridges, the remnants of the Riverbend festival and all the gear saddled inside his boat left an unavoidable sense of irony compared to what the Native Aamericans endured 177 years ago.
Replication isn't Stewart’s point, though. He’ll raise awareness, raise money for a current band of Cherokee children who need a home, and come away with a memorable story.
“I’ve done expeditions all over the world and I really do expeditions for knowledge, both for myself and to tell the story,” Stewart said. “A lot of people know about the Trail of Tears, nobody knew about the water route.”