Kentucky voices: Kentucky River needs our attention, protection

I sometimes describe my life as a journey from Clifton to Midway. Most people know where Midway is but not Clifton.

I grew up on our family farm, on Clifton and Steele roads, in Woodford County, west of Versailles.

As a child, our summer recreation often involved untying the motorboat that we owned with the Edward and Lucy Prichard family at the Clifton boat dock, operated for many years by the LaFoe family, and going upriver to the lock and dam at Tyrone or downriver, looking for a peaceful spot to tie up, swim and fish.

Our family legend includes the story that while my father was attending Millersburg Military Institute, Captain Betts tried to teach him to swim by pushing him out of a boat in the middle of the Kentucky River near Clifton with instructions to swim to shore. Father sank like a rock and had to be rescued. He never learned to swim.

Clifton was originally called Woodford Landing, just as Versailles was originally named Falling Springs. Both names reflected the human-water connection.

The Prichard/Graddy motorboat is long gone. So is the Clifton boat dock. Falling Springs is now the name of a recreational center and the swimming pool that has replaced the Kentucky River as the place where Woodford Countians go to swim and play in the water.

This Woodford County transition parallels the story of Boonesborough Beach, its "No Swimming" sign and the nearby Boonesborough State Park swimming pool.

Last year, farmer and author Wendell Berry spoke to the Kentucky River Watershed Watch annual meeting about his concern that almost nobody uses the Kentucky River anymore.

Berry spoke from an excellent vantage point; his home in Port Royal overlooks the Kentucky River. His concern was that if no one is using the river, then no one is effectively caring for the river. He shared another specific observation — that he has seen the disappearance of native willow trees all along the Kentucky River's banks, while willows remain along many tributaries to the river.

His concern is two-pronged: First, what is the cause of this loss? And, second, why is he the only one who seems to have noticed? It is almost as if we, the people of the Kentucky River watershed, have forgotten that there is a Kentucky River within our stewardship.

Berry is more widely recognized for his advocacy for healthy agricultural land use — called "kindly use" in his landmark The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and, more recently, "affectionate" land use. Berry has also observed that our rural lands have become deserted, in that they are no longer occupied by rural people who know their land, who know, understand and care about what they see.

He cites Wes Jackson of The Land Institute who has described a way to measure the health of our rural lands that depends upon the ratio of "eyes-to-acres" — the more eyes (that know, understand and care about what they see) to acres there are, the healthier that land will be.

This same ratio applies to our rivers and streams. The more "eyes-to-miles" of stream or river we have, the healthier that stream or river will be. The Kentucky River, including the North Fork, is about 405 miles long. The Kentucky River Watershed includes about 16,000 linear miles of creeks, streams and river. We need a lot more eyes on the river.

There are some Kentuckians who have not forgotten about the Kentucky River and who will be sharing their knowledge Saturday at the 16th Annual Kentucky River Watershed Protection Conference. Herb E. Smith of Appalshop will review his documentary on the Kentucky River. Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, will give a progress report on the Kentucky River Trail Alliance. Jerry Graves, director, will report on the activities of the Kentucky River Authority. And Malissa McAlister will give her annual — and unequaled — report on the Kentucky River Watershed Watch 2012 monitoring data.

We need your help — and your eyes. Please join us.

Kentucky River Watershed Protection Conference

When: Sat., Jan. 21, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Midway College, Piper Dining Hall Cost: $12 volunteer/member; $17 others (includes lunch)