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For this trip the goal is to boat down 30 miles of the Rockcastle river from U.S. route 25 to the U.S. Forest Service Campground at Bee Rock. This region of Kentucky has long been one of my favorite my playgrounds. My adventurous exploits have traditionally been of the land based variety such as backpacking and caving. This trip, however, would be something entirely different. The idea of letting the water carry me and my gear through the spectacular remote wilderness of Kentucky in October was irresistible.
The planning phase for this trip started weeks earlier through the combing of teraserver images and reading of Internet trip reports. I discovered the last couple of miles before reaching Bee Rock would likely be hair-raising and that no one with aspirations of growing old should attempt boating this portion of the river without an experienced trip leader. Well, unfortunately, an experienced leader was not one of our available resources.
From reading Internet postings and the Bob Sehlinger’s “Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to the Streams of Kentucky” it seems that the minimum flow required to run the Rockcastle River is 220 cubic foot per second. There is a water gauge station about midway down the river at old route 80 near the town of Billows. This water data can be read in real time through the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) web site at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?03406500 . I had been keeping an eye on this web site since early September. When Hurricane Ivan drove up into the Middle Eastern States from the Gulf of Mexico on September 18th the flow of the Rockcastle shot up dramatically. It’s not exactly clear just how high the river surged but the gauge which had a maximum reading of 23 feet was pegged. The flow was likely to be much higher than the corresponding 14,300 cubic foot per second indicated by the “maxed-out” gauge. Then we put in at 3:30 pm on Friday October 8, 2004 the water was flowing about 130 cubic feet per second. We were all concerned this might be too low to run the rapids of the lower Rockcastle. Heck, we were not even sure if the Rockcastle Narrows were even doable by us with any water level. Should our fears prove to be founded, we just might be doing the longest portage of our lives.
The plan was to all meet at the put-in location at the Route 25 Bridge over the Rockcastle River between 12:30 and 1:00 pm. Paul was the first on the scene, beating the rest of us by an hour or more. Paul had scouted out the situation and found a dirt road leading down under the bridge off of the main road. This dirt road is steep and deeply rutted so care must be taken to avoid getting stuck or tearing up the vehicle undercarriage. Paul had also taken the time to speak with the proprietors of the Rockcastle River Trading Company on the north bank of the river. Trip reports indicated they allowed boaters to park their vehicles on their property. The woman tending the store was extremely friendly and even offered Paul half her lunch though he settled for a cup of juice.
For the first several miles along the river, a road traverses the west bank. Because we had wanted to leave all traces of civilization behind for our first night of camping, our objective was to paddle 7.5 miles to the confluence of the Laurel Branch. Time was ticking and we still had to shuttle a vehicle to the take out point at Bee Rock on Kentucky Route192. After leaving a vehicle near the Bee Rock boat ramp and driving the 35 minutes back to the put in location, we pushed off at 3:30 pm. Paul and Daniel were in Paul’s 15 foot Royalex canoe. Eric and Dwight were in identical sit-on-tops tandem kayaks with their gear strapped where their passengers would be. Kim was breaking in her new 13.5 foot Perception America. I was in our older Perception Sanibel which is a 15 foot tandem recreational kayak modified with a snap down fore and aft deck cover.
We enjoyed the rest of the late afternoon paddling the calm crystal clear waters of the upper Rockcastle. We scraped bottom only twice or so over some shallows. We finished our first day of paddling around 6:30 pm at Laurel Branch as planed. Camping was great on the shoal by Laurel Branch. There was lots of room for several tents and firewood was plentiful. The gently cascading water with the help of some El Toro Tequila lulled us to sleep.
In the predawn morning hour, a lone ATV could be heard not far away, presumably a deer hunter moving into his lair. With that I began to move and was soon breaking out the coffee pot. Paul joined me shortly thereafter. Being old men, we stretched and groaned our morning stiffness away as the sky grew light. By midmorning Eric finally stirred and not long thereafter we broke camp. Around 11:00 am we pushed off.
Saturday was warm but mostly cloudy. Even though it looked as if it could rain any moment, the rain held off except for a few stray sprinkles now and again. Except for the occasional riffle, the river was slow moving and very clear. Paul, who had captured a half dozen or so baby crawdads for bait the evening before, was slaying redeye and smallmouth by the score. The fish in these remote Kentucky waters are under very little pressure.
Time has a way of melting away in the serene and scenic waters of Rockcastle Valley. Soon, the Billows streamgauge station, with which I had developed a kinship with during the preceding weeks, drifted slowly by on my left. Seeing it for the first time was sort of like meeting a pen pal. Too bad this old sentinel of the river who has served us with 67 years of continuous service will be laid to rest next year. The USGS says as a result of ending its partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers it will no longer fund this station after October of 2005. Thereafter its survival will must depend on the private sector.
A couple of mile further we could hear the swoosh of constant traffic on the new route 80 bridge high above us. As we drifted this point of no return, a nagging worry creped upon me as we headed towards the angry waters of the Rockcastle Narrows. From this point on we would be venturing into the very remote territory of one of Kentucky’s most celebrated Wild Rivers. No turning back now.
The character of the river now changed somewhat. The water seemed to pick up a little speed and the towering sandstone cliffs that give the Rockcastle its name become prominent. These towering giant bluffs have periodically succumbed to the relentless force of erosion shedding house size blocks into the river and along the banks. This surreal landscape combined with near total silence induced a dreamy feeling. It was like venturing into prehistory through a time machine. The occasional gigantic uprooted sycamore pointing downstream was a tell tale reminder of the river’s power.
By around 5:30 pm we had made it to Sinking Creek. There, the river turned 90 degrees to the right. Exactly on the bend across from the creek was a nice long shoal with a dry sandy beach, fine for camping. Daniel scrambled to build a large fire while I strung a cloths line for drying our skivvies. Paul paddled across and downstream a bit to clean his stringer of fish. Kim wondered around the bend to bathe in the river. We all cozyied up to the fire and ate like kings. We had fried fresh fish, venison, potato soup and cheesy rice with broccoli. We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore. The sky had cleared and the stars came out. The temperatures were mild in the fifties. This was a picture perfect evening.
Morning came with the sun peeking out, backlighting a cascade of autumn leaves fluttering down to touch the water’s glassy skin. Today, Sunday, will be the last day of our glorious trip. We coffeed up, had breakfast, broke camp, and headed down the river. The river was clearly picking up the pace, pooling then dropping at an ever increasing rate. More boulders many slanted, at odd angles were appearing in and along the river. So far the rapids and riffles had been very mild class I but now a few might even rank as class II. Little did I know exactly what was in store for us.
Although he didn’t realize it, Dwight’s boat, a sit-on-top double, was taking on water through a separated scupper hole. He didn’t realize why paddling was seemingly harder and his boat more tippy but the situation was troubling him. Once we figured this out, I traded boats with him. He is a big fellow and I figured my lighter weight might buy more time between draining. Besides, I figured he needed a rest from the constant wet butt condition associated with the sinking boat. This worked well and we begin making decent time.
Soon we were at the Stair Steps. A straight 200 foot long set of class II rapids. Each in the group took a shot at them while I videotaped. First went Paul and Daniel in their canoe, then Eric. Dwight was next and executed them flawlessly after having tipped over repeatedly throughout the day before switching boats with me. Kim lined up and as she started down, her boat hung on a rock and spun around sideways. This dumped her out. When she shot past me without a boat I completely forgot I was videotaping. She was OK though, just a bit shaken by her first feeling of powerlessness in fast moving water.
When we passed Beech Creek, I knew the first really difficult rapids, the Beech Creek Narrows, were not far ahead. I had no idea if we would be stopped in our tracks. The backup plan, should these rapids prove unrunable was to portage the quarter to half mile trail up to the gravel road to the west. The elevation gain would be 200 feet or more, a formidable obstacle in its own right.
When we arrived around 3:30pm, the keeper hydraulic wasn’t keeping. This was due to the low water level. So we agreed to give it a try. Eric was first and would have made it but his paddles hung on each side of the narrows. With the exception of Kim, who was still thinking of her upset on the Stair Steps, all of us ran these rapids. I hiked back up and rode her boat down.
We continued down river about another mile until the next set of rapids which marked the beginning of the Lower Narrows. Unknown to me, the next three quarters of a mile were a churning winding series of highly technical class III and IV rapids. I think I counted five or six waterfalls, each no less then 5 foot in height. The flow was low and seemed relatively non-threatening. Our time was running out and a portage seemed out of the question so decided to go for it.
When the boats plunged the five foot drops, the nearly vertical boats buried half their lengths into the plunge pool before bobbing back into a horizontal position. This was very exciting, perhaps a little too exciting.
Kim and Dwight refused to take their boats down through this part of the river so Paul and I did a combination of running part of the rapids in the boats and then getting out and passing the empty boats down past the worst of the rapids. All in all it took probably two or more hours to get everyone through the Lower Narrows, probably longer that it would have taken to portage around them.
I was exhausted by the time we reached the ponded lake affected section of the river. However, it was very a pleasant paddle for the remaining mile through gigantic partially submerged rocks past Cane Creek and on to the Bee Rock boat ramp. The water was clear and a deep green color. We had the last boat lashed down before 8:00pm for the conclusion of a perfect trip.
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