The Parklands

Paddling in Low Water

Ok, you’re fired up about paddling on the Fork and we love it!!  Perhaps you got the opportunity to paddle the Fork at 100 cfs back in May and that got you all excited about the sport. GREAT!!!  Now, here’s a small problem. Summer water levels are usually nowhere near that high. The experience of floating gently down a classic clear and free flowing creek of late spring has been replaced with a creek filled with slow moving pools and long, very shallow riffles in some of our hottest and most humid months.  Below are two shots of Floyds Fork – one taken in early spring with river flows at a higher level, and one in a later summer condition with lower flows.  Look at the difference:


Does a shallow creek with low water mean that paddling is over? Heck no!! Unless you live close to a dam controlled stream, or a very large river, shallow water paddling experiences define summer. Believe it or not, you CAN enjoy this experience. The key is to prepare for the experience and reset your expectations. This blog is here to help you experience our rivers and streams in the summer without getting frustrated by low water. The bottom line is that, with the right preparation, our streams are awesome places to paddle in the summer and it would be a shame to miss this time on the water.

1. Acknowledge that the water is low and embrace the new conditions.

Summer paddling is different.  It will involve getting in and out of the boat.  Know that before your trip and prepare yourself for the adventure.  Walking and carrying your boat is part of paddling – and always has been.  You will get stuck. You will pull your boat over some rocks. That should be expected. Only lakes, oceans, and bays assure you of constant floating. River paddling can, and should, involve navigation and creativity when it comes to maneuvering down the creek–and it’s great exercise!

Do your research and monitor water levels. 30 cfs (cubic feet per second) on the Fork is generally the lowest level you can expect to go without carrying some amount of water along the way. This is a great level at which beginner paddlers can learn to get comfortable in a boat and learn how to control their direction. My personal record of paddling down the Fork without getting out of the boat is 20 cfs.  But, I’ve done trips on the Fork as low as 6 cfs although that is very, very low and more of a walk than a paddle. 

2. Prepare yourself. 

Apply bug spray and sunscreen, and bring plenty of water. River trips in the summer are adventures filled with timeless annoyances so expect sweating, bugs, and heat. And this type of paddling is going to involve some work so expect to work for your fun. Embrace the work and think about how Lewis and Clark and our early pioneers fought these same conditions even when their paddling was a matter of life or death. You’re just out for fun and you are literally experiencing the same conditions your great, great, great, great, great grandparents accepted as part of living outdoors.

3. Learn to read the water. 

This is the key between an experience defined by walking and one defined by paddling.  So, what does that mean?  Number one, pick the proper boat.  Look for boats that draw the least amount of water possible.  What we’re looking for here are boats that ride high in the water.  Generally that means canoes and boats that carry less weight. Whereas in the spring two people in a fully loaded canoe could make it easily down the stream, you now may want to just have one person in a boat as that will allow you to make it over more shallow sections of the creek.  

And now we come to reading the water. This is where paddling can get tricky, but also becomes a fun sport instead of just a leisure activity. The creek defines itself in small channels in low flows and a boater will find that the difference in water depth varies greatly. One of the important skills to pick up is reading the “V’s”. 

Mind your V’s. When you come up to a swift current, look for the “V” facing you.  This is a section of smooth water and is generally the deepest like in the image below.  Aim for the center of it.  It is the deepest spot.  The “V” will be wide at the top, and narrow at the bottom.

Likewise, a reversed “V” like below show you where the shallow water can be found.  And if you see shallow water, know that is a spot where you are likely to get your boat stuck as those bad “v’s” are created by very shallow rocks at the surface.  Avoid these as the shallow point of the “V” at the top is the most shallow water.

Pay attention to the edges on the bank. “Cut banks” are usually the deepest sections of the Fork.  Use the photo below to help you as you navigate the bends of the creek – deepest water is usually found on the outside edges of turns – not the inside.  This is also where the fastest water is found.


Test Yourself. If you are in a group of people, use these steps to see how far folks can get downstream without having to get out of their boats. This is a fun game that quickly builds the ability to read water, and adds an extra challenge to the trip.

Think about it. The Fork, like most bluegrass streams, is defined by a limestone bottom comprised of ledges. Each ledge you go over is like a time travel portal as you are actually going back in time over millions of years as you work downstream – and deeper into our rock history. A collection of shells and seabed bottomlands that built up overtime into rock generally form these ledges.  Sometimes you will simply have to carry over these ledges. That’s ok.  Don’t try to ram them as that generally doesn’t result in a better experience but instead results in damaged boats and gear.  Please be gentle at these ledges as a lot of critters rely on these ledges for habitat and raising their young.

5. Finally, take your time. 

No world records are going to be set on the Fork in the summer.  And there is no way, under normal conditions, that you are going to stay in the boat the whole time.  You will get a workout and likely get hot.  That’s part of the fun of summer in Kentucky.  Take your time – look for gar floating at the surface, or freshwater drum and carp working the bottom of the creek.  If you’re really lucky, you may see one of our resident otters, beavers, or mink. 


Shortnose Gar                                   Mink                                         River Otter

Our creeks and rivers are different experiences in the summer – and they always have been.  With the appropriate expectation level, a little work ahead of time spent learning how to “read” the creek, and a good attitude, summer paddling is a blast, albeit different than spring paddling.  So, don’t let the low water scare you away – just set your expectations, embrace the experience, and get ready to see the Fork in a whole new way.

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