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Packrafting on the Red River

by: Ben Shaw

I don’t typically write about my weekend trips, especially not to Red River Gorge, but this one has a special place in my heart. It’s my first time going on a packrafting trip since Alaska. Not familiar with a packraft? Come by the shop to check them out!

I had been down to RRG the week before to trail run and the river looked particularly inviting. After a morning splash and a swim at Jump Rock, I knew what I wanted to do the following weekend, I was going to packraft the Red River. I had taken the boats out on day paddles but nothing real solid since Alaska. So, the idea was in my head and I was off.

I had a few challenges, the first of which was, I’ve never paddled the Red River in my life. I knew the upper Red in the Clifty Wilderness could be pretty dicey in lower water (technical Class II) and in high water it was a Class III-IV run, so I didn’t want to mess with that too much. I also needed a partner cause paddling alone isn’t safe (never done that before…). In all reality I wanted some good company and didn’t really want to try something new alone.

After a few days of asking around I found my friend Lindsey who was super willing and able for this journey, so we were off. The night before we went down it poured in The Red and I knew the trails were going to be a mud bath, but luckily this also meant the river was at a perfect 4.5’ which would be excellent for paddling.

On Friday, without much fuss, we met up in Cincinnati and made the short drive south. It was an uneventful drive, with a little traffic and a stop for some fried chicken (much needed). After about two and a half hours we were at the trail head, ready to go. Starting down Bison Way, it was a muddy, hot mess but we were both optimistic about the journey ahead. We didn’t run into many other backpackers as we headed out towards Lost Branch, a few groups looking for a home for the night, but for the most part the only noises were the birds, the river below and our occasional chatting. Eventually, after about an hour and a half of trudging through the afternoon heat, we arrived where we wanted to camp for the evening. Unfortunately, another backpacker had already setup his hammock and nabbed the spot I wanted by the river, so we settled for another spot hidden in a valley back along a tributary. We quickly setup camp and gathered some soggy sticks for a small fire as the darkness and a light fog settled in for the night.

I woke up around 3AM to a bright full moon, the temperature had dropped, and I was freezing my ass off (smart move camping by the water…). I listened to the trickle of water in the creek and let it lull me back to sleep.

When I woke up, the morning was already warm, our valley was shaded but I could tell how hot a day it was going to be by the stickiness in the air. We got up and moving early, about an hour before we planned (the nice thing about a small group). The day started with a creek crossing and then a decent sized river crossing, one after the other. We ran into some trail runners, who sounded like they were having a great time as they passed by, they were the last people we’d see for several hours. We changed into dry-ish socks and shoes and began the long slog up out of the valley onto the ridge. It was a 2 mile mud slide up 500’, a great way to start the day, luckily, the heat was still holding off.

It was a good hike; Lindsey was proving to be a great partner and we were crushing it with our pace. As we neared the end of the hike, we peeled off onto the Eagle’s Nest loop, an unmarked and unmaintained route in the Clifty Wilderness. The trail was overgrown, covered in downed trees and full of spider webs, just the kind of hike I enjoy. It took some route finding and a good bit of patience, but we bobbed and weaved our way along the forested ridge through dense pines and small creeks until we eventually arrived at a steep downhill. We almost kept going, but my curiosity luckily got the better of me. We dropped packs and hiked up a the faint trail few hundred feet to a spot I had never visited before, the Eagle’s Nest. It was an awesome overlook with views off deep into the Clifty Wilderness and a few exposed ridges that seemed ripe for exploration. Lindsey and I enjoyed the views along with a few other hikers we discovered up there before heading down the muddy and scree covered cliff towards the Red River.

We got to the river a little after noon and grabbed a quick snack before inflating the Kokopellis and getting on the water. We put in on a sandy beach about a mile upriver from the boundary of the Clifty Wilderness at the HWY 715 bridge. Having never paddled this river, I was a little nervous, I knew the section down river from the bridge was gentle and flat but everything that I had read about the section through the wilderness was that it was rocky, technical in low water and the steep gorge walls on either side of the river make it extremely difficult to bail out once you’re on the water. We were only taking all our gear down the river, what could go wrong?

About sixty seconds into being on the water I realized that Lindsey barely knew what she was doing with a kayak paddle and was probably somewhat scared of damaging my boat. We floated and went through the motions for a bit before I noticed a bit of noise on the water ahead. Turning around to look there was about a 5’ section of river between two tight boulders that looked very shootable but if you messed up there were some nasty strainers on the other side of the rapid. I made the smart call and portaged onto the rocky shore next to it, we walked the boats down river a bit and got back on the water. Better safe than sorry right?

The rest of the paddle went wonderfully, we passed by day paddlers and enjoyed a nice drink in the sun. We both got a little too tan and had a very relaxing afternoon compared to our muddy and sweaty morning of walking. All in, it took us about 2 and a half hours to go around 7 miles down river to the Sheltowee Suspension Bridge. I hauled our packs up from the river to one of my favorite hidden campsites and then we continued another 1/4 mile to Jump Rock. I’ll give you a warning, if you’re worried about COVID-19, don’t go to Jump Rock in the afternoon… The place was packed with locals and weekend warriors alike, it felt nice to swim in the water and jump off the 15’ cliff at the end of a very long and rewarding day. It felt especially great to be back, having thought up this trip in this very spot a week before. I yelled at everyone to pick up their damn trash, we relaxed on the sandy beach for a bit and then eventually packed up the boats and walked up to our camp. We spent a nice evening by the fire, this one much better than the first night. Eventually the night cooled down and we both wandered off to bed. I laid in my hammock and watched the few stars I could see through the trees as I drifted off to sleep. The next day we packed up and road walked back to the car, a very anticlimactic end to our journey. We drove the long way around leaving the Gorge and I showed Lindsey some of RRG she hadn’t seen before. It was a tiring and relaxing weekend. I came out of it with a small hole in my left heel, thanks to a blister I ignored, and a very relaxed demeanor.

I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling penned up, none of my big trips I planned so far this year have happened. My urge to travel continues to get crushed by various complications and I’ve been filling my time with nonstop local paddling instead. Even though it was “just” a trip to The Red, it filled that growing hole for now. It was also an amazing feeling to go packrafting again, I hadn’t had a chance for an over-nighter with the boats since Alaska. Having these things has truly changed the way I look at maps and led me to think about packrafting trips in Wyoming, Utah, and Hawaii, all with their own amazing possibilities. Luckily, I have some big things coming up for July and August, I can only hope that everything goes according to plan this time

Friends of Red River Gorge

The more we personally visit the Red, the more in love with it we become. This place captivates all of its visitors, both hiker and climber alike. We all enjoy the break from the city, where the skies shine bright with stars, the wind and rain have been allowed to carve the landscape, and the true beauty of nature surrounds you. For the adventure seeker it is often the first place we point out for your next weekend jaunt and for the climber it is where to find world class climbing at all levels. The gorge is unique and breathtaking. It is also precious, delicate, and sometimes dangerous.

It is important to educate the people who want to enjoy these areas and to work our best to provide safe, reliable, and sustainable solutions to our outdoor recreation. That is why RRT makes a strong effort to support not for profit initiatives in the Red River Gorge. From 2018-2020 we worked with the Climbers’ Coalition. In July of 2018 RRT hosted their first in-store fundraiser for the coalition, bringing local craft beer, an awesome raffle from Rab and Black Diamond, and a coalition update all together to raise almost $700 year one!

RRT has been a member of the RRGCC since 2015. We have supported the coalition with our sponsorship, attendance, and promotion of their annual Rocktoberfest fundraiser inprevious years. We also designed and created a series of shirts, hats and stickers that celebrate the Red but also have a portion of proceeds that contributed to the RRGCC from 2015-2019.

Our fundraising efforts and sponsorship totaled over $7,000 in contributions. If you want to learn more about the RRGCC or their Rocktoberfest festival (which is amazing!) please click the link below:

Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition

Today our partnership with a safe and protected RRG continues as we support Friends of Red River Gorge (FoRRG). From liter clean-ups, tree planting, awareness events and public engagement events to education, the FoRRG is heavily involved in preserving and protecting the Red. To learn more visit them below:

Friends of Red River Gorge

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Shop RRG Tees and Hats and give back to FoRRG!

Read “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Red River Gorge”

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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Red River Gorge

Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is world-famous for its rock climbing and is a popular destination for camping, hiking, and backpacking as well. Nothing new there. So what don’t you know about the Red? Goatman shall elucidate:

1. RRG could have been turned into a lake, but was saved by a protest hike.

Back in the 1960’s, there was a dam proposed in the area for the purpose of flood control. A group of concerned citizens with the help of the Sierra Club arranged the Dam Protest Hike of 1967. On November 18th, groups were led on a hike of the Red to showcase its unique beauty.

2. RRG is registered as a National Natural Landmark.

The fight to keep the gorge from being drowned led to its inclusion as a National Natural Landmark, as well as being included on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also a National Archeological District and the Red River itself, as of 1993, has been declared a National Wild and Scenic River.

3. RRG is home to one of the earliest examples of agriculture being utilized by prehistoric peoples.

With unique rock shelters, RRG is the home of approximately 664 prehistoric and historic archeological sites, some dating back 12,000 years. Examples of early seed gathering and storage have been found in the gorge, as well as everyday items such as baskets and moccasins. For this reason, RRG is a National Archeological District.

4. RRG is one of many supposed sites of John Swift’s Lost Silver Mine.

You may be familiar with the campground bearing his name and the beautiful trail named Swift Camp Creek, but did you know that John Swift was a real man and, according to his journals, he found and consequently buried a fortune in silver. The directions he left are vague (with markers like “by a creek”)  and many other sites claim his silver for themselves.

5. RRG is home to an endangered plant that is unique to the rock shelters of the area.

  That’s right. Real treasure does exist. Namely, the White-haired Golden Rod (Solidago Albopilosa). This flower only grows in one place and that place just happens to be right at RRG. Unfortunately, the number of plants is declining due to human trampling. Take a look at it, memorize it’s shape and color, and please, keep your big feet off of them!

6. RRG is also home to three endangered animals.

The Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis) , the Virginia Big-eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus), and the Red Cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis) all make their home in and around RRG and are all on the endangered species list. Unfortunately, the bat population is being decimated by White-nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that can infect entire colonies of bats. However, you can do your part by not disturbing the caves in which the bats make their home, especially in the winter. If a bat is awakened from its hibernation, it may lose enough body fat in being active to not survive the winter. Be mindful!

7. Kentucky has its very own long trail, the Sheltowee Trace, that goes right through the heart of RRG.

You may have seen the blazes on the trees of a white turtle and wondered what that was all about. That, my friend, is the path of the Sheltowee Trace, a ~300 mile long trail leading from Morehead, KY in the north all the way down to Big South Fork on the KY-TN border. A hike on the trail will take you through Cave Run, Cumberland Falls and, of course, RRG. Don’t have time to hike all 300 miles at once? There’s a group that meets to do it 30 miles at a time over the course of a year.

8. The Clifty Catman is stalking you.

The Clifty Wilderness encompasses the eastern and northeastern sections of the gorge and is home, according to legend, of the Clifty Catman. This creature is the size of a horse, has the skeletal structure of a large cat, the skin of a human and a beautiful baritone singing voice with which he leads hikers astray. Be wary! If you catch a glimpse of the Clifty Catman and live to tell the tale, please comment and let me know what sort of warding talisman you had in your possession.

9. The Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition is buying property to preserve cliff line.

Thus far, two areas have been purchased: the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP),  750 acres, and The Miller Fork Recreational Preserve (MFRP), 309 acres. They also host trail building days during the summer which are a lot of fun with a great group of people. Get involved here!

10. The Red River Gorge Trail Crew hosts trail building/clean ups every second Saturday of every month.

A great way to give back to the area that has brought so much joy, RRGCC helps preserve and maintain the gorge so that it will be beautiful for generations to come. They work with the U.S. Forest Service and information concerning volunteering can be found here!

Check out our selection of custom RRG tees and hats! 

with proceedes supporting the RRGCC

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