Darn that Kentucky Dam!

[imgbelt img=kentucky-dam-post-card.jpg]A trip to one of the Southeast’s oldest hydroelectric plants brings perplexity and incurs an unexpected dryness.


Historic Kentucky Lake

Water sluicing through Kentucky Dam c. 1944, “like beer froth through a harmonica,” the only beerlike substance to be found in the vicinity.

It’s early fall and I’m on the banks of the Laramie River for the annual rubber duck race down a short stretch of the river through town. Hundreds of rubber ducks are set loose to float a course down the stream. Quaking yellow aspen leaves dot the slow moving, glacier-cold water. Laramie locals turn out to see which duck will bust out of the pack, avoid the eddies and snags, and be netted out by a Rotarian and declared the winner. The winning duck wasn’t mine. But watching that flotilla got me considering the Laramie River, and how little chance a rubber duck or anything else has of floating from headwaters to mouth without getting trapped by a dam.

The Laramie eventually flows into the Platte, which flows into the Missouri then in to the Mississippi, one of the most heavily controlled rivers in the country.

I wanted to understand more clearly how dams work and to gain insight on whether hydroelectric power was worth the environmental drawbacks of damage to fish and drowning of canyons. That’s why I set out for Kentucky Lake, formed by the last dam on the TVA system before the Tennessee joins the Ohio and they flow on in to the Big River. But as the travel writer Pico Iyer reminds us, we travel not to get answers, but to ask better questions.

Kentucky Atlas

Land Between the Lakes, in Western Kentucky — Kentucky Dam was built by the Tennessee Valley Authory in 1944, on the Tennessee River, forming Kentcuky Lake.

I reached the confluence of the rivers in Paducah, Kentucky, the afternoon before my scheduled visit to Kentucky Lake Dam. I stayed at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park that night, just outside of Paducah. Kentucky Reservoir has a surface area of 160,300 acres and about 2,000 miles of shoreline, but I picked the accommodations that seemed closest to the dam, on paper, anyway. When I arrived I was pleased to see the dam and the power lines in the distance from the balcony of my room. But I couldn’t get there from there. The road over the dam to the power plant and Visitor Center was under construction, marked with huge Road Closed signs. I got an early start in the morning to reconnoiter the spot. I spent several hours before my scheduled 1 p.m. appointment driving up and down the Land Between the Lakes, along Lake Barkley, which is the other lake that the land is between, and across a blue bridge over the Cumberland River. I stopped for directions several times and received conflicting advice. I got myself so turned around I actually thought I had succeeded in finding Kentucky Dam.

I relaxed for an hour on a bench overlooking the wrong dam, obliviously watching people fish. I only headed over early to the Visitor Center because a man on a riding mower was determined to cut the grass under my bench. Thank goodness it was groundskeeping day. It was only after checking in with a sweet young lady at the Visitor Center that I learned I was still lost. I was a few miles off course and had found Barkley Dam, a project of the Corps of Engineers. Darn.

Thanks to the nice young lady I managed to make cell phone contact with Jeff Ring. He is the head technician at Kentucky Dam, who was to be my guide. From his view through the Visitor Center’s panoramic window, Ring could see my approach through light rain that was getting heavier. He talked me down the closed road, across violent dips and loose gravel, as I picked my way through a carnival of road construction equipment. “Are you driving a little red car?” he asked “Thank God, you see me!” I’m afraid I squealed. “Just aim toward those power lines and head downhill.”