A Jumping Rock, a Drunk and a Red River Gorge: Canoeing Kentucky

DSC_0407I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks. — Daniel Boone

(State #26/50) The Red River was yellow — a muddy tan to be precise. It reminded me of that scene in the critically acclaimed Kevin Costner movie, “Waterworld,” where they buried their dead in this thick yellow, bubbling clay. On days which don’t follow rain, it’s reported to be green and sort of clear. But on this Friday, much of the sandstone that forms the gorge was traveling downstream, past the large moss covered boulders and piled up tree limbs and logs, protruding from the turbid river. Kentucky, I declared, would not be a state where I’d take a river bath.

DSC_0004I launched below an old concrete bridge. In mid-June, summer was in full effect and the sun bore down through the slot of the gorge and leaning sycamore trees. There weren’t rapids per say, but where the river did flow and run down shoots, I couldn’t see the rocks and careened the bow against several hiding stones. If only by tiny increments, Rider becomes lighter in every state as I deposit more of her green paint upon craggy rocks and sneaky logs.

DSC_0021I paddled the cloudy waters through pools and around imposing boulders — chunks of sedimentary stone, once belonging to the high cliffs on the plateau above and now fallen to the sides of the river, where they will remain for eons as the Red River carries them away, grain by grain.

Song birds darted through the high deciduous forest and chattering Kingfishers dove and flew back to their perches. Moisture, still evaporating from the trees, logs and sand, hung thick in the air, creating a white haze in the space above the river. The air smelled sweet and I heard the ominous drone of hundreds of bees as I drifted below a flowering tree. Directly above, white clouds grew, expanding from unseen bases at a rate you only see in summer, like a time lapse film. DSC_0066 (1)

I pulled over and lazed about on a sandbank until I heard voices up river. I jumped in my boat and saw half of a red canoe as I rounded a bend. Not wanting to get caught in an awkward leap frog situation, I paddled with intent. Five minutes later, as I was about to turn another bend, I caught one last glimpse of the boat. Voices carried 1000 feet over the water. “They got a motor on that thing?” a man asked, adding to my hubris.

When I had reached the halfway point, I told myself I’ll start looking for a spot in 20 minutes. Then I rounded another bend and reached a true Red River destination — a large rock people jump off, which the locals dubbed, in a frenzy of cleverness, ‘Jumping Rock.’ I watched folks scramble up the back and leap the fifteen feet into the muddy playground-puddle colored water. I stopped at a gravel bar to take pictures, socialize and open a sanctioned non-alcoholic libation.


A jumper on Jumping Rock

There, I met a group from Lexington smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Their names were Travis, Alicia and Joe. “Are you going to jump?” They asked. “Oh no, I don’t think so, the water is too murky and I can’t see what’s below.” I responded. “Come on! You’re going to pass Jumping Rock without jumping?” Travis said. “I’ll even go first!” Alicia offered. “Oh hell, alright, let’s do it,” I said, proving peer pressure remains an effective tool against the little good sense I possess.

Travis and Alicia climbed up and I followed. Wasting no time, Travis flew out over the water and disappeared into the yellow. He popped up, alive and uninjured. Alicia followed. I focused on the same spot and made the jump. The water felt good and it was, to my relief, all I landed on. I swam back to the gravel bar where two more guys had joined. One was enormously drunk with nothing behind his eyes. The dead-eyed dullard picked up a rock, which I assumed he was going to skip. Instead, with something close to anger, he heaved it at Jumping Rock. The stone smacked the side and ricocheted into the river. Well okay… I thought, I best be hitting the river. The cognitively disabled man asked me if I had a joint as I walked to my canoe. I apologized that I was not holding. “Don’t ask people that, what is wrong with you?” his friend scolded. Back in the canoe, I waved goodbye to the Lexington party. “This is why I don’t bring you places…” I heard the friend say as I paddled out of earshot.

DSC_0053 (2)I checked my clock: 8:40. Had I really been there 45 minutes? With daylight fleeting, I found a decent spot, but thought, I can do better than this. As it turns out, I couldn’t…

Here’s the evening I had envisioned: Find a quiet, pretty spot with ample firewood, a good high tent spot and a view of some bluffs. Put up the tent, gather wood, have a beer and prepare a fresh-vegetable pasta by the campfire as the fireflies appeared against the opposing shore.

Well, here’s what actually happened: I pulled over at a potential site with a suitable canoe landing, but the bank above revealed chest-high stinging nettle and poison ivy. On the way down, I slipped and busted ass on the muddy slope. At nine o’clock I checked another option only to find a house. I floated on as the fireflies told me nightfall was eminent. Then, I reached that magic point in dusk where light evaporates by the second. My search parameters had devolved from finding a great spot, to an okay spot to any patch of land I could put a tent. Around 9:30 I found just that — a patch of semi-cleared ground not quite big enough for my tent, a foot from the dirt bank.


Poison Ivy galore!

Cursing myself, I drug the canoe up the steep bank. I pulled out a flashlight and, with great dismay, shone it upon an extensive grove of poison ivy, which even incased the tent space. There was no downed wood and I wasn’t about to venture out into the leaves-of-three patch. What’s more, the blacktop road was twenty feet above me. If someone had a bit too many Natural Lights, their car could easily wind up in the elms above my camp. Alas, there would be no fire, no pasta and no peaceful night in Kentucky. And I wasn’t a victim of circumstance, I was a victim of my river cockiness. I grabbed a breakfast bar and a can of cream of mushroom soup. I ate both cold in my tent as vehicles rushed by, flooding the canopy above with their headlights.

DSC_0096“Don’t worry campsite, it’s not your fault you’re not a campsite,” I said as I paddled away the next morning. The steel bridge, my take-out point, was only a half mile downstream. And the term take-out point applies about as well as calling the place where I slept a campsite. I lugged my gear up a steep muddy slope. I pounded my bare-foot heel into the bank to create little steps. It didn’t matter, I still fell in the bushes and stinging nettle as I inched the canoe up the bank.

DSC_0104 (1)Right as I reached the road, dragging the canoe, a blue convertible Bug passed. I must have looked a sight as the driver pulled a U-turn. I explained what I was up to. “How are you getting back?” they asked. Smiling, I held my thumb out to my side. “You want a ride?” they asked. “Sure, that’d be great.” I locked up my canoe, jumped in the front seat and introduced myself to Joe and Debbie. They were down from Cincinnati for the weekend. One of their dogs was a medium sized mutt and one was “The Beast” from “The Sandlot.” It barked at me — a deep and frightening bark — as I sat down in the front. Worried it might actually bite my head off, I tried to not spook the creature. A moment later I felt it’s large, warm, moist muzzle press against my neck. After a few good sniffs, Hannah the dog decided I wasn’t worth eating. With two kind strangers and two dogs, I rode back up the Red River Gorge with the wind in my face.

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • Red River, Kentucky
  • Weather: Hot, humid, partly cloudy and well into the 90’s
  • Miles canoed: 9
  • Launch Point: Concrete Bridge (37.819714, -083.575106)
  • Campsite: Poison Ivy Haven, quarter mile up from the Steel Bridge (37.834176,-083.654065)
  • Takeout Point: Steel Bridge (37.833668, -083.660395) *Not a Takeout, The campground/outfitter upstream a mile is the best place to take out.
  • Song Sung on River: Hard Knock Life by Jay-Z, Blackwater by Mofro and Fire and Rain by James Taylor
  • Thanks to the all friendly staff at Gladie Visitor Center (Education Center) in Red River Gorge. Thanks to Travis, Alicia and Joe for being friendly, welcoming and egging me on to jump. Finally, a huge thanks to Joe and Debbie for the ride (out of their way) back to my car. Thank you to their huge dog Hannah, for not biting my head off.
  • Cool Local Bar: Sky Bridge Station. Had a nice local brew on the porch with a few fellow travelers and then listened to a young kid (that played and sang beyond her years) play old country and bluegrass songs.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Belted Kingfisher, vulture, crow, great blue heron, mourning doves, song birds
  • Mammals: White tail deer (heard, but didn’t see beaver slapping the water)
  • Reptiles: one small turtle head
  • Noted Species: Northern Red Salamander, Peregrine Falcon. 3 endangered bats, (Indiana bat, Virginia Big Eared, Gray Bat), which have all been hit by white nose fungus in Daniel Boone National Forest. Yellow Haired Golden Rod (an endemic flower that only lives in rock shelters within the Red River Gorge)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Sycamores, American Elm, Rhododendron
  • Ecoregion: Western Allegheny Plateau, (70g) Northern Forested Plateau Escarpment
  • Current Threats: e.coli runs in from a certain creek.
  • Trash collected: 2 Walmart bags filled with plastic bottles, beer cans, sunny d bottle, glass liquor bottles, motor oil jug, styrofoam cup and kids’ sandals (also snagged 2 life preserves and gave them back to the local outfitter).
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2191 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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