On a foggy Wednesday morning, seven women arrived at Fishing Creek and started unloading pieces of a rainbow from their cars. Ranging in age from 61 to 87, they moved swiftly and surely in their water shoes, commenting on the glass-like quality of the expanse before them, anxious to be floating upon it.
Soon, the rainbow started to come together as the women launched seven kayaks, each sporting its own vivid color. Then, donning sporty sunhats, the women were off down the creek, chatting and paddling comfortably as the sun burned off the hazy morning.
Meet Cookie, Betty, Liz, Cindy, Sue, Czarina and Peggy, otherwise known as the Crayola Kayakers.
“Kayaking with friends has made life worth living in this crazy COVID time,” said Peggy Sherry, who routinely organizes the outings. “We can enjoy the beauty of the lake and visit with each other while maintaining our social distance.”
Whether you’re interested in a similar glide on the water or looking for more of an adventurous pace, our beautiful area offers excellent opportunities for canoeing and kayaking.
Below, find a taste of the most beloved paddling areas on Cumberland River. For more detailed descriptions of the floats from expert adventurers, we recommend you visit these websites:
- Kentucky Blue Water Trails (includes gorgeous detailed descriptions of floats as well as maps)
- americanwhitewater.org (includes difficulty levels, flow rates, GSP coordinates of launch sites and take-outs, and comments from paddlers)
- paddling.com (first-hand reports from paddlers on the water)
This has become the area’s most popular float, as much for its scenery as its beginner-level ride. Its banks are lined with limestone cliffs and its mostly Class I rapids are tucked tightly together, making for a fun, bopping float. Along the way, you’ll come across several swimming and fishing holes as well as dozens of caves. The most famous is called “the Blue Hole,” just upstream from the Poplarville take-out. When the water level is right, you can jump into the pool in the cave but be forewarned: it will be a mere 57 degrees.
Wildlife is also in abundance, as documented by local kayaker Rodney Hendrickson and his wife, Alice: “We were both thrilled to get a good look at an otter. When he saw us, the otter scrambled down the banks and into the creek. For several hundred feet, the otter would swim under water in front of our kayaks, occasionally popping his head out of the water to get a look at us. This was the first otter Alice and I had ever seen in Kentucky. We also saw a lot of birds including great blue herons, green herons, several species of ducks, and lots of little song birds.”
Further accentuating the area are new signs that clearly mark various ingress and egress points; a renovated put-in at Stab with a gentler slope; and a renewed commitment to keeping the area litter free.
Though they are closed for the season due to COVID-19, there are two outfitters – Buck Creek Outfitters (recent beneficiary of a SPEDA mini-grant to upgrade its equipment) and Buck Creek Adventures — that offer kayak rentals on Buck Creek and will help you launch your vessels and then pick you back up.As for ingress and egress locations, there are several options. The most common put-in is on the west side of the old KY 80 bridge in Stab. You can then take-out in various areas depending on the length of float you want. To map out your trip, click here.
Big South Fork
Try as we might, we can’t describe this floating stretch any better than the writers at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife did, who said, “it looks like the gods stomped their feet in anger” when they created the Big South Fork.
“The rumble sent building-size boulders down the sides of the cavern, nearly choking the river’s flow and giving rise to rapids later named Broken Rib, the Washing Machine, Snaggle Tooth and Devil’s Jump as a tribute to their rough character.”
“it looks like the gods stomped their feet in anger” when they created the Big South Fork
Doesn’t that sound like fun?
As for put-in and take-out, there are a few options here. The first is a 19-mile overnight float that starts in Tennessee at the Station Camp Canoe Launch via U.S. 27 south and TN 297 and runs to Blue Heron in McCreary, Ky. Or there are shorter, mostly family-friendly floats that start at Blue Heron and range in length from 2.5 to 8 miles. Click here for more information on them.
Either way, it’s best to avoid stormy weather and flood-level waters. The valley is narrow here, which means the river can get frothy quickly.
Cumberland River (below Cumberland Falls)
This is a feisty 16-mile stretch that will lead you from below our mighty Cumberland Falls (world renowned for its cyclical “moonbow”) to the mouth of Lake Cumberland. It is a stunningly beautiful area, both for the drama of its waters and the severe, lichen-dressed rock faces that accompany your float downstream.
Featuring up to Class IV rapids under high-water conditions, a whitewater kayak and helmets are recommended for the beginning of this float.
To get there, launch your vessel right below Cumberland Falls. Park at the Cumberland Falls parking lot, walk between the two buildings, and veer right to the uppermost cobblestone path and follow it all the way down the sandy beach.
For a family-friendly float, start at the Laurel Boat Ramp (via KY 1277 off U.S. 25 in Whitley County) to the Rockcastle Boat Ramp at the mouth of Rockcastle River (via KY 192 to KY 1193 to KY 3497 in Laurel County.) This is a 5.75-mile ride on mostly calm waters.Click here for more information about these floats.
Fishing Creek Recreation Area and Pulaski County Park
This is a fun little area to tool around, especially if you’re staying in the nearby campground. You can also explore Pitman Creek, which veers off from here. The area is largely more lake-like than creek-like, and the forested views are pretty and peaceful. Follow the signs to Fishing Creek Recreation Area off old KY 80 and you can’t miss the boat launch.
Little South Fork
This stretch of Cumberland River offers several opportunities for some easy-going floats (expect Class I to II rapids) atop stunningly clear waters and amidst picturesque views. There are signs of Appalachian’s hardscrabble history along these serpentine routes, including remnants of settlements, suspension footbridges and stone fences. But you’ll likely be alone on this stretch; this is a remote area of the state.
So much the better, says one paddler on riverfacts.com: “The beautiful of the Cumberland Plateau Mountains is a great plus for this river. The beautiful scenery and the water flowing gracefully down Cumberland River … are reasons enough to come here and paddle.”
Floats range from 2.5 miles to 10 on the Little South Fork, which is 45 miles long. The section from KY 92 to the confluence with Big South Fork is considered one of the most scenic in the state and has earned it a Kentucky Wild River designation. For more information on ingress and egress points, click here.