Director’s Take: Reflections from a Day on the Green River

by David Phemister, Kentucky State Director

Last month, I spent a hot but beautiful day with my dad and my two kids floating the Green River through Mammoth Cave National Park.  Three generations, two canoes, and one beautiful river.

The Phemisters show some of the trash they collected from the river. ©The Nature Conservancy
The Phemisters show some of the trash they collected from the river. ©The Nature Conservancy

My family and I were participants in the Mammoth Green River Cleanup, an event The Nature Conservancy co-organized with our partners and friends at the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Mammoth Cave National Park, Friends of Mammoth Cave, and other organizations.  We were joined by many other volunteers who pulled cans, bottles, plastic bags, tires, and other trash from islands, shallows, and the banks of the river as we made our way from Dennison Ferry to the take out at Green River Ferry, some 7.5 miles downstream.

My son is a huge fan of turtles, and we were treated to lots of sightings, including a long row of red-eared sliders on a tree limb jutting out of the water and a big softshell turtle that waited until the last moment before turning from us and dropping into the water.    Swallows were abundant, hunting in flitting circles and dives in the air above the river.

My hands were dirty, my arms were tired, and I was happy when I left the river.

Let me share a few memories and thoughts that have stuck with me since the trip.

Look at that water sparkle!
The Green River ©Thomas Barnes

First, the Green River is nearly magical in its beauty.   My dad and I shared smiles the whole ride downstream, pointing out giant sycamores, limestone outcroppings, and numerous springs pouring over the rocks and down to the river.

Second, Mammoth Cave National Park is that rare spot of ground that can match the beauty and wonder of the much slimmer ribbon of the Green.    As I paddled, I thought about the creation of our National Park Service 100 years ago, a decision and a commitment many have called America’s best idea.  As some continue to debate the role and value of public lands, I, for one, recognize the sublime and prescient gift our parks, forests, refuges, and wildlands are to all of us.   And I am grateful.

Third, my family and I were not alone on the river not only or even primarily because of other Clean the Green participants but because so many other families were out enjoying the river and the park on a sunny summer day.   Kids were swimming and exploring the islands and skipping rocks and picking up old mussel shells.   It wasn’t just turtles, swallows, and sycamores that made me smile – it was hearing laughter and shouts and happy voices up and down the river.

Green River Lock and Dam 6 ©The Nature Conservancy
Green River Lock and Dam 6 ©The Nature Conservancy

So how does one improve on a day like that?   Well, there is actually a very good answer to that question, and it is one The Nature Conservancy and our partners are working hard to advance:  Remove Lock and Dam #6 from the Green River.   Defunct and out of operation since 1951, Lock and Dam #6 presents a safety hazard and a physical barrier to canoes and other boats, alters the Green’s natural flow, damages the ecology of the river and Mammoth Cave National Park, and is at risk for sudden failure.

Engineered and careful removal would open a big stretch of the river for public recreation, adding to a growing economic engine for the region and providing a very positive tourist boost to Brownsville and other small communities along the river.   Removal of the inoperable Lock and Dam #6 would also restore around six miles of natural flows to the Green River, benefiting numerous species of important but imperiled freshwater mussels and the delicate ecology of Mammoth Cave itself.   Removal of Lock and Dam #6 would be a huge win for the recreation, public safety, the economy, and the environment.

Huge wins don’t happen without a lot of work and they don’t happen overnight.   But we are making real progress, and I invite you to stay tuned for more updates.    Until then – get out on the Green River, make your own memories in the sun, and find time for spotting turtles.

You can help keep the Green River clean!  The Nature Conservancy will host a small cleanup on Saturday, July 30.  Click here to read details and learn how to register.