By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
The snow of winter has finally given way to spring rains, which while I sit writing this are once again overfilling our creeks, rivers and lakes. I could canoe in my soggy backyard right now, but looking at my Old Town Canoe in resting in the garage, I’m craving something more exciting.
The wild, ancient gorge of Tygarts Creek has been on my mind since the first Forsythia bloomed. Named for the early pioneer Michael Tygarts, who became so enamored with the scenic gorge and its surrounding lush, wildlife-laden hills during a stopover here in the late 1700s that he decided to stay. Ironically, he later drowned in the creek while crossing it.
This story always comes to mind when I think of the Tygarts and serves as a reminder that paddling an untamed river should not be taken lightly. Before embarking on any paddle, water levels should be checked to ensure they are appropriate for paddling. Visit waterdata.usgs.gov for up to date water flow measurements.
Flooded waterways should never be paddled, in addition to swift currents, hidden obstructions can cause boats to overturn, and paddlers who became unintended swimmers can easily drown if caught in these obstructions. Life vests should always be worn on open water, even by the most experienced paddlers and swimmers.
That said the Tygarts is a lovely, easy paddle when the water is low enough to be safe, yet still high enough to avoid getting stuck! Between 150 cfs and 300 cfs is ideal. At 300 cfs, some Class II rapids form, but they are easy to navigate.
I like to paddle the six miles from U.S. 60 to Ky. 182 near Carter Caves State Resort Park. It is about a four to five hour paddle, depending on the water level and the amount of floating and lollygagging you do.
I like to float so I can take photos, but my husband and I also have a penchant for stopping at deep pools to bust out the fishing gear to make a couple of quick casts.
The Tygarts is famous for its Muskie fishing (best in fall), but holds trout, bass, crappie and other native varieties. Make sure you have a valid fishing license.
This paddle is an adventure from the put-in, which requires descending to the shore beneath the highway bridge of I-64 from between the two lanes of traffic. (Located before the U.S. 60 exit at Olive Hill.)
Again, use extreme caution here. Be careful when entering and exiting the highway. Another tip: make sure to take a long length of rope to use as a way of lowering your boat down the steep grade.
When you are finally on the water, the sounds of the freeway quickly give way to those of nature, mostly twittering birds and the gentle lapping of water. It’s the scenery that makes this paddle captivating: High carved cliff sides and deep undercut cliffs. Be on the lookout for waterfalls, natural caves and the spectacular natural limestone tunnel that is located on river left.
The tunnel, one of the largest in Kentucky, is on private property, but the guided trips from Carter Caves State Resort Park are often granted permission to stop and explore it. I’d highly recommend it. It is mesmerizing and a great place for a lunch break. Be sure to pack a flashlight and a sturdy pair of shoes for this side trip.
The park has two remaining guided trips this season, which are scheduled for April 26 and May 9. Cost is $25 per person, and the park provides the canoes, paddles and lifejackets along with a guide and shuttle. Call the park at 1-800-325-0059 to register. Space is limited, and trips typically fill up fat.
Another highlight of this Tygarts Creek paddle comes near the end of the paddle. The river makes a series of tight left turns as it passes through an area of high bluffs. This is the geological formation known locally as the “Devil’s Backbone.” Plan to pullover and gawk for a while.
According to local naturalists, Tygarts Gorge contains several rare species of ice-age relic plants. I’ve never found any, but I haven’t really looked either. I always mean to pack along my native plant identification guide, but some how it never makes it into the dry bag…
The takeout is just down stream, also on river left. It’s marked with a series of wooden steps. If you pass under the bridge of Ky. 182 you’ve gone too far!