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Big South Fork of Cumberland River


Friday, September 19, 2008


Blue Heron to Alum Ford



This was a scouting trip for a group outing that I had planned for the next Saturday.  I had set it up by calling Sheltowee Trace Outfitters after looking over their website (  I’d done a shorter version of this trip last year and had really enjoyed it.  This outfitter runs many other trips around the area for paddling, rafting and tubing among other things.  They’re located out by Cumberland Falls.  I didn’t have navigation charts for this river so I was using the Canoeing and Kayaking Guide ( 


A little background:  at my current level (class I to II whitewater) they run 3 trips in this area.  The southernmost upstream point is called Blue Heron, which is an old mining camp.  The next is Yamacraw (4.8 miles down), followed by Alum Ford (in another 7.4) and finally KY927 (at the end of this road) near Nevelsville (another 11.5).  There were more technical rapids further upstream for the more serious whitewater paddlers.


Today I was to meet the representative from the outfitter at 8AM, which required me to get up at 4:30 to allow for driving time – ouch!  Difficult though this was, it turned out that I would need all this time and more.  The online directions I used were fine up to a point and then were just totally off.  Luckily I had another map and with that and a little luck I made it to the meeting point a tad after 8.  (For anyone coming out I’d just take US27 all the way into the Whitley City area instead of trying to get too fancy.  Watch out for stray dogs, wild turkeys and a possible horse on the roads though – I came perilously close to one grazing right by the side of the road as I drove down KY927.  Sheltowee has a downloadable map of the area on their website.)


One thing about this area is that it’s really remote.   You won’t get phone service out here, so your planning has to be flawless.  This in mind, I must have misunderstood the person I’d talked to the previous day.  I was sure she had said that all the trips meet at the end of KY927 on the east side of the river.  While this did seem strange at the time (because I had started at Alum Ford at the end of KY700 last year), I went on ahead to 927 figuring that things do have a tendency to change… 


Sure enough, however, when I arrived there was a mini-bus with some passengers making another, longer trip, and I was told by the driver that I was in the wrong place.  I should have been at Alum Ford – and there was another driver waiting there just for me!  My heart sank!  I could have gone ahead with the driver here and done a longer trip, but I didn’t want the other person to have made a trip out for nothing.  Would they still be waiting there when I arrived though…?  I was ½ hour away!  The one driver tried to hail the other one via radio, but couldn’t get through (I did mention that the area was remote), so I went ahead and made the trip to Alum Ford.  I figured that if the driver there left, I’d just paddle up the river and back like I’d done on my Green River trip a couple weeks ago.


Well, once having driven to the other spot, there was a really nice girl there who seemed completely unfazed by the fact that I was a little more than ½ hour late!  It was apparently not a problem.  They really are pretty laid back out here!  Anyway, she had a load of canoes on a trailer and these were apparently for a group of 30 people they had who were waiting at the Yamacraw put-in for them.  I again felt badly – I had apparently messed all these people up too!  Your communication with Sheltowee needs to be perfect.  If you have any doubts about the communication you get – any at all – please call ahead of time to make sure you’re going to the right place at the right time.  Ask them to send you a confirming email if you need to.


Anyway, I left my car at Alum Ford where I’d be finishing my trip and we took off for Yamacraw to drop off the boats for the other group (there would be 2 groups along with me on the river today – this one of 30 something and another group of 4 or 5 who had been in the bus down at KY927 when I was there).  Before we left, however, I noticed that there were some trails leading up a hill, and I asked what they were.  I was told that this was part of the Sheltowee Trace, the 100+ mile trail I’ve hiked parts of before.  I knew it went through the Cumberland Falls area, but I hadn’t previously noticed that it touched this point.  I need to do my homework!  There was a primitive campground for the trace just up the hill. 


The drive out to Yamacraw was interesting as the driver and I discussed the outdoors and the opportunities that this outfitter provided for exploring it, and once at Yamacraw the boats were unloaded and the group of 30 took off.   From there we followed the other bus with the 4-5 guys in it out to the ramp at Blue Heron.  Logistically it’s quite confusing!


Y’know what?  This must be my week for scenic railroads because there’s one right at Blue Heron.  On Monday and Wednesday I’d passed another just outside Versailles on my way to accessing the Kentucky River in Tyrone.  The Blue Heron mining camp was apparently a stop on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway ( which offers train rides along with some interactive exhibits. 


I got in my kayak and set off before the other guys since I didn’t have as much gear.  They were doing an overnight trip back down to KY927 (roughly 24 miles or so) and, oddly enough, I wouldn’t end up seeing either them or the other group for the rest of the day.  In fact, I’d see no one else – only the people in cars driving over the 701 bridge at Yamacraw - and I’d see or hear absolutely no sign of civilization after this bridge.  How quiet was it?  It was so quiet that when I stopped paddling I nearly fell asleep a couple times!


As I got started, however, it was immediately apparent just how shallow the water was going to be today.  You’ll put in between 2 shoals on this trip, and I just missed getting stuck immediately - I was just skimming over the rocks for the first mile or so.  The first part (from Blue Heron to Yamacraw) is where you’ll see 4 bridges (or traces of bridges), and also in this section you’ll see the only flat land of the trip on the right bank as you start.  They’d made use of this for the grounds of the scenic railroad.  The first of the bridges appears to connect with this somehow, and the tracks for the train would be with me on the right bank for the first couple miles or so.


It wouldn’t be long (toward the end of the first right curve) before the most significant feature of this river becomes obvious:  massive boulders along the banks – and there appeared to be many different kinds these.  Some were black, some brown; others tan, orange or white and there were many different combinations of these colors as well.  They really add to the already outstanding views out here, and as I continued to paddle on, I was met with another incredible scene each time I rounded a corner.



Another thing about the rocks is that at times you’ll look down an alley of water and wonder if you can actually make it around them.  They seem to come together in the distance, and if you didn’t know better you’d think that they might actually stop your paddling adventure prematurely.  There will also be rock faces visible atop the hills in the distance too, which add to the visual effect - a shock and awe campaign for the senses!





Anyway, after coming through the first “rock corridor” as I’ll call them, there was quite an interesting sight on the right.  It was a little stream coming in, but the water looked like it was running through a mound of orange clay.  I guess we are pretty close to Tennessee!




… and it was soon after this that another odd sight met my eye.  There was an incredibly old bridge column built onto one of the massive boulders on the left side.  This column had really crumbled over time and it looked ancient, yet there it was, still standing!  Another rock I passed near this looked like a giant hamburger!




As I rounded yet another corner I saw a third bridge which looked a lot like the one at Yamacraw to me.  I didn’t think that could be possible - I couldn’t have come this far already, and I was a little disappointed at first that my trip was proceeding so quickly, but I found that this was just another abandoned bridge.  I know this only because I could see quite a bit of vegetation on top of it.  There was also some kind of rock structure on the right of this which might have been about as old as the bridge itself.  It was concreted on top, and I wasn’t quite sure if this might have been some kind of little pier or something?


The bridge at Yamacraw did become visible shortly.  It had been at this spot where I’d first noticed how low the water level was going to be today, and a rock here that I noticed last year helped to put this into perspective.  At that time it had been near the bottom of the most challenging rapid, yet because of the low water today, that rapid now looked really tame.  The rock, nevertheless, did still prove to be a bit of a challenge.  It hangs low over the water, you see, and in trying to keep from going under it last year I had run right into it!  It looks like it could do some damage!




At any rate, this second section from Yamacraw down to my car at Alum Ford would have a lot more little riffle areas, and I’d end up having to get out at most of them.  At first I paddled through some, but there turned out to be so many that I thought I might scratch up my boat a little too much if I continued - I ported from there on out.  El klutz-o slipped and fell the first time escorting his boat through, however, and after that he held onto the boat with both hands for support as he negotiated his way over the rocks!  Thus, I’d say that although this trip is beautiful any time you go, I think it would be best to do in the spring or early summer unless there was a big rainfall.


Anyway, when I did get to these I decided to enjoy them even though I did have to portage them.  I’ve said that when your plans don’t work out, I think it means that the Lord wants to show you something.  Well, I think that something might have been the gentle sounds that the riffles made.  I might not have enjoyed it as much if I’d been paddling down on faster and higher water - I might have just kept going.  This time though, I let that sound soothe me as I took it all in – and nearly fell asleep as I did so!




There were some interesting rock formations in here.   There was one spot where 2 rocks met on the right, and they were kind of jammed together to form a near perfect circle of erosion right between them. 


In another spot there was a wild turkey roaming the bank on the left, and I followed it for a while as it meandered around the downed foliage.  I hadn’t seen as many of these on the Kentucky River as I had last year, so it was nice to spot one again.  In fact, I had scared off some on the roadway driving in, and it was really funny to watch these things run!  I hadn’t meant to scare them, and I naturally slowed down to let them pass, but it was funny!




There was one really good point of moving water which was fun and which nearly got me soaked.  On it there was a rock angling down so it got your boat to really slope downwards.  As it did, and you reach the end of this rock slope, the water will come up over your boat in one big wave as you negotiate it.  This one was fun!  I should mention too, that on this section of the river there are plenty of shoals and other places where you can stop and rest or even camp, and all of this helps to make this area really popular - there are just so many different trips of varying lengths that allow for camping.




You’ll see the “ramp” for Alum Ford after a last right curve.  I use the term “ramp” loosely because I don’t think you’d want to bring a power boat down here!  Not only is the water level too low, but the ramp has about a 2 foot drop-off to the water - you’re apt to go right over!  I don’t know if part of it has just broken off, or if it’s so old that the water has eroded the riverbed lower.


I completed my day by paddling just past the ramp to get a look around the last river curve and then, with my car waiting at the top of the ramp for me like a faithful servant, I got my boat and gear up I headed home for a good nights sleep!





To Alum Ford:  US27 to KY700.  Go west until you can’t go west any more!


Sheltowee Trace Outfitters has directions to the other sites when you schedule your trip.