Paint Lick: Put-in to grounding zone 1

North of Center

We often think of paddling rivers and creeks as a strictly downstream activity. One starts in one place and ends in another. Lexington, however, is surrounded on three sides by the slackwaters of the multi-damned Kentucky River. This provides modern paddlers with a number of nearby up-stream-and-back trips.

There are two broad advantages to an up-and-back. The main advantage is transit. No shuttle. Whether paddling alone or with five boats jammed into your truck-bed, one only needs one automobile, saving time and money.

A second advantage owes to the destination-based structure of an up-back trip. Compared to most down-stream paddles, the up-back pairs well with extended explorations—hopping stone by stone further up unpaddlable creeks, ambling nearby ridge lines, or simply breezing lightly through the back channels of your own mind. Too, some culinary paddlers use the up-back to plan tasty lunch treats or zesty dinner delights at the trip’s halfway point.

Here is an April report of a solo up-back to Paint Lick.

Put-In & General Situation

The Paint Lick put-in is located in modern-day Jessamine County between the Tates Creek and Nicholasville Pikes. From downtown Lexington, the distance is 26 miles and 45 minutes. For those living in South Lex, the trip would likely take 30 minutes. Here is a visual of the route for the Nicholasville Pike.

The Nicholasville Pike route colored blue. Kentucky River colored green. Paint Lick colored red.

Both routes have their charms and take the driver to the far southern edges of the original Fayette County created by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1780 as a means to help fund its war with Great Britain. I prefer taking the Tates Creek Pike out of town, turning right at the East Hickman Baptist Church nearby the site of four Reconstruction-Era lynchings and entering Jessamine County on 1981, the Logana Pike, and then hanging a left onto 1541, River Road, down to the put-in.

The Tates Creek route is likely shorter by a few miles. But the pace is slower. The refined up-country horse landscape quickly gives way to something more rumpled and severe, an Appalachian holdout at the edges of sophisticated upland Lexington.

Part of the Tates Creek route taken by author.

I arrive at the put-in parking lot to four startled teens idling the day away in a Monte Carlo of late 90s vintage. Under their watchful eyes, I untie the Old Town, put on PFD, grab paddle and gear—1 water, 1 beer, 1 granola bar—lug everything down to the water, and shove off in no time flat under mostly cloudy but warm skies. The water gauge at Lock 9 at Valley View is running at 4750 cfs, about normal for this time of year.

Backwash & beavers

Paint Lick forms the boundary between present-day Madison and Garrard counties, flowing north over a mud-and-gravel bottom before emptying into the Kentucky River just across from my Jessamine County put-in.

Feeder creeks around here tend to follow a similar distillation pattern. At their mouth is a green or brown backwash from the Kentucky River, which being damned, now flows significantly above its natural floodplain. As the overflow spills into the mouths of entering streambeds, this backwash travels up-creek in search of its hydraulic angle of repose, canceling out for some distance any traditional, forward-moving, laws-of-gravity-following, creek current.

Riding this Kentucky backwash, paddlers may momentarily defy several universal axiomatics and flow upstream, past the mouth and back into the body of the creek.

The Kentucky’s backwash on Pool 9 feeder creek, Summer 2017

Once on the water and with gear secured, I paddle across the green slackwaters of the Kentucky and quickly ride its backwash into the mouth of Paint Lick, leaving behind the confines of my Olde Fayette County home for the fluid frontier separating modern-day Garrardites from their Madisonian neighbors. For much of my trip upstream, Paint Lick arcs slowly to my right alongside a long, farmed bottomland on the Garrard County side. (For readers south of the Kentucky River, there is a Garrard County put-in here.)

I don’t float far before upsetting a bale of turtles sunning themselves on three mid-stream planters that had been stranded by previous floods. One by one, I hear the plops into the water and spend some moments scanning the horizon for air bubbles and other signs of cryptodiric disturbance. The whole ecosystem ruffles from my entrance. To my right, three Garrard County beavers slap the water and then disappear into a submerged bankside abode. Beneath me, silent stateless shadows dart at bent angles away from me. Forty yards upstream, I am sure I can see a blue heron twist her face in disappointment at my coming intrusion and, under her breath, prep an indignant squalk.

Grounding Zone

Significant feeder creeks like Paint Lick typically bear at least a bend of the brown and green Kentucky backwash, more if water conditions are right. At some point, though, the downstream-moving creek current beats back the Kentucky backwash and a small and clear pool emerges. This brief interstitial zone often signals the coming of a small riffle, shallower water, and a likely gravel bar upon which to ground your boat and get out.

An example from a creek located up-river on Pool 9:

Grounding Zone, Pool 9 feeder creek, Summer 2017

For an up-back trip, the grounding zone normally marks the half-way point and likely place you will inhabit for the next 30 minutes or 30 hours in ambulatory and psychic exploration. The grounding zone may be privately owned. It may be public. It will likely be minimally inhabited and unsurveilled. Yours, for your time here. (Tread lightly and with love.)

I reach my Paint Lick grounding zone in a lazy 30 minutes, beaching on creek-left beneath a tiny bottom on the Madison County side that appears to have ben abandoned sometime during the Clinton administration. To my right, a high Garrard County limestone ridge races toward the creek, pinching off the considerable bottom that I have been following since taking leave of the Kentucky.

I rise. I stretch. I eat a granola bar.

In Part 2, the author returns from Paint Lick.

Republished with permission.

Danny Mayer is the founder of North of Center,  a news and commentary site that since 2009 has covered the world through a focus on Bluegrass Region politics, culture, geography, and history.

You can support Danny's work by signing up for his substack publication, Shatty Town!, as either a free or paid subscriber.  Coverage areas include biking, hiking, paddlingurban developmentcronyismhigher education, city gardening and gleaning, Ohio Valley history, and national retail politics. Some poetry, too.