“Oh boy,” I croaked, just above a whisper. The line to the launch ramp was as tightly packed as the road descending to the marina was steep. The drive to Lake Cumberland, Kentucky was straightforward enough. We jogged north towards Bowling Green, past the Corvette National Museum and assembly plant and peeled East. At the southern end of Kentucky Highway 92, nestled at the bottom of a dangerously inclined base of a hollow was Jamestown Marina. Today was the annual Lake Cumberland Raft Up. Literally thousands of people swarmed the marina and the lake itself to bob around aimlessly, while drinking, grilling and listening to music. It was, as my first impression cautioned, a total and complete zoo.
Joining the Middle Tennessee Personal Watercraft Club meant bringing a Yamaha, so I had offloaded the ’18 Sea-Doo RXT-X 300 from the trailer, leaving the blue-and-white GP1800 alone. This wasn’t my first time with the MTPWC and nearly every ride before I had been the lone Sea-Doo rider. Previous trash-talking sessions had bordered on intolerable, so I decided to play it safe by leaving the machine entirely out of the equation. The GP1800 of course, offered superior gas mileage as long as I stayed out of the higher RPMs and laid out of the boost. Plus, it’s 18.5-gallon fuel cell meant that I wouldn’t be needing to stop for fuel more than once in the day’s ride.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t miss certain aspects of the ‘Doo, particularly as I fiddled with my tie-downs securing my blue Coleman cooler to the rear platform throughout the day. I find that I typically always bring a cooler chocked full of drinks and snacks on rides like these, primarily because I bring one of my kids with me. Long distance and group rides have become family outings around our house, and the two oldest alternate between who gets to go with dad on a “jet ski trip.” Best of all, the groups are always welcoming to the kids and try to keep language and smoking to a minimum (or at a distance), which is both very considerate and greatly appreciated. (Again, the people who occupy this expanding hobby are simply another testament to why I enjoy my job so much.)
Although the mass of the riding group had arrived, launched and loaded up by 10am, we were still in a holding pattern. A last few stragglers were making their way through the crowded launch and finding a place to park. Nearing 11am, we had circled the wagons and slowly began our ride. Inching through the No Wake Zone west, we ventured northward into a winding finger before it tapered off into Jobbes Fork. Turning back around, we retraced our course and continued northeast into the upper bend of the Cumberland River before turning due north into Caney Creek. To the right, we idled past Wolf Creek Marina into Hughes Branch.
The cliffsides were an unusual pairing of typical Southeaster lush greenery and browning, almost high desert brush. Flat, rocky channels reflected our wakes, churning narrow channels into butch, bathtub wash. Then, the sheer sides would suddenly give to pebbly shoreline, and the river would calm to a glassy swathe. Undulating hills jumped high, carpeted with dense treelife and then give away just as abruptly. It was dizzying. We cruised up Ace Hollow to an isolated cove for a calm dip in the surprisingly warm water. As I waded around the Yamaha, small curious fish began nibbling at my exposed skin. What started as a single curious nip swelled into a near onslaught. I was being pecked by dozen of translucent attackers.
We returned back South towards the State Dock Marina and the LC Tiki Restaurant. Due to the influx of guests, the eatery was put on a special event menu limiting our choices. Nevertheless, the meal was fine, duly welcomed and all were satisfied – including the nearby turtles swarming the pylons hoping for the rare scrap of food to find its way into the water. With our bellies filled, we idled around the dock to refill the tanks in the watercraft. We joked that the fuel dock must be on a “special event menu” as the cost per gallon was…well, surprising. Nonetheless, we reboarded and moved as westward as possible to the Cumberland River dam at Long Bottom. The ride was an exhausting jaunt of battering cross chop of 3-to-4 feet at times. I feared my passenger (or even myself) might be revisiting our lunch at anytime.
From the dam, we sped almost directly south to 76 Falls, the major attraction for today’s ride. The cove is cooled both by shade and chilled stream feeding the wide waterfall. We idled through the crowd of “floaters” and took turns idling through the brisk falls. Given the scenery, we each pulled out our various cameras, GoPros and smartphones and filmed each other being doused by the heavy showers. Content with our ride, and seeing the clock reading past 5 o’clock, I presumed we would be heading back to Jamestown Marina. Not so, cried MTPWC’s President Mike Majka. The final leg of our trip was easily my favorite and certainly worth the wait.
Club member Tom Hill called it “Raccoon Creek,” but the name appears nowhere on any map that I could dig up. Rather, the path was an ever-narrowing serpentine of near-perfectly undisturbed glass nestled deep in a valley of high-reaching hillsides. As the sun lowered in the west, the path was half shadow and half golden orange. Beginning with wide sweeping turns hastened into tight technical maneuvers, twisting the supercharged GP1800 around patches of reeds jutting vertical out of the water and around bulbous rocks pocking the shoreline. Inexplicably, I had managed to inch my way up to the front of the line, although having zero experience in the area (or knowing particularly where I was going).
The path narrowed into a shallow creek ending my ride in the shade of Old Kentucky 90 Road and CR-1285 passing high overhead. A felled tree blocked two-thirds of the path, and with the water level already dangerously low, I opted to come to a stop here, the rest of the group pulling up quickly behind. There, we regrouped, enjoyed a short break, cracked open a bottle of water and waited for the water to settle down. MTPWC group member Rollie Pierson had his teenage daughter with him on his FX Cruiser HO and motioned to me, pointing to the horizon. “We’ve got about 15-20 minutes before the sun sets. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to try to navigate my way out of here in the dark.”
Pointing to his widescreen Lawrence GPS mounted to his dashboard, I motioned for Rollie to lead the way out. By this time, we were riding directly into the sunset. Winding through the corners, the creek widened into the river and eventually gave way to the lake, which was a hull-busting broiling mess. Learning a lesson or two from my short stint racing in the Pacific, I pulled up close into the Yamaha’s whitewash, the fantail aerated water cushioning much of the ride back across. Only the rolling wakes of larger fishing trawlers and private yachts broke our pace. We weren’t half way across when the sun set behind the westernmost edge of the lake, and temperatures fell palpably.
As was in the morning, the evening’s launch ramp traffic was gridlocked – but only worse as visibility was reduced to dim dock lights and red tail lamps. Trucks were hurriedly backed into the water too deep, front-wheel-drive SUVs frantically spun their tires up the wet incline, novices struggled to back into the water in a straight decent. It was bedlam. Frustrated, exhausted and woefully sunburned, I quickly and expertly laced my Ram between a lifted F-250 Powerstroke “bro-dozer” and a cream Cadillac Escalade, careful to leave enough of my carpeted bunks above the water. Breaking all marina decorum, I wove through the drunken boat traffic and throttled the nimble GP1800 through the melee and up the bunks.
Winched down and locked, I nearly leapt into the truck before I noticed a fellow PWC’er struggling to keep his FX on his slick bunks. Hoping across my trailer, I loosened his winch, attached the hook to the boweye and motioned for him to goose the throttle and keep it revving as I winched the ski up the rest of the way. Within seconds I was sitting behind my wheel and throttling up the slope between the rows of trucks and trailers. And onlooker stood nearby gawking, having watched the entire scene play out. As I passed, he joked, “Not bad for a jet skier.” I leaned out of my window, smirking, “It’s bad for anyone who knows what they’re doing,” motioning towards the near-submerged bro-dozer spinning its comically over-sized rims, shooting flumes of water in the air.
Additional photography provided by the Middle Tennessee Personal Watercraft Club
*Expect to see a video recap of our (mis)adventures on Lake Cumberland in an upcoming episode of “Long Haul!”