The following narrative is true and occurred during the Summer of 1989. The participants names, except my own, have been changed or left out for obvious and not so obvious reasons. No embellishments to this narrative were added. Like most recorded for future generations folk lore, this adventure started with the line . . . “It seemed like a good idea . . . “
It seemed like a good idea when I heard about it. A grand river adventure down the Cumberland River from the Wolf Creek Dam at Jamestown to Burksville, Kentucky. Though I had no idea of the distance between the two map points or the amount of effort involved in the endeavour, I was up for the challenge.
A former deep salt water sailor myself, I had no fear of what seemed to be a slow meandering, often shallow bottom, fresh water river.
At the boat ramp, adjacent to the public camp grounds below the great dam, early on a calm Sunday morning, I met the doctor my sweetheart worked for and one of his friends or rather accomplices. Due to the doctor wanting to conduct an experiment, we would be taking two flat bottom boats down the river. He had altered a common everyday gasoline powered yard leaf blower with the intent of bringing jet propulsion to the Cumberland River.
I sat in the second boat which was located in the center of the river and watched. It was calm and serene on the river until the doctor started the leaf blower. Even though he had made a special bracket to mount the possible propulsion device, it didn’t work. He gunned the engine countless times, and directed some rather pointed comments at the unfortunate device. The boat didn’t move. A cloud of white and grey smoke began to descend on the river along with a horde of Yankee tourist, campers and interested third parties including several Department Of Wildlife officers. There was wonton finger pointing and robust laughter that seemed to last for quite a while.
A six horse power outboard motor finally replaced the jet propulsion disaster. Alas, we were on our way down river. The laughter and nonsensical chatter was quickly left behind. In short order we glided past a friends large river farm. It was there we bottomed out several times and had to get out and pull the boats over either a sand or gravel bar. Well, wet feet can dry out even on a small craft. Surprisingly, it started raining when we got to the Rock House Bottom.
Neither the doctor’s co-conspirator or myself were prepared for rain. But … that wasn’t the worst of it. We hadn’t heard the warning horns. The dam had started generating.
When the dam starts generating electricity, the river changes from meandering to a quick flowing torrent. Fishermen evacuate the river banks and recreational boating pretty much stops. We had badly estimated when or if there would be generating during our adventure. It was Sunday. With the river rising, the rain intensified. Fortunately, the doctor was well prepared for fowl weather. He had a serviceable raincoat and headgear.
We, on the other hand, were given an improvised poncho made from a plastic kitchen tablecloth. Once we poked a head hole in the center of the stiff material, we were pretty much high and dry. That would be for the moment. It was a little disconcerting that our free official poncho imitators were a bright yellow. Though no one spoke about it, I thought the bright yellow color was a reasonable idea. I also thought no one could miss us wearing them or that the search parties couldn’t miss our bodies should they wash up in such a bright grand style on the river bank.
It was about this time the doctor’s six horse power motor failed.
The motor failure was sudden and troubling. We managed to pull his boat over and lash the two together. With the rain streaming down we headed for the bank. It was understood without outwardly stating it that we had to continue on. We were out in the middle, of the middle, of nowhere with few other options. So, we were heading down the river lashed together after a quick restroom break which entailed climbing up a slippery embankment to the woods. It was necessary to get quickly up into the woods for some private time, which resulted in me having to defile a small piece of the woods.
So we were off once again to see the wizard in Burksville so to speak. A heavy rain with active lighting was on us and quite threatening. Contemplating my options which included a rising and fast river, possible death and dismemberment along with disappearing without a trace, I found that my sandwiches were hard to eat when rain soaked. The bread sort of disintegrated and fell between my fingers though the meat remained serviceable and editable. It had that freshly washed taste sensation. We hadn’t gone but maybe six or seven miles when the six horse power motor in the second boat started sputtering and threatening to die. We quickly pulled back over to the bank.
Squeezing the fuel priming bulb kept the motor running semi-normally …
After a quick inventory of options, we found that if someone continually squeezed the motor primer bulb, the motor would run semi-normal. Yeah . . . and I was quite elated when I was chosen to constantly perform such an important task. So . . . in order to retain control of the lashed together boats we had to have enough power to go faster than the river current. Heading down the river again, I found myself squeezing that fuel bulb like I was trying to get three gallons of milk out of a cow in two minutes. Left hand, rest, right hand repeat, rest . . . left hand, right hand repeat.
It began to rain harder, and the doctor’s accomplice and I started to frantically bail water out of the two boats. They were quickly filling up with rain water at an alarming rate . . . Squeeze, bale, squeeze, bale, left hand, rest, right hand repeat, rest . . . squeeze, squeeze, left hand, right hand repeat. Five miles later we pulled over to rest a bit. I needed to rest like no ones business. My hands had started making involuntary spasm movements that were troubling to say the least. The doctor’s accomplice thought I was making obscene gestures and laughed heartedly at my predicament.
Down the raging river the rear-end of the tied together boats started to drift to the left towards the center of the river. We were going slower than the current and would quickly become uncontrollable river riffraff. I wasn’t keeping up. Squeeze faster, faster, bale, squeeze, bale, left hand, rest, right hand repeat, rest . . . squeeze, squeeze, left hand, right hand repeat. Farther on down the river the serious muscle cramps started, and I couldn’t feel my feet from the cold water.
Of course, the rain water at this time was above the ankle deep inside both boats. This was despite our efforts to continuously bail the disaster into the river. I was beginning to wonder if my poor feet would ever dry out. My tennis sneakers had already been written off with a hope the new socks that I was wearing could be salvaged.
Miles down the river was the Burksville city boat ramp and it wouldn’t take long to get there once we pushed off again.
Finally through the haze and rainfall, we could make out the city boat ramp. I was soaked to the bone, tired and I didn’t know if I could ever use my hands again beyond hard labor in a milk cow dairy or doing pervert imitations. Squeeze, bale, squeeze bale, left hand, rest, right hand repeat, rest . . . squeeze, squeeze, left hand, right hand repeat. I had reoccurring nightmares with this horrid theme for months . . . and several times in each of the next few years.
Well, we made it! But, oddly enough over the years we spoke little of our unique outing on the great Cumberland River. Unfortunately, speaking for myself, this turned out to be the last and only great river adventure.
Next Week … Something Interesting or something current …
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