A pair of local kayakers are sounding an alarm after recent brushes with danger interrupted their paddling on Nolin River in southern Hardin County.
Whitney Lewis of Vine Grove and Sam Montgomery of Sonora, who kayak regularly on the river, said their journeys have been interrupted by gunfire.
“It’s distinct,” Lewis said. “You know what a gunshot sounds like and it’s very distinct and scary.”
Lewis said in early July, two of her trips down the river were interrupted by gunfire with one scaring her badly enough that she exited the ravine in fear.
In one instance, she and another kayaker hugged the bank to protect themselves as she shouted toward the gunfire.
“I had to scream at the top of my lungs to get him to come to the shore,” she said. “He did and he apologized.”
Lewis said the man asked if anyone was behind her on the river and once the pair cleared the area, he began shooting again.
Lewis said she believes he was target practicing.
Another instance was near a property on Webb Mill Road when she was floating alone and heard shots in the distance which were growing closer, Lewis said.
“That’s when I got down in the ravine, because I didn’t know what they were shooting,” she said.
When the gunfire paused, Lewis made her escape, she said.
“I climbed a waterfall to get out of the river,” she said, adding she was by herself. “I was scared to death.”
While he’s never had an experience quite like Lewis, Montgomery said he’s heard gunfire toward the ravine.
“If I hear shooting, I just stop,” he said. “I’ve never had one close like Whitney was describing. I’ve never heard them whiz by me.”
The trips are far from normal, the paddlers said.
“Typically it’s peaceful, relaxing when you’re on the river,” said Lewis, who has been kayaking for about three years. “You don’t have to worry about nobody being around. It’s surreal.”
Montgomery said he got started in the sport about 10 years ago as a way to connect with his then teenage daughter.
“It’s very fun to do,” he said. “As long as you do it safely, it’s always a good time.”
While she didn’t report the shootings to authorities, Lewis said she wanted land owners who surround the river to know canoeing and kayaking popularity has increased, which means increased traffic on the river.
Montgomery, who called kayaking his favorite sport, said the sport continues to grow in Hardin County.
“When I started kayaking, I only knew one person who kayaked,” he said. “Now I’m not even surprised when I hear someone say, ‘Hey, I bought a kayak.’ ”
While Lewis said she is not interested in getting any land owner in trouble or making them mad, she wants them to be aware of the hazardous conditions they are causing when shooting in the direction of Nolin River.
“Someone is going to get hurt or killed,” she said. “We’re sitting ducks. They don’t want that on the conscience, killing someone with a stray bullet.”
Montgomery said it is a matter of property owners being responsible.
“The land owners have rights, but you need to be aware where your bullets are going,” he said.
As a gun owner, he said he would shoot on his property but would “always” see what he was shooting at and beyond.
Montgomery said trails around Green River close during gun season for deer hunting and “strongly discourages” kayaking during that time as well.
Montgomery believes that type of management during gun season is wise for the Nolin River.
“I don’t think it would be a bad thing, especially as long as that river is and as winding as that river is,” he said. “I think Nolin is the ‘crookedest’ river in the world. There’s a lot of property it crosses and it’s not all public. Some of it is private land (where hunting can occur).”
The restriction also would prevent paddlers from disrupting a hunt, Montgomery said.
“It would be a win, win for everyone,” he said.
Kevin Kelly, chief communications officer for Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, said while nothing has been reported to the department, there are precautions land owners and paddlers alike can take.
“One of the primary rules of firearm safety is being sure you can see what is in front of it and beyond it before you take the shot,” he said of land owners possibly taking target practice. “That would apply if you are on your own property or at a public shooting range.”
An “important consideration” is having adequate backstop for gunfire, Kelly said.
Kelly also had safety tips for those recreational paddlers.
“First and foremost, if you feel like you’re in immediate danger, call 911,” he said.
He recommended reporting incidents to law enforcement or to conservation officers, who are found on the department’s website, fw.ky.gov.
“Depending on cell service where you are at, it would be wise to carry a whistle because a whistle is going to be louder than your voice and will carry farther.”
Kelly also offered safety tips to those taking recreation in Kentucky’s waterways.
“To start off, let somebody know where you’re going to be, that way if something happens, they’ll know where you may be in general.”
Kelly also said it is important to note when hunting seasons are and to be sure to avoid active hunt areas.
“You can do that by checking our website,” he said, where residents can find current hunting guides.
Kelly also suggested trying to make yourself more visible, which could be accomplished by a brightly colored lifejacket or paddle blades.
“For me personally, I like to kayak, and my life jacket is florescent orange,” he said. “So that way when I’m sitting low on the water, someone can see me from a distance.”
And while the recent incidents certainly scared Lewis, she said it won’t prevent her from getting back on the water.
“I love it,” she said. “If I have to get into a ditch and call a boyfriend to come get me to keep myself safe, I will.”