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June 5, 2013

Summer Guide 2013: A creek runs through it

A winding Kentucky stream sparkles as the centerpiece of The Parklands of Floyds Fork

Leaving work, singing the Vogues song:

It’s a five o’clock world

when the whistle blows;

No one owns a piece of my time.

Heading for the country, and soon it’ll be “5:30 world” on Floyds Fork, the pretty little creek that’s less than half an hour from downtown Louisville — half an hour from the office to finding your feet in the creek. Maybe gliding a kayak along a long pool in Louisville’s new Parklands of Floyds Fork in eastern Jefferson County.

A rip-roaring whitewater river? No, it’s a typical Midwestern “flat water” creek that can come up one day and go back down the next, so you have to time your boating accordingly. Some days wading is the best bet, but it’s always pretty. Gravel bars, mud banks, old sycamores arching over the water. Sun glints between leaves and reflects off the surface of a cool, clean creek. Fish, mussels, fossils, crawdads. Places where wildlife comes down to the creek for a drink of water. Birds singing, and a heron flying up and down her stretch of the Fork, patrolling for little fish that are about to become supper.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork runs pretty much north to south following Floyds Fork — from Shelbyville Road east of Middletown, to Bardstown Road south of Fern Creek. Parks Director Scott Martin says one goal of the 14-mile-long preserve is to be what he calls a “5:30 park.”

“The big, broad thing we’re shooting for is how cities like Denver, Boulder, Seattle, they have that outdoor image,” Martin says. “But the truth is when you live in those cities, you still have to drive 20 or 30 minutes to be in the great outdoors. We’re a 20-minute drive from downtown Louisville, and our goal is to offer very similar outdoor experiences.”

Maybe not whitewater or craggy mountain climbs, but it’s all preserved land: glades and glens and hardwood forests, plus the creek. Did we mention the creek is clean?

“We’re like an introductory park,” Martin says. “So if you want to get into hiking, we’re a great place to learn it. We’ll have trails that if you do it all the time, this is a great place to come get ready for an Appalachian Trail hike. Same thing holds for paddling, and if you want to practice here and then take your skills to other creeks and rivers, we love it. This is the place you can do the activity you love — without going on vacation to do it.”

If you’re paddling along, you might marvel at the occasional footbridge overhead at certain points, carrying the Louisville Loop hiking trail. Or try to figure out just what bait Mr. Bass might find irresistible this afternoon.

It’s a quiet place. A moving oasis, if you will, of a little creek that could.

Running the creek

On a recent afternoon, Martin and friend of the park Brian Sandmann led a group of canoeists down The Strand, a long stretch of Floyds Fork where one will not see a single house, or car, or people looking at smart phones. Just the creek.

This day Floyds Fork was up and flowing with a smooth, steady current. About all one really had to do was float. The two-person canoes stayed with the flow and stayed straight. At the end of long pools the creek would drop over little falls, or slip over a riffle. The Fork is un-dammed, so it goes left around one sand bar, and then right around the next. Next season it might be just the opposite.

You come to a sharp bend and the creek narrows to a fast-moving rush that aims the canoe straight at the bank — and straight at a tangle of sycamore roots. But nothing happens, and you simply push away with the paddle. Some days the water is faster, and those corners might be tougher. Then in late summer, the Fork will drop down, becoming too shallow to paddle.

Floyds Fork offers about 137 days a year that are “paddleable,” according to Martin.

“That’s when the air temperature, the water temperature, and the water levels all conspire to produce what we would call an enjoyable paddling experience,” he says. “That means you’re floating with some degree of warmth. Not getting dumped on with ice or something like that. And the water temp is such you won’t freeze your tuchus off if you fall in.”

That’s for colder months. In the summer, the important numbers involve rate of flow — how much water is running in the creek, and how fast. Scientists at the Parklands measure Floyds Fork’s flow rate with sophisticated devices tied to satellite data from N.A.S.A global positioning systems … nah, just kidding. But they do measure the flow. And of course anybody can see when the creek is so far down you’ll be running on rocks instead of water. On those days it’s better to just go wading and cool off — find a nice spot and sit plumb down in the creek.

Start with creek shoes

Fishing is an option pretty much any day at Floyds Fork, and, of course, the best bet to catch fish in a small stream is usually by wading. All the major varieties of fish swim in the Fork — but not many whoppers. What you need here is light tackle and maybe just a couple lures, a spinner and a fake minnow wiggly thing — and you’ll catch smallmouth bass. We catch, admire and slip them back in the water — gone! Some fishermen bend down the barbs on hooks so the hook comes out of the fish’s mouth more easily.

Live bait like night crawlers and crickets will get you sunfish and bluegill. Crappies are active in the spring. And of course, there are catfish, plus a good supply of long-snouted gar, which look prehistoric and won’t bite on anything. (And what would you do with a gar if you got one?)

Hellgrammite season comes up at the end of July, and we’ll see if they’re plentiful in Floyds Fork. Without explaining what in the world a hellgrammite is, or how you get them, suffice it to say that fishing with hellgrammites is like taking a suitcase of money to Churchill Downs. The bass will accept your action.

It’s a sign of a healthy creek if there are mussels, and Floyds Fork is a healthy creek. On sand and gravel bars you see old mussel shells, gleaming white and silver in the sunshine.

Also on the rocky places you’ll come across scads of fossils. The park is noted for them, and the ones up by the creek are just the tip of the fossil berg. One fossil you’ll see plenty of is the brachiopod, which has a sculpted fan design and is Kentucky’s official state fossil.

There’s a lot to see.

Here’s a checklist of what you might need when venturing into the water, beginning with creek shoes. You don’t want flip-flops or heavy wading boots. For wading or boating, in mud and over rocks, you want a good pair of old tennis shoes with no holes in the bottom. I like to wear socks, then sit down at the end of the day and wash the sand out of my shoes in the creek.

Also, you’ll want some bug spray, a little towel, water bottle, a change of dry clothes in the car, plus a bottle of rubbing alcohol to slather over your legs and arms after being in the creek — works great on bites and scratches. Oh, and a hat. And don’t forget to shell out $20 for a Kentucky fishing license, which is required to fish.

Back in the paddle

Now, back to boats: While canoes have their place, kayaks are the thing these days in creeks.

“Kayaks have become enormously popular, instead of whitewater canoes, where you have to have the gear and all that stuff,” Martin says. “You can buy a kayak for maybe $300 and you’re ready to go. They’ve become lightweight, so folks can put them on top of a car or throw them into the back of a truck. Folks with relatively little experience can have a nice experience on the water.

“What we’ve got around here — with the majority of our water being flat, or slow current — they’re ideal.”

Our trip down the Strand section of the Fork — from the Fisherville put-in to Cane Run — took about two hours. For a late-day jaunt, Martin suggests one might put in at North Beckley, near Shelbyville Road.

“A good paddle after work is from the North Beckley access, the former Miles Park, down to Creekside,” he says. “The reason I recommend that one is it’s about a mile-and-a-half to 2 miles long, so time-wise, you don’t feel like you’re rushed.”

While a large portion of the Parklands is now open and ready for use, many more attractions and natural areas will open in the coming years. Ultimately, the expansive area will be split into four major parks, all named for tributaries of the creek that runs through them.

The park’s founders, along with Martin, see the Parklands following in the tradition of Louisville’s great Olmsted Parks.

“If you want to have an idea what the experience was like for Louisvillians 120 years ago, when Cherokee and Iroquois Park and Shawnee were laid out, we are that experience today,” Martin says. “And if we do our job right, our parks will shine like those do.”

For more information, visit the park’s website at 21cParks.org.

I have to confess that I've

By samm
I have to confess that I've never tried a kayak before. The way you put this makes me think that I have to add to wish list this thing. Do you think that my experience in boating would count?