Big South Fork River begins in Tennessee at the confluence of the Clear Fork River and the New River, and then flows north through a 600 foot deep gorge, enters Kentucky and empties into the Cumberland River. This is most rugged territory on the Cumberland Plateau with a network of hills and hollows, rocky ridges and river valleys.
We had camped up the night before, after our "shenanigans" at the Blazin' Bluegrass Festival, at the Blue Heron Campground in the north area of this park. In 1974 Congress authorised Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the first to be designated as both a national river and a national recreation area. (See https://www.nps.gov/biso/learn/historyculture/blueheron.htm for more detail). First stop for us this morning - the Blue Heron Mine and Tipple in the National Park. "What is a tipple?" I hear you say....well for the unintiated and unknowing as we were:
"A coal tipple separates the various sizes of coal coming from the main mine in coal cars. These cars opened at the bottom to dump coal into a main 120-ton hopper leading to a 76-foot conveyor belt called an "apron feeder." Smaller sized coal traveled on to a series of shakers and screens which allowed coal of the right size through each screen down shoots or loading booms to the coal cars below. Coal too large to be used domestically or commercially or to fit through one of the sizing screens, went into a crusher. The crushed coal then traveled back down the screens and on to the coal cars. Each screen selected out different size coal chunks, destined for different uses. Each of these sizes had a different name. There was block, egg, nut, stoker and the coal too small to fit a category was called "carbon coal" and was of little use."
The Tipple at Blue Heron Mine.
The Blue Heron Tipple could screen, separate and load over 400 tons of coal an hour. It is hard to imagine the intense noise and dust created by the coal tipple and the extreme conditions of heat and cold the miners and operators tolerated during the different seasons. Today the operation is silent, but in the 1940’s and 1950’s there was an almost constant bedlam of activity as tram cars rolled up with tons of raw coal. The mechanical clanging of the tipple, the noise of railroad cars, and the ever-present coal dust, produced a "dynamic industrial environment". Today we may call it something less than "dynamic"! At its peak, Blue Heron also called Mine 18, employed some 200 workers was home to over 50 families and had a shop, church, school, bath house and a company store.
Coal trucks in place under the tipple each one carrying a different grade of coal.
The Tipple at Blue Heron has been refurbished and comes now with masses of information boards alongside the ‘station’ at the end of the line for the Stearns Scenic Railway Tour. Coal mining in this area finished in 1962 and the camp was closed. The houses, shops, schoolhouse and other associated buildings were left to ruin but today new metal frameworks have been put in their place with stories about the people who lived and worked here. Many recordings have been made of people who lived and worked in this small mining community and the interactive displays give you a real feel for what it would have been like to live here, with stories from the miners, the shopkeepers and the housewives... by these a way of life is being preserved and remembered. We spent a long time studying the diagrams and following the flow of coal through various screens to make the grades...this was a really well thought out and well displayed exhibit....top marks again to the National Parks.
A carriage full of day trippers to Blue Heron Mine...all "armed" with picnic baskets.
Today, Saturday, two trains will come in to Blue Heron with around 100 people on board. We had thought we might take the train originally, but coming here in Big Henry actually works better and gives us more time to explore. In fact we are the only people in the car park area for almost an hour until at 11am the first ranger arrives to open up the station and the National Park Shop for the first train, which is due to arrive at 11.45am.
We waited 45 minutes for the train to arrive before setting off on our hike. It was slightly disappointing because the engine was pushing rather than pulling the open carriages! And then strangely the majority of the 100 passengers headed straight for the picnic area instead of looking at the amazing information boards. Food is more important than history? Or just maybe these were locals on a day out?
"The 11.45am on platform 1, is the Stearns Scenic "Express"......"
The park features a number of trails to hike, plus there is canoeing, rafting and mountain biking, and for those who enjoy horse riding, some great bridleways through the woods and alongside the river gorge.
Although water levels were down...canoeists were not going to be denied a Sunday afternoon float.
So off we go on the seven mile Blue Heron Loop in to the Daniel Boone National Forest. The signage was confusing to start with and we almost voted to give up on the hike. But eventually we got straightened out and we trudged on. It was a trudge too. It was hot and humid and we only had one good look at the river at "Devil's Jump", where we stopped for lunch. Some of the overhanging rocks were quite interesting with flakey layers of sandstone and seams of coal featuring underneath.
After lunch, the trail moved upwards and away from the river and the return leg of the loop was a very long uphill hike, effectively climbing back out of the gorge. By now the sky was becoming overcast (from what we could see through the trees) and rain and thunder threatened. However, you never know what maybe lurking out there in the forests of Kentucky….here we were all armed up with pepper spray for bears…and this guy comes at us from the undergrowth!
The Blonde stepped over him and missed him. I called her back and asked her if she was walking with her eyes shut! Our new friend quickly pulled everything in and when The Blonde picked him up his hinged base plate snapped tightly shut. Click! We put him back down and watched. And watched. And watched! His plate opened just a smidgen but he was not coming out to play while we were there. A treat to find though. Thank you Mr Turtle.
He’s an Eastern Box Turtle! A subspecies within a group of hinge-shelled turtles, normally called box turtles. Box turtles are slow crawlers, extremely long living, slow to mature, and have relatively few offspring per year. These characteristics, along with a propensity to get hit by cars and agricultural machinery, make all box turtle species particularly susceptible to anthropogenic, or human-induced, mortality. Wow...sounds as if I know what I am talking about...thanks Google!
Then we had a couple of much better overlooks which were accessible from the road - "Devil’s Elbow" and "Twin Arches", and finally the “Crack In The Rocks” at the bottom of a very steep, rickety staircase.
"We were down there".....The Blonde at Devil's Elbow Overlook
These were the most interesting parts of the hike and had we known we would have started at this end and retraced our steps from here. Ho hum. Never mind, It was good exercise. Back to our camp at Blue Heron Campground...and then the heavens opened.
The Blonde hiking through "The Crack In The Rocks"...and descending the very steep staircase on the other side.
The following day the rain was still lashing down...for once we were happy to be in a developed park with full hook ups. As it was Monday anyway, there was hardly anyone around and so when it did finally ease up we decided to take advantage and give Big Henry a bit of a makeover. The Blonde went "up top like" and cleaned off the solar panels...and whilst she was up there...well what better place to carry out a few yoga moves?
It also gave us some time to sit and plan our route back to Denver, where we now planned to be by latest 14th October, to hand back Big Henry at the Earthroamer factory. So...only four weeks now left to play in our trusty steed.