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Home Features Paddling through summer's 'dog days'

Paddling through summer’s ‘dog days’

Paddling the Big South Fork River between Leatherwood and Station Camp | Ben Garrett/IH

Summer’s dog days are upon us.

It’s the hottest part of summer, most of us have exhausted our supply of vacation days, and everyone is ready to hunker down and await autumn’s arrival.

The term “dog days” dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. It did not escape the Greeks that the hottest days of summer coincided with the dawn rising of Sirius — the brightest star visible from Earth, besides the sun. The extreme heat of these late summer days were known to drive men mad, and the Greek believed that it was because Sirius — which stems from the ancient Greek word seirios, meaning “scorching” — rose at dawn and combined its heat with the sun.

By the strictest definition, the dog days of summer in North America would be a period from around the 4th of July to about the middle of August. But in Tennessee, summer’s peak heat carries on until late August. It isn’t until the end of this month or the first few days of September that the average daily high temperature begins to drop, as summer starts to transition into fall.

Americans tend to stay inside more than normal during the dog days of summer, but it doesn’t have to be this way — not if you have a way of cooling off.

Aside from the conveniences of modern air conditioning, there is no better relief for summer’s dog days than water … and Scott County has lots of water.

Recent years have brought about a surge in popularity for recreational kayaking. And late summer is as good a time as any to enjoy the sport. Typically, the winter and early spring months aren’t suitable for recreational kayaks, at least not on Scott County’s rivers, because of the stream flows. By contrast, winter and early spring form the whitewater paddling season; it is at this time of year when water levels are suitable for these kayakers to hit the river.

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After streamflows have receded enough that whitewater paddlers have hung it up for the year, the water is still suitable for recreational kayaking — mainly because recreational kayaking takes advantage of flat water rather than the rapids. It might seem too hot for physical exercise this time of year — and paddling is outstanding exercise — but recreational kayaking offers the opportunity to combine paddling and swimming. In other words, paddle until you’ve worked up a sweat, then jump in the river for a quick cooldown … rinse, wash, repeat, until you’ve reached the takeout.

Here are the most popular areas for recreational kayaking in Scott County:

» New River upstream of U.S. Hwy. 27

Hands down, the most popular place for recreational paddling in Scott County is New River — usually between Winona and the U.S. Hwy. 27 bridge. There are paddlers on this stretch of river on any given day during the summer months.

Kayakers who are floating New River typically do it in one of two reaches: from the Winona Bridge to the takeout behind the old Scott County Jail, or from the old Scott County Jail to U.S. 27. There aren’t a lot of differences between the two.

From Winona: The reach from Winona to the old jail could technically begin in one of two places: the River Road bridge over New River, or the Cordell Road bridge over Buffalo Creek, just upstream from where it empties into New River. Most choose to start at River Road.

From the River Road bridge to the ramp behind the old jail is a float of about 7.5 miles. For the first 5.5 miles, the river loops around the farm of Steve and Marla Howard — home of New River Botanicals, past the mouth of Paint Rock Creek and past the Brimstone event grounds and campground. The final two miles is from the lower River Road bridge to the takeout behind the jail.

The 7.5-mile reach mixes flat water with minor rapids; there’s nothing too tricky about the shoals but typical summer streamflow will result in a lot of bottom-rubbing and even require dragging the boats in spots. When strong thunderstorms result in more water flowing out of the mountains, these shoals can become nice little wave trains that are fun even in a recreational kayak.

As a general rule, this section will require about three hours of steady paddling to complete. Plan on a half-day trip.

From the jail: The reach from the end of Town Springs Road in Huntsville to the U.S. Hwy. 27 bridge is just under six miles. This is the float trip that is most suitable for the summer months when streamflows are lower. There is much more flat water and much fewer of the nuisance shoals that will require you to get out of your boat when the streamflow is lower.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t any minor rapids on this stretch of river. There are; the first, in fact, is encountered immediately upon entering the water at the boat ramp. Another set of rapids will be encountered about six-tenths of a mile in, and another about 1.4 miles in. There are others along the way, as well.

After about 3.5 miles, the river passes underneath the Low Gap bridge and, a ways after that, the old Brimstone Railroad tressle. Below Low Gap, the river widens considerably and the flat water becomes even more predominant for the rest of the trip to the U.S. 27 bridge.

This stretch of river will require about 2.5 to three hours of steady paddling to complete.

The rest of New River: The remainder of New River, from U.S. 27 to the confluence with Clear Fork, is generally considered a no-go for recreational kayaking. Rapids become much more common for the remainder of the trip, and the final two miles above the confluence are suitable only for whitewater kayaks.

» Big South Fork downstream from Leatherwood

The Big South Fork is generally utilized less often by paddlers, for several reasons — not the least of which are the twin Class IV rapids between Leatherwood and Blue Heron: Angel Falls and Devils Jump.

But the Big South Fork is actually a nice change of pace for kayakers who spend most of their time on New River. There are a lot of suitable swimming holes, some good fishing opportunities, and the character of the river is significantly different — at least for the first several miles below Leatherwood Ford.

Leatherwood Ford to Station Camp: This is an 8-mile trip that will require half a day to complete. It’s probably the most scenic recreational float trip in Scott County, with the one negative being the portage around Angel Falls.

There are several sets of minor rapids along the first four miles of the trip. None of them are too technical, but there can be some minor bottom-rubbing as streamflows dip during the summer. Even in times of prolonged dry weather, the BSF doesn’t often get low enoughg to require paddlers to drag their boats, and the risk of bottoming out on the rocks is only minor.

Water levels of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs, as measured at the Leatherwood gauge, are perhaps most enjoyable for a float trip along this stretch of the river, although those levels are only seen after strong summer thunderstorms.

At streamflows up to 1,000 cfs, several of the rapids along this stretch of river offer entertaining paddling that break up the monotany of the flat water. However, paddlers should be warned that the waves can exceed 1 to 2 feet in height in places, which can lead to swamping or capsizing. Paddlers will almost certainly get wet. This is particularly true of Rough Shoals, which is located about halfway through the trip.

There are four sets of relatively minor rapids in the first two miles of the trip, between Leatherwood and Angel Falls. Paddlers should keep an eye out for Angel Falls Overlook, a rock outcropping that towers over the left side of the river. Fall Branch can be seen emptying into the river just upstream from this rock. This is an indication that Angel Falls is just ahead, and Angel Falls must be portaged by recreational kayakers at any water level. There are several portage paths on the right side of the river, including one that is located just before entering a set of minor rapids above the falls. It is possible for recreational paddlers to navigate the first set of rapids before portaging; however, at higher water levels, there is a risk of being swept into the rougher rapids just above the falls, and then into the falls itself, unintentionally.

The portage around Angel Falls will take at least 30 minutes, after which it’s back into the water and time to enjoy perhaps the most scenic part of the trip, between Angel Falls and the John Hawk Smith Place.

There’s a minor set of rapids at John Hawk Smith Place, then a more significant set of rapids — Rough Shoals — at the mouth of Blevins Branch.

After Rough Shoals, the character of the river changes again. It goes back to being more like New River, with flat water and muddy banks, although it is significantly bigger than New River.

The final four miles of the trip are comprised entirely of flat water, with the exception of Stephens Shoals, which are so minor that they hardly count as rapids at all.

The trip will take about five hours to complete.

Station Camp to Blue Heron: This final reach is also the longest, suitable mostly for an overnight trip. It is a 19-mile trip that requires at least 10 hours of steady paddling to complete.

This stretch of river is more calm than the reach just above it, from Leatherwood to New River. There are no Class II rapids like Rough Shoals, though there are a few minor rapids that are mixed in to break up the monotany of paddling the flat water.

For overnight paddlers, there are plenty of available camping sites along the way.

The only point of emphasis along this stretch of river is Devils Jump. Although not as menacing as Angel Falls, it should be portaged by recreational paddlers. Fortunately, the portage is much easier than Angel Falls; there’s a portage trail located on the left side of the river just above the drop.

Paddlers should keep an eyeout for the Devils Jump Overlook, visible as a wooden viewing platform on the rim of the gorge high above the river, so that they know they’re coming up on Devils Jump, which is the last major rapid on the Big South Fork before the river succumbs to the Wolf River Dam and Lake Cumberland.

The takeout at the historic Blue Heron mining community is located just downstream from Devils Jump.

Upstream from Leatherwood: The section of the Big South Fork upstream from Leatherwood is not suitable for recreational kayaking, with the exception of the final two miles, between the O&W Bridge and Leatherwood Ford. Between the confluence and O&W Bridge is the stretch of water that is loved by whitewater paddlers; however, recreational kayaks have no business on that stretch of the river.

Likewise, Clear Fork is generally not an advisable float trip for recreational paddlers. Although it is easily the most scenic river in Scott County, there are several Class III rapids between Brewster Bridge outside of Rugby and Burnt Mill Bridge. Class IIIs are a bit much for recreational kayaks, and capsizing is a likelihood. Additionally, summer streamflows on Clear Fork are generally below 100 cfs, as measured at Burnt Mill Bridge, making the river almost impossible to navigate. Below Burnt Mill Bridge, Clear Fork becomes even rougher as it drops towards the confluence with New River.

This story is the August 2020 installment of Focus On: Outside Life, presented by Ray Varner Ford on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Focus series. A print version of this article can be found on Page 3 of the August 6, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.
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