The journey was billed as a "Media Trip", a chance for some local media and public relations types to get their feet wet, so to speak, paddling a kayak down Floyds Fork along the Beckley Creek Park section of the Parklands.
The river was in great shape; perking along at a very paddle-friendly 150 cubic feet per second; well below the frantic 2,300 cubic feet per second that can occur following a deluge, but nicely above the virtually zero feet per second possible in the Dog Days of August – a situation that might also be called walking.
“It’s like ski season,” explained Parks Director Scott Martin of the river’s many moods while creating a few new words along the way. “There are about 160 to 170 paddleable days here and about 200 unpaddable days.”
Our start was color coded; a dozen bright red or screaming- lime-green kayaks lined up near the river, a neat pile of blue life jackets and a sunny sky above decorated in porous white clouds.
The fiber-glass kayaks were provided by Green Earth Outdoors – which has begun a canoe and kayak rental service in the park in partnership with The Parklands. The kayaks weighed only about 50 pounds, easily carried to the launch site but buoyant enough to keep my 235 pounds about six inches above water – at least for the time being.
We first maneuvered a few hundred yards upstream where some tree and shrub identification was mixed in with general instructions on how we would spend the next 90 minutes; body centered in kayak; knees slightly bent; proper use of two-bladed paddle; staying to the inside of the curves in faster water; just stand up if you tip over – Floyds Fork isn’t that deep in most places.
My favorite Word of the Day was “strainers” – a situation created by submerged logs or debris where “the water can go through but not the kayak” – seemingly a metaphor for life in general.
We floated and gently paddled downstream from there, testing the waters and our various abilities with baby strokes. We eased past two women and a very large shaggy dog splashing in the water, then two hikers lost in serious, measured conversation as they walked past on the Louisville Loop trail that followed the contour of Floyds Fork in the woods above.
It was, at first, a little surprising to see people up there walking through the woods so close to paddlers in kayaks; the quiet remoteness of the river in that area seemed to preclude pedestrians who will also have equal access to the park’s almost 20-mile length when it’s completed by 2015.
The projected use of the park in its first year was about 350,000 visitors; the actual figure was closer to 800,000.
Further downriver a glum-looking fisherman was standing on a large, flat rock that angled into the water; an easily accessible spot off the hiking trial where, alas, the fish were not biting.
On the good days – and in the right places – bountiful sunfish, bluegill, rock bass, small and large-mouth bass can be found in the Fork, which is also stocked with trout several times a year.
Our eventual destination was the Creekside Paddling Access near the Egg Lawn and the Gheens Foundation Lodge, less than a mile away as the crow would fly but closer to two miles as the media would paddle.
At first it was impossible to escape the continual rumble and thump of traffic along nearby Interstate 64, but it soon was possible to ignore it.
The scenery and paddling lessons ruled the moment. Large sycamore trees arched out from both sides of the river, their mottled white limbs almost touching at the center. We floated beneath them, drifting in and out of patches of green leaves, sunlight and shadows; the conversations those of genial strangers at a dinner table.
Where the river narrowed and curled around bends – thus creating small, flat rapids where water gushed out in a frothy “V” – we practiced with varying results the admonition to stay on the inside of the curve.
Two Canada geese had blown past overhead just as we began our journey, blaring territorial warnings. We would later see water snakes and a map turtle – the latter a mostly reclusive creature so designated because of its distinctive markings on the bottom of its shell – and talk about the variety of mussels in the river, and the invasive Asian clam.
The wide open spaces of Midland Trail Golf Club were above us to the right – hidden behind a thicket of brush and trees – providing jokes about incoming golf balls. None were forthcoming, but it’s not unusual to find water-washed balls in the shallow, rocky areas further downstream.
The river curled off to the right into the almost U-shaped Oxbow section of Floyds Fork, a more remote area that had once been the site of a Civil War skirmish between retreating Confederates and Union soldiers defending Louisville who would eventually meet in a much more bloody sequence at Perryville.
It’s an area that can only be reached on water; the setting more serene; the fishing better. We pulled over to enjoy the silence and to practice the fine art of maneuvering a kayak off to the quiet pool of water alongside a fast-moving eddy.
Martin demonstrated the technique; using the paddle for leverage; leaning away from the direction your body wants to go; spinning 180 degrees from the faster water into calm water. The kayak students went at the task with varying degrees of success, but it was not an art quickly learned by a 235-pound man perched atop at 50-pound kayak.
I dug the paddle into the water as suggested, felt the kayak begin to respond, then quickly lost the battle with gravity, inertia, water pressure and kayak inexperience.
Clearly things were not going as planned.
As the kayak flipped and went partially under – along with its occupant – the sudden surprise of the watery moment, the rush of foam in my face, was eclipsed by one overriding fear; my writer’s notes for the trip had been protected within a plastic refrigerator container that was now quickly bobbing down the river away from me; nearly a Lewis and Clark Moment in river-travel history.
Within seconds I stood up – the current was strong but the river there was as shallow as advertised – while another paddler rescued the fast receding notes. Martin tipped the kayak on end allowing the water to drain out a small hole normally well above water; another lesson in kayak technology.
On we floated, coming around to the far side of the Oxbow, under an arching bridge connecting the park road and then under Interstate 64; back for a time into nosier civilization.
But it still seemed up and away from us; Floyds Fork a separate place even as cars and trucks rumbled and thumped overhead; the intricate, man-created pattern of the walls below the bridge catching our interest.
The noise slowly dissipated as we swung around bend flanking the Egg Lawn, stopping one more time for a fun lesson in rocking a kayak held in place in gentle rapids called “Riding the Wave” or "surfing".
The park is heavily used in this area (on land); a dozen visitors looked down on us as we wandered past. We conquered one last gravel bar, slipped under one last decorative bridge and paddled up to the Creekside Paddling Access, a carefully laid out series of carved rock steps, where our journey ended almost two hours after it had begun.
Some of the paddlers rode back to the North Beckley launch site in cars – a trip of about five minutes. The more adventurous rode bicycles.
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.
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