Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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April 22, 2014

Tim Preston: Tygart Creek trip offers new friends, breathtaking views: 04/23/14

ASHLAND — We launched an unfamiliar flotilla in four kayaks and a canoe along Tygart Creek in downtown Olive Hill a couple of weekends back, without a clue about what we were getting ourselves into.

We had been hearing about this particular creek since we packed our old canoe from the Carolinas to Kentucky a few years back.

You can only make the trip in the spring when the water is up, many said, while others swore you’d have to be in a kayak to make it very far. When a friendly stranger from Facebook (who made the run along Tygart Creek a few times in his past) offered to lead the way on a recent Sunday, we had no intention of declining the offer. My new neighbor mentioned he had a nice kayak he’d never even gotten wet, so we invited him along, too.

Only days before, I’d interviewed Coy Ainsley, the park naturalist at Carter Caves State Resort Park who leads three or four canoe and kayak expeditions along Tygart Creek each spring. “It’s a very pretty creek and a limestone gorge that it creates,” Ainsley said, explaining Tygart is 88 miles long, although his excursions are limited to roughly six miles of the waterway.

“The section we usually run is one of the prettiest,” he said, noting paddlers will put in at a bridge along Interstate 64 and continue to another bridge near the entrance to Carter Caves. “Once we drop in there, you are surrounded by limestone cliffsides. There is no development. You don’t see houses. There are some flat flood plains along banks to cliffside, but there are other areas where the cliff comes down into creek, and there are some places carved away  ... you can go into rock overhangs or shelters in your boat. We rarely run into anybody else out there at all — other boaters or fishermen, or anybody. You get out there and ... peaceful. You can relax and enjoy bird sounds.

“This is a six-mile canoe or kayak trip that takes you down Tygart Creek, cutting through Kentucky’s most scenic limestone gorge. You will be on the creek for about 3 1⁄2 hours,” he said.

Apparently, all I heard was “cutting through Kentucky’s most scenic limestone gorge,” because I thought Ainsley almost made the run sound easy. I remembered he noted the slow flow of Tygart Creek makes it good for people who have some experience in a canoe or kayak, with “kinda like Class One rapids” and a few “strainers,” or downed trees. There were a few times along the way when I can promise you I was thinking there was no way we could get our canoe through certain sections without getting dumped out.

“It’s not real good for people who’ve never been in a canoe on moving water,” he noted, providing what could have been a warning to my neighbor in his new kayak, who I suspect had only been paddling in flat-water situations while fishing in lakes and ponds.

We met our Facebook friends near the entrance of Carter Caves, introduced ourselves and parked a vehicle at our stopping point for eventual use later in the day, before traveling back to Olive Hill and shoving our plastic boats into the water. Once we had all kicked off, mere moments had passed before one amongst us was practically naked. Needless to say, the day’s adventure was already taking some interesting twists.

Our guide for the day, a big guy relying on a tiny boat, repeatedly went tumbling out of his craft as we began our journey. He proclaimed his exasperation and openly questioned what in the world was happening, citing years of experience guiding small boats along rapid waters. After what seemed like a thousand spill-and-recovery sessions, we suspected everything from an inner-ear malfunction to brazen resume-padding until he finally figured out there was a small hole in the rear of his boat, allowing the back of the tiny craft to slowly fill and suddenly roll and sink him like a rock once the buoyancy factor had been overwhelmed.

It was one of the first spills he took, in a section of fast-moving water, that was also responsible for sweeping his shorts off. Making his day even tougher, a brand-new kayak paddle purchased the day before soon snapped and refused to be repaired, leaving him only one half of the double-tipped paddle to help guide his kayak down the creek. Despite the obstacles in his path and the temptation to climb out and find the nearest highway to catch a ride, however, he made it all the way to the end, often using that half-paddle as more of a rudder than an oar.

My neighbor quickly proved his adaptability and within minutes was practically paddle-dancing that new kayak (a sweet little composite model made by Old Town) across the riffles and enjoying the gentle force of the current as it swept him along. He kept that up for the first few miles of the journey, but took a royal thumping in one of the creek’s few challenging “whitewater” sections, and found himself barefoot, face down in the water (in a slick-rock section) while trying to keep his boat from floating away, all the while checking to see if he was bleeding or had snapped a bone.

My wife watched the whole thing happen and was immediately worried, ordering me out of our canoe to lend a hand after we’d swept past. I had barely made it a few steps against the current and our friend waved me off, snarling something like “I’m all right. Leave me alone!”

For that guy, from that point forward there was no saving this trip, and he (rightfully) got progressively more angry each time he’d ask, “How much further?” only to hear the rest of us laugh in response. I have to leave a lot out here, but I can assure you the poor man was dealing was some physical issues that would prevent almost any regular guy from even thinking about paddling a kayak. And, what we didn’t realize at the time was he was suffering a sudden drop in blood-sugar levels caused by his medications, and was really extra miserable.

To his credit, he eventually stepped out of the small boat in a spot beneath a beautiful natural waterfall, had himself a few bites to eat and bounced back to complete the journey in style. I’m pretty sure I even saw him smiling on the way back up the creek bank, although he also hit the shore and made a pact with God himself that he will never again go boating on moving water.

Other than getting our canoe’s belly hung up in a couple of shallow areas, Team Preston fared quite well getting the bigger two-seat boat through the skinny parts and over the rapids. At times, I suspect we were best described as the giggling idiots at the back of the pack who didn’t seem to be taking this as seriously as we should. We relied on a simple method for our success — always go last and watch what happens to everything in front of you.

The two other kayaks, piloted by a featherweight woman and an unstoppable teen boy, also made the Tygart Creek journey without incident, although I think the teen may have hit the water a few times on purpose out of sheer boredom from spending an entire afternoon with slow, old people.

Do you remember Ainsley’s prediction of a trip that lasts about 3 1⁄2 hours? We did it in something like seven hours and 15 minutes. When he described places along the way as “scenic” and “beautiful,” he simply didn’t have the words to do it justice. I don’t have those words either. In the gorge section especially, the eye can wander from rock spires and cathedrals to natural amphitheatres and massive overhangs without the body moving more than a few feet, and we were often guilty of stopping our forward progress to linger just a little longer to admire the views. We weren’t trying to make “good time,” and barely made it to the bridge at the bottom of our run before it was getting dark.

If you like the idea of sharing such an experience, remaining guided Tygart Creek excursions by Ainsley are scheduled for Sunday and May 11. Those trips feature access to areas off limits to anyone other than park personnel, as well as a floating education as Ainsley and other guides point out interesting flowers and features along the way. Required equipment includes proper attire for cool-weather paddling, a change of clothes, treaded footwear, flashlight (for natural tunnel visit), sack lunch, bottled water and a dry bag for personal supplies. The cost is $25 per person. Limited space is available and registration is required. To register, call (800) 325-0059 and be aware trips can be canceled because of high or low water levels or extreme weather conditions.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.

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