Apr 052013

On the Town Branch, part 2

By Danny Mayer

I first heard about the Town Branch in a geography class at the University of Kentucky, early in 2001. We didn’t talk much about the creek itself. It was the thing that oriented us differently on the maps: our skeletal framework, a northwesterly axis, something railroad ties covered.

It would be another six years before Town Branch appeared to me in all its cavernous damp wonder. While visiting a farm in Keene, Kentucky,  I happened upon an urban caver and all-around fire-master—a man who introduced himself as “Thom-with-an-H,” the last three syllables rolling away from the lazy ‘m’ like the sharp uncoiling of a lasso (tom,with-in-atche). Over a long fire that spanned several days, Thom-with-an-H recounted to me stories of cave trips taken beneath the greater Lexington substrata. Several of these stories began or ended nearby the Town Branch Creek; a few involved walking up-creek from the edge of the Rupp Arena parking lot, into the culvert, and underneath downtown.

During that summer of 2007, I sat for hours and listened to Thom-with-an-H  talk, marveling all the while at the holes his caves were poking into my Lexington maps. It was quite heady stuff to imagine one descending underground at Cardinal Valley and emerging in Southland, or disappearing into the west end of Rupp only to re-appear one block east of the East End. Continue reading »

Mar 062013

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. Continue reading »

Feb 062013

Valley View to Paint Lick


Campsite at cave above Mary Baker Hollow. Photo by Danny Mayer.

By Wesley Houp

We slide in boats well after dark.  Snow flurries in our headlamp beams, and the rush of water over lock 9 gradually fades behind us as we settle in to the slight headwind, swirling upriver between Cedar Point Run to the south and the old YMCA Daniel Boone Camp to the north.  In no less than a mile, the wind dies, snow breaks, and stars peek-a-boo through widening cloud-faults.  Backlit by December twilight, the cleft of Mary Baker Hollow breaks the dark horizon of palisade downstream.  The current’s slight, and we ease along the dark water’s surface trying not to disrupt the reflected depth of universe gathered around us.

In less than an hour, we’re beaching at the small, rocky mouth of Mary Baker Hollow.  Danny flashes his headlamp up the steep bank.  “Devil’s Pulpit is somewhere up there.  We could camp in the cave if you’re willing to Billy Goat the gear.”  The thought of pitching the bedrolls in a more temperate cave has definitive gravity on a 20° and, as of yet, moonless night. Continue reading »

Dec 052012

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. Continue reading »

Nov 072012

Entering straightaway around Polly’s Bend, Swallow Rock on the palisades to the right, Jessamine County.

Camp Nelson to High Bridge

By Wesley Houp

Our put-in is Camp Nelson, a smattering of water-weary shanties, trailers, and RVs pinched between river and road in what can only be considered loose apposition to any sense of the term “community.”  We park Danny’s ramshackle Isuzu under Lloyd Murphy Memorial Bridge on U.S. 27 (mile 135 on the Kentucky), unload and shuttle canoes and gear down the crumbling concrete ramp, and within twenty minutes we are on the water, shuffling and restowing dry bags, resolving vagaries of trim and draft.

Downstream and northwest, the river disappears around the sharp bend, a leading edge of palisades opening where the Camp Nelson bottom finally tapers to steep, wooded talus.  The striated face of Ordovician limestone glows, as if back-lit, in rarefied October light, its gold deepening the sky’s sapphire.  It’s nearly three o’clock; we’re off to a late start, and with eleven miles to paddle, our chance of making Jessamine Creek gorge—our preferred bivouac—before dusk is slim.  A stout headwind dials up the drag, and we push a little harder.  Fortunately, the Kentucky’s deep meanders offer intermittent reprieve from the gust.  Just around the bend, we find a casual pace and enter one of the most remote and dramatic riverscapes in the eastern United States. Continue reading »

Sep 102012

The lower Red to Boonesborough, part 2

By Northrupp Center

Illustration by Christopher Epling

Editor’s Note: Future river rat scholars take note. The online edition is (thankfully) revised from the story’s appearance in print.

“Gortimer.” It is dark. I am perched high upon a brick shelf on the steep banks of the lower Red River, Estill County, watching as my fire-blown shadow-selves dance over a cascading series of nineteenth century iron furnaces in decay, the heavy brick hulls my flickered selves’ off-level stages in their strut to the river lying black one hundred feet below. “I feel ghosts.”

My day has not gone according to plan. The plan was to have NoC editor Danny Mayer and staff river writer Wes Houp pick me up at Bluegrass Airport and depart for a relaxing two-nights on the Red and Kentucky Rivers. The plan was to justify all expenses incurred on my summer trip by writing an NoC article on the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth-led effort to stop a coal-fired power plant from being built at the community of Ford on the Clark County banks of the Kentucky River upriver from the peopled public beach just below Lock 9, Fort Boonesborough State Park. Continue reading »

Jun 282012

A Kentucky waterways story

By Ed McClanahan

A few months ago, Danny Mayer, the editor of the highly respectable rag you hold in your hand at this moment, told me he’d heard that back in the late 1950s, my friend Wendell Berry and I took a little three-day canoe trip down the Kentucky River, and asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece recollecting the experience for North of Center’s ongoing series about Kentucky waterways.

Wendell and Ed. Photo courtesy of Ed McClanahan.

Yeah, sure, sez I, and blithely promised him I’d produce 1500 words for the July issue.

So the deadline is coming down, and I’ve got the 1500 words, all right, but somehow I haven’t even got around to mentioning my trip with Wendell yet. (Our canoe itself does make a cameo appearance, although Wendell is nowhere in sight.) What I’ve found myself writing instead is a far more ambitious undertaking, a meditation about my father and me, the surface of which is barely scratched by my measly 1500-word opening salvo. Clearly, this story wants to become a much more expansive piece of writing, and therefore I’m obliged to do my best to make that happen.

My and Wendell’s canoe trip will still be in it, though, and because my dad eventually became a sort of mini-mogul in the river transportation business, it’s still a Kentucky waterways story too—just not exactly the one I intended to tell.

Anyhow, here’s what I’ve got so far: Continue reading »

Jun 062012

Boonesborough to Valley View, part 2

By Cap. Wes Houp

Apparently Satan traversed the Kentucky ahead of the first white men and laid claim to every choice nook and cranny, a diabolical vanguard skulking about geological oddities so that god-fearing frontiersmen would remember to say their prayers at night.  According to our trusty barge maps, Satan preferred the stretch from the mouth of Red River to just past lock 8 (coincidentally the same stretch that the earliest white settlers preferred as well).  Here you’ll find Devil’s Backbone, Devil’s Meat House, Devil’s Pulpit, and Devil’s Elbow.  Throw in Bull Hell for that matter, and you’ve got a veritable geography of evil.

Chilly view from Devil's Meat House. Photo by Troy Lyle.

Within minutes we’re back in the boats, cutting wakes toward the Madison County shore and the steep, wooded slope beneath Devil’s Meat House.  A passable deer-trail angles up through the boulders and disappears inside the cave.  We claw our way, clinging from tree to tree, and pause periodically to stare down at the boats tethered to tree-roots exposed at water’s edge. Continue reading »

May 022012

Boonesborough to Valley View

By Wesley Houp

“Curiosity is natural to the soul of man, and interesting objects have a powerful influence on our affections.”

—Daniel Boone

On a sunny, 35-degree afternoon in March, we haul our boats down I-75, cross the river at Clay’s Ferry, hang a left on U.S. 627, and make our winding descent to Boonesborough and lock 10.  Our objective: reconnoiter the watershed below Boone’s famous fort, make note of all curiosities, and emerge from the river valley approximately 20 miles downstream at Valley View in two days’ time.  It’s my inaugural voyage with this particular coterie of slackwater venturists, and I find myself in the odd rank of newbie and Kentucky River native (river expert by association) simultaneously. 

The Brooklyn. Photo by Troy Lyle.

Continue reading »

Apr 042012

Elkhorn to Lockport, part 2

By Danny Mayer

“Thank you for showing me Gest today, the two lock houses facing Cedar Creek those bureaucrats will soon raze.”

My breath flashes vapor at each line. Nearing late-afternoon on the Kentucky River, the sun has only recently asserted itself in the sky, somewhere near Stevens Branch on pool 3, four river miles past. This would have been before the portage at Gest, Lock 3 across from Monterey, and before the exploratory amble up the hill to see the two Gest lock houses in decay, the result of a strategic decision by the state and its people to abandon upkeep of grounds and water. Before the ham and cheese on bread, before the piss breaks, before reloading and shoving off, one-by-one from the remnant pad below the lower lock gates, to ferry back into the main-stream (eddying overnight at Severn Creek) on our way to Lockport.

Say, three hours ago. Continue reading »