The Licking River begins with a whimper on its 300-mile plus journey north from headwaters in the mountains of Kentucky to its crescendo as it converges with the Ohio River at metro Cincinnati. Veteran reporter Andy Mead undertook his journey in an aluminum canoe, braving the elements on and off over more than a year, to experience himself the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. Along the way he talked to dozens of experts – from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman – and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river. Thanks to support from the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute, the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and KyForward.com for making possible the story of this incredible river.
The Licking River: A high water ride on the final stretch toward the Ohio, no splashing the water
View of the Cincinnati skyline from the Licking River, which enters the much larger Ohio River directly opposite the Queen City. The scene put a dramatic exclamation point on a journey that had begun in the Eastern Kentucky town of West Liberty. (Photo By Andy Mead)
By Andy Mead
KyCPSJ Senior Reporting Fellow
BLUE LICKS SPRINGS – Our journey down the Licking River had taken Ken Cooke and me to Blue Licks State Park in June. After three days on the river, we decided to take a break.
Bruce Hutcheson and his son Kevin had completed their part of the trip with us, so we headed back to our homes in Lexington to restock and pick a good time to resume our journey.
Ken Cooke knows a lot about boats in general and canoes in particular, and about river currents. When we started our trip back in May, he had said the ideal conditions for running the river was when the water was flowing at or a little faster than 750 cubic feet per second.
What we wanted to avoid, he said, was anything above 2,000 CFS.
There were weeks of too dry weather in which the flow was so low we would have had to carry our canoes for long stretches. Then came rain, and the river was too high.
But it was getting late in August and we needed to get back on the river. The current had been at about 800 CFS when we arrived at Blue Licks back in June. Now it was well above 2,000.
Stream restoration like ‘making sausage;’ take a second look
By Andy Mead
KyCPSJ Senior Reporting Fellow
EDGEWOOD – The people working in a small Kenton County stream were from Northern Kentucky University’s Center for Environmental Restoration, but what they were doing looked for all the world like environmental destruction.
The stream had been pushed to one side. A wide area once covered with bushes and trees had been cleared to bare ground. Some large trees had been knocked down, their exposed roots sticking into the air. The babbling of the brook was drowned in the roar of heavy equipment.
Scott Fennell, the center’s director, surveyed the mess and said that ugliness is often necessary to make a damaged stream healthy again. “It’s kind of like sausage-making,” he said.
That was the fall of 2013. A year later, the stream, Bullock Pen, was on its way back to looking like a stream should.
Native plants were establishing a foothold in spots where the invasive Asian bush honeysuckle had been pulled out. The most noticeable change: Several kinds of natural and artificial structures now hug the banks to make them more stable. As nature regains the upper hand in the coming years, Fennell said, the creek will look less and less like it was torn apart and put back together.
The Center for Environmental Restoration is a non-profit arm of NKU. Its main focus is repairing creeks using money paid by developers, government agencies (such as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet) and others who damage or destroy creeks.
The money comes through what is called an “In-lieu Fee Mitigation Program,” which was mandated by the federal Clean Water Act.
The center is responsible for restoration efforts in nine Northern Kentucky counties: Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Pendleton, Bracken and Mason.
Since its creation in 1999, the center has received more than $28 million through the fee mitigation program. A lot of its funding comes from the Kentucky Transportation Department, Fennell said. It has $8 million in hand, all allocated toward specific projects.
The center now has 3,300 acres under conservation easement, which means they are permanently protected. It has restored 61 miles of streams and 15 acres of wetlands. Most of the streams are short stretches of headwaters, Fennell said, places that are more likely to be homes to salamanders than fish.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is responsible for restoration work in the rest of the state. That program has been operating since 2002. Last year’s budget called for spending $1 million on operating expenses and up to $20 million on mitigation projects, said Mike Hardin, the department’s assistant director of fisheries.
For the Licking River outside of the area for which NKU is responsible, Hardin said, about $10 million has been spent. The funds were designated for 14 miles of stream, including 4.25 miles in three projects that are already completed and are being monitored, and the rest in two projects that are under way.
The Bullock Pen project the NKU center worked on cost $393,000, Fennell said.
Bullock Pen is near the city of Edgewood. Its waters flow into Doe Run Lake and eventually into Banklick Creek and the Licking River. Doe Run is a pretty 30-acre impoundment that is a popular spot for fishing, walking dogs and picnics.
The reason the creek needed restoration work was intense urban and suburban development. You can see it on the ridge tops around Bullock Pen, which are crowded cheek by jowl with houses.
Rain that used to soak into the ground now hits rooftops, driveways and streets before rushing into the stream. That eroded the banks, especially at a place where the stream makes a sharp U-turn.
Another problem was an unnamed tributary that enters Bullock Pen at the U-turn. The extra runoff caused the tributary to cut farther back into the hillsides, a problem known as “head-cutting.”
The erosion was so bad that sections of the steep hillsides fell away. In several places the landslides took trees with them. Where landslides had reached high enough, parts of people’s backyards fell away.
The landslides drew the attention of the NKU center, Fennell said. “We are all about the water quality and habitat,” he said. “Our money isn’t necessarily to protect homes, but that’s kind of a side benefit.”
The solution: Install a mix of deflectors along Bullock Pen to keep the creek in its channel and use enormous rocks in the tributary to make a stepped-down waterfall that won’t wash away.
Some of the deflectors also are large rocks. Some are gabion baskets, which are large wire baskets filled with smaller rocks or concrete. In some places the trees that were pushed down were bolted into bedrock so their trunks and roots will help hold the soil. In other places concrete walls jut toward the creek.
Hale Contracting of Williamstown was hired for the project’s heavy lifting. Company owner Dean Stith estimated that 1,000 tons of rock were brought in to add to native rock at the site. Some of the larger pieces weighed four or five tons.
“We use big rocks,” Stith said. He said the work is expensive and causes a lot of disruption before the reconstruction can begin “so you don’t want to do it twice.”
The Center for Environmental Restoration also hired NKU students to do some of the work. “It gives them professional experience and income,” Fennell said.
David Koenig, a fifth-year environmental science senior, was spreading native plant seeds and straw. His goal in life, he said, is to get a job working in the outdoors instead of in an office.
“I do a lot of outdoor activities, so it’s good to be out here, restoring after some of the damage we’ve done,” he said.
Working nearby was Tara Sturgill, who graduated in 2011 with degrees in environmental science and geology. She helped write the mitigation plan for the site. “I’m normally in the office, but it’s nice to be out here,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been out since I wrote the plan.”
A year after the 2013 work that made the stream look like a mess, Fennell returned and liked what he saw. Doe Run Lake will be clearer because of the project, he said. Bullock Pen will be hospitable to aquatic life. And the hillsides should stop slipping away.
“To me the most satisfying part is to come back next year, and the next year and the next and see how it is progressing towards more of a natural appearance and function,” Fennell said. “In most of our projects, you can’t even tell we’ve been there.”
We decided to pack our gear then decide whether to put the canoe in the water when we got back to the Blue Licks boat ramp and looked at the river. The plan was to make it to Claysville in Harrison County the first night, then to Butler in Pendleton County the next.
I called Thaxton’s Canoe and Paddlers’ Inn in Butler to make a reservation. Jim and Ann Thaxton have been putting people in canoes on the Licking River since the late 1970s. When I called, I got their son Glen, who grew up in the business and now is operations manager. I told him I was traveling down the river with a friend and wanted to rent a room.
He advised against it, saying the current was too swift to be safe. But he quickly reconsidered when I told him the friend was Ken Cooke. He and his parents know Ken and know that Ken knows how to handle a canoe in fast water. That made me feel better about my prospects for not drowning.
Then I found out that Ken had consulted with Jay Schweitzer, whose Setter Ridge Outfitters runs canoe trips on the South Fork and main stem of the Licking, and that Schweitzer had pointed out two places with problematic river-wide gravel bars where we could “face death” with the water levels we anticipated.
I called Schweitzer myself. He said he wouldn’t be putting his customers on a current above 1,500 CFS, but if Ken knew what he was doing . . . .
We arrived at the Blue Licks and put in at 9 a.m. The river was speeding past. We checked the nearest gauge with our smart phones. The current was 2,190 CFS, which was faster than our self-imposed safety guidelines. But we could see from the wet lines on tree trunks that the water level was dropping. We decided to give it a shot.
“What could go wrong?” Ken asked.
He says that a lot.
On much of the trip, going through a shallow riffle beside a gravel bar meant cutting the outboard, tilting it out of the water and letting the current carry us through with some strategic steering with the paddles.
With the water as fast and deep as it was on this day, we were able to fly through those spots with the motor down. There also was a new, blood pressure-raising sensation of being carried around river bends in swift water and not knowing whether we were about to run up on a logjam.
It was a pretty day. There were no ducks on the water, perhaps because of the current. We could see fields of corn and tobacco through the trees along the bank.
After a while, I realized that something was missing.
“We haven’t seen any tires today,” I said.
“They’re bouncing along the bottom,” Ken said.
As usual, we stopped for lunch on a gravel bar. And, as usual, I put my camera away in a dry bag just before we landed. As I was stepping out of the canoe, a bald eagle came sailing around a bend and flew past us, only a few yards away.
We had seen only a few houses near the river on our trip. As we approached the Claysville takeout point that day, we saw one that was particularly interesting. It sat back from the water and had a lot of yard art, including a bottle tree with deep blue bottles.
After we landed, we saw a road that looked as if it might lead toward the house, so we went exploring.
We had to drive through a shallow creek and past two or three houses to get to the one with the bottle tree house, where we met Rick and Tonna Wilson. He’s 60; she’s 56. Last year, he wrote a memoir called “17 in ’71 Again” about hitchhiking through the counter-culture world of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
They’re from Covington and Florence.
In the early 1990s, they bought and remodeled the old Masonic Lodge in Claysville, then moved to their present house after water got to the second floor of the lodge during the 1997 flood.
They love the new spot.
“We’re river rats,” Rick said. “We live off the deer, turkey and fish.”
Their current house is above the 100-year flood stage. But the creek we drove through on the way to their house floods 25 to 40 times each year. That means planning ahead, they said. If they’re having a party and it starts raining hard, the guests have to leave immediately or plan on staying until the water goes down. A downpour came one year during a Fourth of July party. They had to announce to 75 people that they needed to go quickly.
“It was like someone threw a hand grenade,” Tonna said.
Living at a relatively secluded spot on the river means that neighbors look out for one another.
“We got a call before you got here, saying your van was heading our way,” she said.
Eagles up, muskrats down
We set out from Claysville at 10 the next morning and an hour or so later stopped at the confluence with the North Fork of the Licking. There were a couple of small waterfalls where the smaller river met the main stem, and we were able to wade around.
Ken said there used to be a lot of mills on the North Fork because it was the perfect size to dam for mill ponds to turn wheels in the days when water power was king. It was a pleasant stop, but this day I had other things on my mind: I was on eagle alert.
When I had told Rick Wilson about seeing the eagle the day before, he told me there was a nest about five miles downriver from Claysville. This time, I would be ready.
The river was still pretty high and fast, so we made good time. Ken used the GPS app on his phone to tell me when we were four miles from the put-in. I had my camera in hand, ready. Then came the five-mile mark, then six. No eagle, no large nest.
It started raining pretty hard. I put the camera in the dry bag. The rain stopped. We came around a bend and I saw a line of trees with eight to 10 great blue heron nests, but no herons in sight.
Then a beautiful bald eagle popped out of one of the trees and flew close in front of us and down the river. And yes, the camera was still safe and dry in the bag. It was the last eagle we would see. That meant the best photo I got on the entire trip was the distant shot of the white tail on the third day.
I checked later with Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources avian biologist Kate Heyden, who explained why I was seeing so many eagles.
“The Licking has become a bit of a hot spot,” Heyden said.
There are three known nests along the river in Pendleton and Harrison counties, two of which were found in 2014, and five in the Bath, Menifee and Morgan counties in the Cave Run Lake area, three of which were found in 2014.
It’s all a part of a major comeback for the national symbol.
Because humans destroyed their habitat and poisoned their food supply, eagles were once nearly wiped out. The worst poison was the pesticide DDT, which came into widespread use in 1947. Insects ingested DDT and were eaten by fish, which were eaten by eagles. The pesticide caused the birds to lay eggs with shells so thin they broke before hatching.
Most DDT use was banned in 1972, but it was so pervasive that the number of bald eagles continued to drop.
When the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the bald eagle, America’s symbol, topped the list. Between 1949 and 1989, no eaglets lived long enough to fly from their nests in Kentucky.
But eagles have been making a comeback here and across the country. Since 2007, they are no longer considered to be endangered.
Most historical records of bald eagles in Kentucky were from the far western end of the state, near the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Now they are spreading into places in Eastern Kentucky where they may have never been before. In 2001, for example, a pair of eagles produced fledglings on Yatesville Lake. Nests followed on Laurel River Lake and Cave Run Lake.
At least one of the two nests in Pendleton County in 2014 produced chicks, marking another spot where there is no historical record of eagles nesting. Mickey Craig, a retired state wildlife and boating officer, spotted the nest at a spot called Tailpoint Riffle about half way between Falmouth and Butler. Last spring, he took a fish and wildlife technician from Frankfort to look at the nest with a spotting scope. They saw two eaglets.
“They were big enough to sit up on the edge of the nest,” Craig said. Heyden said that because no one got back in time to verify that the eaglets had flown from the nest, the hatchlings don’t count as official reproduction. But she said that the continued increase of eagles up and down the Licking and elsewhere is good news.
“It’s great to see them filling in all this space,” she said, “and we have a lot of space to fill in.”
We were on this stretch of river during the summer. If it had been winter, chances are we would have run into Barth Johnson, a retired conservation officer who has been trapping fur-bearing animals on the Licking for 25 years.
He is following in the wake of some of the first people of European ancestry who paddled the Licking River and its tributaries. And he’s not the only one plying the ancient trade.
“There will be some who like myself will put a johnboat or canoe in and trap several miles,” he said. “Some of them will just walk down and with permission trap on a farm for fox and coon but while they’re there will put some sets in for muskrats, coon and otter.”
He’s seen fewer muskrats in recent years, a problem he thinks could be caused by increased use of herbicides in cultivation practice known as no-till spraying.
Trapping season is from the first of November to the end of February.
Johnson uses a canoe to trap the stretch of river from Falmouth to Butler, catching beavers, otters, muskrats and minks. He also traps coyotes, often after a farmer has asked him to come to his farm and do it.
Most seasons he will get between 100 and 150 animals. He skins the animals and stretches the skins, then puts them in a freezer until he sells them to a fur buyer. The Licking can be tricky to work on because of sudden rises from water being released from Cave Run Lake.
“Unless you keep up with the computer model they have, you don’t know what may happen,” Johnson said. “It may not have rained for a week, and they decide to dump some water. You can have five or six feet more water and it puts you out of business.”
Unlike the pioneers who first trapped on the Licking, Johnson is required to buy a license from the state.
Fish and Wildlife statistics show that 3,390 licenses were sold in the state last year.
In 1981, a spike in fur prices pushed the number of trappers above 7,000, said Laura Palmer, who runs the state trapper program. Then fur prices and the number of trappers fell.
The numbers started back up around 2005.
“I heard from several grandparents who had trapped in the past who were taking their grandchildren out to teach them trapping for fun,” Palmer said.
Increased fur prices also have been pushing the numbers up, but Palmer said she was expecting a decrease this season because prices suffered last year.
State records don’t show where a trapper traps, only the county where he lives. Pendleton County, where Johnson lives, had 56 trappers. That was the most in the Licking River basin, followed by Morgan County with 50.
Market fluctuations have little effect on Johnson. That’s not why he’s out on the water.
“If you trap and think you’re going to make money, it’s not going to happen with the cost of fuel and everything, but it’s a sport,” he said.
“The thing I like about trapping as much as anything is you can go out on the river for a week and not see a single soul. You might see a duck hunter. You might see a squirrel hunter, but that will be it. There’s a lot of solitude out there.”
Johnson also mentioned that, while out trapping, he likes to retrieve tires from the river. And when his son Patrick got married one spring, the bachelor party consisted of Patrick and his buddies pulling out tires.
Final frontier: Educating the ‘lawn farmer’
We spent 0ur last night on the river in comfortable cabins at Paddlers’ Inn in Butler. When we set out the next morning, we realized that, by the end of the day, we would be in very different terrain.
At first we saw trees and fields and knobby hills and little evidence that we were in the 21st century. So far, we had seen few houses along the river. Except for a few fishermen, we had seen few people. There had been a few swinging ropes tied to trees, a few places where a set of steps led to small docks, but most of the scenery had been trees with glimpses of farm fields.
As we moved north, we saw houses, then a field of corn, then houses again, then another field. A distant hill had an apartment complex on it. Cell towers shot up on some hills.
We’d pass a patch of woods with a deer stand in a tree, then a large house with a green grass lawn that came down to the water’s edge. Then more large homes with lawns.
The houses became newer and grander. In some places, stumps still stood where trees had been cut to give the homeowners a clear view of the river. Ken noticed that there were spots where, without tree roots to stabilize them, the banks were falling into the river.
I remembered talking to Barry Tonning of Mount Sterling as he was collecting water quality samples in Montgomery County for the volunteer group Licking River Watershed Watch. He said that farmers had learned to put just enough pesticides and herbicides on their crops to do the job, taking care not to overdo because the expense of the extra chemicals would cut into their profits.
Tonning noted that there also are programs that encourage farmers to leave buffer strips between fields and streams and rivers.
But suburban homeowners love those flat green lawns, right down to the water’s edge. They buy too much chemicals and pour the whole bag or bottle on the grass rather than throw any away. That means lots of chemicals washing into the water.
“It’s the final frontier in water quality management: educating the lawn farmer,” Tonning said.
On to the Ohio, but no splashing
The last seven or so miles of the Licking were wider and flatter. That’s because it is about to enter the Ohio, where the water level has been raised by the Markland Dam. Barge traffic from the Ohio can move up and down that portion of the river.
First signs of industry along the lower licking (Photo by Andy Mead)
Barges along the lower river (Photo by Andy Mead)
An old bus abandoned on the river bank (Photo by Andy Mead)
(Photo by Andy Mead)
A lone kayajer paddles the lower river (Photo by Andy Mead)
Approaching the Ohio River (Photo by Andy Mead)
The Ohio River (Photo by Andy Mead)
We started seeing giant concrete caissons along the shore where barges could tie up. At one, an enormous crane was loading black pipe onto a barge. We pulled close enough to ask a worker where the pipes were heading. Down the Ohio and the Mississippi, he said, to the Texas oil fields.
The last seven miles of the Licking River are part of what is called the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. About 48 million tons of cargo flow through the ports each year, making them the 15th largest in the country and No. 2 among inland ports.
The last few miles of our trip were the scariest part.
For 15 years, the Kentucky Division of Water and the Kentucky Department for Public Health have issued a warning each summer telling people not to swim in or have skin contact with water in Banklick Creek, Three Mile Creek, or the main stem of the Licking from those creeks to the Ohio River.
The problem is E. coli bacteria from failing sewage treatment systems. When the patchwork of sewer systems was being built in the region – and in many other places in the country – the standard was to allow raw sewage to spill over into waterways after a heavy rain. There is now an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to fix the overflows. It has cost millions of dollars and greatly increased sewer fees.
The state water and health agencies said their work with local health and sewer officials is “gradually reducing the number of discharges and improving water quality.”
I had been in Three Mile Creek with biological science professor Kristy Hopfensperger and an NKU class for non-science majors on protecting water resources. The creek drains the NKU campus, as well as commercial and residential areas and a lot of parking lots.
The students were collecting macroinvertebrates. On other trips, they tested for nutrients in the water, and for E. coli. The water quality, overall, is not good.
“My main goal is to get these students outside and see what it’s like to do these assessments and learn about this creek,” Hopfensperger said. “But I teach this class every fall so we can start looking at how it differs from year to year.”
I had also been on a tributary of Banklick Creek called Bullock Pen with Scott Ferrell of the NKU Center for Environmental Restoration. The restoration work there would reduce sediment that would otherwise end up in Banklick Creek, he said.
Being in the Licking itself, during the summer months when the no-contact rule was in place, I was constantly thinking of being careful not to dip my fingers in the water.
We saw a couple of women zipping along in a scull boat ahead of us. They were, I’m sorry to say, moving so fast our small outboard could not catch them. We had better luck with Pedro Palacios, a rowing instructor who was coming toward us.
He said he mostly rows in the Ohio River, but he was on the Licking because Labor Day was approaching and the Ohio was filling up with large boats in anticipation of the annual fireworks. He was well aware of the no-skin-contact warning.
“I’m being very careful not to touch anything,” he said.
Soon the Cincinnati skyline was coming into view and our trip was almost over. It turns out that Cincinnati originally was called Losantiville, which, through some complex reasoning, means “The Town Opposite the Mouth of the Licking.”
Our journey took eight days spread over several months. We saw many good things, and some not so good. Nearly everyone we spoke with said that government programs, citizen involvement and public education were pointing the Licking in the right direction.
I had previously traveled down most of the Kentucky River, and several parts of the Green River. I am happy to report that long stretches of the Licking are every bit as pretty as those rivers.
The biggest disappointment of the trip might have been not seeing a single bear. The greatest accomplishment is that not once did we tip over in the canoe and dunk our cameras, phones and other gear, and ourselves.
One thing we had noticed on our trip down the river was that there were few places to put a boat in the river, and few places to even see the river unless you looked out the car window while driving over a bridge. We saw a few tire swings, the occasional steps laid down over muddy banks and even a picnic table. But, besides the occasional fishing boat, few people were enjoying the river.
They were missing an opportunity.
Senior Reporting Fellow
Andy Mead retired from the Herald Leader after 34 years, where he distinguished himself as a reporter, with a particular interest in the environment. He also worked at the Boca Raton News for four years before coming to Lexington. He grew up in Savannah, Ga. and graduated with a master’s degree in history from Florida Atlantic University. He is a widower, living in Lexington, and has twins who are college students. As Senior Reporting Fellow for KyCPSJ on the Licking River project, he worked closely with NKU’s Ecological Sustainability Institute and engaged with faculty and students at NKU as a guest speaker and professional-in-residence.