WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — Phelps, Kentucky native Allen Daugherty always had a little Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in his blood. The gene apparently passed along to his son Jacob, age 17, as the two just completed a journey they’ll never forget.
Last week, the pair floated the entire length of the Tug Fork from its confluence in Welch to where it meets the Levisa Fork in Louisa, Kentucky to create the Big Sandy River. Daugherty, known to most as “Grizzly Allen”, developed his wanderlust while in the Army. A former member of the U.S. Special Forces, he’s always been up for the adventure.
“I was stationed near Fort Campbell, Kentucky and we lived near the lake. We would go to the Mississippi River and look at the Indian Mounds,” Grizz explained halfway through the journey on last weekend’s edition of
West Virginia Outdoors. “I always had this Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn thing and when we moved back here next to the Tug River, my son said we should float this river.”
Grizz admitted the idea was attractive, but daunting. It’s a long way from Welch to Louisa, but the more his son tempted him with the idea, the more it seemed like the thing to do. Finally, they pegged a time and decided it was on.
Using a tandem kayak nicknamed “The Salty Pickle” the father and son team hoisted an American flag on the stern, strapped on survival gear and provisions in place, and began the journey.
The first stretches were admittedly a bit discouraging.
“It’s 134.5 miles and the first 15 to 20 is basically dragging the boat,” Grizz explained. “We started in Welch where Elkhorn Creek and Tug Creek form the Tug River. We wanted to say we floated the entire length, even if that meant dragging the boat.”
They were forced to get out and drag the boat 15 times in the first 15 miles. They used the paddles as push-poles for another 30 miles, but eventually they found enough water to float their craft and finally started riding. Along the way, they fished a little, camped a little, and did a lot of sightseeing.
“There was a lot of wildlife. We saw deer, beavers, mink and other wildlife,” said Grizz. “But there were train trestles and bridges, swinging bridges and we were taking pictures of that stuff. Also, I think that part of West Virginia has more tunnels than any place in the country.”
Further along, the history of the river and is significance came alive, especially at the Matewan museum where both got to hold the pistol which was on the belt of legendary lawman Sid Hatfield during the battle with the Baldwin Felts detectives.
The journey master plan, at least originally, was to camp along the way and eat whatever meals they could carry. But Grizz wanted to use the adventure to draw more attention to efforts to promote the river. The father/son journey soon became chronicled on the Friends of Tug Fork Facebook page. Once the word got out, plans for roughing it drastically changed.
“There’s been a lot of hospitality along the way. We really appreciate people bringing us food,” Grizz laughed. “We were prepared to survive on our own. We had a two man tent, water purifiers, and Raman noodles, so we were good to go.”
As the journey escalated downstream many paddlers joined the pair on the water. On some occasions it was a flotilla of paddle boats moving downstream. The hospitality was very much appreciated when the rolled into Crum, West Virginia on Friday night.
A storm pounded the river, soaked Grizz and Jake, and they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to get the Salty Pickle to high enough ground as the water rose quickly. The ordeal was made much better however, by the kindness of strangers, particularly the Mayor of Fort Gay Joetta Hatfield who had come searching for them. She managed to get them fed, a place to sleep, and even provided a place to wash and dry their wet clothes.
The final push to the finish on Saturday provided almost a hero’s welcome for the pair. About 50 people awaited their arrival at the ramp and the local VFW provided a 21 gun salute as they arrived.
“The view is totally different from this perspective,” said Grizz. “I knew especially in the beginning it was going to be tough because water is low at this time of year. But I wanted to do it with my son and this is when he’s off school. It’s been a great experience for the both of us.”