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Dusk till Dawn

Dusk till Dawn

I looked east and spotted the orange glow piercing through the oaks still leafless from the long winter nights. I turned right from the trailhead and regained my footing as I reached a muddy path. I slipped and contorted in many ways as I tried to maintain my footing. My mind kept racing, “warm thoughts, warm thoughts,” but it did nothing to stop my now uncontrollable shivering. Only a madman could be up in these conditions for my specific agenda.

I stumbled in the half-morn light crashing heavily on a twig. The crack pierced the cold morning air and a young buck darted from my left. I watched him bounce effortlessly up a hill flushing three startled turkeys. It was morning at Land Between the Lakes and I was on a mission to have a public land, dusk-till-dawn adventure.

Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Land Between the Lakes is a 170,000-acre sliver of land between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. It straddles Kentucky and Tennessee with Grand Rivers and Dover the north and south limits. It gets its name from the rich history of those who once called this area “Between the Rivers.” The rivers were dammed for flood control, becoming lakes, and the National Recreation Area’s namesake reflects that heritage.

The burden of the greater good is often carried by an unfortunate few. In the mid-1900’s, that burden of flood protection fell to the communities between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Residents living in the lake reclamation zones and in the land between the rivers were forced from their communities. Heritage sites now remain to give testament of those that once called this place home. I hoped to get a sense of their heritage and appreciate what this land meant to them. I set out from my truck at Fort Henry Road at 5:45 a.m. for a 1 mile hike on Picket Loop in the Fort Henry Trails system.

The Fort Henry Trails provide solitude in a system of loop trails totaling 30 miles. The area encompasses gently rolling hills separating Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. The days-long Civil War battle at nearby Fort Donelson pit old friends against each other on a February day in 1862. The battle claimed 835 dead and Confederate Gen. Simon B. Buckner surrendering the fort to longtime friend Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

A combat veteran and former company commander, I marveled at the historic nature of the terrain. I hiked down the loop wondering what General Grant’s enlisted felt on their approach march to Fort Donelson. What did Gen. Grant think about the misfortune of facing a friend in combat? We often look back on moments in history in the context of how we know battles ended. Hindsight benefits no man in battle. History forgets the weight of the unknown. The beautiful rolling hills in this public place keep their memories alive. Their spirits are thick in the air.

Continuing my one man Staff Ride, I returned to my Tundra and set off to Fort Donelson to see the next chapter of this battle. Fort Donelson is a National Battlefield adjacent to Land Between the Lakes. There is no entry fee for this battlefield operated by the National Park Service. My Toyota parked high above the Cumberland River was immediately buzzed with an unexpected surprise. A juvenile Bald Eagle swooped from my right out across the river. It looked almost like a Golden Eagle, a mistake I’d made once before. Juvenile Bald Eagles lack the plumage of their adult parents and Golden Eagles are extremely rare in the Midwest. This beautiful symbol of our freedom soared effortlessly evoking an appreciation for my current surroundings and those now at the point of the spear in faraway places.

I thought of the tactical challenges of an assault on such a well defended fort. The sun, now warm in the sky, illuminated clear views of the Cumberland River in both directions. Gen. Grant’s assault was complex with attacks from both the Army and Navy. I questioned out loud, “how did they capture this fort?” My thoughts were interrupted with the ding of a text. Both a curse and comfort of modern day, cell phone coverage extends to most places around Land Between the Lakes. My pondering would have to wait, I needed to get back to start my next leg, er, wheel of my adventure, mountain biking.

Mountain bikes are available for rent at Hillman Ferry and Piney Campgrounds on the north and south ends of the recreation area. At Land Between the Lakes there are 86 miles of trail open to mechanized travel. In layman’s terms, that means there are 86 miles of off road trail where a person can ride a mountain bike among the oaks. Mountain bikes are restricted on trails used by horseback riders for safety reasons. All trails are open to foot travel so I remained on the lookout for a surprise hiker. On this morning, it was just me and the constant rattle of my poorly oiled chain struggling between gears as I lumbered up hills. I was reminded of my age as I made a jump over a tree stump. The landing was far more jolting than the wicked spills I took as a kid. This time, wearing a helmet, I couldn’t help but wonder how I survived childhood. I continue on for 10 miles enjoying the solitude until I reach the Woodlands Trace Scenic Byway. I use the road to continue a loop to my truck.

Children build a log cabin and learn about life in the 1850’s. The Homeplace 1850’s Working Farm and Living History Museum is an interpretative attraction with period exhibits and working staff. Many exhibits are hands on with opportunities to learn about pre-Civil War Kentucky heritage. (U.S. Forest Service photo).

Feeling I completed my PT for the day, I took a drive over to the Homeplace. I pay my nominal fee and find a most intriguing display of heritage. The Homeplace 1850’s Working Farm and Living History Museum represents a two-generation farm. Staff at the facility wear the traditional garments and use tools available in the 1850’s. If you ever wonder how a field was plowed before motorized tractors, this is your spot. A student of woodworking, I watched as a craftsman ran a draw knife across a log that might one day become a table. I wasn’t sure what to make of the staff dressed in 1850’s clothing so I reluctantly talked about their outfit. I half expected a return in 1850’s colloquialism. I learned quickly that the staff are not actors. They work the land and harvest crops in traditional ways in traditional dress as a demonstration site not an amusement park village. I’m not sure what I expected when I came to the Homeplace, but I left amazed and inspired.

My two hour visit at the Homeplace seemed far too short but the day was getting away from me and I wanted to see elk and bison. I returned to the Woodlands Trace and drove north to the Elk and Bison Prairie. The Elk and Bison Prairie did not disappoint.

A mother bison guards her young while visitors look on.

The Elk and Bison Prairie is a 700-acre enclosure of native grassland habitat common in Kentucky when bison and elk roamed this area. My $5 entry was quickly rewarded with what appeared to be 18 female or cow elk. Upon closer inspection, I quickly noticed that some were males or bull elk. On this particular attraction I already knew what to expect. In January, I joined other U.S. Forest Service staff in tranquilizing the elk herd for veterinarian treatment and Tuberculosis testing. Forest Service staff remove elk antlers when animals are worked to protect staff and animals from injury. The 30 lb. antlers would otherwise naturally shed in late spring, but the bulls among the cow elk on this day displayed only a small nub.

The 3.5 mile paved loop provides a wildlife experience unlike any other. As my Tundra rounded each curb, I saw elk and bison wandering across the rolling hills of green or lounging under small groups of trees. Halfway through the drive I saw a large bison rolling among the charred terrain of a recent prescribed fire. Fire is a natural event in the wild with many plants and ecosystems dependent on fire. Forest Service fire officials burn small patches under specific conditions favorable to smoke dispersion and fire control. The bison seemed to enjoy the burned area. I even saw a few elk walking among the ash. The elk and bison seemed to know this is a natural change to their grasses dead from the long winter. I left the elk and bison prairie counting 32 elk and 26 bison.

I head north to my final destination, the Woodlands Nature Station. . I spot my childhood nemesis as I walk through the doors, Agkistrodon piscivorus or cottonmouth. Land Between the Lakes is dedicated to engaging the public in environmental education. The Woodlands Nature Station uses ambassador animals like their resident water moccasin to teach visitors about native plant and animal species, their habitat and each animal’s role in the ecosystem. I’m suspicious of the snake because of our long history of abandoned fishing gear and rod tips I’ve broken in my hasty retreats during surprise encounters. This ambassador snake rests behind a glass in a terrarium but I give him his space all the same. The friendly staff notice my caution and introduce me to a turtle and I quickly find myself in complete sensory overload.

Nature Station
Visitors interact with animals native to Land Between the Lakes. The Woodlands Nature Station is an environmental education attraction that includes animal displays and an 8500-acre Nature Watch Area. (U.S. Forest Service photo).

Once I get past the cottonmouth I spot a Kestrel, then a Barn Owl. I hear the familiar sound of a turkey gobble and I spot deer, coyotes and a wolf. Wildlife abounds at the Woodlands Nature Station and I learn about each animal’s role in this complex ecosystem. The staff was knowledgeable and eager to help every person understand the ambassador animals on display. I left the Nature Station with an all new respect for the conservation environment at Land Between the Lakes. I learned that even the cottonmouth has a place on the land, a concept I’m learning to accept.

This was only a day at Land Between the Lakes and there simply was too much to see and do in a day. I needed another day to visit the Planetarium and Observatory along with the Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle area. As I thought about all there was to see and do inside Land Between the Lakes, I realized an entire week was needed to enjoy the camps and natural areas. I decided to put those things off until the fish were biting and I could make a week of it. There simply is no better place to recreate with your family.

Plan your next visit through three itineraries available just for Bluegrass National Guardsmen at: Special discounts await to thank you for your service.

Land Between the Lakes is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. There is no fee to enter the National Recreation Area but some attractions collect a small fee. The 170,000 acre area is managed for multiple uses to include recreation, agricultural production and environmental education. Land Between the Lakes is not a park. National Parks are managed principally for preservation. Land Between the Lakes is a working landscape managed for conservation uses that include hunting, row crop production and timber harvest. If you want to learn more, visit us online at

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