Mary Anne is the special projects coordinator for the Purchase Area Development District. After avoiding the great outdoors most of her life, she and her nature-loving husband Vince now spend their weekends hiking and kayaking in West Kentucky.
As the sun set, 12 members (and one dog) of the Louisville Area Canoe and Kayak Meet-Up group settled into their campsite. It had been a long day paddling the 16 miles from Kentucky Lake’s Smiths Bay on the Tennessee River thru the Canal channel over to Lake Barkley on the Cumberland River. They were hot, hungry, thirsty, and tired. They came from three states, including Kentucky. They came to experience different waterways. Most of all, they came to enjoy some back-country fun.
The trip organizer, Nathan Ginn, was already tucked into his Emo hammock when we walked up to their campsite. He and a few others had arrived at Land Between the Lakes (LBL) on Friday to begin the three day, 35-mile kayaking trip. He had spent the last two days on the water, and frankly, he was wiped out. Temperatures had soared into the upper 90’s. He was also recovering from injuries that he received earlier in the week, when he fell into a pit. Injuries that would have sidelined anyone else. But his love for kayaking, love of the (almost) annual trip, and the camaraderie of being with friends willed him to drive four hours west from his home in Southern Indiana. “I’ll be much friendlier after my pain meds kick in,” he said with a broad smile which made me laugh. Several members of the group began introducing themselves and started helping us unpack West Kentucky BBQ, chips, fruit, and a case of bottled water. Without a table to lay out our trail magic, old friend Chris Clayton offered his sleeping mat to use instead.
When the group had hit the rocky beach just past Davenport Bay an hour earlier, they had begun filtering the muddy river water to rehydrate themselves. Chris knew we were coming to hang out for a while, so he sent a text asking us to bring cold water. Unfortunately, we received that text just a couple miles from their campsite. Thankfully, we had already purchased a case of bottled water. His message made us realize that we should have brought two or three cases. Lesson learned. The room temperature bottled water we provided must have tasted heavenly after drinking filtered lake water.
When the food was spread out, it took a few minutes, but eventually everyone began digging in. They seemed amazed that anyone wanted to bring complete strangers food while they were on a camping trip. I refrained from telling them that folks from Murray, the Friendliest Small Town in America according to Rand-McNally, naturally did such things. Instead, I explained that, as a new kayaker, I had been disappointed that I couldn’t join their trip. Our boats didn’t meet the required 12-foot standard and frankly, neither my husband nor I are strong enough to keep up with their 3-4 MPH pace. So instead of kayaking, we brought food.
I had contacted Nathan on Thursday to offer some trail magic during their trip. I explained that I had no idea if people assisted kayakers the way they do hikers. But I wanted to roll out the welcome mat in our little corner of Kentucky. He graciously accepted.
I had no idea that I was actually bringing them dinner. I imagined my offering would fill in the gap from food they would be preparing. It didn’t take long for me to realize that kayaking takes camping to a whole other level. My visions of a campfire and roasted hotdogs quickly vanished when I realized that, like thru-hikers who tackle long trips carrying everything they need on their backs, the group had loaded only the basic necessities into their cargo holds.
There is little storage space on a kayak. Toting around huge coolers packed with food or even bottled water simply isn’t possible. While I spied a couple of small coolers among the all the gear, they had brought water filtration systems, tiny stoves, and packets of dehydrated food. There wasn’t much of anything else. There were no hotdogs nor makings for s’mores. Lesson learned. When packing food for kayaking trail magic, include Hershey bars and plenty of carbs.
As everyone ate, they regaled us with stories of the day. Stories of freakishly tall and somewhat confused waves formed from river traffic. With each telling the waves got bigger, the stories became wilder. Everyone laughed. Everyone joked and teased each other. I could see that they were enjoying every minute of their trip.
I began asking them questions about their trip. What had they enjoyed most? Why did they choose LBL? What made the trip worth the heat, mosquitoes, and lack of air conditioning?
For our friend Chris, the trip to Land Between the Lakes was a homecoming. He grew up visiting LBL. He admitted that as a kid, he didn’t really appreciate it. So he enjoys coming back to experience it with the friends he’s made since moving to Louisville a few years ago.
“I enjoyed the paddle,” said Jon from Cincinnati. This was his first trip with group. “I was interested in going out on a long trip, camping along the way. This time it worked out so that I could come. I definitely want to come back and do a longer trip. The rolling hills with little traffic made it a nice really drive.”
An important piece for many of the group was the backcountry experience. As I asked questions, they explained that whenever they paddle on the Ohio River, they can’t beach their kayaks just anywhere. If they do, most likely they’re landing in someone’s backyard. The freedom that LBL provides means that they can literally stop anywhere they want.
More and more people are looking for a restorative, backcountry experience, which is why there has been a spike in hiking and camping supplies, and in kayak sales. People are enjoying getting back to nature, especially urban dwellers. Away from the city and away from the noise. Land Between the Lakes offers people that opportunity, along with other benefits.
“I definitely preferred Kentucky Lake to Barkley so far, but it's really nice to come out here,” said Louis Lyvers of Louisville. “It was really neat to see the bald eagles. That was cool.”
As the sun began to sink below the horizon, we packed up our gear. We wished them well for the long evening ahead and for the last leg of their trip. Their exhausted smiles will forever be etched in my memory. Smiles that only come from contentment from an excellent day on the river with friends. Perhaps by the time they return, we’ll have larger kayaks ourselves. And we’ll be strong enough to keep up with their speed. If not, we’ll offer them trail magic again, and find a few more lessons learned.