It was a 5 AM start to Saturday morning as my friend Matt and I headed to the Carter Caves Winter Adventure Weekend for the Tygarts Creek "Regretta." The Adventure Weekend was filled with events such as caving, hiking, and rappelling, but we paid our $25 all-inclusive registration solely for this canoe trip, reasoning that any trip named the "Regretta" had to have something going for it.
Carter Caves State Resort Park is an easy two to two and a half-hour drive from Louisville on I-64. We arrived with just enough time to gear up in the parking lot; changing into a assortment of winter paddling clothes. For me, that meant a wetsuit with a couple of layers of fleece on top. For Matt, that meant some toasty fleece with a drysuit on top. If I fell in, I would be wet, but perhaps wouldn't freeze to death. If Matt fell in, he would be... dry. Price drysuits and you'll find out why I don't have one. I threw a far cheaper change of clothes into a drybag and brought it along just in case.
Our little party of nine included four people from Columbus, Ohio, and one from Akron. Along with two staff members, they proved a friendly and competent canoeing group. We piled into a state van and drove back out to I-64, pulled a u-turn at a bridge, and put the canoes in guerilla-style right in the median. We heaved them over a fence and down a steep embankment. Between possibly getting hit by a semi-truck and slipping on the snowy bank, this was undoubtedly the most dangerous part of the trip. Unless you are in a official state vehicle, don't do this.
Tygarts is a gorgeous creek that requires basic moving water paddling skills to navigate. The creek is generally narrow, averaging about 25 feet wide, and flows through a deep gorge of limestone cliffs. Its shallow, forest green waters flow over a gravelly bottom. There are a half-dozen spots with small, Class I rapids, though three downed trees presented the toughest navigational challenges. Fortunately they were just high enough to duck under. On this cold day, icicles hung from overhanging rocks and melting snow occasionally rained down from hemlock trees. We were clearly warned not to paddle under the icicles, as someone narrowly missed getting impaled the previous year. In places, the flowing waters had carved huge undercuts and bowls into the cliff walls.
It is six miles from I-64 to the take out point near the park border at the bridge over KY 182. Including a stop for lunch at a swinging bridge, we were on the water three hours. With the sunshine and proper winter attire, temps were comfortable, though it can get a bit chilly in the shadow of the cliffs. These cliffs rival the Kentucky River Palisades, if not in length, certainly in height and beauty. We saw several pileated woodpeckers, kingfishers, and hawks, and saw evidence of beavers. Otter inhabit the creek, but we didn't see any this day. I've heard, as well, that Tygarts is well regarded for fishing, being regularly stocked with muskie. Smallmouth bass, spotted (Kentucky) bass, and panfish are also found in its waters.
At trip's end, one participant said, "I want to tell everyone what a great trip they missed, but I'm afraid there will be a big crowd next year!" Perhaps there will be a few more....
Look for future Tygarts Creek trips on the Kentucky State Parks' Adventure Series  site.
If you are interested in paddling Tygarts on your own, check the USGS Gauge  before you go. A level of 300 cfs (cubic feet per second) is recommended, but it was 270 the day we went and quite nice.
Rather than launching on I-64, Bob Sehlinger's Canoeing and Kayaking Guide recommends Hwy 60 in Olive Hill. This will, however, double the trip length to 12 miles. Tygarts stretches nearly 90 miles, flowing through Carter County and into Greenup County before eventually flowing into the Ohio River. Sehlinger's book mentions paddling another five miles to Iron Hill, thus leaving nearly 70 miles known only to the locals. I wonder how much of it is actually navigable.
Like many creeks, Tygarts flows best in winter through early spring, when people generally aren't interested in paddling. If you go when it's cold, bring a change of clothes and avoid wearing cotton. One of our guides said they have led trips up through June, but be prepared to do some portaging through the shallows unless you catch it after a recent rain. As always, be cautious of creeks and rivers when they are flooding.
Photos: Shawn Nevins