Managed by the National Park Service, the Big South Fork National Recreation Area on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line is a 125,000 acre tract of pristine wilderness which protects the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. It is a rich habitat for wildlife including black bear, has a rich cultural history as home to early miners of the 19th century, and has many archeologically important sites related to the prehistoric occupants of the upper Cumberland plateau.
I have wanted to paddle the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River for a long time and on this past extended weekend it came to be. Planning for this trip had been underway in spurts since Labor Day. I combed the Internet for trip reports and any other tidbits of relevant information. I purchased a Trails Illustrated topo map, I downloaded 1 meter resolution aerial photos, and repeatedly flew through a Google Earth 3-D rendering of the gorge. And on Saturday October 21, 2006, with a blue cloudless sky and autumn leaves blazing full glory, I shoved off the bank for a 27 mile paddle adventure.
Of six hopefuls, the final roster turned out to be Eric and Michael Ellestad (a father-son team), Paul Moretz and myself. Paul and I left Hamilton, Ohio at 7:00 am with plans to meet Eric and Michael at the Blue Heron Mine (the take-out) at 1:30 pm. On the way we did some last minute shopping at Walmart, made a quick stop at Cumberland Falls, grabbed some lunch in Whitley City and stopped to check out the gorge overlook above the Blue Heron Mine. In the end, we were 30 minuets late and didnt arrive until 2:00 pm. There, we left Erics car, squeezed into Pauls van and headed off to the put-in at Leatherwood Ford. The ride from Blue Heron to Leatherwood Ford takes about an hour.
Before getting on the water we had to drive a couple of miles further west to the Brandy Creek Visitor Center to get backcountry permits. The ranger there was very friendly and gave us a short briefing about the trip. He said the 27 miles between Leatherwood Ford and Blue Heron is a classic trip and recommended we consider camping in a cabin on river right just a bit upstream before Big Island.
By the time we geared up and shoved off it was 5:00 pm with only a couple of hours before sunset. Paul and I were in one royalex canoe and Eric and Michael were in another. The sky was cloudless and deep blue. The air temperature was perfect in the mid 60s. With the sun at our back, the steep walls of the gorge shimmered with the brilliant autumn colors of leaves in their fall peak. The water level was a bit below the minimum recommended 400 CFS and our heavily loaded canoes drug bottom in the first of many shallows.
After the first 45 minuets we covered the one and a half miles to the first of two required portages. When you see the high distinctive rock bluff down the center of the river, that is Angel Falls overlook and its time to look for the portage trail on river right. The portage is about a quarter of a mile long. Head up the beaten path a couple hundred feet to the East River Trail. Follow it downstream past the coal seam on your right. Veer left off the trail back down a beaten path to the river rock garden below Angel falls. By the time we finished carrying all our gear the quarter of a mile around the falls the sun was setting. We would have camped there if it were not for the obnoxious screaming kids camping with their parents just across the river.
We repacked the canoes and headed onward in hopes of finding a secluded campsite before pitch blackness settled in. About a half mile down the river from Angel Falls on river left and out of earshot of screaming kids we spotted a dry sandy bank. The bank was slightly sloped at the water level but flattened out about 30 feet up the bank. It turned out to be the best campsite for miles. There we settled in for the night around a nice fire and hot food. As I drifted off to sleep a light sprinkle gently tapped the rain fly.
By morning there was no rain in sight. The sun was peaking through between a light cloud covering. The temperature was in the upper 50s and the morning was perfect. We took our good old time stretching, drinking coffee and having breakfast. It was nearly noon by the time we set off down the river. The river was deep, slow moving and very clear. Autumn leaves decorated the waters surface. Our heavy canoes and the slow deep water resisted our progress. We averaged about 2 miles per hour through most of day two. There were frequent riffles and mild rapids none of which seemed worse than a class 1+.
The temperature seemed to drop as the day progressed. The occasional ankle deep wade, required to dislodge our grounded canoes, resulted in some cold feet. By the time we made it to Station Camp around 3:00 pm we were cold and ready for a lunch stop. Here there was a gravel road, a large parking area, some bear proof trash cans and a porta-john. I suspect this could be an alternate put-it for those wanting to do the lower gorge in one day. The temperature, by this time, seemed to be somewhere in the 40s. After some food and hot coca we were as good as new and back in action.
There are frequent rapids along the river but none rank higher than class II with the exception of the two portages at Angel Falls and Devils Jump. Our leisurely pace and short autumn day turned this normally two day paddle into a three day event. As we approached to within a half mile of Big Island around 5:30 pm we were ready to stop for the night. There we found the cabin, just as the ranger has indicated; about 100 yards back from the right river bank. It was barely visible from the river through the leaves. Stay on the left side of the river to increase your chances of spotting it. We eagerly scurried up to find it vacant. It had a fire place, a covered porch surrounding it on three sides and a picnic table. It made a perfect refuge from the cold.
Paul treated us all with fried potatoes and onions along with ribeye steak grilled over hot coals. It was fantastic. That night I discovered Grimes Law. It goes something like this: tired wet paddlers, plus a cold night, plus a little Kentucky bourbon, plus a full belly, plus a warm fire equals total unconsciousness. I didnt even hear Paul snoring.
We were up early the next morning. After a light breakfast and coffee, we hit the water by 9:00 am. The gradient really increased for the final day of paddling. We paddled the remaining 12.5 miles to Devils Jump in approximately 6 hours. When you see the observation platforms high on the cliff river right, the portage around Devils Jump rapid is on river left. Two sign posts were present near the take-out but were missing their signs. Be very careful here because if you miss the takeout you may go beyond the point of no return before you see the rapid. Rather than portaging river left, we took the advice from someone we met earlier, who recommended using our painter lines to guide the canoes around Devils Jump to the right. That seemed to work well and we were in sight of the boat ramp within the hour. Michael and I waited behind with the gear at the Blue Heron Mine as Eric and Paul made the 2 hour round trip to Leatherwood Ford and back to get the van.
Two seat Royalex Canoes
$5 backcountry permit is required for overnight stays on the river.