When you slow down long enough to listen, it can be somewhat surprising just how loud nature is — especially this time of year, when thousands of singing insects, mostly crickets and cicadas, fill the late summer afternoons with their chorus.
As the sun beats down on the Big South Fork River somewhere between Leatherwood Ford and Station Camp, sometimes you just have to put down the paddle and listen. Unless you’re within earshot of a set of rapids — and there aren’t many of them on this stretch of the river — the only sound you’re likely to hear is that of those insects. Their voices seem to indicate a sense of urgency, as if they know summer’s days are numbered and the killing frosts of autumn will soon arrive.
You will hear occasional other sounds, of course — like the screech of a blue heron, annoyed that intruders have interrupted his fishing. Or a splash as a snapping turtle slides off the log he has been sunning himself on and returns to the river’s murky depths. There’s the smack of a smallmouth bass surfacing to snatch a bug from the water’s surface. And, if you’re really lucky, you might catch a bald eagle’s piercing cry as he soars overhead.
You might call this the very definition of tranquility, and you wouldn’t be wrong. And, somewhere along the way, as the stern of your boat slices through the flat water, you might realize why recreational kayaking is one of America’s fastest-growing forms of outdoors recreation.
As equestrian trails and hiking trails have grown more crowded, the water is in some ways the backcountry’s final frontier — the one place where you’re almost guaranteed to be alone . . . at least most of the time.
The beauty of recreational kayaking — which is rapidly growing in popularity both among Scott County residents and visitors to the region — is that there is no bad time of year to try it. The untamed nature of our rivers means that whitewater paddlers are limited to the winter and spring months. But when mother nature serves up the very best of what she has to offer — late summer and fall — there is still plenty of water to be paddled.
Locally, it is New River that draws the bulk of recreational paddlers. With popular access points at the Winona Bridge, the Town Springs boat pad in Huntsville and the U.S. Hwy. 27 bridge, the calm waters of New River make for a perfect place to play. Flat Creek Reservoir, too, is growing in popularity among recreational kayakers. The Big South Fork River is still catching on.
Most think of the BSF as a whitewater river. And, like its Clear Fork tributary on its upper reaches, it very much is. But once the river exits the canyon around the old O&W rail bed and begins to calm, it becomes an inviting waterway for recreational paddlers.
No recreational paddler in his right mind would tackle the BSF between the confluence of New River and Clear Fork and the old O&W Bridge. And no whitewater paddler — not experienced ones, anyway — would tackle the BSF downstream from Leatherwood Ford. In this regard, the BSF is two different worlds.
Even at typical late summer streamflows, the BSF is navigable from Leatherwood on downstream to Blue Heron and beyond to Yamacraw and Lake Cumberland. There are a few rapids that must be portaged once the stream flow succumbs to the drier weather of this time of year. But, for the most part, the BSF consists of flat water, just waiting for paddles to be dipped in.
This year is a bit of an exception to the rule. Streamflows have been above normal for much of the summer months due to a surplus of rainfall. This past weekend, for example, the BSF was running at about 600 cubic feet per second, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey at Leatherwood Ford. At that level, it couldn’t be more perfect for whitewater paddlers.
In the two-mile stretch before Angel Falls, there are a series of Class I and Class II rapids that can easily be navigated by recreational kayaks. They’re more small wave trains than anything else. After Angel Falls — which must be portaged unless you have a desire to lose your boat and perhaps even your life — the river slows considerably. In fact, there are only three sets of rapids over the course of the six miles from Angel Falls to Station Camp. There is the set of rapids at John Hawk Smith Place, Rough Shoals — which is the “worst” of the rapids, sans Angel Falls — and Stephens Shoals. The most challenging, even at a water level of around 600 cfs, is Stephens Shoals, because it presents ample opportunity for your boat to high-center a rock. The most fun, at this weekend’s level, is Rough Shoals.
At a typical late-summer stream level of around 200 to 300 cfs, some of the rapids between Leatherwood and Station Camp become unnavigable, but the inconvenience of exiting your boat to pull it through the occasional rapid is offset by the eight miles of scenic beauty offered by this stretch of the river.
According to a report issued last year, recreational kayaks now make up the largest percentage of paddle boats that are being sold, with makers of the vessels experiencing an 18 percent increase in sales last year alone. Simply put, it is a sport that is exploding in popularity.
Somewhere between Leatherwood and Station Camp, you realize why.
This article is the August 2017 installment of Our Back Yard, presented by First National Bank on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.