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Paddling alone

Unless you count fish, birds and visions of the past

Green River runs through Mammoth Cave National Park and is a prime spot for kayaking. Photo: Graham Shelby
A stick measures the depth of the water. Photo: Graham Shelby
Adventures of Mammoth Cave provides kayaks for the tour down the Green River. Photo: Graham Shelby
A kayaking tour can provide individuals a connection to nature. Photo: Graham Shelby
Leo Shelby, 17, accompanied his dad on the kayaking adventure—though he finished the route a little faster. Photo: Graham Shelby
Writer Graham Shelby documents his experience mid-journey.

PADDLE LEFT. PADDLE RIGHT. Paddle left. Paddle right. 

Hold. Drift. Listen. 

This is the pattern I establish on my 7.5-mile solo kayak trip on the Green River through Mammoth Cave National Park on a recent Saturday. I say “solo” even though there were about a dozen other kayakers—including my 17-year-old son Leo—who entered the water when I did, all of us piling out of the shuttle van provided by Adventures of Mammoth Cave, a private outfitter located just outside the park boundary. 

At 50, I’m committing to both my most serious kayak experience ever, as well as the most demanding physical exertion I’ve had in a year-and-a-half of pandemic inertia. I’m trusting in the accuracy of the Adventures of Mammoth Cave description of the course: “Excellent trip for beginners or those with small children.” 

I struggle at first to balance myself on the red plastic kayak. The Green River lets us largely set our own pace, nudging us along steadily and seemingly without hurry, though the Mammoth Cave website warns, “At normal stage, the Green River flows at a relatively brisk 4.3 knots, about 5 miles per hour, which is too strong to swim against.” 

The flow of the river helps push me and all of us along, though it also means there’s no turning back. As Shane Bull with Adventures of Mammoth Cave cautioned us at the beginning, there’s no reliable cell signal in the park, so, “If something comes up, you pretty much just have to keep paddling.” 

The feeling of being separated from the rest of the world is part of the appeal of the excursion, as is the sense that by disconnecting from our phones, our hometowns and everything that goes with them, we might connect with … something. Nature? Ourselves? Our fellow kayakers? I appreciate all of those, but the real sense of connection I discover is with an unexpected source, one not obvious at the beginning of the trip. 

At the opening of a small riverside cave, I chat briefly with the other paddlers, one of whom points out, “Looks like your son ditched you.” 

“Yes,” I say, watching Leo disappear around a distant bend, “but that was inevitable.” And I understand; I am part of the world he probably wants to disconnect from, at least for a while. 

I pace myself so that soon I don’t see or hear anyone else. And that’s when the journey really begins, in a way, when I notice that even though there are no people around, I am far from alone. 

In good company 

According to The Nature Conservancy’s website, “The Green River is one of the most biodiverse rivers in the country. It is home to more than 150 fish species, more than 70 mussel species and 42 endemic species (species existing nowhere else in the world).” 

I shout, “Hello!” at the snapping turtle I see perched on the branch of a submerged fallen tree. 

Elm, ash and sycamore trees crowd the riverbank and provide homes for nesting birds. A great blue heron swoops past me. A red-tailed hawk glides above. 

No doubt plenty of bass, crappie and bluegill swim beneath the surface of the water, with a color ranging from tan to olive to teal to clear as its depth ranges from perhaps 10 feet to no more than a few inches.

At some point after this, I notice how long it’s been since I’ve seen telephone or electricity poles, cars, highways, buildings or really any evidence of human construction. Like the tours of the caves beneath us, the ride along the river starts to feel like a journey into the past. I remember reading that flatboats used to travel the Green River, carrying produce, for example, as far as New Orleans. Of course, in the life of a river, that was barely yesterday.

Mammoth Cave has yielded evidence of human visitors here as far back as 5,000 years. I wonder, when did the first human beings stick the first paddle into this water? Did they get spun around by the current like I am, making my way around this bend or that island?

Did the ancestors of these trees greet them? I assume the first people to reach this place were more focused on survival than I am, but did they sometimes pause, like I am now, and appreciate the sound of a hidden waterfall, somewhere behind those trees? 

It’s hard to take away everything I know about the history that separates us and imagine their lives, their perspectives, what this river might have looked like to them. The archeology can tell us some things, but there’s much more it can’t tell us. What made them laugh? What did they dream about? Or even, what did they call the Green River? What did they call themselves? 

Those people are—and will always be, to some extent—a mystery. And yet in that moment, I feel a whisper of connection to them, through this place, as I put my paddle back in the water, arms starting to ache. 

After about four hours, I reach the destination at Green River Ferry. There’s a concrete road where I beach my kayak. Leo looks pleasantly surprised that I’ve made it. “How long you been waiting?” I ask. 

“Half an hour.”

Wow, I think, I really made good time. 

“But I stopped and looked around some of the islands.” 

Of course. 

Later, we compare notes on our Green River experience. The plants and wildlife we saw. The joys of solitude we each found in this place layered with life and history. 

Paddling left, paddling right. Holding, drifting, listening.

GRAHAM SHELBY loves to tell stories about Kentucky’s unique places, people, food and history. He lives in Louisville with his wife and sons, and frequently visits his family homeplace in Clay County.

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