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Summer Trip:

Lake Barkley to Louisville


By Rolf Klein of Louisville

"There is 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 boat project.

There are times with boats for going fast….. 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 headed. Great.

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 direction.


There are times with boats for going slow…….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 of restoration.

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 get home.

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 origin.

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 continue.

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 about it.

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.


Family Camping


Cave-in-Rock Ferry


Late afternoon 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 morning.

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 was soaked.

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 we went.

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 own bottom.

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.

The Camasara underway

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 creek.

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 few hours.

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 in "Quimby’s Cruising Guide," "Chapman’s Piloting" and "The Ohio River" by Cpt. Rick Rhodes. I personally wouldn’t cruise on any pool without a current edition of the associated ACE or TVA navigational charts.


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