A view of downtown Louisville from the Ohio River just after dawn. Photos by Kevin Gibson.
A view of downtown Louisville from the Ohio River just after dawn. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a series on kayaking 50 miles on the Ohio River. Read Part 1 here.

Almost as soon as our kayak hit the water for leg two of an unofficial Louisville 50 run, things got interesting. In the dawn sunlight, we passed the Louisville Metro Police dock and headed toward downtown Louisville. As we approached the bridges, we noticed emergency personnel and water vehicles on the shore at the foot of Joe’s Crab Shack.

We then noticed emergency vehicles on the Clark Memorial Bridge.

“Someone must have jumped,” said Dr. David Wicks, who was paddling in the stern of the kayak. We paddled almost directly under the part of the bridge where the emergency vehicles sat. I couldn’t help looking around at the water, hoping not to see what I feared I might see.

The Belle of Louisville with the sun peeking out. Can you see the rainbow?
The Belle of Louisville with the sun peeking out. Can you see the rainbow? | Photo by Kevin Gibson

But we couldn’t spend much time on that, because an enormous barge was already bearing down on us from upstream. So we hugged the Kentucky shore as best we could, and then took refuge behind the Belle of Louisville. Staring up at the 102-year-old riverboat from the water, as the sun was coming up behind it (creating a rainbow effect) was a treat I can’t even describe, despite the stench of the dead fish floating nearby.

Finally, the barge passed, so we paddled our way toward the old train bridge and Shippingport Island, Wicks providing a historical narration every foot of the way (the man is a living, breathing encyclopedia). I paddled by in awe of the giant stones that serve as leverage to raise and lower the bridge. Wicks suggested we paddle underneath one to get a good view.

“I promise it won’t fall on you,” he said.

“Even if it did, I doubt we’d ever know it,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “that’s probably instant death.”

Our next move was to approach the McAlpine Lock, so we could “lock through” to the lower part of the river. Wicks called the guard on duty, and we were informed there would be a wait, as barges were passing through on either side. So, we prepared ourselves for a 20-minute wait, floating next to Shippingport. Our wait turned into about an hour and a half. We’d barely gone two miles, and my butt was already asleep.

“If we were in traffic, road rage would have already set in and you’d be hitting me with your paddle,” Wicks joked.

The sad truth is, he was probably right. But, floating on the Ohio River early in the morning, listening to the sounds of the current and the birds, taking in the smells and the sights, I had no complaints about anything — proof of what getting back in touch with the river had done for me.

Paddling a kayak through a 1200-foot-long lock can be an intimidating experience for a first-timer.
Paddling a kayak through a 1,200-foot-long lock can be an intimidating experience for a first-timer. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

That said, when the lock on the south side finally opened for us, let’s just say I was, well, intimidated. We could have carried the kayak over the dam on the Shippingport bridge side, but Wicks prefers to lock through, and I had to admit I wanted to have the experience, too.

Let me say this: Being in a lock chamber designed for a giant barge when you’re sitting in a two-man kayak takes feeling insignificant to a new level. As we entered the lock, which opened in 1830 and appears to the naked eye to be about the size of several football fields (indeed, the locks are 110 feet wide and 1200 feet long), Wicks showed me where to tie off. The giant steel doors closed behind us.

We then heard a sound that was similar to the bellow of a whale, and the water began to drain out beneath us, dropping us about 30 feet. It drains slowly, but when you’re so close to the water, you can actually feel the river falling away beneath you, sort of like when you were a kid and let the bath water out while you were still in the tub. Well, except that it’s a gigantic tub made of steel and designed for river barges. It was a humbling and unforgettable experience.

Dr. David Wicks on the bank of the Ohio during a break.
David Wicks on the bank of the Ohio during a break | Photo by Kevin Gibson

After the lock had drained, the doors at the far end opened, revealing the lower part of the Ohio River; from where we sat, it looked as though it was a sudden drop-off. We then proceeded downstream, under the Sherman Minton Bridge.

Wicks clocked the current at about 4 miles per hour, about double the average speed current speed in the upper pool, and when we were both paddling, we reached about 7 miles per hour. With an occasional tail wind, the rest of the trip was mostly smooth sailing, save for the 10 or so barges that passed us along the way, creating some choppy waters at times.

We stopped twice over the final 25 or so miles, once going ashore to walk around the grounds of the Farnsley-Moreman Landing and once stopping on the Kentucky bank at no place in particular to have a snack and stretch our legs. I knew that just 100 feet away there was likely a road or a neighborhood or perhaps a west Louisville business, but I pretended I was miles away from civilization. It was freeing. It was also a feeling of connection — with nature, with the river I grew up loving. With myself. In a small way, I finally understood what Mark Twain was talking about.

This is precisely why Wicks created the Louisville 50 and its sister events. He fears Louisvillians have lost connection with the city’s greatest resource.

“Only experiencing the river from a bridge or sidewalk,” he said, “one misses the intimate connection that a paddle can have with the flowing water; one misses the enormity of the river.”

A shot of the Kennedy and the new downtown bridge from beneath.
A shot of the Kennedy and the new downtown bridge from beneath | Photo by Kevin Gibson

He’s absolutely right. I haven’t felt so free or so connected with nature in years. And I can’t wait to get back onto the water, be it the river or some other river, stream or creek. And this connection is what the Louisville 50, as well as the Ohio River Challenge on Sept. 17, which comprises three different distances for a variety of experience levels, does to the soul.

Wicks suggests doing the Riverthon 7, a 7-mile paddle that starts at Captain’s Quarters, then working up to the 22-mile Mayor’s Cup, which begins in Westport, and finally taking on the full Louisville 50 in year three. He warns the Louisville 50 is not meant for beginners and suggests less experienced paddlers begin preparing no later than July.

“Many have been brought up to fear the river — to fear water that is not controlled and contained,” Wicks said.  “Some only see floods, drowning and pollution. What is needed is a transformation of our thinking, an appreciation of the beauty of the river instead of potential danger, a sense of respect for the power of water.

“Instead of trying to control nature, we need to slow down our lives so we can see what the river really is: the essence of life.”

When our journey was complete, I was totally exhausted. My butt was numb. I felt connected to the river, connected to nature and downright exhilarated, but I had used and abused muscles I had long forgotten. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Thanks to the Louisville 50, we now all have a chance to enjoy the same experience. But first-timers beware: That’s a long way to paddle a kayak.

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Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies. Email Kevin at [email protected]