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Big South Fork: Station Camp to Blue Heron

Trip Overview

On July 15, 2017 four friends and family, and our water-loving Boykin Spaniel, took our rec kayaks to Big South Fork Recreation area to paddle the Cumberland River from Station Camp to Blue Heron, camping just before the Tennessee-Kentucky state line. After a much later arrival than we anticipated we dropped a truck at the takeout and set off late in the afternoon with the Leatherwood Ford gauge reading around 600 CFS. With amazing weather in the mid-80s, our first-ever overnight paddle began around 4PM where we paddled the 8 miles of predominately flat water with intermittent ripples, hitting just one set of class II rapids until just past the KY border where we planned to camp near Difficulty Creek and Bradley Branch. Upon arrival and scouting the area just as dusk set in we realized it was not a safe place to camp in the event the water levels rose overnight. We paddled back up river to what we dubbed Mushroom Rock where we had seen some flat ground above the water line. With darkness setting in we quickly got our fires going and setup camp. The climb up was tough on the sliding sandy hill, but what a beautiful place to camp if you just have a tent or two, a third would not have fit comfortably do the the rocky terrain with limited flats, but if you just have a single tent this place would have been the bees knees. We cooked on the large flat rocks by river's edge to mitigate the chances of running into one of the park's black bears, eating an amazing campfire cooked steak dinner around midnight and took in the stars on a clear mid 60 degree night. There were curious frogs all around us that were in no way phased by our presence which only added to the charm of what we dubbed Frog Island, knowing that it isn't an island at all. The next morning we slept in until 9AM and then cooked a big breakfast spread on a small butane stove before packing up camp. In the daylight we found a small pond right by our camp which explained the numerous frogs, some as small as a horsefly, we had been seeing all around us. The girls ventured further up the hill to find some privacy for relief where they quickly stumbled upon a large campsite complete with firepit, grate, and two woks. This one also had ample flat space where you could easily fit 10-15 tents if needed. I went up to check it out and followed a trail a hundred or so yards upstream that went down to a much easier access for parking boats and moving gear to that campsite. We'll definitely be making use of that spot next time we paddle BSF. We shoved off around 2PM, river running at around 400 CFS, again passing Difficulty Creek and Bradley Branch (look kids, Big Ben...Parliament) where we found our first set of many class I & II rapids we would traverse during the day's 11 mile paddle. None of them caused much trouble for the rec kayaks other than taking on a little water here and there in my old Jackson Daytripper 12. My wife who was padding a borrowed Jackson Cruise 10 with our dog took a few tumbles on some of the larger sets where the drops were more extreme, mostly because she neglected to do any sort of compensation and just went down with the ship like a tree trunk with its roots. By the time we arrived to take on the most exciting portion of the trip, Devil's Jump, at mile 18 darkness was beginning to set in. We stopped just above the rapid, river left, to scout the situation. I continued on a little closer river right to get a better look and setup a camera. I coaxed my wife to paddle down to me where I sent her and the dog around the right side and I dropped her boat down the smaller, not runable, rapids which were also fairly steep. She collected the kayak on the other side in the eddy below and I sent them on downstream to the takeout as the last bit of light began to fade away. This, IMHO, is a much better way to get boats around Devi's Jump than the long left side portage trail. I quickly and carefully hopped from rock to rock grasping against the current to get back to my boat where I took on Devil's Jump in the last light. The Class III+/IV rapid was easy to navigate, even in my long and loaded boat, just make a hard right turn as you go down the first section and you've made it with relative ease. If you don't turn hard right your bow hits direct on the left side rocks and the current grabs your hull, spinning you around backwards where you can hopefully, but not likely, recover before flipping and riding the end of it a little too close for comfort to the rough riverbed. My lone injury (or should I say injuries) of the trip occurred as my first attempt to climb from the eddy below back up the rock face to retrieve my GoPro suddenly ended in a 10 ft tumble back down into the water, where I became reacquainted with a decades old knee injury. Worn out and feeling defeated, I carefully scaled it again and made by way back down. Our two other paddlers weren't quite as adventurous and chose to portage both their kayaks around the long river left trail. By the time I helped them get those two boats down the rocky reentrance it was complete darkness. I rigged up a Maglight to my hat so I could see down river and headed on down to the takeout to make sure all was well with my wife and pup. As I approached the Blue Heron ramp I saw her light a feeling of relief set in and I was thankful they had arrived safely and not missed the takeout in the dark. We waited patiently as our friends finally emerged from the darkness, where we shared stories of our trials before loading the boats and heading back to Station Camp to collect my SUV before making the long drive back to middle Tennessee. All things considered this trip was really amazing, the most fun paddling I've experienced to date, but I would urge anyone that does this to allow ample time to get from start to finish daily. We plan to make it a 3-day trip next time, where we may attempt to put in up at Leatherwood Ford and hopefully arrive a couple hours earlier to get our trip timeline to play well with the sunlight. Paddling in the dark is never a good idea and we would have enjoyed the trip even more had we not been rushed at the end of both days to get off the water. Our 2-day, 19 mile paddle took a total of 10 1/2 hours, paddling around 6 1/2 total hours with an average speed of 2.8 MPH. Video of our trip is on YouTube here:
  • Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II), Whitewater (Class III+)
  • Number of Portages: 1
  • Portage Description: Mile 18: Optional Portage at Devil's Jump
Day 1: 600 CFS Day 2: 400 CFS

Locations on this Trip