Rollin’ down the River
Navigating Kentucky’s inland waterways provides boaters with magical scenes seldom viewed and memories of a lifetime
Very soon, the tradition will begin again. Each warm Sunday afternoon, boats begin nestling into Blue Springs Bay in Lake Barkley. Their owners tie the crafts together, flip on the music, and let the fun begin.
Everyone is welcome, and most arrive with some sort of food, which finds its way to the designated “food” boat. People wander in when they are hungry from swimming or simply floating around on the water. They tell and retell stories of their adventures during the week. There are no worries on these warm afternoons that melt into lazy evenings.
Jack and Joyce Kotarek and their friends Dale and Marilyn Bugbee can usually be found at the gathering. They live next door to each other in nearby Cadiz. Their friends Pete and Frances Lankford have been with them, too, although the Lankfords now live in White House, Tennessee.
“There is camaraderie among boaters you don’t find anywhere else,” says Jack Kotarek. “It’s more casual. There’s no difference if you are a brain surgeon or a lumberjack and if you have a $1 million boat or a $500 boat. Everybody seems to be the same. We’re all there to help each other.”
The Kotareks, the Bugbees, and the Lankfords found that same kind of comradeship when they decided to take what they named the Tour de River Excursion.
The couples explored a large portion of Kentucky’s inland waterways in their boats and even had t-shirts made to commemorate the trip, which they repeated two times in subsequent years after enjoying it so much the first time. They always left Cadiz on Memorial Day weekend for the week to 10-day adventure.
The Tennessee River is navigable for 652 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Paducah, where it joins the Ohio River. Going east on the Ohio you can get to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or you can take the Cumberland River off the Ohio to Nashville, Tennessee. The Cumberland River is unusual because it flows both north and south: it flows south down through Kentucky to the other side of Nashville, then starts turning north and goes back into Kentucky. Forty-six miles west of Paducah, the Ohio joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Going north on the Mississippi will take you to Chicago, and farther to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The friends’ trip started at Lake Barkley Lodge, took them down through Nashville, Tennessee, east on the Cumberland River, and then back onto the Kentucky River.
Marilyn Bugbee kept a journal of their adventures.
“At mile marker 104, Cumberland City, we started seeing eagles and water fowl,” she noted in her journal. “We’ve been to Alaska and seen more of them, but when you see them around here they are so magical. You can spot them easily with their bald heads. They’re not as sociable as osprey but they are becoming much more plentiful on the lakes.”
Birds of all kinds can be spotted along the inland waterways, she says. Great Blue Heron are often sighted. White pelicans and osprey also make an appearance, migrating in and out of Kentucky.
Cruising down the river, the couples passed green farmland that sparkled in the sunlight and even more water birds. Then the scenery changed from green land to dramatic gray bluffs. At mile markers 180-182, they found gorgeous waterfalls.
At Cheatham, they experienced their first lock.
“It lifted us 26 feet,” Bugbee says. “If you have never experienced going through a lock, it is something you want to do.” Later they went through a lock at Cordell Hull Lock and Dam, which raised the boat 59 feet.
“You have to have a reservation,” Bugbee says, “and we didn’t know that. It stalled us while we waited a day, but after the lift you come to the Little Switzerland area. There you run into beautiful rock strata. The rocks look terraced. They are beautiful, almost like mountains. It is a very different atmosphere. Being out on the water and seeing all of that is too beautiful to explain.”
At the Dozier Catfish Restaurant, mile marker 153, Bugbee made note of the great hamburgers. “They are known for catfish, but the hamburgers are delicious, too.” They experienced other restaurants, such as the Blue Moon Restaurant—“rustic, an experience,” Bugbee noted in her journal, and the restaurant at the Gallatin Marina, mile marker 236.8, where Bugbee says she would recommend the turkey sandwich.
The best part?
“Trips like that are very different for every person,” she says. “I love people, so being there with friends and sharing it and being able to talk about it was special for me. But it wasn’t just one thing. The experience of being out on the water and in the water swimming was great. Seeing the eagles. Seeing goats on the side of mountains. The little rapids, the waterfalls. It was all so beautiful. Even the rain was a great experience.”
And speaking of experiences, they had a few.
On the Cumberland River, Pete Lankford spotted a possum that had apparently gone out on a limb, fallen, and gotten wet. The little creature was trying to get back on land but was stuck on slippery rocks.
“I steered the boat over to the cliff,” Lankford says. “I had a fish net in the boat, so I scooped him up with that and put him in a place where he could walk. I think he would have died otherwise.”
On another river, the friends found more wildlife.
“We were going to Burgess Falls,” recalls Lankford. “The water was a little too shallow for me to pull right up to the bottom of the falls, so I was going to get close and then back up. I came in a little too fast and put it in reverse a little too late. Dale and Marilyn were sitting on the front of my boat. I ran into some tree limbs, and when I did snakes started falling every which way. It was full of snakes. We were quite shocked. Fortunately, none of them fell in the boat.”
Perhaps the incident they laugh most about now seemed quite serious at the time.
“The six of us were in two boats coming up the Cumberland River,” Lankford says. “I had managed to get a mile or so ahead of the other boat. All the sudden, Jack is on the radio yelling in his northern brogue, ‘Dale has hit a boy-e. Dale has hit a boy-e. Come back. Hurry back.’ I thought Dale had hit a child. He had actually hit a buoy.
“Dale had navigated right into one of the channel markers made of metal. He hit it dead center of the boat and sheared the prop right off the engine. We didn’t know what kind of damage there was to the front of the boat and if it was going to sink. Fortunately, it didn’t do hardly any damage to the front of the boat. Dale had a spare prop, so we installed it on the motor and made our way up the river.”
Dave Sturdevant explored a different section of Kentucky’s inland waterways in a different season, but the result was the same: he had a great time and would do it again.
A canoeing and kayaking enthusiast, Sturdevant bought a 22-foot C Dory, which he put in at Louisville on the Ohio River and took to Evansville, Indiana.
It was October 2006, and after a summer drought the rains had begun falling in earnest. The Ohio River was flooded, running at 33 feet instead of the usual 17.
“I hadn’t been on a big river with the boat,” Sturdevant recalls, “and because of the flooding, it was kind of treacherous. There were logs as big as refrigerators rolling down the river. You had to be extremely careful not to damage your boat. It was pretty dangerous, too, because barges create quite a wake in that kind of water.”
The height of the river was confirmed when Sturdevant reached a lock that normally had a maximum drop of 29 feet. When he called the lock master back to thank him for letting him through, Sturdevant couldn’t resist asking how far the drop had been. The answer was six inches.
“The river was quite beautiful,” he says. “The only problem I had was that the season was about over and fueling stations kind of disappear in the winter.”
Sturdevant says he particularly enjoyed passing the towns along the way, including Cloverport, Henderson, and Owensboro in Kentucky, Tell City in Indiana, and Elizabethtown and Golconda in Illinois.
“You could tell you were at people’s back door instead of their front,” he says. “It used to be that everyone lived along the river. Now they live along the interstate. There was not a lot of activity along the river as opposed to the interstate. But the towns were awfully pretty.”
It was interesting to see where the Wabash River comes into the Ohio River, he says. “It’s just kind of magical. You can tell a river is joining a river.”
He particularly likes the Ohio River because you are never out of range for cell phones.
Chip Jaworksi also likes the Ohio, which he travels regularly as part of his job as general manager of Sea Ray of Louisville, a boat seller. He delivers boats and also takes guests on trips down the river. He starts in Louisville and goes as far as Evansville, Indiana, and to the Lake Barkley area, the usual stopping point for recreational boaters since most recreational boaters travel the Tennessee Tombigbee farther south. He says the Tombigbee was formed for recreational boaters so they could bypass the mammoth Mississippi River.
Jaworski particularly enjoys passing the Hoosier National Forest near Brandenburg and seeing the deep, clear water near Alton, Indiana. He often spots bald eagles and other wildlife along the way.
Back in Cadiz, Jack Kotarek says he feels blessed to have made the trips and to have the lakes and facilities we enjoy in Kentucky.
“I met up with a man who had built a good-sized house like you would see on land, but had built it on pontoons. He was a man of leisure and quite an interesting character. What I remember most, though, was the name of his residence. It was ‘Nograsstomow.’
“I now have four grandchildren, and I’m making river rats out of them, too. My son is 44, my daughter is 42, and my youngest is 35. When they are together, they will suddenly start talking about things that happened on the water 35 years ago and the fun they had. Those kinds of memories just get permanently etched in your mind. Just talking about our trips makes me want to do it all again.”
INTERESTING STOPS ALONG THE WAY
Cruising down the river may be life at its best, but even the most ardent sea dog needs to hit land once in a while. Here are a few fun places and events our boaters recommended in the Land Between The Lakes area. Call Kentucky’s Western Waterland and ask for a Kentucky and Barkley Lakes 2008 Official Visitor’s Guide, at (800) 448-1069 or go online to www.kentuckylakebarkley.org.
The Rock Quarry on Kentucky Lake, www.kentuckylake.net: Dubbed “the party cove,” this popular area is located in Land Between The Lakes on the east shore of Kentucky Lake at mile marker 30. The quarry itself is approximately 118 feet deep and has a rock ledge that is a popular cliff-diving spot. The rocks are covered in paintings and graffiti. Although most people visit the Rock Quarry by boat, you can hike from Hillman Ferry Campground in LBL.
Land Between The Lakes, Golden Pond, www.lbl.org, (800) 525-7077: A designated national recreation area, LBL has more than 170,000 acres and 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline. LBL has year-round biking and hiking, an elk and bison prairie, the Golden Pond Planetarium, Woodlands Nature Station, and The Homeplace, a rural farm much as it would have been in the mid-19th century.
Drag Boat Races, Pisgah Bay, (270) 354-6515: The Kentucky Drag Boat Association holds four annual events: three on Kentucky Lake at Pisgah Bay, and one on Green River at Livermore. Call for dates.
Green Turtle Bay Resort, Grand Rivers, www.greenturtlebay.com, (800) 498-0428: The gateway to more than 200,000 acres of water, this marina includes a boat yard as well as a deep-water harbor. Also, rental condos, a conference center, two restaurants, and the Commonwealth Yacht Club.
Kenlake State Resort Park, (800) 325-0143
Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, (800) 325-0146
Lake Barkley State Resort Park, (800) 325-1708
Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park, (800) 325-1711: All have overnight lodging, 18-hole golf courses, full-service restaurants, camping, plus special events each month. For more information on these state resort parks, go online to www.parks.ky.gov.
Patti’s 1880’s Settlement, Grand Rivers, www.pattis-settlement.com, (888) 736-2515: Famous for their mile-high meringue pie and 2-inch pork chop.
Kuttawa Harbor Marina, Kuttawa, www.lakebarkley.org/kuttawa.html, (270) 388-9563: Home of the famous Rudyburger and ice cream treats such as the Rudy Royale, this full-service marina also has a boat bottom scrubber and a gift shop.
Eddy Creek Marina, Eddyville, www.eddycreek.com, (270) 388-2271: Full-service marina, motel and cabins, RV park, restaurant, private beach, and grocery.
Adsmore Museum, Princeton, www.adsmore.org, (270) 365-3114: Tour the Victorian home of four generations of a prominent west Kentucky family.
Prizer Point, Cadiz, www.prizerpoint.com, (800) 548-2048: Lots of activities for the kids and adults, including family movie night, theme weekends, mini golf, and hiking and biking trails. The marina and resort has lakeside lodging or camping and a ship store for supplies.
National Quilt Museum, Paducahwww.quiltmuseum.org, (270) 442-8856: See more than 150 antique and contemporary quilts on display in three exhibit galleries.
River Heritage Museum, Paducah, www.riverheritagemuseum.org, (270) 575-9958: Located in Paducah’s oldest surviving downtown building, this museum features a model steamboat display, lock and dam, hydroelectric dam, a flood table, music stations, river bottoms, a dredge boat model, a 16-minute river film, a restored 1920s calliope, and a 1937 flood photo gallery.
Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Maritime Education, Paducah, www.seamenschurch.org, (270) 575-1005: In 1997, the Institute expanded its maritime education initiatives to Paducah, developing the first computer simulator-based training program designed exclusively for the inland river industry.
Southern Lakes Area Loop, www.exploreKentuckyLake.com (click on Attractions & Activities then Scenic Drives): This is the longest scenic route, about 130 miles down Highway 80. In Murray, there are more dining options than anywhere else in the area, as well as four golf courses. Hazel, about eight miles away on U.S. 641, has more than a dozen antique malls and stores. Crossing into Tennessee, you’ll find Paris, which has the Heritage Center. In Dover, Tennessee, approximately 12 miles away, is the Fort Donelson National Battlefield.
NO BOAT? NO PROBLEM
You want to experience the river but don’t have a boat. Captain Richard Carter kept seeing tourists in this predicament, so he opened Marine Charter Service in 2006, the only such service to his knowledge on Kentucky Lake.
Carter provides customized, chartered boat trips covering more than 40 miles of Kentucky Lake from Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park to Kenlake State Resort Park at Aurora. The tours begin at the end at the dock of Sportsman’s Anchor Resort and Marina on Route 68 E, midway between Draffenville and Aurora. For more information, call (270) 354-9340.
If you want to try your own inland waterway trip, take heed of the advice offered by the well-traveled boaters featured in this story:
- Know your craft, your boat.
- Know how far it can go on specific amounts of gas.
- Make sure your engine is running well and you have either a cell phone or a marine radio with you. There are still some areas where you can’t get a cell phone signal, so they all agree a marine radio is useful.
- Be sure to carry maps and navigational charts.
- Pay attention to buoys. When returning from sea, red markers (even-numbered) will be on your starboard or right (known as the “lateral” system or Red Right Returning), and green markers (odd-numbered) are on your port side or left.
- Make sure you check the weather forecast. Then keep an eye on the sky because meteorologists are wrong as many times as they are right.
- If the weather even hints at turning bad, go to safe harbor.
- If you are going through locks, take old gloves, old buoys, and a sturdy paddle. You also need a sharp knife. The paddle can keep you away from the side of the lock. The knife could come in handy if you get tied up on the wall.
- Tell lock masters if you are novices. It’s better to admit it on the front end than run into trouble later.
- Check to see if you need a reservation to go through a lock.
- Make your first trips in mid-summer when more facilities are open and there are more people on the river to help you if you need it.
- Take extra provisions with you such as food and water.
As with any trip, planning makes the actual journey less stressful and much more fun. Many boaters recommend Cruising Guide from Lake Michigan to Kentucky Lake by Captain Rick Rhodes. This guide includes four chapters on preparations and then takes readers from points north to south. It includes the Chicago, Calumet, Des Plains, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers.
Another book our boaters recommend is Cumberland River CruiseGuide by Fred Myers. Unfortunately, it is out of print, so you will have to find a used copy.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: KENTUCKY'S OHIO RIVER TOWNS
Kentucky filmmaker Cory Lash explores the histories of 14 smaller Ohio River towns and their places in the history of the state as a whole in his film Kentucky’s Ohio River Towns. The towns began to develop along the river in the 1790s, with each contributing to the growth of Kentucky and the movement west. KET is re-airing the film especially for Kentucky Living readers on Sunday, April 13, at 10:30/9:30 p.m. CT on KET1.
To read more river town tidbits from Cory Lash, and about towns and communities along the full length of the Ohio River, click here: river towns.