Thursday, June 21, 2018

Kinniconick: Charley Kilgallen

                                      Chapter  Thirty-two  

                             THE   BIG   DRIFT

                                        A watercolor by Winslow Homer 

He was a boy living a new life in a new land.  And one day, from a hill overlooking Pine Eddy, Charley Kilgallen watched rafts of big logs flowing down the Kinniconick. Until that day in Spring, several years after the Civil War, no vast logging had occurred in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky; but on that day in the headwaters of Kinniconick, virgin timber was being cut.  Most of the big logs were hardwoods, white oak and chestnut, maple and hickory and walnut.   

 Charley loved his new home in Kentucky.  He marveled every day at the verdant forest and newly cleared pastures, and from his folk’s house perched high on a hill, he could glimpse the virgin stream that flowed at the foot of his hill.  On that day, the roar of the creek, the wreckage of its banks, the tumult of the logs….this was an invasion not unlike the forays of Confederates into Kentucky during the War Between the States.

A Spring flood carried most of the logs all the way down the Kinniconick to its mouth at the Ohio River where they were milled and shipped and eventually became new homes and factories.  On Charley’s hikes downstream he found many lodged in overhanging trees.  And in one deep hole in Pine Eddy he discovered a log-jam, where dozens of giants virtually blocked the stream.  Perhaps it was Charley who began to call this stretch of the eddy “the Big Drift”.

Charley had been born in County Mayo, in Ireland.  His family survived the great Potato Famine that ravaged their country for five years and then ended in 1850.   No record exists of the date when his parents decided to escape the hardships that continued in Ireland, so I will venture a guess.  The Kilgallen family settled in their new Kentucky home in about 1860 when Charley was seven years of age.  The adjacent farm was owned by the McCarty family, and it’s possible that those folks were related to the Kilgallens.  McCarty is a famous Irish clan surname that traces back to the early kings of Ireland.

Rivers and streams and creeks are ever-changing.  If Charley could speak to us from his grave, below the crest of the hill where he lived almost seventy years of his life, we might learn about the log-jam, how long it floated and then sank to the bottom of the Big Drift.  When my Dad first paddled a scow up Pine Eddy, in the early 1920s, he looked down through clear water and saw big sunken logs, some three or four feet in diameter, at a depth of about ten feet.  In all of my years at Kinney those logs remained at the bottom of The Big Drift.

Hardwood trees eventually sink because the wood is dense and much heavier than softwood.  Once entombed they exist for hundreds of years, petrified in a sense; and in the last 50 or so years many of them have been recovered by scuba divers, with the help of chains and tractors.  The wood is prized and extremely valuable.  I have no way of learning the fate of those giants in The Big Drift, but would like to think that they remain just as Charley and I saw them long ago.

When fishing the eddy from canoe or boat, I rounded the Big Bend where native white pine covered steep hillsides, then approached the Drift quietly. This stretch of the creek was always the most productive, especially when fishing for muskellunge.  I could tell a dozen stories about musky encounters in the Big Drift but one is worth sharing.  Larry and Peggy Fisk were close friends and fishing enthusiasts.  They were spending a weekend with me at my cabin, along with their young son.  Bobby was three or four at the time.  The four of us boarded my twelve foot john-boat at the head of Pine Eddy, Larry in the bow, Peggy and Bobby mid-ships and I rowed from the stern.  Larry and I began casting over the sunken logs.  A big musky, perhaps a twenty pounder, 
followed my lure to the boat, and when he turned away Larry cast ahead of him.  The fish struck, he was hooked and a battle ensued. 

In retrospect, we were foolish to overload the john-boat.  When the fish was ready to net, I placed the wooden net’s opening closer to the stern, knowing that he could not come aboard mid-ships where Peggy and Bobby were situated.  As Larry attempted to maneuver the musky into the net, some of the hooks on his lure caught up on the frame.  When I attempted to lift him the frame broke, the fish became unhooked and the twenty-pounder was gone.  The memory of that day has been bitter-sweet.  On one hand, I regret that my old friend Larry failed to land a big fish, but in my heart I’m glad that the lunker got away.  Perhaps the thrashing fish would have caused a tragedy if boated, the john-boat overturned and a life lost.  The adventure itself, not the prize, is worth remembering.

When Charley Kilgallen died, in 1926 , he must have had thousands of memories about his farm and the creek.  Hopefully he remembered fishing in the Big Drift and catching big muskies.  Many years ago, in 1958 or 1959, I visited his old farm when Jim Stafford and his wife invited me to lunch.  That wonderful couple had acquired the place after the last of the Kilgallens moved on, sometime before the Second World War; and when my cabin was built they welcomed me as a neighbor.  I recall standing on the knoll not far from the house and viewing the mountains and the Kinniconick valley.  I remember the house, old but warm and inviting, and the view from the dining room window.  I know that my thoughts were leading me back in time to the days of the pioneers, like Charley Kilgallen, and to all of the happiness and tears that filled his life

                                                          Click to Enlarge

This photo was taken by Sharmon Davidson.  The old cemetery is not far from Shabomekaw, about half way up the hill toward the Kilgallen house site.  Needless to say, my account is based on some unproven incidents and assumed dates.  It would be great to hear from anyone who may be related to or knows of the Kilgallen family.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Kinniconick: We Go A-fishin"

                                         Chapter Thirty-one                                                  

                                WE   GO   A-FISHIN’        

                                          Photo by Sharmon Davidson

The year was 1934 or 1935.   On one particular summer day an old scow drifted on Pine Eddy.  On board were two fathers and two sons.  The fathers were exceptional men.  They spent time with their boys, teaching them to love nature and fishing with them on a clear-water stream; and the sons, four or five years of age, learned about the good things in life while they watched the bobbers strung from their cane poles, and waited for the fish to bite.

One of Dad’s best friends was Doc Harshbarger, a Cincinnati dentist, and his only son was William.  As I remember that day, I want to blame Billy for being too competitive when fishing, but perhaps I was just as guilty, and the two of us were determined to claim the biggest fish of the day.  We caught a string of panfish, bluegills and sunfish, rock bass and calicos.  For the rest of the trip we argued about the big one in our catch, perhaps an eight inch monster, and over the years we joked about who had caught him.

Billy and I shared a few more trips with our Dads but then gradually lost touch.  When we did see one another again, I was amazed at how he had changed.  Billy had grown into a handsome, articulate, considerate young man.  He was a natural leader and was destined for great things.  Needless to say, his parents, Doc and Lena, were extremely proud.  One summer in the forties, when Billy was 17 or 18, Doc arranged a fishing trip into some part of the Canadian wilderness and the two of them set off on a grand adventure.

When Dad got the news that Doc and Billy had suddenly returned from the trip because Billy had become ill, we had no reason to think that the illness was serious.  But then Billy was in the hospital.  And then Billy was fighting for his life.  At last, in a few short months, he lost his battle with cancer.  Back then, a kid my age was often naïve, not aware of life and death issues, and when Billy died I confronted the fact that we were mortal, that even Billy and I had no guarantee of a long life.  From that day I developed a strong intuitive notion that I would not live to old age.

So much for intuition.  I’m still alive at 87, but my friend was gone at seventeen.  So little time on earth for Billy, so few days of wonder.  So many years for me, so many memories.  When Thoreau sat by a little stream at Walden Pond years ago, he wrote:

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.
I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom
and detect how shallow it is.
Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” 

Soon there will be no one with memories of Kinniconick, as Billy and I knew it.  The stream is two million years old, but will it last forever?  Will the human race succumb to wars and environmental disasters?  Will our planet remain in its orbit?  Will the universe reinvent itself?  Is eternity inevitable?  My hope is that some of Billy’s last moments were dreams of the old scow on Pine Eddy, of his Dad baiting the hook and of his bobber moving in the current.   And then, perhaps, he felt the tug of life ending and Billy was fishing in the sky.

“I would drink deeper;
fish in the sky,
whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Land of Might Have Been

                                                       Chapter  Thirty


About one hundred years ago, a Welsh song writer by the name of Ivor Novello composed an unforgettable ballad and called it “The Land That Might Have Been”.  The first stanza begins with these poignant words:

“Somewhere there’s another land different from this world below, far more mercifully planned than the cruel place we know.”

The old ballad was sung by Jeremy Northam in the movie “Gosford Park”, and whenever I listen to it I think of Kinniconick, a land that was beautifully planned and more merciful than most places on earth.

“Sometimes on the rarest nights comes the vision calm and clear, gleaming with unearthly lights on our path of doubt and fear.”  

If “the better angels of our nature” had prevailed back in the 1960s, the stream would have been declared “Wild and Scenic”.  No other river or stream in Kentucky was more eligible:  in Chapter One of this blog I described the unique character of Kinney, and how little it had changed from the days of my youth, the same old farms, the timbered hills, the clarity of the water, the last redoubt of native muskellunge.
When I said my last goodbye in 1977, things were much the same. But the intervening years have not been kind to Kinney.  The old farms have mostly disappeared or have been broken up.  Many new homes have been built on the hillsides, many septic tanks have been installed.  Hogs have been raised near the creek and a lot of polluted run-off has entered the stream.  Commercial logging has taken a terrible toll on many of the beautiful mountains that frame the valley.  Creek banks have been eroded by careless dredging, and floods have become more destructive because of bull-dozing for new development.

The “Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” would have restricted the exploitation and prevented most of the damage.  Once again, the interests of many have been surrendered to the few and human greed has diminished a natural treasure. 
Today, there are much more serious issues, not just about the Kinniconick valley and the State of Kentucky but for our country and for our planet.  We must save the land, the air and the water, fight against special interests that deny global warming, and preserve wild and scenic places for our children and grandchildren.

“Days may pass and years may pass and seas may lie between.  Shall we ever find that lovely land of might-have-been?”

Listen to the old ballad as it was sung by Jeremy Northam in the movie “Gosford Park”.  

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Land I Remember

                                  CHAPTER   TWENTY-NINE

                                           THE   LAND   I   REMEMBER

Memories of Kinniconick have filled the pages of this blog since it was introduced several years ago, and I hope to recall a few more creek stories before the last chapter is written.  My fortunate life took me to many other memorable places, however, and I want to share a few of those adventures with anyone who is interested.  
I was born into a fishing family, and by the age of ten was begging my father to include me in his annual trips to Kentucky and Tennessee lakes, the first TVA impoundments in Appalachia. Dad conditioned his approval by demanding a lot of A’s on my report cards.  If I worked hard, he would write to my school and ask that I be excused from classes on Thursday and Friday, and then we embarked on a long weekend.

Some of you may recall the roads and the traffic back in the 1940s.  Leaving home on a Wednesday evening, we drove south on two lane bi-ways, with  just a scattering of cars out and about, through small towns and many small farms, winding down a steep and scary mountain side into Jellico, Tennessee, arriving in LaFollette at midnight. This is the land I remember.  


                           BRASSFIELD   BEND

Back in those years of rationing and the War,
six or eight gallons of gasoline went pretty far. 
So what the hell, we saved some gas for a fishing trip. 
Dad was a patriot and felt some guilt, but fishing was in our blood. 
We headed south in the spring when the weather was good,
and landed in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. 

The year was 1942 and Norris Lake was six, half as old as me.
 We arrived at midnight and the mountain town was quiet,
but the Shelbys of Tennessee were Dad’s good friends,
their roots were deep, and we had a fine place to  sleep in LaFollette.
At the crack of dawn we ate bacon and eggs at the Fox Café,
then set out for a distant arm of the vast and  beautiful lake. 

Our destination was remote, discovered by friend Roma,
a secret cove where he moored an old wooden boat.  
We were many miles from the nearest fishing dock, too far for strangers to interlope.
Emerging from the cove we were filled with hope, the forested slopes were unbroken. 
On the far shore a rocky ridge came into view, treeless and almost under water.
Here the mighty Clinch once turned sharply upstream. 

The placid lake, as in a dream, harnessed the river’s power and held back the floods,
and though we may pray that a river never change, we can love it still when it is forever changed. 
Our Johnson five-horse propelled us to that distant leeward shore. 
Drifting in a pleasant wind we fished over water clear as glass.
Streaking from deep in the rocks to strike our lures
came walleyes and speckled perch  and smallmouth bass. 

This was a boy’s Elysium,
 fishing where no father and son had gone before or will ever go again,
 river and lake and memory without end. 
On a map of the river and in my heart, its name is Brassfield Bend.  

TVA lakes continued to be created in Kentucky and Tennessee, and Dad took me on trips to Dale Hollow and Center Hill in the 1940s.  Then, in 1952, a dam was completed on the Cumberland River.  In late Spring of 1951, a good friend and fishing partner proposed that I accompany him on a canoe trip in order to explore the streams that would soon be flooded by the new dam.  Homer and I spent a week on the Cumberland itself and on two tributaries, the Big South Fork and the Rockcastle.  In recent decades the Rockcastle has become a fabled rafting and kayaking river, but way back in 1951 it was truly a wilderness area.  Every turn in our ride down that rushing torrent was a narrow chute between house-sized boulders, so we were forced to carry and use ropes to navigate the raging Rockcastle.   

Homer drove a Nash station wagon back then, a camp on wheels, with lots of room for our sleeping bags, gear and provisions, so we could camp wherever the Nash could go.  One of our encampments on the trip was most unforgettable.  We drove a very rough road to a place not far from the South Fork and discovered a marvelous little tributary creek.  A “sink” formed a pool about twenty feet in diameter and ten feet deep, and it was so clear that we were able to see the gravel bottom.  This was a place in the land I remember.   

                                CEDAR  SINKING  CREEK

We made camp in a glade of hemlocks on a creek called Cedar Sinking.
A pool of gin-clear water filled a deep crevasse big enough to bathe in,
and not far downstream, where our little creek entered the river,
the Big South Fork of the Cumberland roared all through the night.

Next day we searched for a launching site, but the river was hemmed in by cliffs,
and because we were young and foolish, lowered our canoe on ropes
down the rocky mountainside, into a quiet stretch of the stream.
With reckless abandon we set out on our grand adventure.

What a glorious day to remember, that day on the Big South Fork,
when the river ran wild and free, as it had for thousands of years,
through a rugged land of forests on its way to join the mighty Cumberland.
Time stood still for us, though time had raced to shape that ancient valley.

Suddenly it was late afternoon, the two of us and our canoe miles downstream
with little chance of paddling back against a powerful current.
And then we came upon an old logging trail at river’s edge,
an escape to the open fields of a backwoods farm.

It was a long and weary portage, each of us carrying and then resting,
shouldering the weight of the canoe without a path to guide us.
The sun began to sink behind the distant chain of mountains,
and a chill of cool air swept down upon two weary pioneers.

Yes, we were young and foolish, but perhaps we were the last adventurers
to see those miles of untouched river, just months before the deluge,
when the dam would flood the valley, up into the Big South Fork,
to the glade on Cedar Sinking, drowning forever the land that I remember.

One of Dad’s best friends became my mentor.  His name was Lawrence Fisk, and he was in love with the land and all of its creatures.  He was the first true environmentalist to influence my life, and he was the best fly-fisherman I’ve ever known.  Larry and his wife Peggy spent most Saturdays in late Spring and Summer on Laughery Creek, in southern Indiana.  As a teenager, I was invited to join them on many Saturdays and for many years.  Larry had a big, booming voice and loved to sing while we drove through the rolling hills and pleasant farms.  This was one of his favorites:

There's a bright golden haze on the meadow
There's a bright golden haze on the meadow
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye
And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky

Oh what a beautiful mornin'
Oh what a beautiful day
I've got a beautiful feelin'
Everything's going my way

 Unfortunately, I have no photograph of Larry wading that gentle stream in Indiana.  Good fortune led me to an artist and one of his watercolors, however, and no photo could do justice to my memory like this work of art.  Adriano Manocchia is a renowned artist who is “fascinated by water” (his own words) and has published a book entitled “Water, Sky and Time”.  The fisherman in this painting actually looks like Larry, and the water for me is the timeless flow of Laughery Creek, in a land that we loved and remember.                               
  (Click to enlarge.  See more of Adriano’s work at:

                                          LAUGHERY CREEK

                                        In the heat of summer long ago,
                                       On an Indiana Creek we used to know,
                                       He’d wade into water clear as gin,
                                       And fished his favorite stream again.   

                                       He held steady in the gentle current
                                        Patient as Job and mighty persistent,
                                       Tall and slim and Lincolnesque,
                                       Black eyes darting right and left.

                                       A streamer fly rigged with spinner
                                       Dropped softly into cool backwater,
                                       While the nearby riffle sang a song
                                       And Larry’s big voice hummed along.

                                       Your typical angler might give it two casts,
                                       But this expert fisherman made it last,
                                       Perfect shots to the very same spot,
                                       Until some bass was hot to trot.

                                       The Indiana hills and verdant farms
                                       Worked their magic and held some charm,
                                       And Larry knew the creek like no other man,
                                       The best holes mapped on the back of his hand.

                                       As a young lad I had much to learn,
                                       About nature and how the earth turns,
                                       How every man has a sacred duty
                                       To protect and defend original beauty.

                                       Seventy years have somehow drifted away
                                       But I won’t forget those Laughery days.
                                       I will see Larry making perfect casts
                                       As long as my good memories last.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Our Old Kentucky Home

                                      Chapter  Twenty-Eight

                                     A Painting by Roger Bansemer

Five years ago, in January of 2011, I began writing about Kinniconick.  This blog and the miracle of the internet put me in touch with many folks who still live there, or have memories of the place, and those contacts have made this project worthwhile.  Their love for that unique valley in Eastern Kentucky matches my own.  Whether we live near the creek or a thousand miles away, Kinney will always be our Kentucky home.

My memories of the place go back more than eighty years (my parents took me along on trips when I was a baby!)  Now I’m concerned that few of us are old enough to remember the early days, the family names, their houses, the beauty of the creek, the big timber.  Hopefully, old and new readers will add their stories about those golden days.

The golden days of my youth were associated with a stretch of Upper Kinney from the farm of Jim Stafford and his wife to the Bathiany cabin at the lower end of Pine Eddy.  Three farms existed back then, Stafford’s, McCarty’s and Bate’s.  No other habitation was to be found in those hundreds of acres, along those five miles of the creek.  Miracuously, the scene was basically the same during all of my years there, before and after I built the cabin.

                                           (click to enlarge the map)

The Staffords were up in years when I arrived on the scene but almost immediately invited me to lunch.  Their farm house was on top of a hill overlooking the valley, and I recall the view from the dining room window as we sat together and became acquainted.  I was asked to say grace and though I was never very good at it, I attempted to prove my credentials as the new neighbor, just over the hill.  They won my heart that day and are unforgettable.

My first encounter with Henry Bate was one day while fishing on Pine Eddy, when he stood on the bank and watched me casting for the elusive musky.  He was not in a good mood.  A few days before, several Wildlife agents had used electrical equipment to stun muskellunge prior to stripping them of roe and milt.  Henry saw that activity as an invasion and I had to agree with him.  Not long after, I drove into his family farm and visited.  I asked for and was given permission to land my canoe on a perfect picnic spot above the eddy, on his property.  We were always friends, from that day, but met infrequently.

I have a story as yet untold about a visit to Kinney in about 1937 or 1938.  There is an element of deja vue in this, because I actually walked on the old logging road that leads to Shabo Mekaw when I was a boy!   It’s also a story about some wonderful people who lived there.  This is a tribute toJoe and Calley McCarty.

In earlier chapters I wrote about my family’s connections with Kinney.  My Dad’s sister, Flora, was married to Dr. Oscar Schuessler, and they loved the valley, too.  They got to know the McCartys, descended from original settlers who came from Ireland during the potato famine.  Joe and Calley owned the farm at the head of Pine Eddy, the one that Herbert Zornes purchased later on, and the one that included the sixty five acres that became Shabo Mekaw.

In the spring of 1937 or ‘38, Aunt Flora and Uncle Oscar and their son, Bob, planned a trip to Kinney and asked me to go along.  We stayed over at the McCarty farm in a small guest cottage near the big house.  Bob was six or seven years older than me, and he was like a brother.  We set out one morning to explore the creek, and we followed an old logging road upstream.  It was the road to the Swirl Hole, a road that was to belong to me twenty years later.  We climbed the hill above the creek and discovered the old cemetery where the original settlers had buried their dead.  Only recently, thanks to Sharmon and Todd, we have photos to share of that ancient place.  Apparently the pioneer families were Kilgallins and  Coopers.  It would be wonderful to hear from anyone who is descended from those Irish immigrants who made their home in our Kentucky hills.

                Photos of the old cemetery taken by Sharmon Davidson
                                                            (click to enlarge)

Joe and Calley were fabulous hosts.  They typified the strong but gentle people who lived up and down the valley, devoted to the land and proud of their heritage.  Their kids were grown and had left the nest and within a few years the couple moved to Portsmouth, Ohio.  Again, I had the privilege of visiting them in their new home, along with Aunt Flora and Uncle Oscar.  I’ll never forget the night I slept there because I sank into the depths of a feather bed!

Somewhere on Upper Kinney is another ancient cemetery where generations of McCartys are interred.   I’m hoping to hear from someone who remembers the location or is descended from the clan.   It would be comforting to know that Joe and Calley are resting in the hills of their original home, their old Kentucky home.

A great Kentuckian died a few weeks ago and I had the privilege of meeting him and talking to him about the Kinniconick valley, many years ago.   Marlow Cook was the U.S. Senator from Kentucky in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  I was invited to a small gathering of  Kentucky State Senator Clyde Middleton’s supporters in Covington back then, and Senator Cook was there.  He was very familiar with Kinniconick and with many folks in and around Vanceburg.  The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act had been enacted the year before and I had the opportunity to describe our stream as a perfect candidate because of its unique geology and marine life.  The Senator was enthused and promised to work for that ambitious goal, but unfortunately the stream was never protected by the Act.   It isn’t too late for the people of Lewis County to save the stream.  We hope and pray that Kinniconick will always run clean and clear, through a valley where forested hills are uncut, where so many distinguished Kentuckians made their homes and were laid to rest. 

Friday, October 30, 2015


                            Chapter Twenty-seven

               OUR   RIVER   RUNNING   CLEAR


                                    Watercolor by Winslow Homer

 A vision for Kinniconick, in the words of a poet:

             “Memory, native to this valley,
              will spread over it like a grove,
              and memory will grow into legend,
              legend into song,
              song into sacrament.”  

Wendell Berry, one of Kentucky’s greatest sons, a renowned author and poet, was born in the Kentucky River valley and lives there still.  Most of his work is dedicated to the land that he loves and to preservation of the environment.

When I discovered “A Vision”, one of his most eloquent poems, I was struck by his message of renewal and hope in the face of desecration.  He urges us to “to survive, to stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it”, and one day “the river will run clear, as we will never know it”.

Those of us who have loved and continue to love the Kinniconick Valley have known “the abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds” and will never lose hope that Kinney will “run clear again “.

A  VISION   by  Wendell  Berry

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.

This is no paradisiacal dream.
Its hardship is its reality