Still, silent, and brown the river spread out across the horizon. It hung over rooftops and roadways–swirled around young green leaves on tress normally 30 feet above the surface. The hum of twin outboard engines resounded in the distance.
The small boat crossed the river from a fleeted towboat to warn me about a dangerous pour over in the by-pass channel around the Smithland Lock and Dam. The concrete structure loomed in the distance–its bulk dwarfed by the river it was meant to control.
I paddled south towards the steep hills of Kentucky, hoping to find a way around the dam through flooded bottomlands where the Cumberland River enters the Ohio. Looking for more local knowledge of conditions downstream I paddled up to a a house sitting a few inches above the flood waters. Firewood, once stacked by a submerged shed, bobbed in the waterline. A loaded trailer sat in the driveway–its cargo of furniture and heirlooms ready to be pulled higher should the water continue to rise. Two empty folding chairs faced the river.
The man who answered the door suggested I paddle towards state highway 60 and follow its flooded mile markers to stay clear of the dam. He invited me to stay awhile and offered hot chai tea. We set ourselves down in the two empty chairs and watched catfish churn the surface and huge trees drift downstream.
In his 68 years he had not seen anything like the flood that lapped at his foundation. We sat mesmerized, soaking in the details of the newly created shoreline. He knew an old woman who had lived through the ’37 flood–the highest on the river in modern history. In ’37 she helped move her family’s belongings up hill and had repeated the trip a few days before–accepting the inevitability highs that come with life along the Ohio.
I said goodbye and paddled towards the highway–safely bypassing the dam. Through flooded fields I entered the Cumberland River, paddling passed Smithland, KY as it flowed into the Ohio. In Smithland the street’s were abandoned. Only a few workers stood vigil over the sandbag and plastic wall they hoped would hold the river’s crest.
After Smithland the Kentucky bank changed abruptly. Rolling hills and farm fields gave way to steep sandy shores. Shores that caved into the river in enormous rust colored landslides. Each slide adding more sediment and drift to the already thick river. One section of shoreline was peppered with hundreds of small holes from nesting swallows. The holes were only a few feet above the water and the birds flitted anxiously above the rising Ohio.
Nothing stirred the river’s surface–all boat traffic had been halted to stop damage to floodwalls and sandbags from their large wakes. The river flowed freely to the gulf through a floodplain it had not know in nearly a century.