Angela Mitchell and I love silent places and being outdoors in all seasons. That’s why in 2008, with help from friends and family, we built a yurt — a one-room circular structure that serves as a meditation and retreat center — on Angela’s parents’ 30-acre farm in Bridgeport.
I also have a small house in Arlington Heights — a 10-minute walk to the Kentucky River, downtown Frankfort or Kentucky State University. I have great neighbors, some with wonderful views of the Kentucky River, South Frankfort and the Capitol in their back yards.
In 2017, I had the good fortune of Aaron Koch and Heather Warman purchasing a small carriage house next door to me on Lindsey Avenue. They’re the same age as some of my children and I love listening to their life stories. Aaron and Heather’s passion for enjoying and protecting our land, air and water gives me hope that my eight grandchildren — and all grandchildren worldwide — will have beautiful places in nature to live, visit and appreciate when I’m long gone. And it’s hard to be optimistic when you pay attention to what’s happening to our planet.
Aaron is captain of KSU’s 52-foot environmental science and tour boat. All spring and summer in 2018, Aaron invited me to take a ride on the “Kentucky River Thorobred” houseboat. Autumn arrived and I still hadn’t gone. Then came Aaron’s offer that couldn’t be turned down — “ride to Carrollton with us,” which would be the first day of a three-day cruise to Cincinnati where the boat is stored for winter.
Angela and Lily, my 10-year-old black lab, also were invited to go. Others on the trip were crew members Heather Warman and Doug Jeffries, Aaron’s stepfather, a retired farmer and Woodford County resident; Aaron’s brother and sister-in-law, Matthew, a farrier, and Liz Koch, a physical therapist, from Asheville, North Carolina.
Lily also enjoyed the canine company of Pepe, Aaron and Heather’s Chihuahua, and Porter, Matthew and Liz’s Malinois. The dogs got along well and loved the few dockings Aaron made specifically for their relief. Lily made only one trip to the upper deck because she didn’t like the spiral stairs. But with Liz and my help, she managed to get to the top for a few hours.
The 65-mile trip through four locks took about 10 hours.
Angela and I were familiar with the terrain from Carrollton to Frankfort. Point Park — where the Kentucky River flows into the Ohio River — was where, for seven years, we dipped our back bicycle tires in the Ohio at the start of the annual Grand Autumn Bicycle Ride Across Kentucky, a fundraiser for the Grand Theatre. The first leg of the 225-mile journey to Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park on the Kentucky-Tennessee line was a 50-mile bike ride from Carrollton to downtown Frankfort.
But we had never traveled by boat from Frankfort to Carrollton until early Saturday morning, Oct. 27, 2018. It was dark and cold with a misty rain when the crew and passengers met to board the KSU houseboat at Frankfort Boat Dock by the Singing Bridge.
Aaron Koch has been a professional boat captain since 2000. He’s a 1992 graduate of Western Hills High School. At WHHS he ran cross-country and track and was on the swim team. He also was a lifeguard and skate boarded a lot.
He attended the University of Kentucky for two years and was on the UK volleyball team.
“I wasn’t doing well academically so I took a break and went to Florida and retired,” he said to his 70-year-old neighbor, laughing. “I lived in Leesburg for about six months in an old-folks community, 55-plus, with my grandparents.
“I’d wake up early and go fishing, and come back and eat breakfast, take a nap, watch ‘The Price is Right’ on TV, take another nap, eat lunch, play shuffleboard in the afternoons and maybe go fishing if it wasn’t too windy. Then I’d eat potlucks for dinner.”
When asked if he looks forward to doing that again someday, he said, “No, I’ve already done that. It ran its course.”
One day when his grandmother asked him to go to a grocery store in a shopping center, Aaron walked by a building where the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines had adjacent recruiting offices.
“I was looking in the office of the Air Force but it was closed. A guy from the Marines stepped out and said, ‘You’re not man enough to be a Marine. You need to step up to the challenge.’ And I said, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m not.’
“Then the Army man said, ‘Hey, are you interested?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m just kind of lost.’ And he said, ‘Let’s go out for a burger and a beer.’ I think it was a VFW Club we went to, and I said, ‘You Army guys are pretty cool.’”
Soon after that Aaron enlisted in the U.S. Army in Florida at age 20 and was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training. He served in the military from 1995 through 1998, stayed out of war, and was on the Panama Canal most the time, driving and working on boats. Aaron said he had never seen a coral reef until he went to Panama in 1995.
“I helped out at the Jungle Operations Training Center at Fort Sherman (a former U.S. Army base in Panama, located on Toro Point at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal). I worked on the Pacific side too at Rodman Naval Station.” Both U.S. bases were handed over to Panama in 1999.
“We did a few nation-building trips to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador and Haiti. That’s when I started enjoying the ocean.”
Winters in Mexico
Aboard the Kentucky River Thorobred on a chilly, overcast day, heading toward Carrollton, Aaron said he looked forward to the winter.
Each winter now Aaron spends several months in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, enjoying the rivers and warm weather and offering standup paddleboarding or whitewater kayaking tours. He speaks Spanish fluently.
Aaron and Heather own SUP Kentucky, an eco-friendly tour provider for standup paddleboarding.
“We take our business model from here to Mexico for the winter,” Aaron said. “The region is known for its massive sinkholes. There’s a vertical cave that goes down 1,000 feet. Waterfalls are everywhere. The water is very rich, calcified, mineralized water, so it’s turquoise blue.
“The people are amazing – laid back and very well-educated – and the food is incredible. Real Mexican food is beyond description. You can usually eat breakfast for $2, lunch for $4 to $5, and if you splurge and drink a beer with your dinner, you might spend $10.”
The trip is a 22-hour drive from Lexington to Laredo, Texas, and then another eight hours to his winter residence. Heather joins him for part of the winter.
River of solitude
On the 10-hour float to Carrollton, we had plenty of time to share stories, laugh, talk about climate change and other environmental concerns, read, eat pimento cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and snacks, and nap if we felt like it, except for the captain.
We saw a bald eagle, wild turkeys, plenty of great blue herons and kingfishers.
We waved at head lock master Bobby Webb and other lock masters as we entered and exited locks. They drove to the four locks and dams and waited for us to make sure the Kentucky River Thorobred made it to the Ohio River safely.
“The Kentucky River Authority folks are always professional and accommodating,” Aaron said.
We didn’t see another boat on the river the entire day.
I do sitting meditation every day for at least 20 minutes, and in the late afternoon while everyone else was in the enclosed lower deck, I had the upper observation deck to myself for a half hour.
No phone. No laptop. No notebook or pen. It was wonderful sitting in a chair, wearing several layers of clothing, gloves and a heavy coat and cap, and feeling the cool, misty air on my face. The muffled sound of the houseboat motor was calming. There was nothing else to do but breathe in slowly, exhale and feel a oneness with the green water, the green and rust trees, the brown riverbanks and gray sky. Sitting still and moving gently, in no hurry. I dedicated my silent prayer to the river and all sentient beings.
A few minutes later on the left, I saw a house close to the river. A man stood in front of a window, looking out. I waved. He waved back. I felt a kinship.
Soon the river widened and we passed under a long bluish-gray bridge. Carrollton and the Ohio River were close. Porter, Pepe and Lily sensed it. They were happy to get to Point Park, where the boat would dock for the night.
On Friday, Angela and I had driven our cars to Carrollton. I parked mine on a downtown street near Captain Hook’s Seafood restaurant, and rode back to Frankfort with her. Saturday evening, we were happy we didn’t have to ride our bicycles back to the Kentucky capital.
A native of Frankfort, Angela spent a lot of her childhood and adult life on the Kentucky River. “But this was the first time I had been on the river and experienced it in the unique way of total solitude,” she said. “Usually the river is busy with boats zipping back and forth, and to be able to experience the silence of the river was really special.”
For Aaron, Heather, Doug and Pepe, it was almost two more days before getting the Kentucky River Thorobred to Washington Marine in Cincinnati. They departed Carrollton early Sunday morning and reached the huge Markland Locks and Dam that span the Ohio River before 11 a.m. The 1,395-foot dam is also a bridge that connects Gallatin County, Kentucky, and Switzerland County, Indiana.
“After cruising through the lock without any problem, the wind started picking up but it was behind us, so it wasn’t a big deal,” Aaron said. “But we were also fighting a 2 miles per hour current coming downstream so it slowed us a bit.”
They docked around 5 p.m. near Aurora, Indiana, just past Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, Aaron said. “We had to pull over a little early because the wind had gotten too strong. We saw a lot of barge traffic the second day but hardly any private boats at all. It was too windy for the locals to get out.”
Monday morning, they started upstream just after sunrise and it was around 3 p.m. when they arrived at Washington Marine.
“You have to go through the entire city of Cincinnati to get there,” Aaron said. “It was beautiful cruising along the waterfront at 6 miles per hour, looking at all of the boats, the Spirit of Cincinnati and paddle wheelers, Great American Ballpark, the city skyline, and going under about 15 big bridges.”
Now, spring has arrived and Aaron Koch is happy because April is the month he returns to Cincinnati to drive the Kentucky River Thorobred back home to Frankfort.
“I’m looking forward to another beautiful season on the Kentucky River,” he said.
For questions about the Kentucky River Thorobred or to schedule a cruise for your group, contact Ed Wilcox, the Watershed Research and Extension Associate, at 502-597-6421 or at firstname.lastname@example.org