Exploring the Licking River and the Ohio River Manchester Islands
Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
Over the past two years, while working on my guidebooks, I’ve had the privilege to explore many of the most historic places in Kentucky, which I’ve read about in history books for decades.
Most recently, that has included a paddle down the Licking River near the historic Blue Licks State Park Battlefield. The park is located near the town of Mount Olivet in Robertson County, Ky., which was founded in 1820 by pioneer Simon Kenton.
The park is easy to get to from the Tri-State, a 95-mile drive that in addition to Interstate 64 includes several state highways through the rolling farmland of northern Kentucky. It truly is a pleasant way to begin the journey, as it passes the covered bridge off Ky. Highway 32 in Fleming County.
Blue Licks State Resort Park takes in the battlefield, where in 1782 nearly 70 Kentuckians lost their lives, including Daniel Boone’s youngest son, Israel. In addition to a Pioneer Museum, shoreline along the Licking River and the forested hills and ravines surrounding both, the park includes 146 acres.
The Battle of Blue Licks, between the earliest Kentucky settlers and the allied British, Canadians, and numerous bands of Native Americans, has been given the title of “The Last Battle of the American Revolution” by several historians. It was here at this bend in the river, near the Blue Licks so named for its salt licks that have attracted wildlife for thousands of years, that one of the worst losses for the early American frontiersmen occurred.
I’ve lived near the park for most of my life, in fact, have probably driven with in 20 miles of it dozens of times but have never visited. So, in early July, my husband and I met my sister Katie and her husband, Nick at the campground there Saturday afternoon to establish a basecamp for a weekend of paddling. We would start with the Licking that day, and continue the next morning with an Ohio River trip around its Manchester Islands.
The weather could not have been more perfect. For mid-July it was surprisingly comfortable even at mid-day in the middle of the Ohio River Sunday afternoon. (In fact, the heat of that day enticed us to roll our kayaks several times to cool off, and continue our practice of the skill we’d like to be better at on swift whitewater.) The campground was packed but we found a place in the shade to pitch our tents.
We then traveled about 30 minutes to our put-in at a ramp built and maintained by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Clay Wildlife Management Area along Cassidy Creek Road. There are three boat ramps in this area, making floats from 4 to 10 miles possible. We chose to launch at the Upper Blue Licks and float to a ramp, a mile above the intersection of Mexico Road and state route 32.
The put-in and takeout were easy to find and about 20 minutes apart. Remember to add an hour of driving time to your paddle time for the shuttle of the canoe. We didn’t launch until after 2 p.m. and reached our destination well ahead of dark. In fact, we were done with dinner in Flemingsburg and back at camp in time to collect firewood for the evening.
The paddle was quite and calming. The Licking here is pristine with little or no trash, and the paddling was easy – only a few bumpy shoals to navigate. The banks are muddy and tree lined and the water is teaming with fish. We spotted a very good size Muskie from our kayak, even on a day when the water was slightly muddy. We saw numerous Bass jump at insects throughout our afternoon, and were treated to a few other creature sightings including an array of birds and a swimming snake.
A longer trip, ours was not one that could be simply floated. However, my brother-in-law Nick till found plenty of opportunities to lean back and look at the trees overhead during our paddle!
The current on the Licking River is lazy in the summer, so we paddled most of the trip to keep our crossover kayaks moving along at a quick enough clip to reach the takeout in four hours. The canoe seemed to need much less effort to keep it cruising along.
It was just the sort of summer day, I won’t forget anytime soon. The four of us caught up while enjoying the pristine surroundings of the Licking River.
The following morning after a hearty breakfast at the Hidden Waters restaurant in the lodge at Blue Licks, we made our way north along U.S. 62 to Maysville. Crossing the Ohio River there, we headed west on U.S. 52 to Manchester, Ohio for an afternoon of exploring its namesake islands.
Launch fees for our crafts totaled $4 at the Island Creek Marina and Campground located at 8801 U.S. 52. The islands, protected as part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuges, are open to the public between sunrise and sunset each day. (Since Kentucky controls the Ohio River to its historic high-water mark on the opposite shore, the islands are indeed located within the Commonwealth.)
It took only a couple of hours to circumnavigate both islands, including a brief break on the sandy southern point of the small island. A natural sandy beach there is a popular spot for anchoring recreational crafts. The generally calm waters in the eddy of the island are ideal for swimming and the sand makes a great playground for little ones! A trail also heads into the interior of the island from the beach, making it a great place to stop for a picnic lunch and a short hike.
A note of caution for paddling this area: Tows with large fleets of barges attached do frequently pass through the area. Pay attention to them and remember to stay out of their way, and prepare for their wake when paddling a small pleasure craft. In the time we spent on the water Sunday, only a single tow passed us by, providing a welcome photo opportunity.
Afterward we headed home along U.S. 52, stopping in Portsmouth for dinner, and completing the perfect little loop weekend trip.