Aug 242011

A paddle through Capitol City

By Danny Mayer

Photo by Troy Lyle

Oil Can and the other vessels.

“In the summer, I bathe about every two weeks. Otherwise, I just braid my hair and go go go.”

I have arrived with Josh, my partner in canoe, to a small towhead on the Kentucky River in Frankfort. Only a straight-away into our 9-bend, 2 night, 20 mile voyage through the state’s capital, down lock #4 and on to Elkhorn Creek, and we are already bringing up the rear. Our vessel, a green 17 foot Coleman canoe nicknamed “Oil Can” that I purchased off eBay upon my 2000 arrival to the Commonwealth, plies the slackwater of Kentucky like a pointy tipped log. We are no match for the much faster fleet of one-man vessels operated by the rest of our party. In 15 miles time, a distance that will include an overnight camp-out in a soybean field, we will operate Oil Can with the efficiency and tracked gait of a steam engine while chasing mid-day shade along the riverbanks. But not right now. Right now, Josh and I paddle irregularly and out of sync, my captain’s seat squeaking arrhythmically at each downstroke and the boat rolling haphazardly from starboard to port. We are more interested in drinking beer, talking rivers and waving to the locals than in coordinating strokes, and have subsequently fallen well behind the rest of our six man party.

At the towhead we are all reunited. After pulling off a well-executed turn to starboard around a long-dead tree partially submerged in the muck, Josh and I beach our boat next to the others. Geographically speaking, we are in northeast South Frankfort on an inside finger-bend in the river not 10 blocks down current from the current capital building, somewhere between St. John Court and River Street, though both streets and capital are invisible to us now down on the water. On the bar standing, Wes finishes his summer bathing statement with a reach behind his back and quick evidentiary tug of his dirty blond braid before crushing the rest of his Stella pounder.

It is high summer. The gin flows fast and cold. Stone is already well into his first of five bags of jerky, and soon I will be joining Troy and Lyle in the still green waters of the Kentucky for my first of many swims.

Skipping bricks

A quick reconnoiter of our stop reveals the towhead to be a relatively recent creation. The dry creek bed creating the small rock/sand beach proves to be a concrete culvert designed to funnel storm water and other items to the river from the neighborhood homes sitting invisible to us 60 feet up the bank. Ten feet above our position, it empties into a small landing scoured flat by the river. What we initially took as cascading rock deposits, upon closer inspection, are in fact chunks of concrete weathered away from the culvert, rough cuts of asphalt that appear as riverine coal deposits, and bricks in various states of disrepair. “I’d guess these date to the Happy era,” Wes opines, referring to former Kentucky Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler, “maybe 60 years old.”

The modern geologic formations scattered around us are not the only rip-rap to be found. Shards of broken glass, twisted lengths of metal fencing, a rotting tire and hub caps, and a rusted bike carcass all wait for the next river rise to carry them away. Wes, a native of High Bridge upriver on the Kentucky, sifts confidently through the debris before finding, half-buried in sand and Mountain Dew bottles, a thin tinny plate in need of a shine. “The river giveth, and the river taketh away,” he says to nobody in particular. “I think I’ll take this away.”

We pass around a large squeeze bottle filled with a cold gin concoction, a send-off gift made the night before by Severn, one of several expeditionary land operatives under our employ, and generally toast our good fortunes at having completed our first mile on the river. Earlier, while waiting at Lee’s Boat Ramp for Josh and I to return from our shuttle and mark the formal beginning of our paddle, my comrades had been overcome with the bottle fever and nearly polished off half Severn’s gift. Now, an hour later sitting beneath the culvert, Josh and I get to relieve some of our own pent up bottle fever. We drink deeply, a Hendricks gin and tonic, chilled, the very essence of aquatic summer refreshment.

Nobody has any interest in leaving, our trip is only just beginning, and so a rousing game of brick and asphalt skipping ensues. After some minutes of observation, I, too, grab a brick, give it a heave and watch expectantly as the red slab hits the water and promptly disappears into the Kentucky fifteen feet from where I stand. Satisfied, I grab an OK beer, receive in turn my pulls from Sev’s bottle, and return to being an enthusiastic spectator, cheering all bricks’ sixth, seventh and eighth skips.

A pleasant summer squall and a finished bottle of gin and tonic breaks up the skipping contest. Surveying our options, we go with ‘stay put.’ A new chilled squeeze bottle, this concoction a three-gin meritage requisitioned from the company stocks and served with a lemon wedge, begins making the rounds.

Josh, my faithful canoe mate, has spent much of his life around this area. His home in Monterey is twenty miles down river from here, and as a spry teen he has cavorted much throughout the state’s capitol city. We weather the storm and pepper him with questions. “What’s the Monterey lock like?” “How far up Cedar Creek is it paddle-able?” “Is there any decent place to drink in Frankfort?” “What do you know about Crawfish Bottom?” And finally, from Wes, “Where’s Daniel Boone’s grave in relation to where we’re at?”

Looking up, Josh gestures across the river to a point high up on the bluffs. “It’s right there, Frankfort Cemetery.” We follow his eyes to a spot several hundred feet above us and nod approvingly. Situated atop a quintessential Kentucky river bend, the plot commands an impressive view of the river as it slices Frankfort in half. Not a bad place for a colonial explorer to rest for eternity. Look right, downriver, and survey the river’s past: old Frankfort, Crawfish Bottoms and Lee’s Ferry. Look left, upriver, and behold its future, South Frankfort and the Beaux Arts style state capital building.

Dan’l Boone: hero king pioneer land speculator

High, high, yes when I die

There’s untold millions standing next in line.

—“Up on Chenoca,” Wes Houp

Truth be told, I say, I am surprised to find Boone’s grave overlooking Frankfort. He doubtless passed this stretch of the Kentucky many times over the course of his 25 years wandering and purchasing and hunting this state. But his Kentucky River-bred fame, as captured in John Filson’s 1784 The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, mostly occurred over a hundred miles up the river, east of Lexington at Boonesborough (one of the first settlements in the state and one of the earliest west of the Appalachians) and, further upriver, in the mountains at Station Camp in Estill County, the 1769 outpost used during his first trip to the area.

As a young many in his thirties, Boone settled throughout the Fayette crescent, a roughly downward-facing half-circle of fertile lands around Lexington reaching east to west from Otter Creek to Dix River and bounded on the south by the Kentucky River. Here, he enthusiastically surveyed, bought, sold and defended land for, first, the private land corporation the Transylvania Company, and later, the British and American governments of Virginia. A major early slave holder in the state, Boone was also one of Fayette County’s first sheriffs. Later in life, he moved north and helped found Limestone, now Maysville, a port town on the Ohio River with a well-traveled road, Limestone Road, that led south out of town to Lexington.  In this larger watershed Boone operated a tavern, continued to dabble unsuccessfully in land speculation, and sold supplies to immigrants using the Ohio as their western interstate.  In Limestone, one immigrant account goes, Boone lived on Front Street in “a cabin built out of an old boat.”

“He lived on the Ohio River in a cabin built out of an old boat? Damn,” Wes interjects, impressed. “That’s Harlan Hubbard territory. This is why we need a new Boone movie. ”

“I know,” I reply. “The more I read about him, the more convinced I am that Daniel Boone’s not so much a frontiersman as he is a river rat. The Yadkin as a teen, the Saint John’s in his twenties, the Kanawah in his sixties, the Missouri into his eighties. The Big Sandy, the Licking, the Cumberland. The Wataga, the Clinch, the Powell, the Holstein. The list goes on.”

The Boone movie has been a subject of much interest and discussion on previous trips. The basic thesis is this: film has done a disservice in accurately portraying Daniel Boone’s life. Spurred on by nineteenth century depictions of Boone as an exploring beacon of American manifest destiny, a good guy and an Indian fighter, twentieth century cinema has tended to mythologize the explorer as a squeaky clean avatar of American progress. Wes’s idea, in a nutshell, involves an immensely filthy Daniel Boone doing a lot of hiding from the Shawnee in the canebreaks lining the river. Lots of low angle extreme long and medium shots. Silent. The film would feature a physiologically immense but defensively shifty Boone, a man skilled in the un-valorized American art of knowing how and when to cut and run, of knowing when to make friends and when to unceremoniously get the hell out of sight and just hole up in a cave on Hickman Creek for two weeks.

We fall into a familiar line of discussion. “So who do you get to play Boone?”

“Twenty years ago? Busey. Now? I don’t know. Maybe Depp.”

“Depp’s too small. The Boone character needs more heft. The dude was going out on hunts into his eighties.”

“You guys always laugh, but I still think Zach Galifianakis. He’d need to lose a little weight and cut most or all of that beard, but I think he could do it. He’s got heft, a body that can be young and old. Either him or Walter Tunis.”

“ Galifianakis doesn’t have the right energy. I say, why stick to one actor. Eric Sutherland can portray the young Boone. Get Gatewood to do the later years.”

“Can they act?”

Shrug. “They’re poets and politicians. What’s the difference?”

“How about Cate Blanchett.”

“That’s a woman.”

“She pulled off a psychedelic Dylan.”

“Yeah, but she’s still got the Depp problem. Too slight. Dylan’s out, too, for that matter.”

“Well who do you get to direct it?”

In unison: “Werner Herzog.”

Predictably, the dialog works me into a frenzy. Under the gaze of a dead Dan’l Boone looking down from on high, I offer an emphatic rendition from memory of George Washington Ranck’s 1898 ode to our hero king river rat, “The Old Pioneer.” My voice thunders across the banks.

A dirge for the brave old river rat!

Knight errant of the water!

Calmly beneath the green sod here

He rests from field and flood!

Catching my drift, Lyle begins adds to my oratory with a delicate singing of the Fleet Foxes “He Doesn’t Know Why,” soon latching exclusively onto the lines “Memory is such a fickle siren song, I didn’t understand” and singing them repeatedly as a sort of round accompaniment to my oration. Our performance ends with a bang, Lyle’s singing increasing in intensity and me, my back to the group, arms outstretched, shouting up the bluff to dead Dan’l old GW Ranck’s immortal last lines, “An Empire is his sepulcher, His epitaph is Fame!”

Flushing into Frankfort

Just as I conclude my sermon in the water, the culverts open up. The rain has remained steady these past 40 minutes and the trickle of water previously emanating from the streets above us suddenly turns torrential. Oil Can’s bulwarks weather the barrage, but Stone’s Otter, beached in the direct line of culvert runoff, threatens to be swamped by the sudden flood of brown and frothy water with a retched odor. We quickly break camp, relaunch onto the water and make the western turn into Frankfort proper. The party re-gathers around our barge and tethers up. As we toast our good fortune, behind us the sky seems to be clearing as we near the Capital Ave Bridge. My mind flashes back to last February, Valentine’s Day, and the large crowd of people who gathered at the small river-front park, visible from the water, tucked into the bridge’s North Frankfort side, soon to cross over the river and flood onto the capital grounds, on their way to greet the Kentucky Rising activists emerging from a weekend occupation of the Governor’s mansion.

Cracking open another round of beers, we silently take in the ten or so other brown streams that have begun noisily flushing into the river on both sides. We try to ignore it for a while, but as the sun starts to re-assert itself in the sky, somebody points out the obvious. Frankfort stinks like shit.

In no time, Troy, Lyle, Wes and Stone untether and make haste for Bridge Street and the Kentucky’s full bend back north, leaving Josh and I, once again, to play catch-up. I take a swig from my beer, a polish varietal named Okacim, and consider the can. Leave it to the humble Poles, I think, to tag their American-bound beer as “O.K. Beer.” What they need, I think as I start to dig in and paddle, are American salesman as skilled as Filson, Ranck and Disney, someone to convince the public that O.K. is good.

Continued in the next issue. In the meantime, check out these Kentucky River campfire songs.

Wesley Houp performing his song “Big Canoe”

Wes covering the Gortimer T. Spotts tune “Up on Chenoca”

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