The Licking River: Beauty, mud, trash, history — and sightings of magnificent bald eagles

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Part two of a seven-part series
 

The Licking River begins with a whimper on its 300-mile plus journey north from headwaters in the mountains of Kentucky to its crescendo as it converges with the Ohio River at metro Cincinnati. Veteran reporter Andy Mead undertook his journey in an aluminum canoe, braving the elements on and off over more than a year, to experience himself the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. Along the way he talked to dozens of experts – from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman – and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river.
 

Thanks to support from the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Sustainability Institute, the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and KyForward.com for making possible the story of this incredible river.
 

Frequent rises in water levels downstream of Cave Run Lake mean the banks of the Licking River often are muddy. (Photo by Andy Mead)

Frequent rises in water levels downstream of Cave Run Lake mean the banks of the Licking River often are muddy. (Photo by Andy Mead)


 

By Andy Mead
Special to KyForward
 

Our May journey from the headwaters of the Licking River and across Cave Run Lake had been interrupted by high water below the dam that creates the lake, but we watched river levels and weather reports, and decided to resume on a Monday morning in early June.
 

Bruce Hutcheson, and his 15-year-old son Kevin on the Licking River (Photo by Andy Mead)

Bruce Hutcheson, and his 15-year-old son Kevin on the Licking River (Photo by Andy Mead)

Fellow traveler Ken Cooke and I were joined for this leg of the trip by Bruce Hutcheson, a self-described “old computer geek at IBM,” and his 15-year-old son Kevin, a budding herpetologist. Like us, they were in a 14-foot canoe with a small outboard.

We arrived at the put-in below the dam to find people from the fish hatchery releasing two tanker truckloads of trout.
 

The water level was low. Ken said that meant we would be in danger of hitting more logs and submerged rocks, and could scrape the bottom of gravel bars as we rushed through riffles. He had brought six extra sheer pins for the propellers. Sheer pins are designed to break if the propeller hits something. The idea is that the propeller won’t be damaged and the pins can easily be replaced.
 

“We’ll see how far these six get us,” Ken said. I hoped he was joking.
 

We were soon moving down a beautiful stretch of river. We saw great blue herons, vultures, kingfishers and wild turkeys. And then, just before the U.S. 60 Bridge and the Morehead sewer outfall pipe, we saw the second bald eagle of our river trip. It moved ahead of us as we went down the river. I tried to take photos with the long lens on my Nikon. All I got were distant shots of a white tail.
 

When the Hutchesons’ canoe was in the lead, they saw owls (possibly great-horned owls) and an osprey, a large bird that’s also called a fish hawk.
 

Thick forest hugs the licking along much of its banks (Photo by Andy Mead.)

Thick forest hugs the licking along much of its banks (Photo by Andy Mead.)

This stretch of river was very pretty, with thick forest around much of it. Trees hug the Licking along nearly its entire length. In many places, the strip of trees is thin, and pastures or crops can be seen through the trees. Because we were down on the water, it often was difficult to see what was just beyond the trees. Stopping to climb up the banks was not practical because they are steep and covered with mud by the frequent up and down water level caused by releases from the dam.
 

But technology trumped mud. I found that the best way to get an appreciation of what was happening just beyond the banks along the winding path of the river was Google Earth.
 

That afternoon we were moving along on a shallow stretch of water when – BAM! – the propeller hit something and our canoe stopped moving forward. Ken figured it was time to pull the outboard out of the water, replace the sheer pen, and go on about our business.
 

When he pulled the motor up, he was surprised to find that the entire propeller was gone. Bruce Hutcheson spent some time feeling around underwater for the missing prop in the general area where it went missing. It would have been an amazing needle-in-a-haystack story if he had found it.
 

Ken and I lashed our canoe to the Hutchesons’, and we continued down the river on the power of one motor. Ken called his wife in Lexington, and she agreed to meet us near the Wyoming community in Bath County with a spare outboard from Ken’s garage. All in all, it was a pretty easy fix for what could have been a trip-ending calamity.
 

We camped that night on an island in the river. It was covered with rocks, mud and weedy areas. The maple and sycamore trees on the side of the island that was most often flooded were stunted from often being under water. There were also huge piles of driftwood.
 

It was a great place to set up tents on relatively high, dry land and be lulled to sleep by the sound of water rushing over rocks at a nearby riffle.
 

About that trash
 

Exploring the island the next morning, we saw deer hoof prints in the soft mud, but no human footprints except our own. We also found what we were pretty sure were deer bones.
 

The only sign of people was their trash: a riding lawnmower tire, automobile tires, a broken red cooler, a child’s purple slide. Heading down the river again, we started seeing more trash. A lot more. At one point, a child-size plastic car was caught on a log sticking up in the middle of the river. At another, we spied a very old Cadillac that apparently had been pushed over the bank and hadn’t quite made it to the water.
 

An old air conditioning unit, either washed or dumped into the Licking River, and now almost impossible to remove. (Photo by Andy Mead)

The logs shown in this photo will rot and disappear, but not the tire. (Photo by Andy Mead)

Tires washed up on a gravel bed on the Licking River. There have been efforts to pull tires from the river, but many remain. (Photo by Andy Mead)

The remains of what was once an automobile, now just an accumulation of metal rusting away on the river bank. (Photo by Andy Mead)

An effort, apparently decades old, to stop erosion along the banks of the Licking River. (Photo by Andy Mead)

And there were more tires. At one point, I counted 10 in a 50-yard stretch.
 

Todd Von Gruenigen, the Licking River coordinator for the state Division of Water, hold me that his agency funds or provides assistance to a number of groups that hold river cleanups. He said the state Division of Waste Management also sponsors cleanups and amnesty days during which tires can be turned in without paying a disposal fee.
 

The amnesty program started as a one-time thing, but was so popular that the Kentucky General Assembly made it a continuing program in 2012. The state says 19 million tires have been turned in and used for fuel or shredded into crumb rubber.
 

There is no count on how many tires have ended up in a river. The problem with tires in the river is getting them out of the river. They are bulky and heavy. They don’t biodegrade.
 

But they can be moved. In Bourbon County, the Friends of Stoner Creek worked with Boy Scout troops last summer to get more than 200 tires out of the Licking River tributaries that run through the county.
 

“On a good day you can put 15 to 20 people in the water and pull 60 to 70 tires out,” said Wayne Estes, a Kentucky Utilities arborist who helped organize the effort.
 

In some places, the boys could wade into the creek and grab tires, Estes said. In other areas, they had to use canoes. A big part of the planning, he said, was getting permission from landowners for places the boys could get into and out of creeks.
 

The effort was financed by a $2,400 grant from Kentucky American Water and in-kind contributions from the friends group. In the end, the Boy Scouts got money for camping equipment and the county got less trashy creeks.
 

April Haight

April Haight

I talked about trash with April Haight, director of Morehead State University’s Center for Environmental Education. Most of the counties along the river have mandatory trash collection, she said. And there are fewer illegal dumps than in the past. In comparison to 20 years ago, she said, the Licking has less trash. But it still has too much.
 

Haight has helped organize several cleanups on the river, on Cave Run Lake and on Triplett Creek, a tributary that enters the Licking in Rowan County.
 

The good news is that below the dam, the trash being gathered appears to have been there for a while. Not so on Cave Run Lake and Triplett Creek.
 

“Every time we remove trash, there’s new trash taking its place,” she said.
 

Unfortunately, Haight said, the trash problem is not unique to the Licking and Cave Run. There also are problems in the Kentucky, Cumberland, Little Sandy and Big Sandy rivers.
 

“This definitely detracts from the tourism potential of the area,” she said. “It is a shame because so much of the landscape in inspiring.”
 

She added that other issues, such as sediment washing into the river from logging, farming and mining, also have to be addressed before the region can benefit from the beauty of the Licking and the other rivers.
 

Haight thinks that more recreation would help decrease trash. That would mean more places to get near or into the water for paddling, swimming, wildlife viewing and fishing.
 

“The idea is that people are given some sense of being a common caretaker and benefactor, if they have access to the rivers,” she said.
 

The old country store, and a storm
 

The exterior of Jones Grocery in Sherburne, Ky.

The exterior of Jones Grocery in Sherburne, Ky.


 

The low point of that fourth day on the river was the trash. The highlight was a stop for lunch at Jones Grocery in the tiny, fading river town of Sherburne on the edge of Fleming County.
 

We called ahead to let Carolyn Jones know we were coming, and she let us know that she closed at 3 p.m. on a new reduced schedule that matches dwindling business. We made it in time. She greeted us warmly and made us delicious and cheap sandwiches. Walking into her store was like stepping into the past, and indications are it won’t be around much longer.
 

Carolyn Jones on steps of Jones Grocery

Carolyn Jones on steps of Jones Grocery

The Cave Run Dam has prevented tens of millions of dollars worth of flood damage along the Licking, but Sherburne is in a particularly flood-prone area. The old grocery building, built about 1900, has been flooded many times, and the damage shows. The store sells few groceries these days, and its foundation and future are shaky.
 

After the late lunch, our goal was to make it to the Clay Wildlife Management Area to spend the night. The wildlife area, which is owned by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, covers nearly 7,400 mostly forested acres where Nicholas, Bath and Fleming counties come together.
 

We only needed a small patch of it to pitch our tents. As our two canoes put-putted along the river, Ken was checking the weather on his iPhone, and it didn’t look good. A huge storm had hit Lexington and was heading our way. Ken held his phone up to show me a weather map with an angry red mass aimed at us.
 

We made it to our destination by minutes. With no time to pitch tents, we hurried into a patch of woods and strung a tarp between several trees. Then came the deluge, the lightning and the thunder. After a few minutes of it, I realized that we had sought shelter in a slight depression. We were standing in an inch or so of water, but we and our gear was dry.
 

When the storm passed, we were able to clear patches in a weedy field and set up our tents. Then came a light drizzle that lasted through the night and provided a perfect soundtrack for sleeping.
 

No dams, plenty of history
 

We didn’t know it when we set out the next morning, but something rare and unusual was happening in the water we were moving through. Freshwater mussels, which are in decline in most places, are doing relatively well on the Licking. In the area around the Clay wildlife area, there are more species than there were a few years ago because Monte McGregor, a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources mussels expert, is reintroducing species that used to be there. Mussel species have interesting names, and one of the species that has been put back in the river near the wildlife area is my favorite: the pink mucket.
 

McGregor said that one of the main reasons mussels do well on the Licking is that below Cave Run there are no dams to alter habitat or block the host fish that the mollusks require for reproduction.
 

Paul Tenkotte

Paul Tenkotte

Paul Tenkotte, director of NKU’s Center for Public History and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, had told me that there once were plans for a lock and dam system on the Licking.
 

In 1837, federal engineers recommended that 21 structures be built on the river to terrace the drop in elevation between West Liberty and the Ohio. That would have allowed barges to travel up the river to bring out coal and agricultural goods.
 

Contracts were awarded for the first five structures, but progress was slow because state funds were being concentrated on navigation systems on the Kentucky and Green rivers. By the 1860s, the locks were being dismantled so the stones could be used for the John A. Roebling Bridge between Covington and Cincinnati.
 

It turned out that what was bad for farmers and others along the river then was good for mussels and other creatures that live in the river now.
 

The large dam – with no lock – was later built to create Cave Run Lake, of course, but the rest of the Licking runs unfettered. Another dam was planned for Falmouth area in 1936. It has been on the Corps of Engineers inactive list for more than three decades, but talk of it still rises after floods.
 

Our goal for the end of this day was to make it to Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park. The stretch of river from the Clay wildlife area to Blue Licks was especially picturesque. There were a few sprinkles along the way, but my mind was on the history – and a botanical rarity, waiting at day’s end.
 

If you think about Daniel Boone when you think about Kentucky history, chances are you also think about Blue Licks.
 

Boone had led a party from Boonesborough in early 1778 to obtain salt for the settlement. He and his men were caught by a Shawnee war party. After an eloquent speech, Boone persuaded his captors to spare the lives of the men. As a prisoner, he was taken as far as Detroit, but he later escaped and made his way back to Boonesborough.
 

The “battlefield” in the state park’s name refers to what has been called the last battle of the American Revolution, and it also involved Boone. The state parks department notes the “last battle” claim is debatable but adds, “the struggle at Blue Licks embodies the conflict between the American Indian, Kentucky settlers and the British Crown.”
 

It happened on Aug. 19, 1782. The British had surrendered at Yorktown, Va., 10 months earlier, but raids by the British and their Native American allies continued in Kentucky.
 

After Bryan’s Station near Lexington was attacked, Kentucky militiamen, including Boone, set out after them. They caught the British and Native Americans at Blue Licks. Boone warned of an ambush but was ignored. Seventy-seven Kentuckians were killed. The dead included Boone’s son, Israel. Boone would later say Israel’s death was the hardest thing he ever coped with.
 

A battle reenactment weekend, with music and craft booths, is held each August.
 

Also at and around the park are patches of Short’s goldenrod, one of the rarest plants in the world. Charles Wilkins Short discovered the pretty, bright yellow flower on a limestone rock outcropping near Louisville in 1840. When a dam was built across the Ohio River in the early 1900s, the plants were destroyed.
 

The species was assumed to be extinct for several decades, until the ecologist E. Lucy Braun found several small groupings near Blue Licks in 1939. For more than 60 years after that, it was thought that all the Short’s goldenrod in existence grew within a two-square-mile area around the park in Fleming, Nicholas and Robertson counties.
 

Then a small patch was found in Indiana. Scientists believe the rare goldenrod was spread by bison and grew in habitat maintained by wildfires.
 

Two nature preserves have been established to protect the plant. From 2006 to 2008, the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission arranged for a Short’s Goldenrod Festival at the state park. But Joyce Bender, the commission’s nature preserves branch manager, said there wasn’t enough interest from the parks department to keep it going.
 

But the rare plants are still there. If you know what to look for, you can take a walk at the state park in late summer to early fall and see one of the world’s rarest flowers blooming among more common goldenrod species.
 

ABOUT THE WRITER
 

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Andy Mead is a Senior Reporting Fellow with the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. He retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader after 34 years, where he distinguished himself as a reporter, with a particular interest in the environment. He also worked at the Boca Raton News for four years before coming to Lexington. He grew up in Savannah, Ga., and graduated with a master’s degree in history from Florida Atlantic University. He is a widower, living in Lexington, and has twins who are college students. As Senior Reporting Fellow for KyCPSJ on the Licking River project, he worked closely with NKU’s Ecological Sustainability Institute and engaged with faculty and students at NKU as a guest speaker and visiting professional-in-residence.

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