May 082013

By Wesley Houp

Editor’s note: What follows is an account of Wesley Houp and Danny Mayer, intrepid paddlers of the Kentucky River watershed, as they branch into Tennessee waters.

Floating on the upper Duck. Photo by Wesley Houp.

Floating on the upper Duck. Photo by Wesley Houp.

By the time we’ve trimmed the gear and bungied loose odds and ends, the sky has turned to pitch, not quite the “bible-black” of Tweedy’s predawn, but close enough.  The waning crescent, locked out, fails to backlight the low cloud-cover.  It’s only 5:30pm but it might as well be midnight.  The magnetic sibilance of shoalwater dilates my pupils as I turn in the current to face the dark downstream.  This is Danny’s first Duck River paddle, a stretch we’ve planned for months, and we’ve already had to trim eight miles off the front, concession to wives and children waiting patiently at journey’s end.  We’ll miss the Little Hurricane and Fall Creeks, but we’ll still camp tonight at the mouth of Sinking Creek above the nameless island and mussel-bound braids of Shearin Bend.  We find our line, hit the chute and shoot down the middle in quick succession, boats for tongues in a manner of articulation, the river, the ultimate grammar, its nominals of stone and deadfall submerging and emerging, modifications lisping and lapping, auxiliary perfect and progressive with modal: “Even when you’re gone, I will have been traveling over the stones for an eternity.”

Danny lets out a joyous little “whoop”, but I’m momentarily distracted; some water finds its way over my gunnels and into my shoes, reminding me of what I’ve forgotten: waterproof boots.  My worn out Sperrys sponge up the slosh.  At least the night is mild, and with only a thirty percent chance of rain perhaps my feet alone will suffer the indignities of damp.   As if to lighten the mood, the bottle of Jim Beam #7 clears its throat: “Shoes come and go, but a river lasts forever.  Bottoms up.  Downstream and seaward!”  Danny drifts up beside me, and we heed the call. 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 »