On a drizzly January morning, the temperature hovers around 50 degrees. It will be the high mark for the day. By mid-afternoon the thermometer will have fallen toward freezing.
From the Beckley Creek Parkway, just south of the Garden Gateway Entrance off Shelbyville Road in Louisville, The Parklands of Floyds Fork is draped in winter foliage of tans and browns and a touch of green accented by the slate reflection from the five small fishing lakes that dot the north end of the property. Pretty, in a stark, minimalist sort of way.
A car arrives, and two women of indeterminable age emerge from a late-model Subaru Outback. They are wrapped in fleece but add hats and gloves then pull on neon-colored rain jackets. One of the women asks if I have the time. It is 10:07. They head toward the trailhead of the Louisville Loop trail, an ambitious undertaking planned to eventually stretch 100 miles and circle the city but for now is primarily limited to the Parklands project. The trail quickly bends away from the roadway and curves toward the creek. Within seconds the joggers are out of sight.
I scrounge behind the seat of my Ford and retrieve my own raincoat, which matches the color of the landscape. There are four other vehicles in the parking lot. Oddly, each is a Subaru.
The Parklands of Floyds Fork is something of an old idea made new again. Years in the planning, it is a work in progress. When completed, The Parklands actually will include four parks—Beckley Creek, Pope Lick, Turkey Run and Broad Run—linked by Floyd’s Fork, an eastern Jefferson County stream of some historic note and the one around which the innovative and visionary 4,000-acre Parklands project is woven.
Two of the parks—Beckley Creek and Pope Lick—are open. Turkey Run and Broad Run, along with “The Strand,” a strip of creek corridor that will connect Pope Lick and Turkey Run parks, are scheduled to open in 2015. When completed, The Parklands will follow and surround Floyd’s Fork from Shelbyville Road to Bardstown Road.
At first glance, The Parklands appears to be a slice of carefully designed, closely manicured real estate laced with 100 or so miles of hiking and biking trails. There also are a sprawling sports field complex and a community center, an interpretive center, administrative offices—even a 22-acre “egg lawn.” But there are woods and other wild places—approximately 2,000 acres of woodlands and about 400 acres of native meadowlands, along with 50 acres of wetlands; a haven for wildlife and humans, a place removed from the busyness of the city yet one that remains an intricate part of it.
And it is all those things. Still, it isn’t exactly a park as some might think of one. The Parklands’ most distinguishing characteristic is its namesake, Floyd’s Fork, a free-flowing woodland river that is most un-parklike in that it ebbs and flows on nature’s whims and, as such, is at times reduced to a trickle and other times swollen to a raging torrent, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. (The full length of Floyd’s Fork, which rises in Henry County and joins the Salt River in Bullitt County, is 62 miles, about half of which flows through Jefferson County.)
The stream is named for John Floyd, whose name also is attached to the sports fields complex in Pope Lick Park just south of Taylorsville Road. Floyd was a surveyor, pioneer and adventurer who traveled from Virginia to Kentucky in 1774, where he aided in early layout work for Louisville. Floyd soon left Kentucky and had brushes with a few historic figures, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Boone, only to return to Kentucky in 1779 and become a property owner near the river and park that today bear his name. But Floyd’s fortunes were short-lived. On April 8, 1783, at age 33, he was wounded in an Indian skirmish and died two days later.
At the North Beckley Paddling Access, John’s river is flowing at the rate of 505 cubic feet per second (cfs). This means the stream is floatable but only by paddlers with more than a novice level of experience. Paddling in winter is a specialty sport that should be left to those with the knowledge, gear and fortitude for it.
The creek is stained but not terribly muddy, running high enough so that the gravel spit that marks the Beckley Creek Park canoe access is evidenced only by a wrinkle in the current. Like three of the five small lakes in Beckley Creek Park, Floyd’s Fork receives seasonal fish stockings from the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, including some early-season trout stockings. (Stocking schedules are available at fw.ky.gov.) But given the rising water and deteriorating weather, fishing likely would be futile, aside from providing a scratch for my chronic angling itch.
I leave the fly rod cased and head south. Like the Louisville Loop trail, a carefully designed parkway (maximum speed 25 mph) threads through The Parklands complex, although the yet-to-be-opened Strand that will tie Pope Lick to Turkey Run will be limited to foot and bike traffic.
The Fisherville Paddling Access is part of Pope Lick Park, although it is several hundred yards from the park’s northern entrance. This paddling access is off Old Taylorsville Road, and the 3½-mile float from here to the Cane Run Paddling Access is a popular canoe and kayak run. At 500-plus cfs, the current surges past the Fisherville access. I have encountered several visitors, including the joggers and a bicyclist, but seen only one on the river. The mid-morning drizzle has become a steady rain. The creek is rising and the temperature is falling.
But summer is coming.
Owing to the near-record-high temperature, my memory has cicadas singing on the day of the canoe float. The truck windows are down as I curve along the narrow road toward the Cane Run Paddling Access. It feels like summer, even though no insect tunes can actually be heard, and the season’s official start date is a month away.
A couple miles past a farm advertising a roadside market, I see the sign to the canoe launch and, as instructed in advance by my trip hosts, park my Chevy in a field alongside a gravel road. In several hours’ time, I’ll approach my vehicle from the opposite end of this road—sweaty, red-faced and marveling that such an adventure can be had less than 20 miles from downtown Louisville.
Once all the invited adventurers arrive, The Parklands staffers, including our tour guide, Park Director Scott Martin, shuttle us north to our starting point. My friend and co-worker Kelli Schreiber has bravely (as she’s about to discover) agreed to be my canoe mate for the journey. Kelli and I don our lifejackets, hoist a red canoe from the trailer, throw in a couple of paddles and head toward the water. Bankside, Scott provides some paddling tips, which I immediately forget, and instructs the group to put all valuables—phones, keys, my notepad—in the dry sack he holds open before us. This elicits a tingle of trepidation, but not enough to stop me from volunteering to act as the canoe’s sternman, an undertaking I’ve never before attempted. I’ve paddled dozens of times in the front-of-the-canoe position. How different could it be?
Other than visions of tree branches hurtling toward my friend’s head, my abject inability to steer that [insert expletive here] canoe, and visualizing our tragically embarrassing deaths, I recall little from the first portion of our trip down Floyd’s Fork. “You survived falling into Colorado River rapids with no more than a few bruises and one less shoe,” I tell myself. “This is a canoe on a relatively calm stream, and you know how to swim. Buck up!”
About a quarter way into our journey, Scott directs the group to head toward the bank and disembark. He guides us to a new pedestrian bridge that makes up a portion of the Louisville Loop trail and spans Floyd’s Fork, leading to Big Beech Woods, a forest with beech trees estimated to be 250 to 300 years old. Feet firmly on the smooth bridge path, I notice the sun sparkling on the water. The verdure. The quiet.
The respite from the canoe, the opportunity to breathe in the beautiful surroundings and appreciate—feel—the significance of The Parklands project mark a turning point in the day. My and Kelli’s canoeing skills improve enough to make the rest of our trip largely enjoyable. We paddle through waters both churning and tranquil, portage across a fossil bed, and slog through mud to set foot on an island created by a brief splitting of the stream. Despite the inauspicious start, I look forward to returning to Floyd’s Fork—but next time, you’ll find me in the front of the canoe.
Although The Parklands of Floyds Fork is more than a year from completion, the project is proving to be enormously popular. Last year, The Parklands drew more than 800,000 visitors, twice what administrators expected.
The project is unique in several ways, not the least of which is funding. The Parklands of Floyds Fork is a donor-supported public park and is managed by 21st Century Parks. Of the initial $120 million in capital funds raised for property purchases and infrastructure construction, $70.5 million came from private sources.
Funding is still needed. For more information about The Parklands, including becoming a sponsor, volunteer or donor, go to theparklands.org.
Update: On April 9, 2014, The Parklands announced a partnership with Green Earth Outdoors that will allow for on-site canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals on Floyds Fork. For details, visit theparklands.org/paddling or greenearthoutdoors.com.