Quest for Ugly: Kayaking Yellow Creek

Is Yellow Creek still the most disgusting river in the region? Our brave kayaker decides to find out.

Driving through Oregon a couple of summers ago, I got so tired of people telling me I had to see Crater Lake that I made a wide circle to avoid it. "It's so clear that a French helicopter pilot crashed into it!" frothed one Oregonian. "He couldn't tell the lake from the sky!"

Nobody urged me to paddle Yellow Creek, a tributary of the upper Cumberland in southeastern Kentucky; it's not on any top-10 list of places to kayak. According to a Maryville College colleague who grew up in Middlesboro near Yellow Creek's origins, it is "unsightly."

Yellow Creek has a dark history. According to Will Nixon of E: The Environmental Magazine, starting in the 1960s a Middlesboro tannery sent chemical waste through the sewage plant, killing the bacteria that the plant relied on to process waste. As a result, raw sewage flowed directly into the creek; the water ran black and stank. Livestock that drank from it died, and people who lived along the creek fell ill. The leukemia rate for residents along the creek was five times the national average.

Bell County residents came together as Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens and sued the tannery and the city. The city settled in 1988 and built a new sewage treatment facility, but the tannery used delaying tactics until 1995, when a jury awarded the plaintiffs $15.1 million. According to Larry Wilson, who lives beside the creek and spearheaded the protest, virtually none of the award was collected from the owners.

A native Kentuckian, I was curious about how Yellow Creek looked and smelled now, whether vestiges of its notorious ugliness had survived after the tannery had shut down.

I left early one Sunday morning for the two-hour drive to Middlesboro. The day before, heavy rains had fallen across the region—three inches in Maryville, where I live. Aside from creating difficulties for a guy who wanted to paddle upstream in his kayak, high water would increase the amount of stuff floating in the water and washed up on the banks.

I turned behind the Middlesboro Walmart, in the vicinity of where the polluter used to be, and the channelized creek raged past a concrete plant, an oil company, and a coal company. It wasn't what I'd call beautiful, but it was running hard and high, about 30 feet across, the banks mown, litterless and treeless, an ordinary town creek, it seemed, its purpose utilitarian, beauty or ugliness irrelevant.

For the next two hours I drove around Bell and Harlan counties looking for a place I could embark on the creek and leave my car.

At Middlesboro's Dairy Queen I parked next to a guy who was working the action on a scoped rifle. Glancing at my kayak, he said loudly to his friend, "There's a boat that hasn't been in the water for a while."

He was right. The kayak's plastic hull, once bright yellow, was mottled with brown, neglected under hackberry trees for two months.

"Maybe you guys could tell me how to get up to Fern Lake so I can wash my boat," I said, having decided that a safer alternative to the swollen and inaccessible town creek might be the Little Yellow, which fed Fern Lake, up on Cumberland Mountain, the source of Yellow Creek proper.

While I was processing different versions of how to get to Fern Lake, somebody walked up to the rifle man and said, "Is that thing loaded?"

No reply.

"See if you can make that guy dance," another man said, pointing at an acquaintance advancing from his car to the entrance.

"He couldn't dance even if I shot at him," said the rifle man.

The guys got me pointed toward the lake but they neglected to tell me about the "no trespassing" signs and the gate across the road leading to it. I headed toward Meldrum and Highway 188, which ran alongside Yellow Creek for much of its course down to the Cumberland in Harlan County.

The gathering light of day revealed an even angrier version of Yellow Creek than I'd seen upstream in Middlesboro. It had spilled over the narrow road in places, leaving a mess of mud. I got out and considered it a few miles above its confluence with the Cumberland, near the town of Ponza. It looked as formidable as the Cumberland itself, a high volume earth-moving monster with whom I did not want to tangle in my flatwater kayak.

Back in Middlesboro, I followed the creek out of town and parked my car on the side of state Route 188 at Meldrum. In the pullout there were 40-odd Busch beer cans and assorted other trash, but what was most disturbing was the carcass of some mammal, maybe a dog, maybe a calf, some hide still clinging to its ribs.

I found a place that led down the bank where the roots of a maple tree gave me a place to put in. The water was running high, swirling light brown, carrying leaves and sticks downstream, but I thought I could fight my way upstream awhile to see just how unsightly Yellow Creek could be.

I won't lie. I was a little nervous. Paddling an unscouted river is never a good idea, but doing it at high water, with my limited skills, raised the stakes. And because of my pretext—confirming the creek's ugliness—I feared reprisal. Out of spite, the Yellow might send the carcass of a cow at me, an escaped propane tank—anything was possible at this water level. It did help that I was floundering upstream, trying to stay in the easy water on the inside of bends, and not hurtling downstream toward submerged barbed wire fences.

Floating beneath the U.S. Highway 25E four-lane bridge, I was breathing hard, not having paused a beat after half an hour of windmilling. The current shoved the boat's bow back and forth, and I had to struggle to keep it straight and maintain forward momentum. I didn't want to capsize here, in this creek. Ugliness, I imagined, lurked beneath the surface, invisible, more lethal than a jagged piece of metal.

Two basketballs, one that said "Turtle Power," twirled in separate eddies. A big empty bag that had held 25 pounds of ice flapped from a tree branch, as if someone had hung it there to dry. A few glass bottles bobbed downstream at me. One big log that from a distance looked like a crocodile swam past. Not pristine for sure, but I'd seen worse.

I sniffed. Nothing chemical, no scent of mortality. A blue heron, always a good omen, launched from the brushy bank upstream of the bridge and flapped its great wings. A fleet of wood ducks emerged from the shore and hurried ahead of me. They looked healthy, whole, nothing freakish about them.

Larry Wilson, who still lives next to Yellow Creek, told me that although the creek had recovered somewhat and the fish population had increased, the 15 feet of toxic sediment on the bottom made him wary. "The fish appear healthy," he said, "but I wouldn't eat them. It's a common sense thing." He said it would take "hundreds of years" for the creek to fully recover from the pollution.

I paddled a little over a mile against the current, until I reached a long straightaway, a corridor of young poplar trees thick on each side. The sun came out and lit them up, some of their leaves beginning to turn, some flying wild in the breeze, others careening past in the current, like hands turning this way and that. Cumberland Mountain stretched darkly across the horizon. I decided to let Yellow Creek be, for that to be my last view of it, and it pushed me on back to my car.

A French helicopter pilot would not mistake Yellow Creek for the sky, and the corridor of poplar trees will never be set aside as a national park. Unlike Fern Lake, cordoned off and protected as the source of Middlesboro's drinking water, Yellow Creek had struggled against our worst impulses—the heedless exploitation of nature and people for profit—and was recovering now thanks to our better impulses: the motivation and focus to fight for the common good. With hope and wariness I left the creek, but it is worth another visit, when its waters have receded and clarified.

Updated final paragraph to correct Fern Lake's status as a public (not private) water source.