Barkley to Louisville
By Rolf Klein of Louisville
nothing- absolutely nothing-
half so much worth doing
as simply messing about in boats."
from The Wind in the Willows
And so it went that I should be drawn to yet another
There are times with boats for
for crashing through waves, being splashed and spending
time airborne. This past season began with days on
the river as usual. We then visited Lake Cumberland,
exploring the tributaries and marinas at the western
end. In one day we covered nearly one hundred miles.
The day prior, we set out on a morning jaunt on Wolf
Creek to photograph some waterfalls. We knew there
was an approaching line of thunderstorms, but were
uncertain as to how fast. On the five mile run back
to the marina, the sky became black and there was presented
a squall line roll cloud from the direction we were
Thinking we would beat the weather,
we passed the sanctity of an en-route marina and
pressed on. About a mile further, rain began stinging
our faces and the sky was illuminated by a large
cloud to cloud lightning discharge. “There’s lightning” I
said. “Everyone hold on”. A prompt 180
degree turn had us pointed back toward the previous
marina…..with no regard for the “no wake” markers.
The gust front was now at our stern, and moments later
we were in the marina store. Still situated far out
in lake, the floating complex offered shelter and a
unique vantage point from which to study the squall
line. The lake became a caldron. Forty-five minutes
later, it was sunny. A big thanks to the folks at Cave
Springs for giving us (including the dog) refuge.
Gust front roll cloud. Our marina is four miles that
There are times with boats for
spending days and nights nestled in quiet picturesque
coves. In this is the beauty of houseboats. Typically,
our stays at various lakes have involved “cabins”.
Some really are cabins, while others are mobile homes
dressed up to resemble some place Daniel Boone would
have stayed. In either case, we are rarely the only
occupants (mice), and there are few which take dogs.
I have always longed for a place to call our own on
Lake Cumberland, or perhaps the river.
One evening early in the season,
a friend phoned from Lake Barkley to share his observations
along the sales dock at Green Turtle Bay. “There’s this
and that and the other” he said. “Wait
a second” I responded. “Tell me more about
the 1970 34’ Kings Craft houseboat”. Thus
began the next chapter in the book on my boating history.
Days later, Jane and I took the Zodiac down to Lake
Barkley to go fast, get splashed, etc. While there,
I took a couple of serious looks at Camasara. She was
a forty year old all Aluminum houseboat in very good
condition structurally, but rather rough otherwise.
She had spent most of her life on the Kentucky River
near Frankfort. Then in 2001, a couple named Cameron
and Sara bought her and moved her to Lake Barkley,
from which they launched a multi-season exploration
of the Tennessee and Tombigbe rivers, as well as much
of the gulf Coast.
The Kings Craft is a very well
designed and built boat. Its pedigree stems from
the renowned boat builder Arthur Pluckebaum, who
built (and whose son continues to build) the finest
houseboats in the world. We’re
pretty sure that Arthur himself built this one, because
his name is on some of the original paperwork, and
the fuel tank (which is original) was delivered to
his shop in Prospect. My own experienced and educated
eye promptly determined that this particular copy was
in need of paint, interior refit, major electrical
work, re-power and a hundred “little things”.
She was exactly what I wanted……..a structurally
sound canvas onto which I could paint my own strokes
Then there was the price. It
always seems that folks think their stuff is worth
more than everyone else does. Such was the case with
me and my 32’ Carver.
I thought it was worth “X”, while everyone
else thought it was worth “X times half”.
A marine survey was scheduled, primarily to verify
the condition of the hull bottom. The surveyor’s
blessing was granted and we closed the deal. The balance
of my summer was spent driving to Western Kentucky
on my days off to work on the boat. The decision was
made to bring her home to Louisville on her own bottom.
It would be a long ride with sparse services available
along the river. There was much that needed to be done
just to get the boat in reliable enough condition to
By the end of August, we began
the process of “picking
our shot” That meant having our work schedules
line up with four day blocks of acceptable weather
and river conditions. On Sept 9th. Jane and I, along
with our friends Bill and Marcia, drove to Green Turtle
Bay with pick-up truck loads of food, water, and a
very big dog. Actually, we would have had more food
had I not left all of our meat in the cart in the parking
lot at Kroger. Fortunately, Marcia, who is a culinary
genius, was able to keep everyone fed.
The boat was provisioned……Zodiac in
tow for good measure. Fuel and trip planning were reviewed,
and after a night’s sleep, we slipped the lines.
A beautiful morning saw Camasara glide gracefully out
of the marina to begin her journey home to port of
Our first lock would be Barkley,
which would lower us off of the lake onto The Cumberland
River. Actually, Lake Barkley is an impoundment of
this river, and the lock which is part of the dam,
serves to raise or lower boats between the upper
and lower pool. Shortly after the lockmaster’s radio call welcomed us into
the chamber, Camasara began squealing like a scared
hog. Not a week prior, I had thoroughly sea-tried the
craft and she hadn’t made a peep. Should we continue?
Green Turtle was still within sight, and the next possible
spot for any kind of help was at least fifty miles
distant. The sound abated as power was increased and
I knew that the squeal was either a loosened water
pump drive belt…..or perhaps a seized water
pump. I had on-board spares for both and elected to
There is something rather intimidating
about being in a quarter mile long concrete shoebox….one
end of which consists of giant steel doors holding
back 60 miles of fifty foot deep water. Kind of reminds
me of The Sorcerers Apprentice from the original Fantasia.
A friend has been running the Western Rivers for decades
and has accomplished hundreds of lockings in all kinds
of craft. As a former construction and concrete contractor,
he often thinks to himself “I know that this
project went to the lowest bidder…….I
wonder what they left out”. I try not to think
The entire of Lake Barkley is on the other side of
those gates. Jane calls it the seagull condo as each
part of the structure seems to be home to one bird.
The massive water elevator lowered
us about fifty feet before the lower gates opened.
We were now on the Cumberland River and would see
few signs of civilization for several hours. The
river’s origins lie in
eastern Kentucky. It gathers volume and flows over
the famous waterfall before its first impoundment forms
Lake Cumberland. The river continues westward through
Tennessee before turning north, eventually forming
Lake Barkley. At this point in western Kentucky, an
impoundment of the Tennessee River runs parallel and
just a couple miles to the west. This is Kentucky Lake
and the space between is Land between the Lakes. The
final thirty miles of the Cumberland lie below Lake
Barkley before the confluence with The Ohio River near
Paducah. Once at the confluence we would turn to the
northeast and march against the Ohio’s current
upriver toward Louisville. It would be quite an adventure.
Just upstream from the confluence
we saw our second locking at Smithland L&D. This time we were locking
up as we would for the subsequent four locks over the
next few days. If you could stretch out the river and
look at it from a profile view, you would see that
the lock and dam system essentially forms a staircase.
Each “step” is formed by a dam and produces
a pool deep enough for navigation. The locks are the
elevators which raise or lower boats between each pool.
The engine purred while the iPod
entertained. The sun shined and wonderful things
emerged from the galley. Our first fuel stop was
an oasis marina at Golconda Illinois. We took on
seventy gallons of fuel and tightened the loose drive
belt before continuing on. We were getting right
at one mile to the gallon which……for
a boat of this size……is pretty good.
Camasara is actually capable of twice this mileage,
but we were towing Della (the Zodiac) in case we experienced
any kind of hard mechanical failure. The 75hp outboard
Della can actually tow the houseboat. The next marina
wouldn’t be until Evansville, more than one hundred
miles distant. We had to have contingencies. The Achilles
heal of the 34’ Kings Craft is that she is a
single engine boat. What this means is that if an engine
lays down, the engine lays down. Life is full of risk,
and I accepted this one in exchange for half the maintenance
cost and fuel consumption of a twin engine boat. Speaking
of contingencies, we carried most of my tools, numerous
spare engine parts, and five 5gal fuel cans. Fuel stops
are so scarce on the Ohio River that our 100 gal fuel
tank wouldn’t provide sufficient range between
them. The extra 25 gallons in the cans gave us the
range we needed. We looked like a Tibetan bus crossing
The Himalayas with chickens, gas cans and everything
else on top.
Late that first afternoon we were treated to beautiful
views of the Shawnee national Forest and Cave-in-rock
(the famous river pirate refuge from flatboat days)
on the Illinois side. We saw water as deep as eighty-six
feet and as shallow as eleven feet. This part of the
river is sparsely used or populated, so the few people
and craft we did see were notable. There was a rather
eccentric appearing man making way down river in a
canoe with a home fashioned sail. There was a family
on the Kentucky side camping with their pontoon. We
encountered the Cave-in-rock ferry which carries automobile
traffic between Kentucky and Illinois. I believe this
is the only remaining ferry across the Ohio.
of Day 1
Shadows grew long and we were exhausted as we approached
the tiny town of Old Shawneetown, Illinois. When running
the river like this, the first choice for overnight
docking is a marina with real showers, shore power
and perhaps a restaurant. We knew there was nothing
like that around here, though. The second choice is
perhaps a small municipal or courtesy dock. This is
what I had hoped to find as we reached Old Shawneetown
and the end of daylight. None was to be found. The
third choice is a protected cove, perhaps up a creek
or behind an island. None was to be found. We were
out of daylight, and a single engine boat on an unfamiliar
pool with neither radar nor chart plotter is simply
done at sundown.
We needed to be on the shore
as I’m not a fan
of anchoring out overnight on a body of water with
current and commercial traffic. Although you can set
a drift alarm on the GPS, if the anchor drags in the
night, one could wind up adrift in the path of an oncoming
tow. Furthermore, the dog needed to have a walk. We
also needed a fairly steep bank, as I had studied the
river forecast and knew that this pool was expected
to drop two feet overnight. If we simply shoved up
on a shallow bank, we could be left high and dry next
The Illinois side didn’t
have anything to offer, so we crossed over to the
Kentucky side and settled adjacent to a boat ramp.
The spot had the grade we needed, but it was rocky.
Specifically limestone rip rap used to prevent shore
erosion. Daylight was gone and I was exhausted. This
would be the spot for the night. Interestingly, on
the way across the river we encountered a school
of huge Asian Carp. These flying fish leap as high
as ten feet from the water surface when disturbed
by passing boats. The invasive species has no natural
predators and has severely damaged the ecosystem
of the Illinois River. Many boaters and skiers have
been injured by them as well. Videos abound on Youtube.
After a nice meal and hot shower,
we settled in for sleep. There was so much to be
concerned about though. Would the lines hold? Would
the pool drop more than expected and leave us shore
bound? Would Camasara’s
engine start in the morning? Would our friendships
and marriages survive the trip? Sleep was difficult.
To make matters worse, there was a barge fleeting operation
at a rock quarry about a mile downstream. Lights from
the towboats occasionally flitted past our windows.
Think disco ball. Every hour or so, I would step out
on the foredeck to check the reference marker I had
placed to monitor the changing water level. At least
I got that part right. We had plenty of grade and water
beneath us, and it wouldn’t be a problem. Passing
tows on the other hand would be.
Very early in the morning, we were awakened by the
motion of our craft riding the wake of a passing barge
tow. It was like riding a bucking bronco, but eventually
the waves settled down and we made an attempt to return
to sleep. Each time I so much as turned over, I glanced
out the window into the dark upstream abyss to look
for the bow lights of subsequent on-coming tows. And
then there was one. It was far upstream and barely
moving as I determined by checking every ten minutes
or so. Perhaps she would slip quietly past and we could
sleep. No such luck. In fact, the opposite happened.
I learned the next morning that upstream from our location
there was a long shoal through which was a very shallow
and narrow channel. That was why the tow was moving
so slowly. It would be a perfect storm. The down bound
three by five (three barges abreast by five deep for
a total of fifteen) came off of the shoal and her pilot
(which is what river craft drivers are called) poured
on the coal to make up for lost time.
As the lead barges neared our
position, I realized that this was a massive fully
loaded coal tow, as big as they get, and engines
pushed up to full power. This was not going to be
fun. To make matters worse, she was biased to our
side of the river in order to set up for the next
curve in the river. I got off of Camasara, stood
on the rocks at her bow and waited. There are many
waves associated with a behemoth like this. First
the bow shock wave from the lead barge. Then the same
from the next four, then the towboat bow wave and finally,
the worst……the discharge from 12,000
horsepower being delivered through twin ten foot diameter
screws. If you are actually out in the open water,
the wake isn’t too bad…..like large vessels
out at sea don’t really feel tsunami waves. When
you’re tied up on rip rap though, you get every
bit of the energy.
With the first few waves, I was
actually able to push the slack out of our shore
lines and hold Camasara off the rocks. As the waves
combined and multiplied, though, I was outnumbered.
The waves crashed over our deck which sits a full
three feet above the water line. As Camasara fell
off each wave, her keel crashed onto the rocky bottom.
It was violent, simply put, and I had a very awful
feeling in my soul. Plus….I
I have traveled over a hundred
miles at a time on this river without encountering
a commercial tow. I have spent whole weekends out
without seeing one. On this morning, at this spot,
there were four. Go figure. At daybreak I inspected
the bilge and found no damage (exterior inspection
upon pull out this fall revealed only minor scratches
to the sacrificial bottom paint). Breakfast and a
beautiful sunrise saw us on our way…….far
wiser river boaters now.
Dawn at Old Shawneetown after the first night.
Day two offered views of sorghum
fields on either side of the river, various water
foul and the confluence of the Wabash River before
locking through the John T. Meyers L&D at the Indiana Illinois border. We
were making progress. By days end we would be half
way. We were greeted by the riverfront facades of Uniontown
on the Kentucky side and Mount Vernon in Indiana. A
large down bound motor yacht from Minnesota greeted
us near the later. If we had more time or were retired,
we would take the time to explore each of the small
towns and attractions. That’s what cruising is
all about. We would stop in Henderson Kentucky, though.
Our fuel calculations had us
arriving at the marina in Evansville with reserves
depleted and minimum fuel remaining in the main tank.
If we ran out, it would happen very close to the
marina, and the contingency was to put Della on the
hip and have her tow us in. Or we could siphon some
of her twenty-two gallons and transfer it to Camasara’s
tank. Either would be a hassle. As we approached
Henderson, I was sure I saw a gas station just at
the top of the public boat ramp. We decided to stop
and carry a couple of the 5gal cans up there.
Henderson had a very nice courtesy
dock and riverfront park. Fate treated us to the
sight of a coal barge beneath an iron railroad bridge
with a train crossing at the same time. What I had
seen, though, was not a gas station. I would find
one. I was dispatched into town with two gas cans
and orders to procure fuel and butter. A woman riding
her bike had seen me schlepping the cans. She rode
home, got her truck, drove back and gave me a ride
back down to the river. She was a nice woman who
raises Saddlebreds, and she asked me to remember
to “pay it forward”.
A couple hours later we were at the first Evansville
marina where we filled the main tank and the auxiliary
cans. Bill had been tracking our progress carefully
as he had to be at work in a couple days. Timing was
critical for him and he had hoped we would have made
better time. It was a margin call, but the decision
was made for him and Marcia to jump off at Evansville
and rent a car. It was sad as the most beautiful and
relaxing part of the trip was yet to come. We understood
though. We proceeded to the downtown Evansville marina
which put a few more miles behind us. We all had a
nice supper before Bill and Marcia parted from us.
Jane and I appreciated a real shower and off to sleep
Another beautiful morning greeted
us as we prepared for departure from Evansville for
day three. I remembered that according to the instructions
for the new exhaust manifold I had installed, I was
supposed to re-check the torque. This would be a
convenient time to do it. I placed the torque wrench
on the first of six nuts, began torquing and the
stud broke. Not good, but not a giant deal. I went
on to the next one, began torquing and “snap”…..that one broke too.
What the hell? I promptly realized that I hadn’t
set the torque value on the wrench and it was simply
acting as a 24 inch breaker bar. Not good. We would
be dead in the water if hot exhaust gasses blew past
the manifold gasket.
I was really concerned for the
rest of the way home…..doing
engine checks every hour or so. The gasket held though.
As fate would have it, during the first up-close inspection
of the manifold boss where it mates to the head, I
noticed that there was water dripping from the mating
between the head and the block. I checked the other
side and it was happening over there too. This, by
definition, represented compromised head gaskets. There
was no water in the oil though, so we pressed on. Had
I found this discrepancy during the sea trial on Lake
Barkley, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the
boat home this season…..at least not on her
The first part of the day saw
us through the Newburgh lock and then past Owensboro.
There we saw the Christopher Columbus replica ships
which were touring the western river system. Incidentally,
the term “western
rivers” is a bit of a misnomer. It actually refers
to the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri and associated
tributary rivers, as opposed to say The Colorado or
Snake, which are not considered navigable.
In the afternoon we ascended through the Cannelton
Lock shortly before reaching Rocky Point Marina at
Cannelton, Indiana. This is a very welcoming spot,
where there are some pleasure craft docked along the
banks of a creek (think Harrods Creek), along with
a launch ramp. The friendly couple who run the outfit
own a small adjacent country store/gas station just
above the ramp. If transient boaters need fuel, they
phone ahead as we did. The owner fills a transfer tank
in the back of his truck, backs it down the launch
ramp where the hose is handed over to the courtesy
dock and fuel is delivered.
The man, who was assisted by
his beautiful Wire Haired German Pointer, was helpful
with suggestions for the next leg. Rocky Point is
the only marina between Evansville and Louisville,
and our 125 gallon fuel load wouldn’t
be enough to get us home. We had arranged a ride to
a gas station with the friend of a friend in Leavenworth
for the following day. When we discussed our options
with the man at Rocky Point though, he suggested that
we stop in Derby Indiana about 26miles upstream. There,
he said, was located another mom & pop gas station
just above the scenic riverfront park. No transfer
tank though. We would have to schlep the cans. We had
considered overnighting in Cloverport on the Kentucky
side. Jane encouraged me to press on though, and we
made Derby just as it was getting dark.
Derby offered a nice courtesy
dock where we tied up for the night. Jane made the
best supper I think I’ve
ever had. The boat had performed flawlessly, and the
weather was perfect. All seemed right with the world.
We slept soundly and woke to a picturesque Sunday morning
river sunrise. Still uncertain as to how to configure
the shower on the boat, I pulled the 8 foot nozzle
out the head window and showered right on the courtesy
dock (swimming trunks on). Then we made a couple trips
each up to the gas station. We would now have enough
fuel make Louisville.
Derby at Dawn
Sign at Derby
The Cannelton pool, which is the part of the river
impounded by the Cannelton Dam, and below the McAlpine
Dam, is beautiful. Between Cannelton and Derby the
evening prior, we were treated to the sight of several
Bald Eagles sunning themselves on tree branches. This
morning, we would negotiate the horseshoe bend at Leavenworth,
while presenting ourselves for review by diners at
the Overlook Restaurant high above. We would then pass
the confluence of the Blue River before reaching Brandenburg.
In this thriving river town, our progress was captured
by the camera of a river friend.
A few miles past Brandenburg
we encountered the first bastion of our home city,
Otter Creek Park. I remember staying in the cabins
there as a kid. I was fascinated by the river as
viewed from high upon the bluffs. I was also intrigued
by the railroad at the base of the bluffs and adjacent
to the river. I could hear the trains, but couldn’t see them. It was cruel.
On this Sunday however, good karma offered a historical
right to the childhood wrong. A fast moving train came
across the bridge at the Otter Creek confluence….In
the same spot I had been denied from seeing as a kid.
It was very cool.
Not long after, we approached
West Point and the Salt River. There were a fair
number of pleasure craft in the area. We were essentially
in the Louisville metro area now, though the river
and its culture has a decidedly different “flavor” below the dam than above.
Louisville’s “below the dam” river
activity extends from roughly Otter Creek to the Sherman
Minton Bridge, with most activity limited to the stretch
between The Salt River and Greenwood boat Ramp. There
is far less boating activity than above the dam. There
are no marinas, permanent docks or boats larger than
a runabout. Much of the Kentucky shore along this stretch
is dedicated to heavy industry. One finds the Kosmos
Cement plant, the old Ashland asphalt terminal, DuPont,
three power plants, MSD’s Morris Foreman Treatment
Plant and Riverport.
We finally reached McAlpine very
late in the afternoon, and at about the same time
as AEP’s Dru Lirette,
who was pushing a 15 barge tow. We had locked through
Cannelton with this boat the day before. As we slept
at Derby, she kept moving, but at half our speed. We
had caught back up with her. The Dru’s pilot
was given a choice and took the old chamber at McAlpine,
which gave us and another pleasure craft the brand
new chamber. She was discharged well ahead of us, and
promptly called Wooten’s to take on fuel.
It was a very busy Sunday evening
on our home pool. During the entire trip we had seen
only a handful of pleasure boats. Now as we emerged
from the canal and headed for Harrod’s Creek, we were greeted by
dozens. To make it all the more interesting, The Dru
Lirette mated up with Wooten’s fuel barge headed
upstream, and two tows were down bound…….All
of this in the vicinity of six Mile Island. We fell
in behind The C.Q. Princess and followed her to the
Actually, we stopped at Juniper
docks (at Goose Creek) to take on fuel. The River
was choppy, and as I pulled Della in, her bridle
became fouled in Camasara’s
rudder. I had to get in the water and un-tangle the
mess with my feet. I kept Della on the port hip as
we headed for Harrod’s Creek. It was Sunday evening.
Captain’s Quarters was rafted three abreast,
and I was now 17 feet wide in a single screw vessel
with no flanking rudder. It was snug but un-eventful.
Bill greeted us at the slip…..
pizza in hand. He would leave for work in just a
It had been four full days….360 running miles
at 9 and 1/2 miles per hour. We were home, and after
forty years……and having seen the world,
Camasara was back home as well.
I would have certain recommendations
for anyone considering this type of trip. First,
know the specific fuel consumption and speed of the
vessel….at the intended power
setting. Fuel planning must be tended to critically,
as fuel stops on the rivers can be scarce. Secondly,
check in real time to ensure that your intended marinas
are actually open or still in existence. There are
cruising publications which include listings for marinas
and fuel suppliers, but those listings are not always
accurate or up-dated. Make phone calls and have contingencies.
Next, keep a close eye to weather forecasts and river
forecasts. The ACE and TVA manage their associated
pools in such a way that levels on any given pool can
change significantly overnight. River level forecasts
are available on the NOAA website. These also offer
clues as to what degree of current may be expected.
Prior to departure, review the
weekly Notices to Mariners on the ACE website. They
offer information about hazards to navigation, lock
closures and other vital information for the entire
river system. We studied the notices just before
leaving, and found that two channel markers were
reported submerged near a particular mile marker.
When we got to that area we kept our eyes open and
saw one of them……just below the surface.
Make sure you understand the
channel markers. If the channel is marked, you must
stay in it, even in a small boat. Sometimes the water
outside the markers is only a few inches deep…..though
it may be in the geographic center of the river.
Finally, when meeting commercial craft, it is considered
a professional courtesy to contact the pilot of the
craft to arrange the meeting. Sometimes, the pilot
may be setting up for a curve and may maneuver in a
way unexpected by us. Let them suggest to you which
side to pass on.
There is a wealth of information
Cruising Guide," "Chapman’s Piloting"
and "The Ohio River" by Cpt. Rick Rhodes. I personally
cruise on any pool without a current edition of the
associated ACE or TVA navigational charts.