Monday, June 13, 2016

Season of the Kayak: An Easy Return to the Middle Gorge

Nineties: an okay decade; but a sweltering temperature.  That was the forecast for Saturday.  The Chainring fambly decided to paddle the Middle Gorge in our kayaks.  Mandy hadn’t been in hers since we bought them back around Mother’s Day.  The Gorge trip was her idea.  She invited a few other locals along.  And before you knew it we were deep in logistical troubles trying to figure out how to get our five or six or seven boats (borrowed and otherwise) from the Chainring Holdings on Ha[ppy] Creek to the put-in a few dozen miles away.

Mr. Councilman in Clay City offered us his enclosed trailer.  We’ve been planning on putting a hitch on the SAG Van for a hitch mount bike rack and possibly for trailer use, but we’ve not pulled the trigger on that yet.  However, the family beater ‘Ru had a receiver, so early Saturday morning I found myself scrambling back and forth across the county to wrangle kids to a central location, obtain a ball and hitch for the receiver, install the bumitch, and pick up the trailer.  Of course then I had to load up eight boats before we pointed our grills toward the Gorge.

We left our teenager behind due to rotten attitude but ended up on the riverbank with a crowd of eight. Bean rode in a borrowed pink kayak and within a half mile of the put in I hitched her up for a seven mile tow down the trickle of the Red River.

The temperature was actually very nice despite the apocalyptic forecast earlier in the week.  In the shade the air was downright intoxicating.  And even in the sun it was pleasant and we didn’t feel the need to hide our pale bodies in the water much.  They only stayed pale a short time before pastiness gave way to pink gave way to red like the river.  Well, the river isn’t really red.  But our legs and shoulders became a nice fire engine shade.

Our group trucked along kinda spread out until we reached the mouth of Gladie Creek.  There we stopped for lunch, water, and to jump off a rock at the confluence.  We had a blast jumping off the little guy into the six foot deep pool below riffles there in the shadow of Jewel Pinnacle.

I fiddled around and found a great little boulder problem right out of the water, but had to accept defeat due to old age, stiff ligaments, and general fatness.  I will return though!

Don't look, Ethel! She's going to jump!
We pushed on toward the “jumping rock” below Chimney Top.  What we found there was both terrible and amazing.  We estimated at least a hundred people congregated on both sides of the stream, on top of the rock, and sitting pee-side down in the water.  We could hardly paddle through the throng.  Of course the teenagers still wanted to jump off the rock so we obliged them. But after a few minutes of watching a drunk tattooed guy skipping rocks through the crowd of swimmers I’d had enough.  I was either going to call the guy out and start a fight with him and his buddies or watch him cause a completely unnecessary alcohol related injury to a stranger.

I was glad to be paddling away from the circus that was the jumping rock.  I’ve seen the place crowded but that was ridiculous. 

Circus at the Rock
As we continued downstream toward our takeout at the steel bridge (Arn Bridge in local vernacular) we encountered quite a few people paddling upstream.  It took a few minutes but I finally realized that Red River Adventures is renting boats and sending people upstream to the jumping rock and then they paddle back down to RRA’s takeout at Dunkan Branch.  And there were a lot of them clogging up the river.

That explained why we felt we had the river to ourselves until we reached the rock.  Despite all the road traffic and the paucity of parking at the upper end most of the river traffic was concentrated between RRA and the rock.  And most of the garbage.  Most of the poor decision making going on.  Most of the beer bottles and meandering tourons.

Yeah, maybe I’m a little bitter.  I don’t begrudge the folks at RRA wanting to do well with their business, but I feel like they’re contributing to and maybe promoting an unsustainable situation.  When my family operated a boat rental business on the river we did not want to contribute to garbage and injurious ruin on the water.  Both Mandy and I wondered where the US Forest Service rangers were while all the shenanigans were going on.

After passing RRA’s takeout it seemed like the trip dragged on.  My memory of the last section of that run has always been flawed.  Every time I ran the river in the past I imagine a shorter paddle after Dunkan Branch than actual is.  On and on we paddled.  Deeper and deeper burned our skin.
Finally we reached the takeout and began the tedious process of dragging the boats up the steep and slick bank through a carpet of stinging nettles.  Mandy and I rushed to run the final shuttle while the rest of the group loaded the boats into the trailer.

As I drove back toward the Arn Bridge from the put in at the Concrete Bridge I couldn’t help but smile as nostalgia washed over me.  Many a day I ran those roads hauling canoe trailers and scanning the river from the road looking for wayward boaters, dodging drunk tourons in the SUVs, loud pickups, and Priuses who weave all over the narrow and curvy road. 

I have to confess I miss my old lifestyle.  I didn’t have any money, but I spent my days helping other people enjoy the outdoors in the Red River Gorge while daydreaming about my own forthcoming adventures.  I could look up as I sped along KY 715 and name al of the towering rock formations and crags I saw.  I took satisfaction in being able to answer every question thrown at me by the Gorge Rats I encountered on a daily basis.  In short I was living the life and didn’t even know it.  Hindsight is 20/20. 

I can’t say I regret the path I’ve taken to return to this place.  The journey has been incredible and continues to be incredible.  I can say I don’t want to ignore my opportunities of proximity to this amazing place I’ve inhabited and pined over for so long.

It's interesting to me that these days the kayak seems to be the craft of choice on the Red.  There was a time you only saw whitewater boats on the Red, and those appearances were rare and limited to the Upper Gorge.  I know that these flat water versions have become more affordable and accessible in the past few years and that has led to an increase in their popularity.  But I also know from long ago experience that kayaks are better suited to the Red because of their maneuverability and low draft.  The Red River is fiercely seasonal and finicky.  It likes to drop trees across its stream with regularity and it pushes the boater into winding courses.  It dries up just as summer chokes the land.  When you want to be on the Red it soaks into the sandy soils and withholds its navigability.  And so the kayak extends the benefit of this unique river beyond its normal season.  

Sunday we were going to go rock climbing but when we woke up with sore shoulders and backs and a general lassitude it seemed prudent not to engage in some activity which would further tax our weary bodies.  We took the Bean and rode our bikes.

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