A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Licking River: A 300-mile journey as a river meanders from mountains to a thriving metropolis

Part one of a seven part series

The Licking River begins with a whimper on its 300-mile plus journey north from headwaters in the mountains of Kentucky to its crescendo as it converges with the Ohio River at metro Cincinnati. Veteran reporter Andy Mead undertook his journey in an aluminum canoe, braving the elements on and off over more than a year, to experience himself the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. Along the way he talked to dozens of experts – from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman – and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river. Thanks to support from the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute, the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and KyForward.com for making possible the story of this incredible river.

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The upper Licking River cuts a winding path through rocky, wooded terrains as it spills out of Eastern Kentucky on a 300-mile journey to the Ohio River. (Photo By Andy Mead)

By Andy Mead
KyCPSJ Senior Reporting Fellow

WEST LIBERTY – In the spring, the headwaters of the Licking River are filled with wood ducks and their broods of ducklings.

If the mother duck senses danger, she scoots across the water, thrashing violently as if trying to take flight with a broken wing. Her goal: To make herself an enticing sacrificial target, leading a potential predator away from her babies.

I saw this happen over and over as I put-putted down the Licking in an aluminum canoe with a motor on the back. The mama ducks could not know that my traveling companion and I posed no threat.

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We were there to take in the beauty of the river. We wanted to know about the challenges it faces on its 300-plus-mile-long journey from the mountains to the region’s largest metropolitan area.

At the helm was Ken Cooke, a retired Kentucky Division of Water employee who knows a lot about boats and rivers, including this one.

The trip was winding, with the sun constantly moving about the sky as we rounded bend after bend. Stretches of deeper, slow-moving water were punctuated by shallower spots where gravel banks narrowed the river and the flow increased to riffles and a few small rapids. It was, of course, all downhill. We dropped 310 feet over the course of the trip.

Along the way we saw many ducks and ducklings. We also saw graceful great blue herons, hawks, owls, kingfishers, wild turkeys and – our biggest surprise – at least four American bald eagles. It turns out that the Licking is listed as a new hot spot for the national symbol.

We saw deer and muskrat, as well as the footprints of raccoons. At one spot a coon had apparently dug into a turtle nest, leaving nothing but a small hole and broken shells.

We saw mussel shells, and learned that the Licking has one of the most diverse mussel populations anywhere and, contrary to trends almost everywhere else, one in which the number of species is becoming more diverse. We also learned that muskrats seem to favor a particular endangered species of mussel. It would be a federal crime for a human to harm a fanshell mussel, but the muskrat only obeys the laws of nature.

Alas, we were somewhat disappointed that we did not see a single black bear. They, like eagles, are making a comeback along the Licking and in other parts of Kentucky.

We saw too much trash: motor oil bottles, hair spray cans, milk jugs, glass jars with lids (that made them buoyant), broken coolers, a motorcycle helmet, a soccer goal. The single most-common trashy item was the plastic soft drink bottle. Most of them probably had been tossed out of a car or truck window into a roadside ditch before being washed into a creek and then the river. There was a smaller but significant number of old refrigerators, washing machines and other discarded appliances. And tires, tires, tires. We should have kept a running count of tires.

We frequently were splashed by spray as we moved through riffles and small rapids, but didn’t worry much about contact with the water until near the end of our journey. We did not see water that appeared to the naked eye to be polluted. But we knew that some tributaries and parts of the main stem are clean and some are not, and that the water quality improvements being made are expensive and slow.

You would not want to drink untreated water from the Licking anywhere along its route, but if you did, it likely would taste somewhat salty. Marc Hult, a retired U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who lives beside the Licking in Covington, said that’s because the river is fed by groundwater that was an ocean 450 million years ago.

The river itself, and a number of places along its course, contain the word “lick,” because the salty water left deposits that attracted animals as far back as when wooly mammoths and ground sloths roamed the land more than 10,000 years ago.

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson sent Gen. William Clark to collect prehistoric animal bones from what now is Big Bone Lick State Park. The mission has been called the first paleontological expedition financed by the young government of the United States.

Hult let me taste a few granules of salt he had distilled from the waters of Big Bone Creek. It had a smoky bite to it.

Trees across upper Licking_0231

In many places in Magoffin and Morgan counties, the Licking River is so narrow and the vegetation so lush that trees form a canopy over the water. (Photo By Andy Mead)

The head of navigation

We began our journey by consulting with folks at the Magoffin County Historical Society. The Licking begins as a spring bubbling from beneath a rock on the southern end of the county, and the society office is beside the river in Salyersville.

Jeremy D. Shea, a graduate student in the public history program at Northern Kentucky University, researched the history of Licking River for this project. He found that early explorer Thomas Walker, who came into the Kentucky wilderness through the Cumberland Gap, arrived at the Licking at what would become Salyersville on June 2, 1750. He found Native Americans already living there, at a place called Elk Lick.

Walker is often cited as the first person of European descent to “discover” the Licking. Shea noted that the French cartographer Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’ Anville had labeled the river as “Salitik” on a map published in 1746.

The folks in present-day Salyersville told us that much of the upper river was narrow and clogged with trees blown down by the many storms that have moved through the area in recent years. We drove along the river and, from what we could see at crossings, they were right. So, in early May, Ken and I tried another tact. We put our canoe in at Twenty-Six Boat Ramp just above Cave Run Lake, and went upriver, against the current, in search of what we called “the head of navigation.”

We were in a 17-foot aluminum canoe with a 14-year-old, 3.5 horsepower Nissan motor on the back. A prime goal on this first leg, as well as the rest of the trip, was not to capsize with our camping gear, food, phones and cameras. Working against us were submerged logs, fallen trees, logjams, gravel bars and many riffles and small rapids.

We got 15 miles, to West Liberty in Morgan County, before the current became too swift, the river too narrow and the fallen trees too much of a bank-to-bank obstacle.

We declared West Liberty the start of our journey, turned around and pointed the canoe in the general direction of the far distant Ohio River.

Near West Liberty we saw evidence of the tornado that ripped through the area two years earlier. In downtown West Liberty the twister demolished buildings. On the riverbank, it left shattered, broken tree trunks, some of them still wrapped in contorted tin ripped from the roofs of barns.

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The scenery was, for the most part, beautiful, with lush greenery along the banks. At times the trees arched across the water so far that they formed a canopy. In many places, large rocks reached the water’s edge. In others, we could see rock cliffs through the trees.

Like other rivers in the state, an early commercial use of the Licking was to float logs from forests to sawmills. Most logs are now hauled on trucks. But we saw evidence of unwise logging along the river. At one spot, a logging road reached right down to the bank, taking away a buffer strip and inviting erosion. At another, beech trees had been cut close to the bank, perhaps to allow more sunlight to reach an adjacent farm field.

As we got closer to the upper end of Cave Run Lake, we saw our first eagle. We weren’t surprised. Eagles had been hanging around the lake for a while; what may have been a first-ever nest in the area was spotted a decade ago. There would be more eagles, and surprising eagle news, farther downriver.

Fishing on Cave Run Lake

Although most people who fish Cave Run are in search of crappie, the lake also is widely known for its muskie, or muskellunge, fishing. Residents say fishermen catch the freshwater giants measuring 40 or 42 inches “any day of the week.” (Photo By Andy Mead)

Cave Run Lake, past and present

For our trip down Cave Run Lake, we used a 15-foot aluminum fishing boat with a 15-horsepower Johnson outboard that was 34 years old.

“It’s an older Johnson, but they’re bulletproof,” Ken said as we got under way.

Dogwoods were blooming on the steep terrain along the shore. The lake is surrounded by knobby hills ideal for mounting cell phone towers. Ken said his iPhone reception was better on the lake than at his house in South Lexington.

Cave Run used to look like the rest of the Licking River – narrow and winding. To provide a measure of flood protection for people who live downstream, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started building a dam across the river in the mid 1960s. By the early 1970s, the new lake was fat and somewhat less winding.

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People who lived in or near the 8,270 acres to be submerged were moved out. Much of the land around the lake now is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Frank Bodkin, a forest service archaeologist, said his research into records of the U.S. Corps of Engineers and old newspapers shows that about 275 families were dislocated. Also moved, he said, were a church, a school, 2,108 graves, 45 miles of roads, 67 miles of power lines and 29 miles of telephone lines.

A reunion of the people who moved is held each August. Old photos are brought out and people swap stories. The number who attend is gradually dwindling.

“The many fond memories the former residents have for their former ancestral homes can never be replaced or forgotten,” said Bodkin, who attends the reunions.

One of those residents, Carolyn Sue Cogswell, a retired teacher, was born in what was called the Cogswell community, near what is now the Twin Knobs Recreation Area. Ken and I camped there on the first leg of our trip. Cogswell was established in the mid-1870s, Carolyn Cogswell said, and at one time had a grocery and a post office. The farm where she grew up is now under water. She was 17 when the farm was sold.

She takes a dim view of the forced relocations: “It was devastating for all of us,” she said. “Our life was never the same.”

“It’s like hooking onto a boat that’s trying to get away from you.”

— Fisherman Brian Muse, on hooking a muskie

Today, the lake is where the most people interact with the Licking. There are houseboats, sailboats, and fishing boats. People come to the area to camp, hike and picnic. The Forest Service estimates that 320,000 to 350,000 use one of its campgrounds around the lake between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year.

Joy Brown, executive director of Morehead Tourism, said the entire region benefits from money spent by people attracted to the lake. While she didn’t have hard numbers to back that up, Brown offered an article from The Morehead News about how hard the economy was hit when some access to the lake was curtailed by a brief federal government shutdown in the fall of 2013.

“It hurt us quite a bit,” Adam Ferguson, owner of Pops Southern Style BBQ, told the newspaper. “All of the campers leaving town really made an impact.” It also hurt, Ferguson said, that the shutdown came during the fall muskie season.

Brian Muse

Brian Muse

Which brings us to a big reason people come to Cave Run Lake: fishing.

Most people who fish on Cave Run are after crappie (which is pronounced like “croppie”). But the monster called the muskie, or muskellunge, is a whole ‘nother experience.

“It’s like hooking onto a boat that’s trying to get away from you,” said Brian Muse, an experienced muskie fisherman who is chief of operations for Corps facilities on the lake.

“It’s not uncommon at all to catch a fish that’s 40 or 42 inches, any day of the week,” he said. Unlike many people who catch and release the big fish, Muse likes to eat them. “In my opinion, they’re the second best fish to eat there is, right behind walleye.”

Some people fish for years, for decades, trying to land a really big muskie. The state record for the species was set on Cave Run on Nov. 2, 2008. That was the day Sarah Terry, a 14-year-old Montgomery County High School freshman, pulled in a 47-pounder. It was 54 inches long.

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Wannabe record holders should note that she was using a Double Cowgirl in-line spinner with two size 10 gold blades and a purple skirt. “It really chomped that bait,” she told state Fish and Wildlife officials. “If I had a dollar for every time I said ‘Oh, my God,’ I would be rich.”

Sarah was pictured on the cover of the next spring’s state fishing guide, holding her catch with the help of her stepfather, Scott Salchli. Because of the way the tail on Sarah’s record fish had been clipped, officials could tell it had been released 14 years earlier.

The irony of Cave Run being such a great place for catching muskie is that when the lake was created, a lot of excellent muskie spawning habitat was lost.

To compensate, the Minor E. Clark Fish Hatchery, one of the largest hatcheries in the country, was created just below the dam. It provides young muskie for the lake and other species of fish for waterways in the rest of the state.

Although Cave Run is filled with people and boats during the summer, it was virtually empty when Ken and I cruised along it in early May. Our plan had been to switch back to the canoe the next day and put in below the dam to continue our journey. But there had been heavy rains in the area a few days before. The lake had caught a lot of that runoff and was five feet above normal levels.

The Corps of Engineers was releasing some of that water through the dam. Corps officials raised their eyebrows when they heard of our plan to launch into the swift current their release was creating. We took a look at the current, ran through the probabilities of capsizing and having to swim out, and decided to come back another day.

You might be interested in these related stories:

Restoring streams and wetlands

Citizen scientists

Licking River watershed moments

TOMORROW: Beauty, mud, trash, history — and eagles!


Andy Mead
Senior Reporting Fellow
Andy Mead retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader after 34 years, where he distinguished himself as a reporter, with a particular interest in the environment. He also worked at the Boca Raton News for four years before coming to Lexington. He grew up in Savannah, Ga. and graduated with a master’s degree in history from Florida Atlantic University. He is a widower, living in Lexington, and has twins who are college students. As Senior Reporting Fellow for KyCPSJ on the Licking River project, he worked closely with NKU’s Ecological Sustainability Institute and engaged with faculty and students at NKU as a guest speaker and visiting professional-in-residence.

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One Comment

  1. mareen77 says:

    Thanks for informative sharing. Cave Run Lake is a most tourists destination of the world where I stay for two days. I really enjoyed there boating and came back with great memories.

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