Packrafting on the Red River
by: Ben Shaw
I don’t typically write about my weekend trips, especially not to Red River Gorge, but this one has a special place in my heart. It’s my first time going on a packrafting trip since Alaska. Not familiar with a packraft? Come by the shop to check them out!
I had been down to RRG the week before to trail run and the river looked particularly inviting. After a morning splash and a swim at Jump Rock, I knew what I wanted to do the following weekend, I was going to packraft the Red River. I had taken the boats out on day paddles but nothing real solid since Alaska. So, the idea was in my head and I was off.
I had a few challenges, the first of which was, I’ve never paddled the Red River in my life. I knew the upper Red in the Clifty Wilderness could be pretty dicey in lower water (technical Class II) and in high water it was a Class III-IV run, so I didn’t want to mess with that too much. I also needed a partner cause paddling alone isn’t safe (never done that before…). In all reality I wanted some good company and didn’t really want to try something new alone.
After a few days of asking around I found my friend Lindsey who was super willing and able for this journey, so we were off. The night before we went down it poured in The Red and I knew the trails were going to be a mud bath, but luckily this also meant the river was at a perfect 4.5’ which would be excellent for paddling.
On Friday, without much fuss, we met up in Cincinnati and made the short drive south. It was an uneventful drive, with a little traffic and a stop for some fried chicken (much needed). After about two and a half hours we were at the trail head, ready to go. Starting down Bison Way, it was a muddy, hot mess but we were both optimistic about the journey ahead. We didn’t run into many other backpackers as we headed out towards Lost Branch, a few groups looking for a home for the night, but for the most part the only noises were the birds, the river below and our occasional chatting. Eventually, after about an hour and a half of trudging through the afternoon heat, we arrived where we wanted to camp for the evening. Unfortunately, another backpacker had already setup his hammock and nabbed the spot I wanted by the river, so we settled for another spot hidden in a valley back along a tributary. We quickly setup camp and gathered some soggy sticks for a small fire as the darkness and a light fog settled in for the night.
I woke up around 3AM to a bright full moon, the temperature had dropped, and I was freezing my ass off (smart move camping by the water…). I listened to the trickle of water in the creek and let it lull me back to sleep.
When I woke up, the morning was already warm, our valley was shaded but I could tell how hot a day it was going to be by the stickiness in the air. We got up and moving early, about an hour before we planned (the nice thing about a small group). The day started with a creek crossing and then a decent sized river crossing, one after the other. We ran into some trail runners, who sounded like they were having a great time as they passed by, they were the last people we’d see for several hours. We changed into dry-ish socks and shoes and began the long slog up out of the valley onto the ridge. It was a 2 mile mud slide up 500’, a great way to start the day, luckily, the heat was still holding off.
It was a good hike; Lindsey was proving to be a great partner and we were crushing it with our pace. As we neared the end of the hike, we peeled off onto the Eagle’s Nest loop, an unmarked and unmaintained route in the Clifty Wilderness. The trail was overgrown, covered in downed trees and full of spider webs, just the kind of hike I enjoy. It took some route finding and a good bit of patience, but we bobbed and weaved our way along the forested ridge through dense pines and small creeks until we eventually arrived at a steep downhill. We almost kept going, but my curiosity luckily got the better of me. We dropped packs and hiked up a the faint trail few hundred feet to a spot I had never visited before, the Eagle’s Nest. It was an awesome overlook with views off deep into the Clifty Wilderness and a few exposed ridges that seemed ripe for exploration. Lindsey and I enjoyed the views along with a few other hikers we discovered up there before heading down the muddy and scree covered cliff towards the Red River.
We got to the river a little after noon and grabbed a quick snack before inflating the Kokopellis and getting on the water. We put in on a sandy beach about a mile upriver from the boundary of the Clifty Wilderness at the HWY 715 bridge. Having never paddled this river, I was a little nervous, I knew the section down river from the bridge was gentle and flat but everything that I had read about the section through the wilderness was that it was rocky, technical in low water and the steep gorge walls on either side of the river make it extremely difficult to bail out once you’re on the water. We were only taking all our gear down the river, what could go wrong?
About sixty seconds into being on the water I realized that Lindsey barely knew what she was doing with a kayak paddle and was probably somewhat scared of damaging my boat. We floated and went through the motions for a bit before I noticed a bit of noise on the water ahead. Turning around to look there was about a 5’ section of river between two tight boulders that looked very shootable but if you messed up there were some nasty strainers on the other side of the rapid. I made the smart call and portaged onto the rocky shore next to it, we walked the boats down river a bit and got back on the water. Better safe than sorry right?
The rest of the paddle went wonderfully, we passed by day paddlers and enjoyed a nice drink in the sun. We both got a little too tan and had a very relaxing afternoon compared to our muddy and sweaty morning of walking. All in, it took us about 2 and a half hours to go around 7 miles down river to the Sheltowee Suspension Bridge. I hauled our packs up from the river to one of my favorite hidden campsites and then we continued another 1/4 mile to Jump Rock. I’ll give you a warning, if you’re worried about COVID-19, don’t go to Jump Rock in the afternoon… The place was packed with locals and weekend warriors alike, it felt nice to swim in the water and jump off the 15’ cliff at the end of a very long and rewarding day. It felt especially great to be back, having thought up this trip in this very spot a week before. I yelled at everyone to pick up their damn trash, we relaxed on the sandy beach for a bit and then eventually packed up the boats and walked up to our camp. We spent a nice evening by the fire, this one much better than the first night. Eventually the night cooled down and we both wandered off to bed. I laid in my hammock and watched the few stars I could see through the trees as I drifted off to sleep. The next day we packed up and road walked back to the car, a very anticlimactic end to our journey. We drove the long way around leaving the Gorge and I showed Lindsey some of RRG she hadn’t seen before. It was a tiring and relaxing weekend. I came out of it with a small hole in my left heel, thanks to a blister I ignored, and a very relaxed demeanor.
I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling penned up, none of my big trips I planned so far this year have happened. My urge to travel continues to get crushed by various complications and I’ve been filling my time with nonstop local paddling instead. Even though it was “just” a trip to The Red, it filled that growing hole for now. It was also an amazing feeling to go packrafting again, I hadn’t had a chance for an over-nighter with the boats since Alaska. Having these things has truly changed the way I look at maps and led me to think about packrafting trips in Wyoming, Utah, and Hawaii, all with their own amazing possibilities. Luckily, I have some big things coming up for July and August, I can only hope that everything goes according to plan this time