In mid-May, a group of 16 Villagers straddled their jet skis to enjoy the first day of riding on the lake for the summer.
Now, at the peak of boating season, the Tellico Village River Chicks are continuing their wave-riding voyages across Fort Loudoun Lake and beyond.
Tellico Village’s convenient location alongside the lake allows for Villagers to partake in many water hobbies, as was the case for the founding members of the River Chicks, Jeanette Steele and Laurie Hart.
“The two of us were riding, and a few other women wanted to ride,” Hart said. “We were going to go out and word of mouth just kind of got around that, ‘Oh, we’d like to ride with you, and we’d like to do this. That sounds fun.’ We started off with about six or eight women. We would ride somewhere and go to lunch, and maybe ride some more and just exploring.”
Kathy Economy, one of the first women that joined the River Chicks, believed the commute via jet ski only seemed natural in the Village.
“I used to tell people, ‘This is how we do lunch in Tellico’,” Economy said with a laugh.
What started as a fun way to drive to a lunch get-together ended up as a way to venture beyond the Tellico Village area as more new members, or “chickies,” joined.
“When we started off, we were just on the Tellico Lake, and eventually, we decided we wanted to go up to Lakeside Tavern, so we went up to Fort Loudoun, and we found a few other places up there,” Hart said. “That’s just kind of how it started, with a few of us riding.”
More than 50 women are now part of the River Chicks, but typically only 20 women ride in a group broken up into sects. Economy has noticed the fleet of women has gained a reputation on the water since its creation in 2012.
“We do get a lot of attention. ... We are funny looking,” Economy said. “When you see 18 or 20 jet skis trying to tie up, sometimes two or three deep, and everybody’s yelling and screaming at each other … this kid was just smirking to beat the band, and I wanted him to know that we are the Tellico River Chicks. I was so impressed that he said, ‘I know, I’ve seen you before’.”
The River Chicks often venture beyond Tellico Village borders. Hart recalls a time when the group encountered a bear swimming near the jet skis.
“We went up (to Chilhowee Dam) one time, and there was a bear swimming in the water,” Hart said. “I was so excited, I was leading the pack. A friend of mine, she got the picture of the bear swimming. He was like, ‘All these crazy women are coming at me. I got to get out of here’.”
The River Chicks also get creative with their riding time. On July 26, members will have a poker run where groups of jet skis will dart across the lake to various checkpoints in hopes of drawing cards that will land them the best hand by the end of the run.
The long rides down river give the Chicks a new perspective of the Village and the communities surrounding it, but it also allows members to gain more experience managing a jet ski, which seemed impossible at first for some.
“For a lot of women, they have found out that they can actually do things on a jet ski,” Hart said. “They don’t need their husbands to do it, which for some of them, they went and rode on the boat, and they would maybe grab the boat to tie it off, but they’ve never driven a boat before by themselves. There are some that have had to ride with another woman first and get comfortable enough to ride by themselves. I think it gives them confidence that you can do this. There are some women who have kind of felt like, ‘Oh, this is not a woman’s thing.’ I often say there’s nothing like 60, 70 and I think there’s an 80-year-old woman flying down the river on jet skis. ... Some women, once they’ve taken the jet ski out on their own, have taken the boat out on their own.”
When summer comes to a close and the River Chicks’ jet skis are winterized, the group tries to stay connected in the off-season. Most attend the annual Christmas party to catch up since the last journey across Fort Loudoun, and many are involved in other clubs together. The Chicks’ immersion in the area has led to attention from other Villagers, and the riding club has steadily grown.
“Every year, somebody says, ‘Oh, I’ve heard about you guys. Can I join the River Chicks?’” Economy said. “You just need to have a jet ski available. It’s growing.”