Camp Nelson to High Bridge, part 2
By Wesley Houp
Another mile downstream from Candle Stick, the river, having curved sharply to the southeast, bends hard again to the northeast then back northwest around Polly’s Bend. Swallow Rock and Golden Gate, two relief formations, loom high on the Jessamine palisade. In the mid-afternoon sun I see how Golden Gate got its name. The sheer limestone face, extending down 300 feet to the surface of the water, glows an El Dorado, and Swallow Rock, a series of relief arches etched in younger, higher strata appears an Olympian balcony. At present, one black vulture monitors our idyll.
By the time we approach the mouth of Jessamine Creek, the sun has dipped below Ox Bow Bend to the west. Bottomland, overgrown with poplar and box elder opens on the right. The ruins of an old barn sag in the shadows, a last reminder of Garrett Alcorn’s toiling on Earth and what the term “small farming” meant for the first half of the last century. Funny saying that, “the last century.” Makes it sound so antique, so remote. Alcorn, like so many small farmers along the Kentucky’s corridor, cobbled together respectable tobacco crops, cultivating every little piece of arable acreage available. Given the current condition of this bottom, it’s hard to imagine rows of burley straddling the bank, but for many years he tended this humble piece, doing most of the hard labor by himself. He fashioned a long sycamore pole with a spike near the top for “housing” his crop—the process of hanging “sticks” of tobacco (usually six stalks speared onto one oaken stick) in the tier-rails of the barn. Tier-rails run the length of the barn, perpendicular to the cross-members, part of a tobacco barn’s superstructure. The distance from one set of cross-members to the next is called a “bent.” Alcorn’s barn was five bents, three tier-rails deep at the ridge, allowing him to reach the top set of rails with a twenty-foot pole. Having grown up on tobacco farms and housed many a crop with my father, brother, and rotating cast of local color (“Devil,” “Jaybird,” “Mugs,” “Pig Albert” to name a few), I’m intimately familiar with the task and marvel at both Alcorn’s ingenuity and strength. From the mouth of Jessamine Creek, he hauled his cured leaf topside, perhaps even floating it down to High Bridge by flatboat in the early years to be loaded onto wagon or truck and hauled north to Harrodsburg Road and the warehouses lining South Broadway in Lexington, the burley capital of the world, where the mesmerizing voices of auctioneers trailed up and down the endless rows of tobacco baskets, and sharecroppers, like Alcorn, shellacked spittoons with dark splats of juice, waiting anxiously by the scale operator’s window. Livelihood by the pound.
Jessamine Creek Gorge
Jessamine Creek angles due north for about half a mile, bends east to southeast before cutting back to the north and winding in a more or less northerly course through its magnificently remote gorge—one of the county’s best kept secrets. The Nature Conservancy, along with County Parks and Recreation, purchased over 170 acres of the gorge area years ago to preserve its flora and fauna, with the ultimate goal of developing hiking trails for public use. Currently, however, the gorge is not open to the public, as the Nature Conservancy website states, “due to the sensitivity of the site and the lack of access.” The gorge is habitat for over 400 vascular plant species, including seven endangered species such as snow trillium, mountain lover, and water stitchwort, and two major caves in the gorge, known locally as Chrisman and Overstreet, provide maternity and hibernaculum sites for Gray and Indiana bats, both federally endangered species.
My explorations of the gorge predate Conservancy ownership, and since Danny and I ascribe to a zero-footprint policy when it comes to intrepid camping, we (mistakenly?) consider ourselves grandfathered in. Usually, we expect solitude when we enter the mouth, but on this particular evening, a group of campers have sprung their tents, three in all, on the downstream bank overlooking the confluence. We paddle past them and up the creek without exchanging glances, let alone greetings. Since both parties are technically breaking the law, there’s no need to bother with civil niceties. Plus, the light’s fading fast, we’re tired, and the need to make camp and chow negates all other considerations.
We find our usual campsite unoccupied—a sand and pebble shoal a half-mile up the creek. By the time we pitch the tent, gather wood, and get a fire going, the gorge is shrouded in night. We make a quick meal, our usual river rat stew, recline by the fire for an hour or so, and then call it quits on the day. Voices in the gurgling shoalwater call out names, and thinking they’re calling us, we follow and swiftly descend into deep sleep.
The morning’s unusually warm, and we boil water for coffee before the sun breaks above the gorge. For breakfast, we opt for oranges and granola bars, lighter than our usual fare of egg-fortified leftover stew, anticipating an invigorating hike up the gorge and not wanting to be weighted by anything heavier. Having made this hike numerous times before, we know precisely where to cross the creek as we zigzag upstream. While the morning is warm, and the sun encourages us along, the water is cold, and by our third crossing, where Leatherwood Creek splinters the gorge from the west, my shoes and pant legs are soaked and my feet numb. We rest on a massive sycamore trunk, fallen from the higher bank across a dry channel and in the midst of a small stand of papaws. Sadly, the fruit has long since fallen, but a wave of nostalgia floods over me, nonetheless, and I’m overtaken by a deep desire to bite into an overripe papaw. Just as I’m formulating the texture and taste in my imagination, rapt in possum daydream, I look up and notice Danny has started ahead without me.
We make it up to Jessamine Falls, or as I’ve always known the place, Overstreet Falls, named for the old man who owned the property—the descendent of Henry Overstreet, a Revolutionary War veteran, who settled in the vicinity. The falls are dry but for a small dribble through a mossy beard high up on the lip. At sixty feet, the falls are impressive in the spring or winter and have carved out a large bowl around which we skirt and ascend to a trail leading to Overstreet Cave.
The most impressive part of the cave is not really the cave itself; it’s the cathedral-like overhang. The cave proper has a relatively small mouth and is clearly marked with Nature Conservancy signage warning against entrance on account of the bats. Given the frighteningly rapid spread of White-Nose Syndrome—a fungal infection related to massive die-outs among bat populations from New York to Tennessee—it’s no wonder the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends suspension of all cave activities. Most of my speleological impulses fizzled out long ago, although I still nurse a healthy anthropological fascination with cave mouths, particularly along the Kentucky where prehistoric humans left their crude tools, kitchen midden, and mortal remains.
We steer clear of the cave proper and angle up to the left beneath the overhang. Here the shelter reaches back into the cliff, the floor inclining in thin layers. Thirty feet up, a massive column of eroded limestone marks an equally massive window peering out over the gorge and providing a view of the cliff-top meadows and woods across the creek. We linger on a ledge beside the overlook, taking in the sunny smell of autumn, the air filled with orgiastic but innocuous clouds of insects and the hushed gurgle of water coursing over stones far below. Danny follows a ledge around the rear of the overhang, takes a seat in the crevice, and starts singing in a low voice.
“Ay,” said the little leather-winged bat,
“I’ll tell you the reason that,
The reason that I fly by night
Is because I lost my heart’s delight…”
The noontime sun has warmed the bottomlands considerably by the time we reach camp. I change into shorts and a dry pullover. We dissemble camp in a matter of a few minutes, load boats, and float away on the current. The campers at the mouth have vacated as well, and we’re glad for it. Having snubbed them last night, we weren’t much interested in small talk this morning either. Normally, perhaps anywhere else, I’m more than happy to introduce myself, chat about this or that, but we weren’t expecting to encounter other campers here. It was unprecedented. Remote is the essential characteristic of the gorge, and seeing anyone else enjoying its gorgeous solitudes and privileged views, particularly anyone else who’s already beaten you to the punch, is almost an affront. Strange, to covet places. I suppose I’ve come to covet the entire Kentucky River watershed, having devoted so much time and energy to paddling it over the last two years, and look at everyone we encounter with a keening stink-eye.
We round Ox Bow Bend and enter the long horseshoe around Handy’s Bend, also known as Seven Mile Bottom. Anyone who can read mileage on a map can see the bottom around Handy’s Bend is a far cry short of seven miles. It’s only three and a half at most. Local’s, such as myself, call this Fox Bend after the large estate, Fox Bend Farm, that once comprised over a thousand acres atop the palisade, including all “seven” of the three and a half miles of bottomland. The Poe family, who managed a foxhunting club on the property, once owned (and named) Fox Bend, but now it’s owned and managed by the Bluegrass Sportsman’s League. Today the property mostly serves the needs of Lexington professionals with guns, who travel south on the weekends to unwind and “unleaden.” From the river, their volleys echo down the palisades and put the languid paddler in mind of military conflagration.
Around the point of Handy’s Bend, Boat Hollow enters with a small trickle and towhead on the Garrard County side. Scattered on the talus above, the remains of Sprout Horton’s fishcamp remind me of an earlier, less violent form of recreation: men shirking responsibilities and trundling tackle, bait, and other “supplies” off for a weekend of roughing it. Sprout, a life-long resident of High Bridge, KY, built the camp—a small shack partially dug into the talus, partially balanced over the bank—back in the early 40s, but all that’s left now are a few rusty reminders: bedsprings, some rotten boards, the door of an old iron stove. We stop and stretch legs on the towhead. Meanwhile, the battle rages across the river at the sportsman’s club. It must have been a tranquil place back in Sprout’s time. Not a place for banter but a place to collect thoughts. I can imagine a group of men, reclined on the towhead, fishing poles wedged in driftwood forks stuck in the muddy waterline, no words but only a bottle passed between them, catfish on a stringer fanning the silt-covered shallows. The only thought I collect repeats over in mind: “Hold your fire! We surrender, dammit.” But the guns keep blasting away.
The noise pollution hounds us for the next hour. Then suddenly blessed silence. The guns of Fox Bend speak no more. A truce perhaps? Lunch, smoke, beer break? We avail ourselves the quietude and climb to an overhang a mile downriver from Boat Hollow. Back in the mid-60s, Clyde Bunch, husband of Garrett Alcorn’s oldest daughter, Mildred, and High Bridge resident-historian, archeologist, astronomer, riverine philosopher “poked” around here and unearthed a human skull, which he dutifully turned over to the archives at University of Kentucky. Rumor has it the skull was in the range of 8,000 years old. Whatever its age, indigenous peoples more than likely used this cave from prehistory to European contact and settlement in the valley. The cave mouth is impressive—a perfect arch opening where the sheer limestone palisade gives way to steep, wooded talus. Its parabolic mouth reaches nearly twenty feet from floor to ceiling, the interior forty feet or so with ceiling gradually sloping to floor. A low, horizontal crevice runs cruciform at the rear of the main room, the right wing dead-ending and the left extending into damp, unexplored darkness. Sifting through the pit and mound of Clyde’s original dig, I’ve found broken projectiles, pottery, and mussel bones with edges sharpened from repeated use cutting meat, skinning hides perhaps. After scouting the cave and turning over a few choice rocks, we descend to boats, make way toward Bowman’s Bend and High Bridge.
The palisades reach up again on the Jessamine County side, opposite Bowman’s. Seven Sisters, as they’re locally known, rise 300 feet, a series of scrolling columns framing a flat face of limestone extending down 100 feet to the treetops and talus. As we round the bend and face into the sun, a stiff breeze kicks up, and before we reach Georgie Horton’s old fishcamp and the two-mile straightaway to the community of High Bridge, we’re paddling against fierce headwind. We chop along near the bank, avoiding the main channel and erratic waves. So near the end of another journey, though, we feel no urgency to make time and we drift, detached from the world above, at the end of the Kentucky’s major deflection, what Jillson identifies as “an obvious abnormality of the drainage pattern,” constituting a “great bend to the southwest.” Due to Cretaceous uplift, the Kentucky began to pool back on itself in the vicinity of Boonesborough, and during the early Tertiary Period redirected its course southwest, following the uplift’s concomitant fault zone, until it finally breached a col into its primary southern tributary, the Dix River. From the present-day confluence of the two rivers at High Bridge to the mouth of Elkhorn Creek, the Kentucky follows the Lower Cretaceous channel of the Dix River—a monumental stream piracy. In all, this deflection took somewhere in the ballpark of 30 million years, short work in geologic terms.
The day is still bright, the October air is warm despite the wind, and we’re content, like the river, with slow, steady progress. We pass a man and woman in a canoe, paddling upstream, prevailing wind at their back. I laugh to myself at the prospect of river travel as time travel and turn just in time to watch them blow round Bowman’s Bend beneath the unflinching gaze of the Seven Sisters, disappear into the surface, autumn’s reds and yellows banked against current, and the bottomless reflection of blue sky.