Asheville Road Trip: Paddling Kentucky

Monday, May 31, 2021: Paddling the Cumberland River

The owner of the campground we stayed at recommended a 14-mile stretch of the Cumberland River as a perfect day trip. “I can tell you guys are experienced, so you’ll really enjoy it,” he said as he sized up the kayak and solo canoe strapped to our car. These words always make me a little nervous. What does any given person consider “experienced”? Our annual canoe trip is on a river so slow and placid that if you lost your boat, you could walk back to camp along the sandy river bottom.

We prepared our boats at the launch right on the campground, while the owner led Kurt 14 miles down the river to the takeout spot where he could park the car. I kept hearing the takeout spot referred to as Cumberland Falls Resort. Apparently the resort included a lodge so big, it would be impossible to miss.

“So, are we on the bottom of the falls?” I asked Kurt right before we pushed off. “No, we’re at the top,” he said.

“By the way,” the campground owner told us before he drove off, “when you hit that first patch of white water, keep to the left. But you guys will be fine; you’re experienced!”

“What?!” My mind immediately jumped to the image of the Great Northern Hotel located right next to the giant Snoqualmie Falls from the opening credits of Twin Peaks. “So if we miss our takeout point, we die in a giant waterfall?!” Sometimes I think I should name my travel blog The Anxious Adventurer because my mind is always calculating all the possible chances of death. I like to think that I just have a strong sense of self-preservation, but in comparison to Kurt, I am a natural worrier.

a red canoe on a green river in front of a green forest on a sunny day with a blue sky. A long-haired man wearing a purple t-shirt sits in the canoe, looking back over his shoulder at the camera. A white dog with pointy ears wearing a life vest follows his gaze.
Cumberland River trip

We started our trip, with Kurt in the solo canoe with River, and me in the kayak. The sun was out, the sky clear and blue, and the weather warmed quickly. It was a perfect day to be out on the water.

I had my waterproof speaker bungeed to the top of my kayak, and I played my favorite summer playlist of AM Gold as we floated along. The scenery was gorgeous; both sides of the river are flanked by the National Forest. The campground owner had told us that he spotted a black bear and her two cubs on the river bank the last time he went canoeing. I relaxed into the day, drinking in the sun and landscape.

The first white water appeared early on, and we remembered the instructions to stay left. As I paddled my way over, even the left side of the river looked dotted by rocks. I did my best to navigate around the largest boulders, pointing the nose of my boat towards the smoother spots between riffles where the water broke over underwater rocks. Still, I felt the sides of the boat come into contact with rocks that shifted me sideways. I straightened out just in time to see the water level drop about a foot over a ridge. I rode over it, then looked backwards for Kurt.

“That was fun!” said Kurt, while River looked skeptical in her doggie life vest.

And so went the rest of the 14 miles, alternating stretches of serene water, occasionally broken up by light white water. As I got more confident navigating the boulders, it became a lot more fun. Still, the low key anxiety in the back of my mind lingered as we got closer to the falls. I pumped Kurt for more information, asking about the accessibility of the boat launch and the speed of the current near the resort. He assured me that it was calm water and an easy takeout compared to other spots we’d paddled in the past where we’d blown past our exit. There have to be warning signs posted, I thought to myself.

I noticed as we paddled along that hardly anyone else was out on the river. We’d only seen two other groups of boaters all day, on a holiday weekend, no less. In Wisconsin, we were used to sharing the water with dozens of groups and tubing party brigades. Having the place to ourselves was awesome and just a tiny bit concerning, because again, I worry a lot. During a serene stretch of river, I heard a strange noise coming from the forest. I turned off my my music to listen, and heard it again. A loud staccato burst of noise reverberated from the woods, followed by quiet. It sounded like a woodpecker the size of a T-rex.

As we got closer to the resort, we heard more people in the woods. A friendly man setting up camping chairs on the bank with his wife shouted an entire conversation at us, politely inquiring about our day before asking if we were going to the Falls. He didn’t seem concerned or warn us about a potential death plunge, so I chalked that up to a positive. At another point, we heard a group of young people racing four-wheelers just beyond the trees, while a girl screamed her friend’s name.

“If we lived here, I’d be doing that,” said Kurt.

“I’d be the girl screaming,” I replied.

As we reached the final 180 curve that Kurt had noted as a landmark, we started keeping an eye out for the resort. It loomed ahead, just beyond a bridge. Kurt told me that the landing would be directly past the bridge on the right, so we attempted to paddle over, but things suddenly got a bit dicey. A patch of swirling water started spinning us out and away to the left. I watched Kurt and the canoe get pushed closer to the left bank, so I gave in to the inevitable and literally went with the flow. The water pushed me onto a large flat boulder and I was grounded for a brief moment, but I was able to scooch myself off and back into enough water to float me over. We got passed the eddies, and the water smoothed out all the way to the bridge. We hugged the right river bank, searching for the takeout point. From what Kurt had seen when he dropped off the car earlier, it was a clear and easy ramp, but we couldn’t see it from the vantage point of the water.

“Maybe we need to go a little bit farther?” Kurt asked, and my heart started to speed up.

“I thought you said it was right next to the bridge.” The resort was situated up the high river bank, and tons of people sauntered along the sidewalk just beyond a wooden fence. “Maybe we should ask someone.”

“Hey!” Kurt shouted to a man nearby. “Do you know if the boat ramp is nearby, or is it further down?”

“I have no idea!” he shouted back. “But you know there’s a waterfall coming up?”

“Exactly my concern!” I replied, grimacing.

A group of ducks floated just ahead of us, and we noticed that they disappeared behind some tall grass along the bank. Aha! We paddled closer, and finally spotted the gradual dirt ramp emerging from the water that had been hidden behind the grass. I sped up, paddling my way to solid ground with relief.

Once we’d dealt with strapping both boats back onto the car, we took a walk further downriver to check out the waters. A Memorial Day crowd packed the parking lot and sidewalks, and dozens of motorcycles slow-rolled past while looking for spots. We passed the gift shop and concessions to make our way to the viewing platform, and finally saw the Cumberland Falls–all 70 feet of it, just under 200 yards away from where we took out our boats. My anxiety rests its case.

Cumberland Falls


Waupaca, Wisconsin

I arrive at the lakehouse on a Sunday, where the rest of my family has already checked in and spent a night. The rental house sits on the easternmost part of a chain of lakes, with calm blue water. Each inlet is lined with lakeside cottages nestled amongst tall, lush trees. I look forward to this week all through the harsh Chicago winter, waiting for these blissful mornings on the back deck overlooking the lake with a fresh mug of coffee in hand, listening to birdsong and the soft breeze rustling the treetops.

woman kayak on a lake during sunset

On Sunday afternoon, my sister and I kayak across the lake to the local bar where people tie up their pontoon boats along the dock and a server brings drinks and fish baskets straight to your boat. We order a few New Glarus Moon Mans (Moon Men?) and watch a cover band perform from a boat while people dance in knee-deep water, living that #lakelife.

My sister brought along her 7-week old baby on the trip, and we take countless photos of him–wearing tiny baby sun hats, smiling in front of the lake, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms in front of a Wisconsin sunset. Through him, I see the beginnings of another childhood of summers spent in canoes, catching frogs, learning to fish off a pier, and splashing in midwestern lakes.

I brought my laptop to the lakehouse to work remotely, logging on right after my alarm clock wakes me at 7 a.m. so I can finish my days early and jump directly into the water the second I shut my Macbook Air.  The dining room table serves as my makeshift desk for the week, giving me a view of the water and a wooded island just above my monitor crammed with spreadsheets and emails. I could easily live this life forever, beginning my day with sun salutations on the back deck looking out on lake still thick with morning fog, then changing into a swimsuit the moment I finish my final afternoon conference call. One morning, the local camp holds a canoeing relay race past our house, and we hear the sound of kids’ voices bouncing off the water as they chase each other. In the evenings, live music from the bar across the lake drifts to our back lawn where we crack open bottles of Spotted Cow by the fire pit.

We take the pontoon boat out into various lakes, waving hello to the various kayakers, speedboats, water skiers, and stand up paddle boarders that we pass. In true Midwestern Nice form, one girl even waves to us while tubing. Once we find a quiet spot, we throw in the anchors and do cannonballs into the blue water. The lakes are pleasantly cool, their depths warmed from a summer’s worth of sunshine. I have a high tolerance for cold water and no one trusts my opinion as the first one jumping in. But after a few minutes of watching me swim and float, one or two of my siblings usually end up joining me in the water. When the sun is out, it feels like pure heaven to view the sky and the treetops from the water’s surface.

woman floating on pizza-shaped floatie on a lake

One day mid-week, it rains, so my siblings and I go to the local bowling alley. It’s still happy hour and it’s $3 per game. When we walk inside, the TVs are blaring Fox News so we load up the jukebox with Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, and RuPaul, and dance around our score counsel. There’s a few other local stops in town that have become tradition over the years–plates of biscuits and gravy from Little Fat Gretchen’s Restaurant, beers and pull tabs at Paca Pub, family dinners at the Wheelhouse, late night stumbles to and from the Harbor Bar.

Near the end of the week, Kurt drives up and brings our dog River. We spend a day on the water with her, getting her to brave the kayak and learn how to balance on the stand up paddle board. From the shore, we can hear squeals of delight as people spot a cute little dog on the board. Kurt plays fetch with her off the dock, and when she catches the ball, a passing boat gives a celebratory honk and the passengers cheer for her.

man petting a dog while they both stand on a paddleboard

At the end of the week, I take a full day off of work. Before coffee, I sit on the edge of the dock to meditate. I wish I could somehow capture and save these sounds and take them home with me, to begin every day listening to the lake breeze ripple through the trees, the geese calling to each other, the water lapping against the rocks. And once again feel the sun warming my skin, the fresh air in my lungs, the scent of water and pine.

end of a dock facing a lake and a wooded island

Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 12: the East Side of Glacier

Wednesday, June 11: our last big day of kayaking and hiking in Glacier

After two days on the west side of the park, we were ready to spend our last full day in Glacier on the east side. Since the Going-t0-the-Sun Road wasn’t yet open, this meant that we had to drive around the outside of the park. On our way, we stopped for breakfast at the Izaak Walton Inn. I had delicious huckleberry pancakes (if you couldn’t already tell, I really embraced the huckleberry). Someday, I would love to go back to the inn and stay in one of their cabins, which were created out of old rail cars.

Izaak Walton Inn

a rail car cabin at Izaak Walton Inn

When we reached the east side of Glacier, we unloaded our kayaks on Swiftcurrent Lake. This lake was much smaller than Kintla, and to my relief there was barely a light breeze in the air. Many Glacier Hotel sits right on the lake, and view was phenomenal. We enjoyed a nice, easy kayak trip across the lake to the small channel connecting to Josephine Lake. It being early spring, the water through the channel was rushing prettily steady and too strong to paddle against. We attempted the most bone-chillingly cold portage (and this from someone who’s done the Polar Plunge in Lake Michigan during a Chicago winter), but ultimately decided that the water was too high and we’d have to skip kayaking Josephine.

kayaking Swiftcurrent Lake near Many Glacier Hotel

kayaking near Many Glacier Hotel

Swiftcurrent Lake

Swiftcurrent Lake

We took the short trail to Josephine to gaze at the stunning, crystal clear water, so calm it perfectly mirrored the mountains surrounding it. Then we followed the Grinnell Glacier trail, climbing steadily up the mountain. As we got higher, I thought back to a ranger’s words of warning on walking the glacier trail while there was still snow and ice present: “Just be smart. If you fall, you’ll get a concussion and keep sliding ’til you’re dead.” I have a pretty bad fear of heights, but kept going with Kurt’s encouragement. Mountain goats are definitely not my spirit animal; I’ll stick with my original Buzzfeed quiz result of “dog wearing sunglasses.” As we hiked, we spotted mountain goats high up on the steep ledges above us. Down below, I alerted Kurt to a grizzly sow in the valley with two cubs tailing behind her. (The two best things I did before this trip were chop off my hair and get LASIK eye surgery).

Lower Grinnell Lake

Lower Grinnell Lake

As we approached the view of Salamander Glacier and Lower Grinnell Lake, we came across a sign warning of ice on the trail. A couple approached from behind the sign and told us we could still go another couple hundred yards. I silently cursed them, as I was ready to get back to a lower, less deadly elevation. Kurt, however, wanted to keep going for a bit more, so I reluctantly followed. We carefully maneuvered around a giant snow boulder blocking the trail, my heart beating like crazy. After reaching a spectacular view of Lower Grinnell Lake and snapping dozens of photos, we finally turned around and headed back down the mountain.

passing the snow boulder

passing the snow boulder

snow hazard sign

snow hazard sign

We took a leisurely paddle back across Swiftcurrent, enjoying snacks in our kayaks. As we floated mid-lake, we heard a group of about twenty tween girls taking the “sing while hiking” advice to heart, belting out “Let It Go” from Frozen at the top of their lungs. “I think they’ve scattered every bear in the park,” I said to Kurt. They were just beginning to follow it up  One Direction’s “Beautiful” as they finally, mercifully disappeared into the woods and out of our range of hearing.

After stowing the kayaks back up on the roof rack, we said a wistful goodbye to Glacier. We grabbed dinner and huckleberry margaritas at Two Sisters, then began the long drive back to the cabin. On the way, we made a few more sightseeing stops: the Continental Divide marker and Goat Lick. At the latter, along the highway, a plentiful amount of mountain goats grazed while the young ones frolicked on the rocky ledges. We all gasped as a young goat lost its balance and tumbled, but luckily it safely recovered. It made me way too anxious; I could never be a mountain goat mother.



We reached our cabin during the last of the light, and began to pack up our things in preparation for the following day’s departure.


Wildlife sightings: mountain goats, grizzly bear with two cubs


Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 10: Kintla Lake

Monday, June 9: kayaking, hiking, and glacier spotting

One of our guidebooks perfectly summed up Upper Kintla Lake with the line “It’s a place you have to get to on purpose.” Once again, our alarm went off at 6 am. We took North Fork Road, which is unpaved, gravelly, and full of potholes (when we told locals where we planned to go, they always immediately followed up with the question “Do you have 4-wheel drive?”). On our way, we stopped in the small town of Polebridge to get coffee. Polebridge has no electricity and uses solar power or generators in their mercantile store and bar.

We made our bumpy way up the 40 miles of North Fork to reach Kintla Lake. The campground was open, but we only saw two other people there. Otherwise, it was just us (and about a million mosquitos). No motorized boats are allowed on Kintla, so the lake was completely calm. We immediately unloaded our kayaks and got onto the clear, inviting water.

Kintla Lake

Kintla Lake

Kintla Lake is about 5 miles across. On our way out, the wind was at our backs, making the trip relaxing and peaceful. We drank in the gorgeous scenery and bright sunshine. It was a perfect, beautiful day of 70 degrees. As we reached the end of the lake, we spotted the campground.

crossing the lake

crossing the lake

As Kurt secured the kayaks, we noticed a young mule deer grazing nearby. He saw us but didn’t startle. We continued about our business, getting out our daypacks and lunch, and he continued to hang around, keeping a safe distance while watching us curiously. I felt calmer with the deer nearby, thinking that that must mean there weren’t any bears around. Glacier has the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, a thought that was constantly on the back of my mind.

our deer friend

our deer friend

After our lunch, we said goodbye to our deer friend and started a hike towards a view of the Kintla Glacier. After a while I got tired of constantly shouting “Bear! Bear!” and began to sing any song that came to mind. By the time we reached a meadow clearing with an amazing view of the glacier, I had run through most of the pop divas (Britney, Miley, Katy, Madonna). The mountain range behind us was the last on U.S. soil; beyond them lay Canada. We took pictures and drank in the gorgeous setting before making our return trip. I worked my way through 80’s rock and Disney soundtracks. Kurt politely did not complain about my terrible singing voice, but did say “I didn’t know you knew all of those songs.”

Kintla Glacier

Kintla Glacier

mountain man

mountain man

We knew that the return kayak trip straight into the headwind was going to be rough, but once we got back onto the water, we realized the true extent on how much more difficult it would be. The wind whipped between the mountain ranges and straight over the lake, creating small whitecaps. We attempted to hug the shoreline for calmer waters, but unfortunately it didn’t make as much of a difference as we had hoped. Kurt said that at one point he turned to look at me, I was padding as hard as I possibly could and I was still drifting backwards. If I paused for a second, the wind would spin my kayak to the side and it was a strenuous battle to get straightened back out. “Are we halfway there?” I called out to Kurt at one point. “We’re not even a quarter of the way there yet!” he shouted over the howling wind. With no rangers or other boaters in sight to save us, we had no choice but to put our heads down and paddle through it. My shoulders burned from exertion.

blue waters

blue waters

When we could finally see the other side of the lake again, the clouds above the mountain range grew ominously dark. I could see gray sheets of rain pouring in the distance. We were in a race with the wind, and we were at a distinct disadvantage. I ignored the burning in my muscles and continued to push through it, with renewed hope as the shoreline grew closer. Finally, we could see the boat launch. “We made it!” Kurt shouted in celebration. The rain was held at bay by the mountain range, and we reached land exhausted but dry.

We loaded the kayaks onto the roof rack and chowed down on snacks, then started the long journey back on North Fork Road. I was gazing out the window, enjoying the scenery, when suddenly a mountain lion wandered across the road. “Whoa!!” Kurt and I both shouted in unison. The mountain lion looked at us then bounded up the hill in three easy leaps. We fumbled for cameras but the moment was too quick. Seeing a big cat in the wild felt otherworldly; it felt like something had escaped from the zoo. “It’s like Jumanji!” I said.

We stopped at the bar in Polebridge for a few cold beers out of their cooler and a delicious bowl of chili. The bartender was a friendly guy originally from the East Coast. We talked about the area and how it was not for the faint of heart; he said that you had to be pretty adventurous and self-sufficient to go as far as we did. Getting AAA service out there could be a whole-day event. We enjoyed our conversation with the locals and the welcoming, rustic ambiance of the bar.



As the bar closed up, we settled our tab with cash (no electricity = no credit cards) and finished the drive back to the cabin. Along the road, we saw a baby moose spot our car and run back into the woods, his little knobby knees kicking adorably. Deer frolicked in the meadows along the road as the dusk settled in. We finally reached the cabin after our longest day yet, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing; everything about it was pretty perfect.


Wildlife sightings: snakes, mountain lion, moose calf, deer

Labor Day Kayak/Canoe Trip 2013


sandbar camping

This year marked the fifth Labor Day Kayak/Canoe Trip that we’ve taken (I’ve been on the last 4, since the first outing was guys only). As usual, it was a relaxing, beautiful weekend on the Wisconsin River. We started near Arena at Trader’s Bar & Grill campgrounds, and paddled about 42 miles over 4 days to Boscabel. We lucked out with sunny skies, warm to hot weather, and no rain.

cow island

cow island

Some of the highlights this year included the very-up-close spotting of a hawk eating a fish on a sandbar, a vortex of wind and river water that created a mini-tornado, a sandbar full of cows, and our annual fried chicken and beer run. With temperatures in the high 90’s, we did plenty of swimming.



Labor Day Kayak/Canoe Trip

Thursday, Aug. 30-Monday, Sept. 3, 2012

For the third year in a year (fourth for some of my traveling companions), I spent an extended Labor Day weekend floating down the Wisconsin River. It is one of the most relaxing yet most rustic trips we do each year.

sandbar camping

We start on Thursday night. After work, we drive 3.5 hours to Arena, WI and camp out at Traders Bar & Grill Campgrounds, the same place we do our huge annual caboozing trip. The next morning, we pack up all our gear into kayaks and launch into the river. Depending on the weather and river flow, we travel anywhere from 10 to 20 miles until late afternoon, when we start scouting out a good island to spend the night. Then we set up camp, filter some drinking water, build a fire, enjoy some boxed wine, and look at the stars.

Kurt and I usually rent our own single kayaks for this trip, but this year we got a canoe so we could bring our new puppy, River. Her name is partly owed to our many trips in Wisconsin and our love of camping (also, we’re Firefly nerds) so we were excited to bring her along. The trip was definitely paradise for dogs. She loved chasing butterflies and running leash-free on our private sandbars.


Every year, we end up passing the launch at Port Andrew on Sunday, and we stop there to hit up a gas station/convenience store to get fried chicken and beer. There is nothing better than floating down the Wisconsin River, belly full of delicious chicken with an ice-cold beer in your hand. I dream of it during bitter Chicago winters.Kurt and I came off the river a day early this year since I was scheduled for knee surgery on Wednesday the 5th. We were picked up at Boscobel so we did roughly 45 miles total. It was the perfect way to get outdoors and enjoy the last dog days of summer before heading into knee surgery and recuperation.

Until next year….

Alaska, Day 6: Exploring the Kenai Peninsula by Sea

Wednesday, July 26, 2012: a day on the water

We started the morning by wishing Bob a happy birthday and making breakfast. Then it was on to our next expedition: a boat tour of Kenai Fjords that also included a kayaking excursion. We drove into downtown Seward (as the lady with the tour company said “We don’t really have street addresses here”) and found the boat company.

Early on into our boat ride, we had our first few wildlife sightings: sea otters, Dall porpoises, and a humpback whale. The boat took us to Fox Island, where we got fitted with our kayaking gear and met our guides for the day, one of whom used to work for Kayak Chicago. It was fun talking to her about kayaking on the Chicago River (a trip we all had done before). A few of the guides had found a humpback whale calf that had been killed by orcas (they like to eat the tongues) and showed us a piece of blubber they had kept in a plastic baggie.

The water was amazingly clear; we could see jellyfish bobbing along below us. In the kayaks, we were able to get close to shore to inspect starfish and rock formations, and paddled into alcoves filled with waterfalls and tide pools.

Kurt and a starfish, Bob and Amy’s kayak


We kayaked back to Fox Island after a few hours for a lunch of Wild Alaskan salmon, prime rib, and crab legs. After getting back onto the boat, we continued to explore Resurrection Bay. We came across more whales, including a mother and calf feeding near a beach and two whales ‘sleeping’ (whales rest portions of their brain at a time).  Near some rocky formation, we saw a large group of sea lions and tons of birds, including puffins, gulls, eagles, and many other species I can’t remember but got our captain all excited (the guy really loved birds).

whale tail

sea lions

puffin butt!

After an amazing day on the water, we went back to camp where Kurt prepared bacon-wrapped chicken breasts on the fire and Bob and Amy taught us how to play 42, a dominoes game.

It was a day that reminded us how precious and fleeting life can be, for quite a few reasons.

night sky

Wildlife sightings: sea otters, Dall porpoises, humpback whales, puffins, starfish, jellyfish, eagles, sea lions, lots of varieties of birds
baby animal alert!: humpback whale calf
lives saved by Heimlich Maneuver: 1