Paddling the Upper Current

We loaded the truck in the pre-dawn darkness, Venus still bright in the east,  hopefully a harbinger of another beautiful September day. We were headed north for the upper reaches of the Current River and sunshine was a big part of the plan. It was not to be—the clouds began gathering shortly after we were on the water, the sky soon becoming overcast and a chill descending on the river. At least we didn’t have to paddle on a lake.

This late in the year, we expected to see few other people out and about. As soon as we reached Cedargrove, we knew those expectations had been dead wrong. There were a dozen or 15 canoes and kayaks plus a couple of rafts lined up along the banks and, shortly, a bus arrived with our now fellow paddlers. I think we were in contact with one group or another the entire day, disappointing for a group of three hoping for solitude.

The river was crystal clear and cold as spring water, which it is. The riverbanks were showing a little color, the dogwoods and sycamores providing reds and yellows along with some orange that I think was hickories. The color was subtle for now, but in a couple, three weeks I expect it to be stunning. We’re already planning another trip…

Wood Ducks were a common site along the banks, a Great Blue Heron played fly-ahead with us and a very vocal, irritated Red-shouldered Hawk flew over us, stopping briefly in a tall cottonwood right next to us. Several flycatchers worked the trees along the edge of the water, flicking their tails up and down. I think they were Phoebes but they could have easily been Peewees—they’re hard to distinguish and I didn’t really put any effort into it.

Mink photos by Dayna Swofford

I was, as always, hoping for a River Otter. As always, I saw none. We found mink instead, at least four of them, in two groups. I’m sure the first group was a female and her kits, though we’re only sure of seeing the small adult, pictured above, and one other tiny individual.

About half way through the trip we reached Medlock Spring, at the end of a small cove on the west side of the river. The water from the spring comes from a cave and cascades over and down a pile of rock and boulders.  Photographing the spring and waterfall was my main goal for the trip and up to this point, I was less than happy about the overcast sky and dismal lighting. Generally, when you’re shooting photos, sunny is better than not, especially when it was as dark as what we were dealing with. But the sun poked through briefly and it was directly behind the spring and you never want your light source behind your subject (except in certain, very specific circumstances.)

I was planning to do long exposure shots anyway, turning the heavy overcast into something of an asset after all. The following shots were all shot at f/16, exposures of 1 to 2.5 seconds. The dearth of light did lead to images with dull, unsaturated colors and I had to correct for that in Photoshop.

Considering how poor the light was, I’m actually pretty happy with how these photos came out. I don’t say that very often.

At Welch Spring, we pulled over so Dayna and Tricia could go look at the spring and sanitarium. I stayed with the kayaks while they were gone, since I have zero interest in the sanitarium and a couple of years ago I took a photo of the spring that I will never improve upon. I went looking for crayfish instead. This was a great spot—the water less than two feet deep and the bottom covered with large, flat rocks. I turned only four or five and still found three species of crays: Orconectes luteus, O. punctimanus and the invasive O. virilis. In the photo, that’s the O. virilis in my right hand and O. luteus in my left. The O. luteus was a Form I (capable of reproduction) male, still soft from molting, and with an awesome set of pincers.

Leaving Welch, with two miles of paddling still to come , I think all three of us were ready to get off the water. Back in the early 90s, a friend (Hey Dave!) and I used to routinely paddle twenty miles in a day. But I turned 48 earlier this year and an 8-mile float like this is about as much as I want to tackle these days. After shuttling my truck back to Akers, we loaded up and headed for home, stopping only for an ill-advised chili dog in Eminence. Seriously, don’t eat the chili dog.

‘Til next time.

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