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Little South Fork


Eagle Creek
The Little South Fork (of the Licking River) is one of Kentucky's great outdoor treasures. It is a beautiful very rural river winding through forested hills between two metropolitan areas. Any part of the river is within an hour of either Lexington or Cincinnati but when you're on it you may as well be back in the 1800s. For six hours you see very few signs of civilization but you see everything from blue herons, red tailed hawks and golden eagles to deer, fox, raccoon, coyote, huge turtles and prehistoric fish (muskellunge, left over from the ice age). This is the ideal river for a father to bring young children, or for a Scout, school or church group to bring beginners. It's gently flowing, class I water with enough bends and riffles to keep it interesting but nothing to worry about. The biggest danger is running aground on sandbars or rock ledges, since the average depth of the water is three feet and it often shallows up. There are great sandbars and islands, so you can stop for a scenic lunch or even camp for the night.
The easiest way to access the Licking River is through Thaxton's Canoe Livery outside Falmouth. They've been in business since 1978 and know the river better than anyone. They can arrange any kind of trip on any part of the river you want. They have riverside cabins for rent if you're coming in from more than a few hours distance. Thaxton's is open from April through November unless high or low water temporarily shuts down the river. Phone 859-472-2000 or visit GoPaddling.com. They'll shuttle your canoes if you bring your own. They can provide kayaks if you call ahead. The Little South Fork is their most convenient trip, since it ends right at their headquarters so you don't have to worry about pickup. They begin your day with the haul up to Morgan, where you launch at a now abandoned school. From there it's 6-8 hours back to headquarters, according to how often you stop, how long of a lunch break you take, and how fast the water's flowing, which depends on recent rainfall. The trip is 18 miles, certainly long enough to relax and soak in the ambience.
That's a blue heron gliding down the river in the photo at right. They're a common sight along the Little South Fork. One of the options you might consider if you're experienced in canoeing is an overnight. Thaxton's hauls your gear up to Berry and you paddle down the first day to Morgan, camping either on an island or a sandbar about a mile downriver from the 18 mile put in. The only complication to the Berry - Morgan route is that there are half a dozen lowhead dams farmers have put in for irrigation purposes, and you have to portage each one. But the scenery is classic. Berry looks like a Norman Rockwell painting with its early 1800s farmhouses, and from there to Morgan the hills are high and wooded. The stream is narrower up there, with tighter bends and some interesting riffles. Not many people canoe that section, not many live up there, and roads are scarce, so fishing is very light, food is plentiful, and the fish grow large. If you make this trip, you'll be paddling 36 miles in two days, a very good weekender.
You can stop almost anywhere along the river and wade in. The shallow water is warm from June to September. The bottom ranges from sandy to pebbly to covered with fresh water mussels. You do, however, have to be sure to bring sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat. The banks are forested but you'll be in full sun most of the time, and 6-8 hours is a long exposure unless you already have a deep tan. You also need plenty of fresh water unless you plan to spend a lot of time purifying river water. The Licking is free of pollution but does contain Girardia and other microscopic organisms. Be sure to wear a camera harness so you have your camera ready at all times. You really will see a lot of wildlife but the turtles, birds and some of the mammals on shore are shy and you have to be quick to get good photos.

One of the reasons we love to start each season on the Little South Fork is because it's a good training river. By maneuvering the canoe through the riffles a beginner learns to read water and avoid obstacles. It's a forgiving river but still a great practice run. The frequent islands also force paddlers to choose routes. Does the left or right channel seem most likely to run free or end up in shallows or backwaters? These canoeists have chosen the right channel because it seems to be running faster and straighter. They're right. The left channel is slower because around the bend fallen trees have accumulated sand and rocks and back up the water.

The ideal time to run the Little South Fork is in April, May or early June, as meltwater and Spring rains keep it full. Kentucky enters its annual drought in July and water levels drop too low. From July through late September the Little South Fork can only be run after rains.

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