Aug 022012

The lower Red River

By Wesley Houp

June.  The early morning rain tapers off.  My eggs, sunny-side-up, are runnier than I normally like.  But I don’t complain, masking the mucussy whites beneath a hard triangle of buttered toast.  It all goes down to a good spot.  Danny lords over his sausage melt and home fries (“covered and smothered”), glancing furtively out pane-glass at neutered clouds.  Dad, our shuttle-master, sips his coffee and polishes off the last bite of biscuit from his modest breakfast set.  Wafflehouse on the Winchester Road exit of I-75 is abuzz with grizzled truckers, rough couples trapped in leather with inexplicably demonic tattoos—in from a Friday night of god-knows-what, and harried moms with their wild-eyed, towheaded children suckling up more syrup than hotcake.  People on the go, people on the edge, people on the run, all people on the fringe of town…and us: just more wide-eyed people on the fringe of what comes next.  But this morning we’re aiming to plush that fringe with the green distance of the Mountain Parkway.  We’re Red River-bound.  So we sop up yolk and thank the waitress while Dad pays the tab, a treat he erroneously predicts as our last “hot one” for a few days.  At 72, with his river-ratting days mostly behind him, he’s forgivably unfamiliar with our new-fangled, compact, culinary technologies.  To echo Lexington crooner Chris Sullivan, we can make a three-course meal from a worn out shoe.  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 »

Mar 072012

By Wesley Houp

To say a river is a living system is a scientific truism that even the most scientifically uninitiated intellect can grasp with minimal cognitive stretching: rivers teem with life, from unicellular diatoms to aquatic invertebrates and on up to vertebrata, fish, amphibian, avian, mammalian.  Watersheds branch like trees, only their life-force moves in reverse from tiniest green-shoot to broad trunk, the faintest spring or rill gaining momentum, joining forces with other rivulets, debouching into larger creeks that eventually embolden the flow of master streams.   Geologists, taking the long view of things, give rivers human-like agency, noting how they “capture” and “pirate” this or that watershed, or “desert” and “abandon” this or that channel, ever insisting on a course of least resistance.  Rivers, like so much of life on earth, adapt to physiographic vagaries and persist through course of time as if accumulating the knowledge of experience.

Lock 3 is nearly topped by the Kentucky River, which ran at 16.5 feet on the Lockport gauge. Photo by Wes Houp.

Continue reading »

Jan 162012

From the November 1, 2011, performance of Rat Shed Radio, held at Homegrown Press. Other Rat Shed Radio paddles can be found here: Fayette floaters and fair Jessamine.


By Western.

From its headwaters in the mountainous southeastern part of the state, the Kentucky River flows northwest toward its confluence with the Ohio. The river diverts from this northwesterly course but once, when it hits the high grounds of the Lexington peneplain and is forced to cut a southwest route around the area now known as Lexington. The crescent-shaped region carved by this riverine diversion, the fabled canelands, has long been a hub of all forms of life.

This section of Rat Shed pairs some history on the Fayette crescent with songs by Wes Houp, Chris Sullivan and Warren Byrom. Continue reading »

Nov 232011

Working rivers and locked communities

Lockmaster Chuck Dees turning the valves. Photo courtesy Bobbie Jean Johnson.

In part one, Wes recounted the state and federal policy to place the Kentucky River lock and dam system into permanent “caretaker status,” a process that involved welding the locks shut, downsizing lockmaster employment, and discontinuing upkeep.

By Wesley Houp

Like his father, Chuck Dees’ early years with the Corps were spent on relief duty.  From ’51 to ’55 he traveled the river with a repair party delivering necessary supplies, materials, and manpower to ensure the locks were in good working order.  In the summer of ’56, Dees came to lock 7 at High Bridge and stayed for the next 22 years. Continue reading »

Nov 092011

Labor, river care, lockmasters

By Wesley Houp

Gates at Lock 7 entrance, flood of '72. Photo courtesy Bobbie Jean Johnson.

In 1985 the state signed a three-year lease agreement with the Corps of Engineers to keep Kentucky River locks open for recreational boaters.  The agreement allowed the Corps to place locks in “caretaker status” should the state fail to assume full control by lease termination.  Caretaker status, a curious if not ironic designation, would involve “welding the lock gates shut and discontinuing upkeep.”  From 1982 to the lease agreement, locks 5 through 14 closed operations, and most of the lockmasters retired, moved on to other work, or took reassignments at the lower locks from Frankfort to Carrollton.  In some cases, they moved on to other rivers and lakes.

Roy Berry, former lockmaster at lock 13 in Lee County, transferred to Taylorsville Lake on Salt River and finished out his career as lockmaster on the Green River.  In his own words: “I sure didn’t want to leave the [Kentucky] river when I did.  I didn’t think it was necessary to close the river.  It didn’t cost them much money, wages were so low.” Continue reading »

Oct 262011

Frankfort to Elkhorn: An imaginative stretch

Editor’s note: The conclusion to the 5-part, dual-author recounting of a 2-night mid-summer float on the Kentucky River. The Slackwater Paddle-venturists have rounded Frankfort, passed through Lock 4 and encamped at Steamboat Hollow, where the current author was visited by the ghost of Colonel George Morgan Chinn.

By Wes Houp

Lyle arose early, started coffee, browned sausage, chopped onions, garlic, and another carmen in the pan.  The smell of sizzling pork wafted through each tent, and by 7:30 the camp was alive.  I sat up in the tent for several minutes and thought it best to sit on last night’s encounter a little longer.  After breakfast, we started to dissemble our constellation of tents, tarps and gear and pack kit and caboodle back into dry bags for the next leg.  In the bottom of my kitchen bag I found a dog-eared copy of Kentucky: Settlement and Statehood, 1750-1800, by George Morgan Chinn.  “Whose book?”  I held it up for all to see.

“Not mine, but I’ll take it if you want.”  Danny examined the cover and opening it to the title page announced, “Hey, man, this is an autographed copy.”  Sure enough, there was Colonel Chinn’s signature.  “A signed copy.  You know, this book is out of print now.  Better take good care.  It looks like someone’s marked the important stuff.”   I stuffed the book back in the bag, chalked its strange appearance and my strange encounter up to too much hootch, hauled my load back down to the canoe, and we pushed off en masse by 10:30. Continue reading »

Oct 122011

Frankfort to Elkhorn: an imaginative stretch

By Wes Houp

Editor’s note: The slackwater venture paddlists have floated through Frankfort, down Lock 4, and arrived at Steamboat Hollow on mile 58 of the Kentucky River, where they have braved stinging nettles, set up camp and eaten of a buffalo sausage four-squash red sauce ladled over a slightly al dente penne pasta. On a night walk of the bottom, the author has become separated from the rest of the party.

“Do you own this place?”  I asked in the quavering tone of a child who’s just crossed a forbidden fence.  “I just stopped here to stretch my legs.  I’ve been paddling all day.” Continue reading »

Sep 282011

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.

Photo by Troy Lyle

Slackwater venturists heed Ricky G's direction while in Lock 4.

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. Continue reading »