Elkhorn City —
I discovered one of Kentucky’s best kept adventure tourism secrets this past weekend: The whitewater of the Russell Fork River.
The Russell Fork is a world-renowned destination for whitewater kayakers, but the river also offers a pair of much tamer, yet still adrenaline raising rides for families and the seasonal whitewater enthusiast.
It’s a secret for a pair of reasons. The rafting season is short, the first four full weekends of October only. The location, Breaks Interstate Park, is off the beaten path even for eastern Kentuckians.
Spurred to visit to do some reporting for an upcoming newspaper project, I signed Carl and I up for a rafting trip through the Sheltowee Trace Outfitters based in Corbin. The company is one of a handful of rafting companies that offer guided trips on the Russell Fork.
They offer two Russell Fork trips. The Fun Run, which takes rafters down the upper section of the river from just below the John W. Flannagan Dam to the river’s Garden Hole take-out north of the famous gorge section, features Class III and Class IV whitewater. A tamer Family Run offers Class III rapids on a lower section of the river.
We signed up for the Fun Run. Thanks to the closure of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas due to our disfunctional government, our trip got cut a little short. However, that little disappointment has been remedied for the last two weekends of rafting season.
No commercial guiding company offers trips through the middle, “gorge” section of the river during the October releases. It is this section that really draws the kayaking crowd, especially next weekend for the Russell Fork Rendezvous.
The run features pushy, technical class IV+ whitewater. It certainly looks fun, but is definitely not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.
I prefer the camaraderie of a raft to the solitude of a kayak when it comes to whitewater. The Russell Fork brought my river tally to eight including the holy grail of whitewater, The Upper Gauley.
Each trip, like each river, has its own personality. My trips have ranged from the white-knuckled intensity of the Gauley to a more relaxed weeklong trip on The Deschutes River in Oregon.
The Russell Fork, I’d put squarely in the middle. The river is truly more of a creek prone to shallow stretches of bumpy white water.
There were plenty of hangups on hidden underwater rocks during our run, prompting several rounds of musical chairs inside the raft in order to shift the weight and free ourselves. This is always quite entertaining.
The rapids themselves were just big enough to command concentration and some brisk paddling, but didn’t prompt any genuine fear. The run was simply pure whitewater fun.
What makes the Russell Fork trip truly special though is its scenery.
The fish eye view of the steep 1,000-foot gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of the East is simply spectacular. The carved stone walls, glimpses of arched railroad trestles and wooded mountains undulating as far as the eye can see into the distance would be breathtaking in any season, but add in some brilliant fall foliage and it is simply stunning.
The slow flat water sections of the trip rivaled the rapids as a trip highlight. These sections afforded ample time to gawk and snap photos of views that are only offered to those willing to get a little wet — and endure a Class 5+ bus ride after the trip.
The Russell Fork is a secret too good to keep quiet about. Sorry kayakers.
CARRIE STAMBAUGH is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland.