By Jeremy Patton
On 7/29/17, Shane, Angie and I floated on the Kentucky River, putting in at a small boat ramp at Camp Nelson RV Park near the US-27 bridge. We paddled nearly four miles to Pollys Bend, then turned around, snaking through Palisades State Park and Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve.
The river was wide and calm. I forgot to check the gauges before we left; it had rained hard for a few days, but had been dry for several weeks before that. On 7/31/17, the gauge at High Bridge read 3990 cfs, 11.01 feet (AW gauge ID 1552). The river had risen nearly two feet since our outing. High Bridge is located about 18 miles downriver from the put-in. I would have used a closer gauge, but the one near Camp Nelson had not be updated in three years, according to americanwhitewater.org.
There were two bridges near the put-in and remnants of a third. The first was the new US-27 bridge that now supports traffic. The second was a steel bridge on Old Lexington Road E., probably the former US-27 span. Only the stone abutments for the third bridge remained. According the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife website, it was once “the Camp Nelson Covered Bridge, also known as the Wernag Bridge. Louis Wernag designed the 241-foot span, credited as the longest cantilever wooden bridge in America, as a single arch to enhance river navigation.”
It was no coincidence that so many bridges were erected there, near the mouth of Hickman Creek. It was a natural break in the imposing Kentucky River Palisades and a shallow spot ideal for crossings and landings. “A branch of the Wilderness Road crossed…here and [it] was the site of the second ferry established in Kentucky in 1785.” (Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife website). Daniel Boone frequented the area.
We did not paddle the short distance upriver to the mouth of Hickman Creek, which I regret. We were more interested in exploring the Palisades and were not fully aware of the site’s history.
As we paddled downriver, the limestone cliffs towered 200 feet above us in some sections. They did not form a continuous wall, but dominated the majority of the float. This 18-mile stretch of the Kentucky River is known as Pool 7, where the Palisades are their highest.
I spotted a possible cave in the cliffs, about a mile downriver, but it was inaccessible to all but the most brave and well-equipped climbers.
We rode the lazy current for the first four miles–slow, but relaxing. About midway, we landed on a shoal that we called an island, but it was more like a peninsula near the mouth of a dry creek. Shane spotted a big snake in the water as we carried our food and drinks into the shade, which put us all on high alert. Hordes of baby frogs hopped among the rocks. We had also encountered lots of fish, more than I had ever seen in a single trip, and chased a blue heron downriver.
Just before turning around near Pollys Bend, the Palisades soared and we could see a gleaming, white building perched on one of the bluffs. I wanted to paddle a bit further, to see what was around the corner, but we decided to turn back to make sure that we made it before dark. That was my second regret. I later read that Chimney Rock was located somewhere near Pollys Bend, along with another unusual rock formation (I cannot remember its name). We might have spotted them if he had ventured just a little further. Oh well, that gives us incentive to return.
July was not the best month to see the Palisades. The lush greenery obstructed views of the cliffs. A return trip in late fall would be ideal. To my surprise, we did not encounter many people during our eight-mile float.
We paddled without stopping on the way back and covered the distance in about one-third the time. As Shane and I drug our kayaks out of the water onto the crumbling, concrete ramp, we smelled sewage (but had not smelled it when we put in that morning). It oozed down the ramp and into the river, probably originating from the trailer atop the hill. Shane got shit on his shirt while hoisting his kayak on the roof of his car; he was most displeased.
A steel box posted on the hill requested $5 to use the ramp, which resided next to an RV park. It was easy to miss, so if you reach a public pool, or the blocked-off bridge, you have driven too far.
While heading north on US-27, turn right onto Old Lexington Road E., just before Rocky Top Market. Continue for about 1.4 miles. When you pass under the US-27 bridge, look for the boat ramp on your right.