Paddling the Headwaters of the Green River
The Barren River is one of Kentucky's big rivers. Originating in southern Monroe and Allen counties near the Tennessee border southeast of Bowling Green, it comprises the main drainage system for a large, four-county area, and finally empties into the Green River southeast of Morgantown. It could be very effectively argued that Kentucky's longest and largest river should indeed be the Barren and not the Green. At their confluence, the Barren is easily the larger of the two rivers. Downstream from the mouth of Jennings Creek, the Barren is a huge river, definitely navigable but not particularly appealing for canoeists. Between the mouth of Drakes Creek and Jennings Creek the Barren River is still wide but a little more scenic and interesting for paddling. Running over sand, rock, and clay banks through a deep bed, the river averages from 90 to 150 feet in width. Upstream from the mouth of Drake's Creek, the Barren River is especially nice and averages 40 to 60 feet in width. Along banks of varying steepness, tree roots are exposed by lateral erosion, and the river is more winding. Islands suitable for canoe camping at medium to low water levels are not uncommon. Vegetation is often lush and many hardwoods are in evidence. Occasionally the banks rise steeply with some exposed rock. Below Barren River Dam the river can be run all year with easy access at several points. Deadfalls, occasional sandbars at low water, and a Class-II, man-made rapid on the loop of the river passing through downtown Bowling Green are the only hazards to navigation.
Map of the Green River and its Tributaries.
Drakes Creek, along with its three feeder forks, comprises the drainage system for the area directly south of Bowling Green between U.S. 31W on the west and U.S. 231 on the east. Originating near the Tennessee border in Simpson and Allen counties, Drakes Creek finally empties into the Barren River just outside Bowling Green. Running through deep, rolling farmland and wooded terrain, almost the entire system provides excellent paddling opportunities. Two of the three forks, the West Fork and the Trammel Fork are suitable for canoeing, as is Drakes Creek itself below the confluence of the forks. Running over a sand, rock, and clay bottom, the main creek and the two navigable forks follow a deep bed overhung by various hardwoods. Just enough riffles and current are found to make the paddling interesting and they are interspaced with some very simple (Class I+) shoals and rapids. The water quality is good and very little trash is found near the stream. The width of the stream varies from 30 to 45 feet on the forks to 90 feet below the confluence. Deadfalls are not uncommon on the forks but usually do not block the entire stream. Islands, some of which are suitable for canoe camping, can be found below the confluence. Access is excellent with an unusually great number of paved county roads interlacing the entire area. Drakes Creek is runnable most of the year although an occasional sandbar may have to be portaged during late summer and early fall. Banks vary in steepness and sometimes approach the appearance of a gorge on the West Fork where there are some vertical rock walls.
The Gasper River is a tributary of the Barren River and drains the area between Russellville and Bowling Green. Running over a rock, sand, and clay bottom, the Gasper is one of Western Kentucky's most beautiful rivers. Runnable from mid-November to mid-May, the Gasper flows around medium-sized boulders through a small gorge with steep, exposed rock walls rising almost vertically from the river's edge. The Gasper can be paddled from the Bucksville Road bridge to its mouth at the Barren. Rated Class II, the Gasper sports a few interesting, small rapids and a fairly swift current. Most of the river is very compact, with its width not exceeding 40 feet until just upstream of the KY 626 bridge where the stream broadens to 60 to 80 feet. The upper, more narrow sections (above KY 626) are potentially dangerous at high water levels due to frequent strainers (deadfalls) and the lack of eddies. Access from intersecting bridges is not always easy but it is possible.
Little Barren River
The Little Barren River, with its east and south forks, drains most of Metcalfe County and the western portion of Green County before emptying into the Green River west of Greensburg. In the upper sections, both forks are runnable. The South Fork is partially spring fed and can be run from late October through June downstream of the Beechville Road Ford. The East Fork can be run from late fall through the spring below the Mell-Cork Road bridge. Both of the forks are intimate and scenic, running between steep hills over rock and mud bottoms. Of the two, the West Fork is the more interesting run with small rapids and ledges occurring frequently (Class I+). Both forks average 30 to 40 feet in width. Access is good and navigational hazards are limited to deadfalls. Below the confluence of the two forks (north of Sulphur Well) the valley deepens, more exposed rock is visible, and the river widens to an average of 50 to 60 feet. Banks are 20 feet high here and are generally steep. As the Little Barren approaches its mouth at the Green River, sandbars become more numerous and the steeper terrain of southern Green and northern Metcalfe counties gives way to more gently rolling farm and woodland. Access below the confluence of the forks is fair to good (so rated because of a rather difficult access point at the KY 88 bridge). Deadfalls are the primary hazards to navigation. The level of difficulty continues to be Class I.
The Nolin River winds out of the hilly farm country of Hardin County and flows south along the Grayson-Hart county line to empty into Nolin River Lake. Below the Nolin Dam in Edmonson County, the Nolin River continues south to its confluence with the Green River in Mammoth Cave National Park. An attractive treelined river averaging 35 to 50 feet wide, the Nolin flows between steep banks over a rock and mud bottom. Throughout the upper sections in Hardin County, the terrain is gently rolling with farms adjoining the river. South of Star Mills, the river valley deepens with steep hills rising from time to time along the west bank. From this point to the headwaters of the lake, the stream is interrupted four times by the remnants of dams from a once-flourishing mill industry. Although signs of human habitation are common, regal hardwoods (mostly old growth) overhanging the stream help keep the beauty and the tranquil atmosphere of the stream intact.
The Nolin River is runnable from late fall to mid-summer from the Gilead Church-Star Mills Road bridge to Wheelers Mill. From Wheelers Mill to the headwaters of the lake, the Nolin is runnable all year long. Access for all runs above the lake is good except at Star Mills where access is possible but difficult. Because the stream is bordered without exception by private property, canoe camping is only recommended within the confines of Nolin River Lake. The level of difficulty is Class I, although small shoals and riffles and a good current keep the paddling from becoming tedious. Dangers in these upper sections include deadfalls, and, as mentioned, dams. All of the dams can be portaged without difficulty except at extremely high water levels. With the exception of the dam at Star Mills, all of the dams are extremely dangerous and should not be run for any reason. At Star Mills, however, the dam has collapsed in two places creating artificial Class-II+ (borderline Class-III) rapids. These rapids are runnable but should be scouted anew at every different water level.
From the tailwater of the Nolin River Dam to the mouth of the Nolin at the Green River, the stream flows through the backcountry woodlands of Mammoth Cave National Park. This section of the Nolin is especially scenic with high, exposed bluffs and plentiful wildlife, particularly deer and ducks. This section is only nine miles long (including an easy two-mile paddle upstream on the Green to the take-out at Houchins Ferry) but affords some beautiful camping spots for those with a short way to go and a long time to get there. Once again, the level of difficulty is Class I but with a good current. The lower section of the Nolin River is usually runnable all year but is entirely dependent on releases at the dam for adequate flow. Navigational hazards are limited to deadfalls. The average stream width is 50 to 80 feet. Access is good.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication