By Jeremy Patton
Cumberland Falls is located in Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Whitley County, Kentucky.
Shane, Angie and I paddled below Cumberland Falls for the first time on 7/16/17. It was magical. Before I tell our story and possibly inspire others to replicate it, I must mention a few safety concerns. This float can be fun or deadly, depending on your decisions.
1. If it has rained recently, or rain is in the forecast, stay away. A Kentucky monsoon could strike upstream without your knowledge, morphing the river into a devouring monster.
2. Wear a life jacket. The waterfall’s turbulence is powerful and chaotic.
3. Do not paddle directly below the falls. The undercurrents could overwhelm you.
4. Do not attempt this float unless you are an experienced paddler.
On 7/16/17, the Cumberland River flowed at about 739 cfs and 1.93 feet. There are numerous websites where you can check the mood of the river before you depart. I use americanwhitewater.org.
There is no easy put-in. If you want to paddle here, you must be a pack mule.
We unloaded our kayaks in front of the gift shop, parked, then carried them down to the beach along the paved path that flanked the river. About midway, it forked, one path descending, the other climbing higher into the cliffs. We took the high path. It rejoined the low path near the beach, but reduced the number of steps.
Our two green kayaks were light, so Angie and I carried them in one trip. Shane rolled his heavy, tan fishing kayak on a dolly for half the journey, then we carried it for the remainder (due to steps). If all three kayaks had been light, things would have been fairly easy. Just take your time and take breaks. The trip is a little more than a quarter-mile.
Many folks along the route inquired if it was legal to paddle below the falls. I believe that it is. However, swimming is illegal, and very stupid.
The put-in at the sandy beach was easy, as was our paddle upriver. Little by little, we tested the waters and crept closer to the falls. The wind randomly sprayed us, which felt great under the summer sun.
I learned a lot about how the river circulated. It plunged and rushed toward the east bank, sweeping me downriver when I tried to paddle against it. The west bank, however, was choppy, but relatively stable; eddies lived among the boulders there. We moved to the edge of the falls, relaxed and took pictures. The mist drifted east, keeping us somewhat dry.
I got hot, struggled across the river, then rode the current back down, repeating numerous laps. The mighty waterfall’s cool, drenching mist made me feel elated–and small.
From the west bank, Shane and I examined Cumberland Fall’s spacious rock shelter. We concluded that it was possible to take-out on the rocks and boulder-hop behind the falls. We had heard old-timers speak of the wonderous, frightening power there. We aim to experience it for ourselves, but will wait for the next drought.
We floated downriver and took out on a sandy sliver of beach tucked between two massive boulders; it resided just south of Eagle Creek. We hiked to Eagle Falls and encountered more tourists there than I had ever seen, perhaps 15-20. One considerate, middle-aged man stripped naked in front of us and changed into dry clothes. His magnificent little penis was exactly what was needed to make Eagle Falls even grander.
We did not venture beyond the mouth of Eagle Creek because the river became choked and swift, making portage necessary on the return trip. We happily paddled back to Cumberland Falls for another round of photos.
We watched tour groups visit the falls, each for a few, tantalizing minutes before rowing back from whence they came, obviously bound to a strict schedule. The sad sight reminded us of the advantages of doing our own research and exploration.
As late evening approached, the west bluffs provided shade that our group, the Pale Pirates, greatly appreciated. We wanted to stay longer, but hunger finally drove us to the Riverview Restaurant. Next time, we will pack a cooler full of sandwiches and beverages and enjoy a very special picnic on the churning river.