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2008 Kentucky River Kayak Trek


Monday, July 14, 2008


North Fork



Today was the day!  I tried last year to paddle the entire length of the Kentucky River but the trip ended at dam 9 with a string of bad luck so incredible that it convinced me the trip was not meant to be. 


What happened, you ask?  Well, I shudder at the memories, so please don’t ask me how these things happened, but here goes:  Within a 3 week period my computer crashed - everything lost, my cell phone fell in water – destroyed, I somehow managed to erase my I-pod, and my kayak was crushed – yes, crushed.  I was clearly NOT meant to continue.


As I think back, they were doing some work on dam 9 at the time and maybe something would have happened to me had I kept going - who knows?  Today, however, I began the trip anew by exploring the North Fork of the Kentucky River above Beattyville.


I actually plan to use the same kayak for this trip, believe it or not.  I can’t afford another kayak amid the financial mess that I and the rest of the country are in, so to mend it, I first burned the ends of the cracks so they wouldn’t get worse.  I then put on plastic glue, super glue and, finally, I duct taped (yes, duct taped!) the cracks from the inside.  I’m hoping it’ll hold – it has to.  I’ve tested it a couple times and it’s been OK.


Anyway, as I did last year, I plan to navigate this river in circuit routes.  Technically a river, the Kentucky more closely resembles a series of calm lakes separated by 14 lock and dams (most of which are no longer in operation).  You have to be careful around the dams, obviously, but otherwise the water is very peaceful at most times.  You can go out and paddle circle routes until your heart’s content.


What I’ll do is go out to a certain point, kayak a circuit and then head back home.  Then, after a day of rest I’ll go back to a point just downriver from the place where I finished the previous stint and start another circuit – depending on the weather.  I’ll go all the way down the river in this way in sequence starting with the forks in Beattyville, Kentucky and conclude in Carrolton where the Kentucky River meets the Ohio.  That’s the plan, anyway.  As I learned last year I’ll need more than a plan to do this.  I’ll need a little luck too!


Now I know what some may be saying:  “Do the whole river in one continuous trip, you pansy!”  That’s fine, but doing it the way I plan to has some advantages.  One, I’ll be able recharge batteries:  my camera, my phone, and my own!  Two, I’ll be able to write these journals while the experience of the previous day is still fresh on my mind.  Three, I won’t have to rely on anyone else to shuttle me around and, finally, I won’t have to worry about camping out along the way.  I don’t mind camping, but I’ll be going solo (which I can’t recommend, by the way) and that would raise some safety concerns.  I also don’t want to camp on someone’s land who doesn’t want me there and I don’t want to come upon any booby-trapped drug caches - I’ve heard that can happen.


On a lighter note, I experienced what could have been a good omen in regard to this trip when I read the paper this morning.  There was an excellent article about how Frankfort is re-embracing their portion of the Kentucky riverfront.  This would be great!  The river offers so much opportunity for recreation and the areas between the lock and dams are great for flat water paddling.


Anyway, after having geared up I headed out and, as I passed through the Natural Bridge area (a fantastic place for hiking, among many other things, I came upon a disappointing sight. Red River Outdoors, a recreation outfitter for paddling as well as for other outdoor sports, had their business burn down last year.  I felt quite badly for them!  I’d never had the opportunity to take a trip with them but I certainly would have liked to and I wished them all the best.  I hope they’re able to come back.


Once in Beattyville I got on the water a little after 11:30 from their boat ramp (directions below).  I refer to this ramp as the “Mother Goose” Ramp because last year there was a large white goose hanging out there every time I went.  This year the goose was gone but there were a couple ducks there. 


The goose had been rather standoffish but the ducks gave me plenty of room.  In fact, there’s enough space at this well maintained ramp to enable you to take your time getting all your gear together and your boat ready.  It’s also got a large parking lot which is behind what appears to be an apartment complex for seniors. 


My plan for the next 3 days was to go up each of the 3 forks as far as was reasonable in one day and then head down the main river after that.  On this day I’d navigate the North Fork.  The put-in I used was at a point just below where the North and Middle Forks have already converged.  The South Fork comes in further down.  Thus, what I actually planned to do was to paddle up the converged North/Middle Kentucky River and when I got to the point where they met I’d head directly up the North Fork.  It’s a bit confusing.


Looking across the water (on the right as I got on the river and headed up) the bank was tree lined and just behind the trees KY52 meandered along with the river for a while.  You’ll hear cars going over the bridge for this road as it crosses the river a little further down, and as you paddle you’ll begin to cross under several aerial power crossings.  Soon a railroad track will become evident on the left side when the apartments grounds end. 


At mile 1 (upriver mile 1 – the miles will count down once the forks have all converged further down) on the Kentucky River Navigation Charts I’m using (a great resource available from the Kentucky River Authority the Brain Creek comes in on the right.  It looked dry as it entered over a shoal.  On the opposite side was the Beattyville municipal water intake.  There wasn’t much activity here at all but you will hear the hum of machinery.


It was at about this point that I encountered some bugs that I hadn’t seen but a couple times since moving to the area from Cleveland, Ohio a few years ago.  We called them midges.  When I lived on the Lake Erie shoreline in downtown Cleveland these bugs would be everywhere at certain times of the year.  They’d be out in the thousands (if not millions) and cover the buildings, yet they only seemed to live for a couple days before dying and falling to the ground.  They’d come in waves too, so the city would seem to be overrun with them (as a plague) for weeks on end.  Maybe they’re starting to migrate further south…


There are 2 little branches that come in on the left just after mile 2.  One of them is Puncheon Branch but I couldn’t really tell which one.  They were both about equal in size – roughly a foot or two – but certainly not paddle-able. 


Near mile 3 things got interesting.  Just after a boat ramp on the right (not sure if it’s public or not) there’s a large cliff which has been cut through apparently to make room for KY52.  It’s a pretty impressive sight.




After this the river veers sharply left and, as it does so, it leaves KY52 behind and goes straight under a railroad bridge.  This bridge is for the railroad track on the left which has been following the river as I’ve been paddling.  I lucked out last year and was able to snap a shot of a train going over the bridge. 


After this point, both road and railroad are behind you and you’re left in a more remote area with farmland on both sides.  It’s just before mile 4 that the Middle and North Forks branch off.  The North Fork looked a bit larger and I wondered if I’d be able to go further up this fork than I did last year – a year of drought in the state. 


As you paddle up the North Fork, the farmlands gradually give way to forested hills and in spots you’ll see rocky cliffs back through the trees.  I wondered if there were any caves to explore? 


When you get to mile 5.5 the Hell Creek enters the river on the left.  Unfortunately the pictures I took last year are unrecoverable (computer crash) so I’m not able to compare the creek levels as I’d like to; but I don’t recall paddling into this creek back then. 


I got into it about 20 yards or so today before I hit a deadfall.  I was, however, able to check out what appears to have been some old wooden bridge supports.  These form a kind of stair step pattern from one bank of the creek to the other.  The distance isn’t very long – rough guess of 15 yards, but judging from how old these are they’ve help up pretty well.  This must have been a nice little bridge at one point. 


Speaking of old bridges, there’s a really nice looking old stone support for one visible on the left just after mile 6.  This bridge must have been much more substantial than the one in Hell Creek though, as it looks to have stretched all the way across the river.  They weren’t as visible this year, but I know that further back on right bank there are at least 2 more of these columns.  Walker Creek also comes in here on the left, and I could’ve paddled into it if it hadn’t been clogged with debris right at the entrance.




Rounding a curve right, the Lee County Highway Bridge for Fincastle Road comes into view, and just after you cross under it the community of Airedale is also partly visible on the left.  Something like Kudzu vines have really taken over on the left bank before the bridge. 


After crossing under it, the left bank turns to farmland and a dirt and rock ramp comes down to the river on the right.  I guessed that this was one of the put-in points in the Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to Kentucky (, a great book that every paddler in the state should own.  Some paddlers, in fact, may have it memorized it’s such a key resource!


The Log Shoal Branch comes in between mile 7 and 8 on the right and the Laurel Branch comes in just after this at about mile 8 on the right.  The latter had a large shoal which stretched most of the way across the river, creating some minor rapids on the left.  It was at this point that I ended my North Fork trip last year. 


Today I didn’t feel like carrying my boat and gear around, so I decided to try something different since the portage was not going to be that long.  What I did was this:  I unhooked that paddle leash from everything but the paddle and attached the other end to the front handgrip for the boat.  This, I thought, would be sturdier than the deck webbing.  I then held the paddle in one hand and extended the other arm all the way out as I trailed the boat along the water behind me.  At the same time, I made sure I minded my footing while I tried to keep the boat in the highest point of water possible so it would be easier to pull.  This worked out pretty well and, once on the other side, I simply replaced the leash the way I had it before and I was off again.


It would all be new to me from here on out.  Talk about remote though!  I was hoping to paddle at least until I reached another recognizable landmark or boat ramp.  I hadn’t brought it with me like I should have, but I was sure I’d come to the next ramp indicated in the aforementioned kayaking guide…


I never did!  I must have gone 10 miles upriver from the point where I passed the North/Middle Fork converge and I didn’t see another ramp besides the one I had passed back at Airedale.  It was only when I got home and looked at the guide that I realized I’d have had to paddle at least another 20 miles before coming to one!


I ported over 2 more large shoals and when I got to a more substantial island-like land mass I finally had to admit to myself that I needed to get back.  The area I stopped in was really quiet, and there were several large boulders in the water along with some rocky cliff spots in places.  Believe it or not, I actually saw an oil well through one of the clearings too!  Regardless, if you want peace, quiet and privacy you can most likely find it back here.


There was one creek that came in after one of the shoals on the left that looked large enough to navigate back into, but it was blocked by a multicolored line of what looked something like drainage pipe.  There was a little boat back in it.  Not a problem though - it didn’t look like I could have gotten very far anyway.


It was about 4:30 when I headed back and when I did so I enjoyed the little rapids around the shoals.  They allowed me to make up a little time because I guessed that I’d be back after dark – around 9:30 (turns out I somehow got back by 8:30).   I just lazily floated in some spots in order to get a chance to take in whole feel of this area.  It’s so quiet that sometimes you don’t even hear the birds - just the wind through the trees.  


I was startled to see a deer on the bank at one point.  It just stood very still and stared at me, although it did run off after I had taken its picture.  I thought to myself:  “Hey there!  No need to run.  I’m just passing through!”




At this point I’d like to note a couple more things about bugs.  There are 2 kinds that seem to either glide or jump on the water.  One looks like a little beetle - just a bit smaller than a ladybug.   These seem to glide on the water and when you come up on them they scatter very quickly in myriad directions in a zigzag pattern.  The effect is like that of a kaleidoscope - very cool.  [6/3/2010 Update - I just found out the name of these!  They're called Whirligig Beetles!  I discovered this while reading the book:  Passages of a Stream - A Chronicle of the Meramac by James P. Jackson.  Thank you!]


The second kind appears to be spider-like and these tiny insects (or arachnids) seem to jump across the water.  When you see them moving around on the surface in the distance the effect is like that of glitter or sparkle on the water.  Say what you will about bugs, but they sure do some interesting things!


After passing the convergence of the forks on the way back I began to see my first power boats of the day and several people fishing onshore soon after that.  There were quite a few vehicles with trailers in the parking lot upon my return to the car as well.  They’d scared off the ducks.  I’ll try to see how much of the Middle Fork I can cover on the next trip.




At the junction of KY11 and KY52 in Beattyville turn East on East Main Street.  Go to the second street (the aptly named Water Street) and take a right.  This street dead ends at the boat ramp.  There’s plenty of room for many vehicles and there’s no cost to use the ramp.