Squaring off against the Louisville 50 — a kayaking journey down the Ohio River

Sitting in a kayak in the middle of the Ohio River will make one feel extremely small. Photos by Kevin Gibson.

Sitting in a kayak in the middle of the Ohio River makes you feel extremely small. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

I grew up spending summers with my grandparents in Clarksville; they lived just blocks from the floodwall, and most days my grandfather and I would walk down to the Ohio River. We occasionally fished, but mostly we just walked around. We searched for treasures that had washed up from who knows where.

We simply enjoyed each other’s company and the serenity of the river. Later, I would frequent the river with my friend Greg, just killing afternoons and bottles with our BB guns in tow.

However, for most of my life growing up in the area, the general consensus was that you respected the river — meaning you didn’t test its waters in a small craft. As a result, I lost touch with the Ohio, something that had been an important part of my life up into my teenage years and even my early 20s. A few years ago, I recall seeing a lone man on the river in a canoe, and I thought, “He must be insane.”

Dr. David Wicks, left, and the author during day one of the preview to the Louisville 50.

Dr. David Wicks, left, and the author during Day 1 of the preview to the Louisville 50. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

That man might very well have been Dr. David Wicks, a Kentucky waterways advocate and one of the brains behind the Louisville 50, the signature event of a growing series of races created and promoted by River City Paddlesports that takes place this year on Sept. 17.

In talking with Wicks about the race, I found myself in minor disbelief that a group of canoers and kayakers would brave the Ohio for 50 miles in a single day in such a tiny craft. That’s right — 50 miles, first one to the finish line wins. So he offered to take me on the journey in his kayak (albeit over the course of two days so as to kill me more slowly and methodically) to show me what it’s all about.

How could I refuse?

We started in Westport, Ky., at the Westport boat ramp at about 6:45 on a Tuesday morning. The weather was warm but not hot, the skies sunny. Our destination was the Community Boat House, just east of downtown Louisville — a distance of 22 miles. Bear in mind that the farthest I had ever paddled previously was 11 miles, and that took place some 25 years ago.

Once I settled into the bow of Wicks’ two-man kayak — which he hand-built with his daughter — I realized just how little room there is in a kayak. I couldn’t move my legs much. The space was too tight to move much of anything else below the chest. And we were going 22 miles in this thing? Um, OK. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn blue jeans. Hey, this is what happens when you’re a rookie.

But once we set to paddling — flanked by Scott Cummings, an experienced kayak racer who Wicks joked should be paddling circles around us the entire way just to make it fair — my nervousness vanished, and what I felt was a mix of awe and serenity at my position on the mighty Ohio.

I had been on a 3-mile Beargrass Creek jaunt with Wicks previously, during which we ventured out onto the Ohio River only briefly. It was intimidating and yet freeing for me. My irrational fears welled up and then melted away almost as quickly on that short trip.

But being on the Ohio for such a long stretch on this sunny Tuesday, seeing Metro Louisville from a completely different perspective, was an experience I wasn’t prepared for. I felt alive. I felt empowered. I felt adventurous. And yet, perhaps more than anything, I also felt decidedly small. The experience was a reminder to me of the power of the Ohio River and its importance in this city’s past, present and future. Just like that, I was reconnected with my childhood love of the river.

Of course, within a few miles, I grew tired. And hungry. After about two-and-a-half hours of paddling (during which my butt fell helplessly asleep), Wicks said, “Up ahead, that’s 12-mile island. We’re about halfway.” We stopped for lunch, and I was shocked to see a set of metal stairs leading up to the top of the island. On top, we found a clearing complete with folding metal chairs, garbage cans and a fire pit. Heck, there was even a stage for live music. If only I’d brought my guitar.

But there were also paths blazed through some wild growth to the other side of the island, which we followed just to stretch our legs. It was an amazing experience.

Seeing the new bridge from this perspective, in its current state, might be a one-time thing.

Seeing the new bridge from this perspective, in its current state, might be a one-time thing. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Along the way, we passed Rose Island and took a brief side trip into 14-Mile Creek, marveled at various rich people’s homes (Wicks narrated the entire way, but it’s tough to take notes in a kayak), saw wildlife ranging from mallards to hawks to herons, and slowly made our way to a sight I had neglected to consider: the new East End bridge which, of course, is only halfway finished.

A closer look | Photo by Kevin Gibson

A closer look | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Approaching it, seeing it in the distance, and then paddling under it was, well, awe-inspiring. The sheer size of the thing was indescribable, and it dawned on me that the view I had was one only a few people will enjoy and be able to store away as memory.

But paddling 22 miles, when you aren’t used to it, will wear you out. Cummings and Wicks didn’t seem taxed at all, but my shoulders, arms, triceps and back were beginning to bark, while my upper legs and torso also felt the pull. Meanwhile, my butt had fallen back to sleep shortly after the island stop and had no interest in an awakening. I was never in my life so glad to see the backside of the Water Tower — an intriguing view in its own right with the 1937 flood level marked on it — because I knew then we were almost to our destination.

Oops. Make that our first destination. Because at 6 a.m., we were going to put Wicks’ kayak back into the Ohio River and paddle the rest of the way of the Louisville 50 — 28 miles in a single day.

For an experienced paddler, that probably sounds like nothing. For me, it seemed like a journey I could never finish, especially considering how exhausted I felt after having just finished 22 miles.

You mean, I have to do this again? And it’s going to be longer this time? Would I be able to rest my body enough to start “fresh” in the morning? If I felt tired and a bit sore already, how would I feel after my muscles stopped for a few hours and began to tighten?

Louisville 50 water tower

Seeing the Water Tower up close from the river was just one intriguing aspect of paddling the first half of the Louisville 50. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Unfortunately, I managed to get only about six hours of sleep that night. When my alarm sounded the next morning at 5 a.m., I briefly considered sending Wicks a text message saying I needed to cancel; my body simply did not feel ready for another 28 miles.

But I am nothing if not stubborn. And a bit proud. And, of course, I had promised Insider Louisville a story about paddling 50 miles on the Ohio. So, I coaxed my stiff, tired old body out of the covers and got dressed.

Next: Part 2 — Locking through to complete the Louisville 50