An imaginative stretch
By Wesley Houp
The mid-afternoon sun finally breached the cloud-cover as we passed under the tight array of bridges linking Frankfort proper to South Frankfort and satellite communities to the west, and the roar of water over the spillway at Lock 4 rekindled in us all the dreamy exhilaration the summer squall had temporarily neutralized: we would be locking our canoes through the only functional lock on the entire 255-mile mainstream of the Kentucky River. For paddlers of the otherwise post-navigable Kentucky, such a prospect represented at once a portal to past river-experience forever dead and gone and a shimmer of hope that the future might not be so dismally fragmented for slackwater venturists such as ourselves, that the option of free and open passage the length of the Kentucky might still become a viable reality…again.
After passing Twin Bridges just beyond the mouth of Benson Creek, the gravity of our long-awaited passage set in, and like parishioners on the Sabbath we fell into a solemn line, holding no further confab, our jubilation suddenly constrained, hearts stilled and ready for the lockmaster to deliver sacrament: we would be born again, delivered from this pool to the next without even relinquishing our riverine frames. There would be no purgatorial portage. As we neared the upper gate, a figure rose on the bank above the lock-wall and lumbered toward the pit.
“There he is,” I heard Gary mutter behind me.
There he was indeed. But who would he be? Since the state legislature created the Kentucky River Authority in 1986 and took control of the lock and dam system from the Army Corps of Engineers, the number of lockmasters on the payroll dwindled with each lock closure. Currently, the KRA employs only three lockmasters, and the majority of their time is spent maintaining selected lock grounds—not the locks themselves.
Our flotilla, consisting of three kayaks, one single-man canoe, and one two-man canoe, eased up to the wall just as the lockmaster was stooping down to greet us. As I had hoped, our master of ceremonies was none other than Ricky G., the last lockmaster to drill the capstan at my old haunt, Lock 7, High Bridge. He had survived the downsizing in the early nineties and now made the daily commute to Frankfort where he shared duties with the other two lockmasters. We tried, to no avail, to carry on a conversation over the roar of water, and after several loud and awkward exchanges, I just yelled “We’re here to lock through.” He gave a “no shit” nod and said he’d dropped four ropes over the wall inside the pit. We were to paddle in, secure the ropes and hang tight while he opened the valves on the lower gate.
We obliged, trying hard to swallow back our Cheshire grins. Once inside the pit, we sidled up to the ropes and awaited our descent to the lower pool. Ricky, now sporting an orange PFD, busied himself with his operation, moving back and forth along the lock, crossing to and fro on the catwalk atop the gate, and finally settling in to work on the valves. Ever so subtly, the water level in the lock chamber began to fall. We were giddy in the throes of lockage.
The watermark indicated a significant drop, and I quickly consulted the pool chart in the front of my laminated barge maps. “Looks like we’ve dropped thirteen feet or so to pool 3.” And just then, the lower gate creaked open. Within moments, Ricky G. gave us the “all clear” wave, and we paddled through slowly, each of us wanting to stretch the experience out as long as possible.
Around the end of the lock wall, we paused to take in the view of the broad spillway, shimmering crystal-white with the aerated rush of water, the empty deck at Jim’s Seafood, and the government office tower rising above the tree-lined bank of downtown Frankfort. Turning downstream, the bluffs of Leestown Terrace reached up to the east, the red-brick, industrial façade of Buffalo Trace Distillery looming overhead, with its rows of paned glass glaring down like the confounded, cataract-clouded eyes of some semi-conscious drunkard. Just around a sharp bend to the west, Danny pointed out Leestown Bar to our starboard. “I wonder if that’s where Leestown Ferry was officially authorized in 1783?” The rest of us gave the “must be” shrug, and we pushed on a little harder for Stony Creek, the next significant tributary before our chosen campsite.
In an hour and a half we were floating in the mouth of Stony Creek. The unusually steep and completely mud-covered banks were prohibitive to exploration on foot. Plus, my recollection of the topographic atlas (verified by Lyle) indicated that Stony was more densely populated than most of the tributaries we’d womped in the past. So around 5 PM we made our final descent toward Steamboat Hollow.
Camping on Steamboat Hollow Creek
In our pre-paddle planning a week prior, we had agreed upon Steamboat Hollow Creek for our first night’s bivouac, and we were not disappointed. A number of factors bolstered our decision: 1) according to our outdated but cherished barge maps, the mouth of Steamboat Hollow Creek was the site of an early 19th century steamboat construction yard; 2) the hollow represented the midway point in our journey, and while we endeavored on a two-night paddle, we’d agreed to save the second night for womping around our take-out point at Elkhorn Creek; and 3) our cheat-sheet (read Google Earth) revealed a long, remote, and uninhabited river bottom stretching downstream for about one nautical mile. Uninhabited and remote are two important earmarks for intrepid camping. Hemmed between the river and high bluffs, the open bottomland, which we discovered to be thick with knee-high soybeans, allowed us to dial back our usual stealth, build a fire should we so desire, and speak in voices indicative of our still lock-jubilant condition.
The approach to the soybean field was something less than ideal. High water the preceding week had caked the small mouth with several inches of fine silt (most likely the tragic and criminal residue of Eastern Kentucky mountaintop removal), and once the boats were unloaded and the mud bested, a steep bank followed by a 60 or 70 yard gauntlet of waist-high nettles and three strands of barbwire stood between us and our desired resting place on the edge of the field.
Per usual, we made short work of it, though, with minimal bitching, everyone of the mind that nettled legs was an acceptable price to pay for unfettered access to someone else’s slice of paradise. And so, by 7:30, a camp appeared where hitherto there had been none. As expected, no evidence remained of any antebellum boat-building operation, this earlier industriousness superseded by the toilings of plow, harrow, and planter. At the far end of the field, a low-slung barn hugged the cliff, the only visible sign (other than the mechanically spaced rows of soybeans) of human intervention.
Dinner, womp, and visitation
For dinner that evening, Troy had prepared a special entrée: four-squash red sauce with penne seasoned with a pound of buffalo sausage I’d procured from Caldwell Farms back at my surrogate home in Murfreesboro, TN. Lyle sliced in three or four large red carmens and a handful of button mushrooms for good measure. A long, uninterrupted silence befell us as we heaped our tins, nestled down in camp chairs, and laid our shoulders into the labor of nourishment.
After several helpings and several rounds of Hendricks gin-shots, courtesy Gary “The Family” Stone, we turned naturally to night-womping. The new-moon darkness was complete; only the twilight illuminated the gathering mist. The barn, visible on our arrival, now lay hidden somewhere beyond the thickening wall of night, and amid the tight rows of soybeans, a deer path cut the only discernible avenue through the beckoning obscurity. We advanced on the mist, the mist retreating in step, and crossed the length of field as if moving inside a small bubble surrounded at arm’s length by a swirling, vaporish opacity.
Twenty minutes into our amble, I noticed my soft footfalls in the sandy soil were unaccompanied. I was suddenly and eerily alone in the endless fog-bank. Or at least momentarily alone. In the distance, what I judged to be no more than twenty feet (the extent of my nearsighted squinting through heavy condensation), a figure rose and stood dark against the backdrop of graying white. My first thought was that Troy or Danny or Josh had flanked me, double-time, and now doubled back either to give me the shit-scares or scrounge one of the Stella pounders stuffed in my pajama pockets. I stopped and called out. “Hey, how’d you round me so fast?” No response. I took a few steps forward, keening my eyes. To my surging unease, the figure, now fully relieved in black, was not one of our company I recognized.
“Hullo…?” I more hesitantly asked than genuinely offered.
“Come with me, young man.” The voice was seasoned with directive. The little voice in my head said “turn and bolt,” but for some inexplicable reason, my feet and legs fell deaf. A tremble scoured my backbone.
Continued next issue.
Watch the slackwater paddlers enter Lock 4: Lee’s Boat Ramp to Elkhorn Creek