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Keep on rowin' on the river with Cave Country Canoes

July 30, 2008
Gas prices got you down? Don't know of any way to beat the heat? Think affordable family fun is a thing of the past? Well, if you're in need of some welcome distractions, look no further than your own backyard. Residents of Crawford, Floyd and Harrison counties will be pleased

to learn that there are plenty of interesting places to visit within the tri-county area that don't require a lot of money for admission or traveling. In a new weekly column, the Clarion News will feature places that you can take your family for a good time on the cheap. This week we'll be featuring Cave Country Canoes.

The starting point for the 14-mile trip down the Blue to Rothrock's Mill, the longest and most challenging of the river trips, is located right behind Cave Country's Canoe main building. (Photos by Nick Simpson)
Is there any better way to experience nature than floating lazily down a river with the occasional stroke of the paddle? No? Not your thing?

Well, how about experiencing the exciting rush of paddling down a fast-moving stream while catching the foam off a frothy rapid?

No matter which camp you fall into, the laid-back nature watcher or the intense thrill-seeker, you'll find what you're looking for at Cave Country Canoes.

Stationed off East Main Street in Milltown, the Cave Country Canoe livery has been providing canoe and kayak trips down the Blue River since the fall of 1983.

Canoeing may have been around for hundreds of years, but it didn't gain wide popularity on the Blue River until the 1970s, said Carol Groves, manager of Cave Country Canoes from 1993 to 2001.

Cave Country's newest advert in the windows of the old car lot across from Maxine's Market in Milltown. The building, now owned by Cave Country, also features advertisements for other local businesses around town.
Groves, who now does marketing and promotional work for Marengo Cave, Wyandotte Caves and Cave Country Canoes, credited Paul Harp with starting the canoeing craze back in the '70s when there was a resurgence in the country to return to the outdoors.

Cave Country Canoes, which now stands on what used to be Harp's canoe business, is one of the largest liveries in the region. It currently offers 400 canoes and 50 kayaks for rent and employs the use of six buses and 10 vans for transportation to different drop off points along the river.

"People tend to picture kayaks that look like the ones used in the Olympics," Groves said, giving the example of the rider's legs being strapped into a very narrow boat.

However, the kayaks at Cave Country are different. They're actually made for people who've never been on the water, said Groves.

The kayaks have a wider base, so they're much harder to tip over, and they can include a back rest that offers more comfort than a canoe. The sit-on kayaks have an indention in the middle where you sit that doesn't involve strapping in your legs. If the kayak happens to capsize while you're on the water, don't worry about being stuck under the water; you'll fall right out. The kayaks are also more maneuverable and lighter than canoes, which generally sit lower in the water due to added weight from people and materials like coolers.

"When I go out, I always use a kayak," Groves said.

Two canoers enjoying their trip down the river. Hopefully, they remembered to bring their sunblock. (Photo Courtesy of www.adventureindiana.com/media)
The trips along the river include a seven-mile trip, a 12-mile trip and a 14-mile trip. The seven-mile and 12-mile trips are along the upper river and offer a more relaxing and slower trip than the lower river. Although the seven-mile trip is the most popular, the highlight of the 12-mile trip is a chance to maneuver down Down's Riffle, the best set of rapids on that part of the river. The upper river is perfect for those who prefer slow scenic canoe trips that involve watching wildlife and chatting with friends.

The 14-mile trip down the lower river offers more challenging rapids and a swifter current that is generally reserved for more experienced canoers and kayakers. Groves said it provides a lot more "yee-haw!" moments, as well.

Cave Country Canoes tends to draw in more of the younger crowd than the caves do. Groves attributed this to the fact that a lot of families take advantage of the policy that children 12 and under can ride for free in the middle of the canoe.

While doing this can certainly be a bonding experience, albeit a crowded one, Groves recommends getting a kayak for kids 9 or older because it translates into more fun for the kids and the parents. She finds that 9 is a good age for kids to start using kayaks on their own as long as they're not too scared.

If safety on the river is a concern, fear not — every person is required to watch a seven-minute safety and instructional video that demonstrates everything from how to hold a paddle to what to do if the boat tips over. Also, since swimming lessons are not required for renting a canoe, the staff at Cave Country makes sure that people get all the information they can about the river and require that everyone wear a life jacket.

Those who can't swim needn't worry, though. Much of the river is not above the average person's head and the parts that are deep are away from the main current.

For people concerned about going out alone and getting lost, there is a detailed map given to every customer. Even though it's almost impossible to lose your way on the river as long as you follow the current, the map does provide a sense of security as well as full color photographs and detailed descriptions about places along the river as well as spots with rougher waters. The maps also provide warnings for people about what not to do at certain places on the river, like exploring caves on private property or diving off scenic rocks into shallow water.

Groves assured that "you'd be hard-pressed to find a livery with a map like ours."

Before heading out to Cave Country, it's recommended to make a reservation, especially if in a large group, but walk-ins are accepted.

However, if you don't reserve a trip, it's best to come early. Two Saturdays ago, all the non-reserved canoes were rented out by 10:30 a.m., Groves said.

A typical Saturday can range from 400 to 450 rentals for Cave Country Canoes. The record is more than 500 for one day.

During the week, 50 to 100 boats rented is usually the norm. Factoring in that canoes can get spread out a lot along the 7-, 12- or 14-mile stretch of river means that a lot of quiet reflective time can be achieved for lone kayakers or couples in canoes.

If group fun is more your thing, then sign up for the weekend trips where you'll see tons of people on the river having fun and making a ruckus.

Besides the large parties of family and friends, a fair amount of organized groups also patronize Cave Country, including Boy Scout groups, church groups and even high school summer PE classes. Cave Country also plays host to corporate retreats, the most recent being the tax department for the Yum! Corp. out of Louisville.

But Yum! Isn't alone in jumping the state border for a canoe trip. There are a lot of people who come through Cave Country who reside in Kentucky, more so than visit the caves.

Groves attributes this to the fact that Kentucky has a lot of caves, but not a lot of canoeing. The rest of the out-of-towners usually come from the Evansville or Indianapolis areas. The influx of so many people from outside of the county does wonders for the local businesses in Milltown.

Unfortunately, the bigger groups are less likely to see a lot of the wildlife featured at Blue River. Sightings of deer, otter and blue heron are common along the banks of the Blue for those paying close attention.

But even if you don't get to see wildlife, the scenery itself is breathtaking, and it should be since Blue River was the first stream in Indiana to be designated a scenic waterway.

"It is the cleanest and most natural river in the state," Groves said.

A tell-tale sign of the river's cleanliness, Groves continued, is the presence of the Hellbender salamander that was once quite prevalent in the state but is now absent from many Indiana rivers due to pollution.

The river's reputation for being clean and fit for both flaura and fauna allowed for the introduction of river otters in 1998. The otter is now an unofficial mascot of Cave Country.

The time it takes to complete a trip down the river depends on the length of your trip (7, 12 or 14 miles) and how high the water level is, which directly affects the speed of the current. It also depends on how many breaks and stops you make along the way. The folks at Cave Country really don't mind if you go out at 8 a.m. and don't make it back till 5 p.m. However, those that take the last boats out around 2 p.m. are encouraged to make it back at a reasonable hour.

Under ideal conditions, the 7-mile trip usually takes an average of two hours in the spring when the water levels are high and three to four hours during the summer.

Illustration by Alisha Sonner
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Trip Rates

Half Day:

9 people or less: $21

10 to 19 with deposit: $18

20 to 29 with deposit: $17

30-plus with deposit: $16

Kayak add on: $5

Full Day:

9 or less: $25

10 to 19 with deposit: $22

20 to 29 with deposit: $21

30-plus with deposit: $20

Kayak add on: $6

Two Day:

9 people or less: $43

10 to 19 with deposit: $38

20 to 29 with deposit: $36

30-plus with deposit: $34

Kayak add on: $7

No group discounts without a deposit.

All rates include paddle, lifejacket, map and transportation.

Private hauls for those equipped with canoes or kayaks $15 each transportation.

Trips run on best available sections for current river level.

To make reservations or to see recommendations on what to bring and what not to bring on a trip visit: www.cavecountrycanoes.com

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