The Rolling Fork River in Marion County : Overview Story
The richest living document of life, history and heritage in Marion County can’t be found in a book, or online.
It’s the green flowing ribbon of water known as the Rolling Fork River.
It even provides you with the glass of water you hold in your hand.
And all you need is a canoe or kayak, a paddle, and a lifejacket, and you’re ready to enjoy recreational opportunities with endless discoveries.
You can explore the waterway in a very limited capacity on foot at public access points, with fishing pole in hand, or binoculars to view the broad diversity of birdlife, or a net to capture aquatic lifeforms you likely didn’t even know existed.
But letting the river carry you on the journey in your self-propelled watercraft, that’s the way to experience this river.
A Little Bit of History
Although sometimes you might feel like you’re the first explorer on the Rolling Fork, you’re not.
Hunter-gatherers were here and losing their Clovis projectile points in big game like mammoth and mastodons at around 9,500 B.C.
When the first European traders arrived in what is now Kentucky in the 1740s, native Shawnee and Cherokee were here throughout the region. They didn’t much like the European, primarily white intrusion, which they considered an invasion.
In 1776 James Sodowsky (Sandusky) built a fort in present-day Marion County on a ridge that separates Pleasant Run and Cartwright’s Creek.
Settlement of the area happened rapidly. The late Washington County researcher E. O. Kelly documented a land survey done in 1793 on the south side of the Rolling Fork near present-day Raywick. Phillip Lightfoot sold 1,500 acres to Phillip Slaughter for “150 pounds.”
The History of Marion County, Volume 1, on file at the Marion County Library in Lebanon, KY, labels New Market, incorporated in 1817, as the oldest community in Marion County. You’ll float through the area on your Rolling Fork trip and likely never realize there was once a bustling community there, convinced it was destined to be one of the greatest cities ever, named “New Lystra.”
You’ll know when you’re there: you’ll have to portage around the Old Mill Dam. The mill which was once there was purchased by J. Luther Collins in 1879 and then by his son, Abell Collins in 1909. “The Collins family owned the Mill for 45 years and put in the concrete Dam. They sold it to Ray Bateman in 1924,” according to the History of Marion County.
While in the area of the dam, take note that Martin Everhard had a boat yard in the area in 1799. The boats, loaded with goods, were floated in the spring all the way to New Orleans.
Going the Distance
The 22-mile segment of the Rolling Fork River in Marion County, Kentucky that we’re inviting you to paddle extends from Calvary to Raywick, presented in two approximately 11-mile sections. Just below the community of St. Joe is the middle point. In the appropriate boat, with the appropriate equipment, each section is a great day trip.
The river in Marion County is considered the headwaters of the 108-mile-long Rolling Fork, which eventually joins the Salt River at the Hardin County and Bullitt County line.
The Rolling Fork in Marion County upstream of Calvary all the way to Bradfordsville is floatable only a very limited number of weeks of the year. The river is simply too shallow to float during most of the year.
From Calvary to the St. Joe mid-point (described here as Day Trip One in Floating the Fork) is floatable year round during a normal rainfall year. That’s primarily because deep holes are created by the Old Mill Dam. From the St. Joe mid-point to Raywick (Day Trip Two), even during normal rainfall years, water can become extremely shallow in July and August. You’ll likely be lining your boat often. Even then, the trip can be very enjoyable.
The Face of the Land and Wildlife
Technically speaking, the Marion County section is within the Bluegrass section of the Interior Low Plateaus Province. Topographically the region is described as rolling hills deeply dissected by streams and rivers.
The two day-trip sections travel through country that can best be described as pleasant, to beautiful in places, and even spectacular in places.
The Day Trip One section, from Calvary to the St. Joe mid-point, is characterized by limestone walls and outcroppings that make smallmouth bass fishing excellent. In fact, the high canopy of huge sycamores and oak permit casting while fly fishing. And channel catfish are abundant. Below Old Mill Dam, the river begins to be characterized by gravel bars as it flows through agricultural land you’ll see on both sides.
The Day Trip Two section from the St. Joe mid-point to Raywick is best described as “remote.” And when you shove off you’re committed to the trip. Public access takeouts are not available between the two ramps, near St. Joe and in Raywick. The forest through this area is older second growth that includes huge walnut trees. The river runs through and across gravel bars throughout, and squeezes into a tight channel in places. Plus, you get to travel through a magnificent horseshoe bend.
Wildlife, birds, aquatic life, and plants abound. In fact, it seems every square foot of travel offers something new.
Whitetail deer and turkey—you’ll see and hear. Bird variety can be overwhelming if you’re trying to do a count. The upper section includes floating past one of the largest heron rookeries in Central Kentucky. Bald eagles are common.
Don’t let those huge beaver startle you as they crash down the banks after you float up close undetected. Same with those small underwater “logs,” which are actually gar, that float in the water.
And yes, black bear have been documented throughout this river section. The chances of you seeing or surprising one? Slim to none. But do feel free to carry bear spray repellant.
But binoculars and fishing gear and a camera—along with that life jacket—are must-haves.
So…ready to go?
Floating the Fork: Day Trip One
From the ramp at Calvary Dam off KY 208 to the ramp near St. Joseph, KY, at the bridge on KY 412 in Marion County, KY.
Total river miles: 11.09.
Travel time (water level and skill dependent): Advanced paddlers in efficient boats, five to six hours; recreational paddlers in 10-foot and under kayaks, eight to nine hours.
The ramp at the Calvary Dam makes put-in easy; there’s also a large gravel parking lot.
Make sure you fish below the dam before proceeding downstream; you’re looking for smallmouth bass.
The first one-half mile there are gravel bars, which in low water might require portaging; in shallow water boats you’ll drift over. After that, you’ll immediately hit deeper pools that will continue all the way to Old Mill Dam. Limestone rock outcroppings on the north side of the river make for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. Also fish deadfalls and grassy zones.
At 1.89 miles you’ll reach Buena Vista. You’ll see the rocky cliff and the Lebanon Water Works Company intake system, which is no longer used.
From Buena Vista to the KY 55/US 68 bridge, it’s .54 miles. You’re 2.43 miles from the Calvary Dam when you arrive at that bridge.
IMPORTANT: You will find online that under and near the KY 55/US 68 bridge is state right-of-way, and can be a put-in or take-out point. It is NOT recommended as part of Floating the Fork. Why? Because of water run-off from the bridge, the area, on the right-hand side going downstream, is deep—extremely deep—mud year-round. Put-in and/or take-out is extremely difficult.
After floating under the KY 55/US 68 bridge, the paddle to Old Mill Dam is beautiful. You’ll pass a huge heron rookery on you right. Eagle sightings are fairly common.
You’ll be near Old Mill Dam at the 3.61 mile mark. Approach the dam to the right, and portage there. A log jam can make portaging difficult. It’s easily doable if your watercraft is light and you have minimum equipment. After the portage, there’s an excellent lunch break site just below the dam. Enjoy the view.
A few hundred yards below the dam, the river splits around a large island. Keep to the left, altho you will deal with a short run of Class 1 (low water,) or Class 2 (normal water levels), or even Class 3 (high water) whitewater. Do not go to the right to avoid that run. That run will send you into a problematic series of deadfalls—strainers and sweepers.
From there, it’s a beautiful mile-long float to the iron bridge over the river on KY 289 near Jessietown, KY. There is no public access put-in or take-out at or near this bridge. The surrounding high ground makes it impossible, anyway.
At this point you’re almost half-way on your Float the Fork trip, 4.75 miles from the Calvary Dam.
The river changes for the remainder of the trip. Gravel bars become more evident. The scenery more wooded and more remote. There are no bridges or public access points. It’s a beautiful float, just like the upper section you just completed.
About a mile or so before you reach the KY 412 bridge near St. Joseph, KY, and the ramp on the right, there is the jarring sight of farm equipment and auto wreckage in the river. It’s being used to stem riverbank erosion.
The ramp is excellent, and extends to the waterline, making take-out easy.
You’ve made it…11.09 river miles from the Calvary Dam!
Floating the Fork: Day Trip Two
From the ramp near St. Joseph, KY, at the bridge on KY 412 in Marion County, to the ramp off KY 527/Scotts Ridge Road in Raywick, KY.
Total river miles: 9.55.
Travel time (water level and skill dependent): Advanced paddlers in efficient boats, five to six hours; recreational paddlers in 10-foot and under kayaks, seven to eight hours.
The paddle float from the ramp near St. Joe to the ramp in Raywick is not “more of the same”—similar to Floating the Fork’s Day Trip One.
It is a completely different type of trip.
If you were to draw a straight line on a map from the ramp at KY 412 to the ramp in Raywick, it is only 3.1 miles as the crow flies. But from the KY 412 ramp the Rolling Fork wanders, twists, turns, and almost doubles back on itself for 9.55 miles all the way to Raywick.
The Rolling Fork River becomes a tighter channel in places. Gravel bars become a much more dominant feature of the landscape in places. Throughout the length of the 9.55-mile trip, the forest is more old growth. Also, you get to float through what is a unique geological feature: the Rolling Fork’s Horseshoe Bend.
And there’s a greater sense of being remote…because you are.
Take note that when you shove off in your watercraft at the KY 412 ramp and head downstream, you are committed to the entire trip. There are no bridges that pass over the river for the entire 9.55-mile section. No roads nearby. No public access takeouts. In fact, in some places you’ll be several miles from the nearest road and takeout is impossible. So…paddle smart and be safe.
A few hundred yards below the put-in near St. Joe there’s a riffle in low water that becomes an edgy class 2 in higher water. It makes it difficult for you to change your mind and turn back to your put-in.
The first three miles of Day Trip Two are beautiful. Giant oak and sycamore trees join with another member of the neighborhood, walnut trees. The landscape goes vertical in places, straight-up walls sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. Agricultural scenes disappear. Wild turkey, deer and more wildlife show up in droves. Bird sightings are plentiful.
Fishing can be good to excellent, especially in the 10- to 15-foot deep pools you’ll find between gravel runs.
At about the 3 and 1/4-mile mark you’ll start to enter the Horseshoe Bend section. You can chart your river progress on your cell phone, because service is good. At one point on your right, the river downstream is only 749 feet away. But you’re going to have to paddle 2.4 miles to get there. You’re in Horseshoe Bend.
You’ll also know you’re in the bend because the morning sun that was on your left very soon be on your right. The high wall of landscape soaring up on your left reaches up to Scotts Ridge Overlook, way up there. Views throughout this zone are spectacular.
Important: As you approach the KY 527 bridge near the end of the trip near Raywick, there is a giant wall of logs and debris jammed against the bridge supports (as of July 2020) on the upstream side. Do not underestimate this challenge, especially in high water. Really…we’re not exaggerating. The massive pile is some 25-feet high and stretches across the river.
At lower water levels it is best to approach to the right, and portage through the debris. At higher water levels you can with effort pick your way through on the left side. In extremely high water this logjam is extremely dangerous to boaters. In fact, stay off the river—period—during extremely high water.
After negotiating the log jam, the take-out ramp is to your right just a couple hundred yards downstream. It’s a good one, and take-out is easy. The ramp is subject to being muddy during rainy weather, however.
After hauling your watercraft and equipment up the ramp and into the nice, large gravel parking lot, Raywick is only a very short walk away.
THE GOLDEN RULES OF FLOATING THE FORK
-Respect private property.
The public access, public ramps and public parking areas constructed at Calvary, near St. Joe, and in Raywick by the Marion County Fiscal Court, that’s what makes it possible for you to “Float the Fork.”
But remember during the entire time you are floating: All around you is private property.
In Kentucky, like most other states, courts have held that while landowners may own to the middle (“the thread”) of a particular stream or river, those riparian rights are subordinate to the public’s right to the use of navigable waters. A Kentucky case that still stands determined that the “public right of navigation” includes travel upon the waterways and also “the right to use the public waterways for recreational purposes such as boating, swimming and fishing.”
We, the Lebanon Tourist & Convention Commission, and all county and city entities involved in the Floating the Fork project, ask you to NOT abuse your recreational rights, and also RESPECT all private property.
Failure to do so will end Floating the Fork for all of us.
That’s why we define “public access and put-in and take-out points” for the purposes of “Floating the Fork” as: the ramp at Calvary; the ramp near St. Joe; and the ramp near Raywick.
-Practice “Leave No Trace.”
Leave no trace of trash behind, and leave no trace that you’ve been there.
That includes items such as any used toilet paper, drink containers, food wrappers, and even things such as discarded fishing line (yes, it strangles animals), lure boxes and empty bait containers.
In fact, plans are that future Floating the Fork projects involve organized volunteer public cleanup efforts. Please don’t make us clean up YOUR mess.
When you Float the Fork you’re encouraged to carry a container or plastic bag on your watercraft and pick up any trash you see. That’ll make Floating the Fork even more beautiful for all of us.
-Carry your cell phone in waterproof protection; and carry a first aid kit.
Yes, cell phone service is available throughout both day trip sections of Floating the Fork described here. But remember—in many places, especially in the Horseshoe Bend area, rescue access is difficult at best, and perhaps impossible in some places.
We also recommend you carry an extra paddle; and rope to be able to “line” your boat around and through obstacles and over shallows.
Camping is not permissible on this river section without the express written or verbal consent, obtained in advance, of the landowner, whose property you will be trespassing on without that consent.
BIRDING WHILE FLOATING THE FORK
Birding while Floating the Fork can be daunting, simply because of the challenge of keeping up with all the sightings. And if you’re identifying by bird song, prepare for a cascade of music.
Spring, summer and fall there’s a broad variety of birdlife. And even in winter, if you’re looking for duck species, you’ll find the opportunity to add to your birding life list.
In all seasons except winter you’ll find a flood of the usual characters: all the varieties of woodpeckers; Belted Kingfishers; White-Crested Nuthatch; Carolina Chickadees; Tufted Titmouse; and more. Veteran birders should expect to add to their life list among the sparrows, finches and perhaps even more, including waterbirds.
Between the KY 55/US 68 bridge and Old Mill Dam, there’s one of the largest heron rookeries in Central Kentucky. Great Blue Heron sightings are common throughout the river corridor.
Bald Eagles can frequently be found in that same zone, and actually almost anywhere along the river. And also Wild Turkey.
Having 8×42 binoculars is a good choice. The larger objective lens is a bit more ideal to deal with the river’s overhanging tree shadow zone, which is dark even on sunny summer days. A 10×42 can also be a good choice. But you need to be able to steady the view despite the rocking of your watercraft.
You can bring a spotting scope if you want, but since Bald Eagles are likely to perch less than 20 feet over you as you float under, it’s simply not needed.
FISHING WHILE FLOATING THE FORK
Fishing in the Rolling Fork River in Marion County can be very good to excellent, depending on the time of year and water flow.
In the upper day trip section described here, small mouth bass fishing from the dam at Calvary, near the put in, all the way to above and just below Old Mill Dam…is excellent. That’s primarily because of the limestone corridor through which the river flows. Also the high quality of the water, and the flora and fauna of the river play a part.
Target them with the method of your choice. Spinning rods, using Rooster Tails, especially black, work well. So do small crank baits. And worms or minnows? You bet. Fly fishing? Go for it.
And always remember: Catch and release is ethical, and helps guarantee a catch for the next fisherman.
In this same section, a Channel Catfish score can mean a big fish. Locals swear chicken livers deliver the most success.
In the lower day trip section described here, fishing remains very good to excellent in the pools between shallow gravel runs. You continue to find small mouth bass, as well as Rock Bass, various members of the sunfish family, Bluegill and more.
Before fishing, remember to check all Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife license and creel regulations. Department of Fish and Wildlife officers do patrol the three Floating the Fork ramps and on the river.
THE DANGERS WHILE FLOATING ON THE FORK
For conscientious watercraft operators,there are few dangers to identify, and Floating the Fork will be an enjoyable, memorable excursion.
But there are things all boaters should keep first and foremost in their minds: sweepers and strainers, and high water.
Like all Kentucky rivers, the Rolling Fork experiences erosion which causes trees to uproot and fall into the river. The portion of the tree above the waterline is a sweeper, because it can “sweep” you from your boat. The portion below the waterline is a strainer, because it can snare you underwater.
Those who have had their watercraft go broadside into a sweeper and strainer, overturned and lost gear and almost lost their life, they know what a terrifying experience this can be.
And strainers and sweepers are even more dangerous in high water.
There are no river gauges on the two day trip sections of Floating the Fork. So the only way boaters can confirm water conditions is by visually determining water levels while inspecting the river.
Take note that the two day-trip sections of Floating the Fork are in the upper Rolling Fork watershed. That means river water levels rise faster, and fall faster, in periods of high rainfall. At certain times of year, two inches of rain can make the Floating the Fork sections rage far beyond safe levels.
All boaters should know their skill level and know when to determine that a situation exceeds their skill level. Be smart. Do not embark on a river trip during high water levels after periods of heavy rainfall; watch for strainers and sweepers while navigating, and line your watercraft through or around, or portage; at home do research and expand your paddling skills; and always wear your life jacket while on the water.
THE QUALITY OF THE WATER OF FLOATING THE FORK
The Lebanon Water Works Company treats approximately 2.2 million gallons of water a day at its treatment facility near Calvary, KY. The bulk of that raw water comes from the Rolling Fork.
“Generally speaking, we have a good, natural water source with the Rolling Fork,” said Daren Thompson, operations and management superintendent. Upstream is not heavily industrialized; and there are no environmental “hot spots” that cause serious contamination issues.
Like most streams in the rural Eastern United States, there is the issue of agricultural runoff, primarily high nitrogen levels causing algae problems. For Thompson, that must be solved at the treatment plant level.
“But the Rolling Fork is not only, generally speaking, a good natural raw water source, it’s also dependable, and predictable, during normal rainfall years,” he said.
On average, of every 30 days, the Rolling Fork provides the raw water for about 20 of those days; on the other days raw water is drawn from nearby Fagan Branch Reservoir, which was built as a backup raw water supply source.
(A note of interest: the Lebanon Water Works Company buys about 300,000 gallons of water a day from Campbellsville Water; about 60 percent of the water the Lebanon Water Works Company produces is sold to the Marion County Water District.)
Thompson likes to promote that the quality of the water treatment process performed by the Lebanon Water Works Company, using its quality raw water source, produces a very, very high-quality end product: some of the best drinking water in the state of Kentucky.
The material and information provided by the Lebanon Tourism and Convention Commission (“we”, “us” or “our”) herein is for general informational purposes only. All information in this page is provided in good faith; however, we make no representation or warranty of any kind, express or implied, regarding the accuracy, adequacy, validity, reliability, availability or completeness of any information in our brochure. The content hereof is not intended nor designed to be used as a current guide for your activities on the Rolling Fork River. Always, when enjoying outdoor activities of the nature discussed in this brochure, the participant should personally investigate the current status of the river along the entire route planned by the participant as well as weather and other external factors which could affect the activity, or use a professional and experienced guide.
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In no event shall Lebanon Tourism and Convention Commission, nor any of its officers, directors and/or employees, be held liable for anything arising out of or in any way connected with your use of this page and Lebanon Tourism and Convention Commission shall not be held liable for any indirect, consequential or special liability arising out of or in any way related to your use of this page in any manner.