Cumberland by Canoe

Canoeing and Kayaking Kentucky's Premier River System

The claim that Kentucky has more miles of running water than any state except Alaska is not unfounded; there are approximately 54,000 miles of streams and rivers. If you ask a Kentucky paddler what's the top river system, nine times out of ten he'll say the Cumberland. The Cumberland River basin drains more than 18,000 square miles in Kentucky and Tennessee. The river's headwaters are in extreme southeastern Kentucky (Poor Fork in Letcher County and Martins Fork in Bell County) and its mouth is at Smithland, in Livingston County of western Kentucky. Much of the Cumberland in and around Kentucky flows through and near the Daniel Boone National Forest. Between the so-called "upper and lower" Cumberland basins, the river flows through Tennessee, where at least half of its basin lies.

Kentucky takes its rivers seriously. It has its own Wild Rivers Program for protecting rivers of exceptional qualilty. Five of the eight protected rivers are part of the Cumberland system.

If anything qualifies as "The Cumberland," it's the North Fork. The North Fork has two distinct personalities. Above Cumberland Falls, to canoe the river from Harlan to Williamsburg is to become intimately acquainted with the land and the people of eastern Kentucky, their lifestyle and institutions visible and alive all along the river. Although only steep, wooded hillsides meet your searching eyes, you are never out of earshot of the rumbling coal trucks or the raspy barking of a dog defending an unseen cabin in some lonely hollow.

Below the falls is one one of the most popular whitewater runs in the state. Referred to as "The Cumberland Below the Falls" by local paddlers, the river here runs through a mammoth rock gorge with boulders lining the river marking the age old headward erosion of the falls. Added plus—the Cumberland River below the falls is the only whitewater river in Kentucky that is normally runnable all year.

But that's not a slam against Kentucky's other rivers. From east to west, the major rivers are the Big Sandy, Licking, Kentucky, Salt, Green, Tradewater, Cumberland, and Tennessee. They all empty into the Ohio River, which forms the northern boundary of Kentucky for 664 miles from Catlettsburg on the east to the Mississippi River on the west.

And you'll find happy paddling on all of them.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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