Valley View to Paint Lick, part two
By Wesley Houp
Danny nudges me awake. The fire has relented to a glowing heap. I check my watch. It’s 3:43am. “What’s that noise?” he whispers. I listen, having momentarily lost my bearings to sleep. At first I hear nothing and look back at Danny’s dark and uncertain face. Then I discern a sound issuing from the back of the cave, a deep, raspy chirp sustained over several seconds. Suddenly, the presence of the stranger, Free Willy, comes rushing back. The sensation sends a ripple through my reptilian brain. The chirping ceases, and then the voice follows.
“Don’t be alarmed, good fellows. It’s just poor Jenkins. He’s singing a lamentation. Does it every night. Throw me one of your torches and I’ll show you.” Danny sits up and tosses his headlamp into the darkness of the cave. The light flicks on, and there is our strange guest, holding the lamp up to a mason jar filled with water glowing like a cathode ray. “Meet Jenkins.” He holds the jar up in the light for us to see.“Jenkins is a…singing water-bug?” I ask. The creature in the jar looks to be four or five inches long and hovers, suspended in the liquid, with grooved axial lobes, like an oversized sow bug.
“No, Jenkins is a trilobite, and if you weren’t aware, trilobites were a marine arthropod, extinct now for about 225 million years.” He raps the jar with the end of the lamp, and the jar rings a fair bell tone, causing Jenkins to curl into a tight ball.
“Just like a sow bug.” Neither Danny nor I can take our eyes of the pale blue liquid. “What’s the deal with the water? It seems to glow.”
“Ah, yes,” Free Willy replies, “the water…. Would you believe this is pure, unadulterated comet-water from a subterranean cave deep beneath Kamchatka. Took me years to find it. Seems it’s the only water capable of transmitting poor Jenkins’ singing at decibels loud enough to discern.” Jenkins unrolls himself and erupts in a long chirping cadence.
Focusing on the song, Danny asks, “why do you call him ‘poor Jenkins?”
“Fair enough. Jenkins used to be my photographer back in the day when I rambled around topside. He climbed many a precarious perch and never once failed to capture this or that geologic curio for posterity. He was, in short, a much-trusted, much-valued companion. But post mortem transmorgrification is a cruel joke. Seems after death was through with him, he came to the other side as, well, this trilobite.
On one occasion, back in ’21, I had crawled out on a particularly inaccessible ledge above this very river and discovered the most exquisite set of trilobite fossils. I called for Jenkins to come with his camera, and as he crawled across the narrow pass, he dropped his bag and all his gear. Everything was smashed to pieces on the rocks below. Jenkins let out an awful yelp, turned, and yelled, “You and your cursed dino-bugs!” This is the only time I can recall poor Jenkins losing his wits, but I’m by no means certain this episode played any role in his…present condition. However it happened, I’ve felt obligated to keep him company all these years.
“There, there, old boy.” Free Willy clicks off the lamp and returns to jar to his inside pocket. I recline back into my sleeping bag, the darkness complete once more. As I fade back to sleep, I hear a low voice singing from the recess:
“Twas on a dark and stormy night,
I heard and saw an awful sight,
The lightning flashed, the thunder roared
Around my dark benighted soul.
I saw a gulf far down below
Where all poor dying things must go.
My woeful thoughts no tongue can tell.
Is this my doom a trilobite hell?”
When I wake up, the ash-pit is cold. Danny is just fluttering to. I turn to scan the back of the cave. No sign of the visitor. The sun hasn’t breached the opposing palisade, so our cave-haunt rests in magnificent pale, blue, Ordovician light. I emerge from my bag and blunder about for a few minutes.
“Did you see him leave?” I ask before Danny emerges from his bag. He leans up on one elbow and looks around on the ground for his boots.
“What? Did I see what?”
“Free Willy. Did you see him leave? When I nodded off, he was singing some dreary ballad.” Danny stares with a perplexed look, as if I speak in tongues.
“Free Willy? What the hell are you talking about?” He stands up, stretches, and steps into his boots.
“Real funny, Dano. I’m serious.”
“I’m serious, too. You must’ve had a vivid dream. I did hear you mumbling in your sleep a few times.” He walks out to the dead weeds along the edge of the cave mouth and takes a leak. There is no way, I think to myself, that was a dream. No way. I scan the cave floor where our visitor had been sitting. I can find no trace of his weight, no disturbance in the lime. So I pull my headlamp from my coat and check the back of the cave. Surely he left a print in the soft, moist earth around the narrow opening. I find prints, but they’re my own, from our arrival the night before.
“I don’t believe it. If that was a dream, then….” I remember the spare bowl from Danny’s mess kit. “What about your spare bowl?”
“My what? Bowl? What about it?” He walks back over to his pile of gear and produces his mess kit. “It’s right here.”
“Has it been used? Is it dirty.”
“Nope. Clean as a pin.” He holds it up, displaying the inside. “Nothing here but clean.”
“Un-fucking-believable.” I sit back on a large bolder and rub my head. “I don’t know what to say, other than that was the craziest, most lucid dream I’ve ever had. Like I was awake.”
“Well, I want to hear all about it, but save it for later. It’s time to skedaddle. I’ve got oranges, bread, and cheese for breakfast. We can eat on the water.” We pack up all the gear in less than fifteen minutes, and just as we’re loading our arms, the sun pierces the tree-line, bathing the cave-mouth in warm, yellow light. The high cliff above the cave catches fire, too, its sudden heat melting the light frost on the leaf-strewn slope. We descend slowly and find the parallel path up river, back to Mary Baker Hollow and the boats.
“The river, then, is the carpenter of its own edifice”
We push off, the sunlight still hanging high on the palisades. The valley is shrouded in thin, cold mist, and the river, even with a current, is smooth as glass. We idle together midstream and divvy up breakfast. Our final destination is Paint Lick Creek, a mere nine-mile paddle, but we plan to explore the environs of Silver Creek by midday. Silver debouches five miles below Devil’s Pulpit, on the downstream side and out-bow of Renfro and Silver Creek Bars.
From Mary Baker Hollow, the river bends due south for a mile, then turns to the southeast in a near three-mile straightaway, passing the mouths of four small creeks: Sea Lion Branch to the west, Boones Run, Christopher Run, and Marble Yard Branch to the east. None are enticing to a paddler but promise the quintessential palisade experience for anyone willing to hoof it: steep, hidden gorges, and cool rivulets cascading down moss-covered limestone talus. The faulting along this particular stretch of river is evident even to the geologic greenhorn. The limestone ledges along the western bank all exhibit the down-throw typical of fault lines. As we pass, Danny makes note. “If you squint your eyes and focus on the bank, you get the sensation of paddling uphill.” The ledges slide into the river, one on top of the other, at a 30° angle to the water.
I can’t help but think of last night’s visitors and Free Willy’s recitation of river knowledge. Could it really have all been a dream? Is Danny, a man of common sense praxis, just afraid to admit to himself that something crawled out of the earth and spent the better part of last night talking about…crazy shit? Crazy shit? As I try to replay last night’s event from the beginning, the wind picks up. For the next mile, we sit low and paddle hard, and soon the river begins to bend toward the southwest. With Stony Fork entering the mainstream on our left and Renfro Bar to our right, the long, low bottom at the mouth of Silver Creek opens up dead ahead as the river bends radically to the west. Before we pass the mouth, the Kentucky has completed a perfect U-turn. At Silver Creek Bar, we’re traveling due north. Seen from above, Silver Creek debouches between two interlocking “hooks”—the river twisting in a westerly-oriented and backwards “S” curve. No sooner do the waters of Silver meet the Kentucky, flowing due north, than the Kentucky bends once more due west for less than a half-mile, and then again southwest. The abrupt shifting evidences an ancient stream breaking over one fault to get at the next.
Silver Creek diversion
We paddle into the mouth of Silver, the water changing from murky to emerald green. Silver Creek is a long, meandering stream, originating in the knobs just southeast of Berea in Madison County. The East Fork drains the western slope of Pinnacle Knob and the West Fork the slopes of Bear Mountain. From this region of high knobs forming the Mississippian escarpment (Muldraugh’s Hill), the creeks flow out in all directions: those flowing east eventually feed Station Camp Creek which joins the Kentucky to the northeast at Irvine; those flowing north find Silver and Paint Lick Creeks which join the Kentucky to the northwest; those flowing south join the Rockcastle River (which eventually finds the Cumberland); and those flowing to the west embolden the upper Dix River, a major tributary of the Kentucky, which debouches its waters many miles to the northwest at High Bridge. The Silver’s two forks join forces at the edge of Berea and soon take in the waters of Brushy Fork to form Silver Creek proper. From here, it flows due north for several miles towards the city of Richmond before assuming a northwesterly meander through picturesque hill-and-valley farmland toward its terminus at the Kentucky.
We make it only 300 yards around the first bend before encountering shoal water. Danny banks on the southern side, flanked by rough slope and limestone outcroppings and billy-goats a dry run 200 feet to a broad ledge beneath the first steep bluff. I opt for a less strenuous examination and hound the rubble-strewn lower slope for fossils.
“You coming up? The view’s spectacular.” He yells down from his promontory.
“I think I’ll stick to the lowland. What can you see?” After a long pause filled with riffling water, Danny appears at the edge of the bluff.
“God’s green acre. I think I see mountains in the distance. The view, the warmth of the sun, the intoxicating aroma of loamy decay… makes me feel connected, like the Earth really wants me.” I freeze in my tracks and look up with a jerk.
“What did you say?”
He responds, surprised even that I’d been listening. “God’s green acre?”
“No, the part after that.”
“The sun, the smell…?”
The image of Free Willy emerging from the cave flashes in my mind. What did he say? That he brought good news? I pause to recall, holding a thick slab of Ordovician with fine Brachiopods layered in stasis.
“No, the part about the earth wanting you.” I get no response. In a few minutes I hear the rustle of leaves, the crack of deadfall, and Danny appears above me at the head of the dry run.
“You ready?” He calls down.
“Let’s push off.” Our destination is another four and a half miles downstream. We settle in our boats, idle for a moment in the cool, aerated eddy below the riffle, and then dig in for the last leg.
Paint Lick Exuberance
We pass the rocky shoreline just downstream from Silver’s mouth, enter the sharp bend at Upper Hunters Bar, where Hunters Run meets the mainstem, and in less than a mile pass the mouth of Sawmill Run at Lower Hunters Bar. The river jogs back to the southwest for a long mile, takes in Wildhorse Branch, and turns due south for a half-mile. Paint Lick, one of the largest streams in the palisades stretch, debouches from the east just as the river cuts back to the west and rounds Teeters Turnhole Bend. Two boat ramps provide access, the first and newest one on the Jessamine County side, built and operated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the other much older one on the Garrard County shore parallel the mouth of Paint Lick. As we approach the ramp, set back amid Paint Lick Bar, we spy my 1993 Nissan pickup, apparently unmolested by hand of nature or man, conveniently waiting just across the river from our final bivouac.
Historically, the mouths of the Kentucky’s larger tributaries represented the potential for serious navigational hazard, as most, like Paint Lick, deposit significant materials, organic and otherwise, in and around the channel. Prior to the construction of locks and dams above Frankfort, navigation this far upriver was possible only during high water in the winter and spring. As Johnson and Parrish recount, the Monterey, a steamer, hit a snag at the mouth of Paint Lick Creek (River Mile 146) in December of 1848 and sank in less than ten feet of water. Paint Lick Bar, directly opposite the creek, had to be dredged of its snags, sand, and large debris on a yearly basis. During the era of routine river-maintenance, the mouth of Paint Lick received careful attention from the Corps’ repair fleet, including snagboats like the Kentucky, the Orlando M. Pope, and the Ward, the first Corps-operated dredge to ply the Kentucky River beginning in 1880. Later, the Willie (1890), Frankfort, and Carrollton replaced these early models. By the twentieth century, the Kentucky fleet had grown to include the snagboat, Kentucky No. 2, the towboats Gregory, Chenoka (built on the Kentucky at Frankfort by the Corps’ crackerjack team of craftsmen), Burnett, and Lucien Johnson, and the smaller launches Pearl and Monroe, all of which saw ample action in this particular stretch, with its heavy-flow tributaries and sudden, tight, fault-induced zigzagging bends.
Paint Lick forms the entire boundary between Garrard and Madison Counties, winding in a steady southeast to northwest course from the vicinity of Berea in southwest Madison County to the Kentucky River. Its capillaries rise on the north slopes of Muldraugh’s Hill, pick up the waters of Walnut Meadow Branch from the east and White Lick Creek from the south, forming a broad and meandering stream near the community of Paint Lick on the Garrard-Madison border. Like so many creeks, Paint Lick’s character changes with seasons. In the summer and fall you might find a dry limestone bed, in the winter and spring a rushing torrent.
The afternoon sun works its magic in the valley; with little to no wind the temperature rises to 40°. We paddle into the mouth, stripped of hats and coats and the dormancy of spirit winter tries to impose. Five tom turkeys sail from the high, wooded ground of Madison County across the creek and disappear in strikingly green winter wheat along the bottomland on the Garrard County bank. Danny whistles a jaunty tune. Though the nominals change through the flood of time, the auxiliary of river syntax is ever predicated on exuberance: to exuberate, to overflow. Even in times of drought and stagnation, rivers overflow experience. To be on or near the river is to be exuberant—thoughts, visions, dreams humbled and filled by sheer awe of geologic time. Morphologically, rivers follow a path of minimum variance, but their influence on form of thought is always radical. They live the history of the earth, and on them we feel life that outlives our lives. “A reach of river,” as Luna Leopold observes, “is a transportation machine.” It connects us to what was, is, and will be.
We make camp a half-mile upstream on level bank, the steep, wooded and mossy talus of Madison County to our backs, and before the sun dips below the hills we’ve gathered enough dry box elder to stack an impressive pyre. As the sun sets and the fire rises with the growing dark, I swallow back the cud of questions I’ve ruminated on the better part of a day with sips of honey and thistle tea, contented with thoughts, speechless to visions, dumb to explanation of dreams as a lowly isopod in full possession of the Earth.
For dinner, misfit stew: two orphaned potatoes, a ragamuffin carrot, a lost generation of kale, a disfigured and friendless onion, the dregs of Danny’s chicken leftovers, and a wayward spicy chorizo we’ve been holding out for the last meal. In the bottom of my food bag, I find a heaping handful of hobo black-eyed peas and round out a fine, river rat cassoulet. The pyre, constructed in Lincoln Log fashion, demands constant attention, but fortunately, we have a ready supply of box elder. We’re cozy, the fire deflecting through our tarp-camp, and after a few medicinal rounds of Svetka and healing herbs, we slump off to bed, the falling waters of Paint Lick supplying ambient sound ample enough to make the sandman loose the full nine yards.
Sleep, Dream, Trichopteran
The new moon dark is absolute. Even if stars were near enough to provide light, I doubt they would. The valley has turned cold, freezing cold. Not an ember winks in the ash-heap. The tarp rustles in the wind, throwing off the rime as quickly as it forms. I go from sleep to wakefulness and have no recollection of any transition. I’m standing beside the creek without coat or hat, watching as a dark form moves methodically through the shoalwater, crossing neither this way nor that, but moving against the current, stopping, stooping, standing. I strain to see a face and am relieved to recognize my father. He’s collecting caddisfly larvae and motions for me to join him. I step into the icy water and realize that I’m barefooted. I balance on a flat rock, the water breaking around my foot, take another step, feel nothing below, and losing balance, plunge into the current. And fall and keep falling in dark water. I hear the voice of my father calling down through the rush of water, “Trichopteran! Trichopteran!” The wooden handle of a kick-net appears above me, just out of reach. I fall away struggling in complete darkness, and when I hit the bottom, I hear another voice: “Wake up.” It’s Danny. He has reached over and hit me on the shoulder. “Sounded like you were having a hard time breathing.”
“It was just a dream,” I say aloud, reassuring myself more than Danny.
In the morning we linger in our bags beneath the blue tarp until the sun breaks over the eastern rim of the swale. Frost covers every surface and vaporizes as sunlight advances. Turkeys yelp in the woods above us and shortly fly off their roosts in groups of three, four, five. Within minutes, the wheat field opposite our camp springs to life with contented purrs of foraging birds. We move slowly in the morning chill, no resolve to advance on the day. We sit in the sun, rebuild the fire, and watch the turkeys crisscross the field; the rush of water and counterpoint of wind high among branches suggest no urgent purposes; a belted kingfisher lends its blue to a sycamore branch; a fox squirrel rustles through leaf-littered talus. Inside the passage of time, a voice from the past:
“The Fashioner of Things
has no original intentions
Mountains and rivers
are spirit, condensed.”
Sound and motion are evanescent. Time gets away from us, too, and we have no choice but to let it go. But ghosts and dreams are indelible. We break camp at noon, float to the mouth, turn against the river’s current and cross over.