This paddle on the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River provides boaters a view of Appalachian landscape, lifestyle and coal economy
By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
The Cumberland Highlands of southeast Kentucky are unparalleled in their importance to our nations history as well as source of inspiration for the countless numbers of individuals who have traveled through them or lived among them.
Kingdom Come State Park near Cumberland, Ky. is one of my favorite fall destinations; there is no better place in my opinion to drink in the beauty of the autumnal foliage kaleidoscope. From its ridge top lookouts, the mountains seem to roll away in all directions.
Views from the valley, although not as sweeping, are just as enchanting I recently discovered. The Poor Fork of the Cumberland River ambles through the wide valley that stretches more than 20 miles between the towns of Cumberland and Harlan, Ky. and makes for an excellent paddling destination.
The river, which runs most consistently between late fall and early summer, is easily accessible along this stretch, offering the option to create trips of varying lengths and showcases both the abundant human and wildlife in this area of Appalachia.
We spent the star-filled night before our excursion camping on ridge at the Harlan County Campground — a popular destination for ATV enthusiasts, as it backs into the Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area.
In the morning, we launched our kayaks from a put-in beside the Morris Bottom Road bridge just off U.S. 119 near Cumberland. From there we paddled 11 miles south to the Harlan County Shrine Club Fairgrounds in the tiny hamlet of Putney in just over three hours.
The water was fairly low (the USGS gauge on the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River at Cumberland read just under 3.9 feet), but we never encountered water too shallow to paddle. In fact, we were delighted to find several Class II rapids that required some quick maneuvering. We even found a pair of “surf” holes to play in for several minutes.
The water was cool but crystal clear. The rock and pebble river bottom was visible beneath the surface when the water was less than three foot deep and I spotted numerous good-size Smallmouth Bass and Rainbow Trout zipping along.
I was delighted to see several pairs of large gray Herons, in addition to numerous ducks and geese throughout the day. I also spotted what I believe to have been a number of Kingfishers.
A couple of deer grazing along the river banks lifted their tails as if to bound away when they spotted us, but instead continued eating while staying just head of us by several hundred yards before they eventually turned and disappeared into the overgrowth.
All along the river, between the heavily forested mountains, the banks were dotted with homes and businesses sometimes perched precariously above the banks. In places rock outcroppings and walls rose dozens of feet high, while in others the lush valley stretched out in both directions. We did see our share of discarded tires and old cars, but nothing that wasn’t expected and common along most eastern Kentucky waterways.
Neither US 119 nor the railroad tracks were ever far away either. In fact, we crossed under the highway no less than eight times during our trip. However, not once during our paddle did we see a train.
Residents we met later told us only a single train a day carries away the area’s coal. We did, however, pass under two coal tipples on our paddle – only one of which was active. The conveyor belt groaned as it chugged along high above our heads.
Far from being a detractor from the landscape, the facility added a bit of appropriate scenery for a paddle through some of Kentucky’s most famed coal producing areas.
All along the river, residents waved and shouted greetings to us. They seemed delighted to see a pair of boaters, “not from around here” passing by.
Recreational paddling, along with other tourism activities, does seem to be picking up in the area, according to residents. The Harlan County Campground recently began renting kayaks and a number of locals commented they’ve noticed an increase in visitors toting around their own watercraft, ATVs and bicycles.
Based on our trip, they can expect that trend to continue. This area is now firmly on my radar for not only hiking and leaf-looking trips but paddling as well. The new Black Mountain Thunder zip lines – billed as the highest and fastest in Kentucky – are also attracting thrill seekers, and is definitely on my list of things to do soon!