Russell Fork Kayak

Every October, boaters around the US rendezvous in Kentucky in celebration of the annual fall water releases on the Russell Fork, a class II-V+ river. The stoke builds all month long, culminating in the Lord of the Fork Race the last weekend of October. We sent our CKS Online coworker, Nick Gilbert, to go check it out and report back.

Erik Hancock getting vertical on one of the many play spots on the river

An Ode to the Russell Fork

Heading North on Highway 80 along the Virginia/Kentucky border is a pull-out frequented by tourists, RVs, and locals trying to enjoy one of the best leaf peeping views in Appalachia.

The sign for the pull-out states: “Mill Rock Overlook: The Grand Canyon of the South.” When you look down from the side of the highway – past the endless sea of yellow and orange – there appears to be a small creek trickling through a sea of yellow and orange leaves. What few onlookers realize is the little trickle at the bottom of the gorge is a whitewater paddler's paradise.

Russell Fork "Grand Canyon of the South" Overlook

For paddlers in the Southeast, fall colors mean whitewater releases.

Sandwiched between, and often overshadowed by, Gauley Season and the Green Race, the Russell Fork releases are an event that should not be missed.

Driving through Elkhorn City, KY (the nearest town to the river) the excitement permeates from the locals to the paddlers as cars with kayaks are stopped and asked about the best places to hike to watch the kayaking.

"Are you Dane Jackson?" one local asked me. "My daughter is a huge fan and has been trying to meet him for years!"

Weekends on the Russell Fork exemplify everything right about fall paddling. Besides fall colors bright enough to make a pumpkin spice late seem bland, this stretch of river truly offers something for every paddler to enjoy.

The main attraction is the class IV-V gorge, famous for its sieved out geology and nerve-wracking undercuts. Rapids such as Triple Drop feature seams that will devour a kayak, while the slide at El Horrendo is a classic test piece for class V rafters.

During the last weekend in October, dam operators release 200 extra CFS into the Russell Fork making it Kenucky's biggest weekend for whitewater paddling. The added juice creates a world class race course, and the best paddlers in the South all flock to the Russell Fork for the Lord of the Fork Race.

Known as a test run for aspiring class V racers, the results of the Russell Fork Race often foreshadow what's to come in the Green Race a few weeks later. On race day, the locals and kayakers alike hike out along the train tracks to Climax rapid to soak in the fall scenery, enjoy some beverages by the river, and watch racers cross the finish line of a technical and steep race course.

Besides the famous class IV-V gorge, kayakers and SUPers can also enjoy the class II-III upper section, while playboaters will park up for the afternoon at the wave at the takeout. We saw people paddling the Hala Atcha SUP through the calmer stretches, and R2ers firing up the big rapids of the gorge in the Aire Tributary 12.

The Russell Fork is one of those rivers where you will see every type of watercraft out there. For racers, the Liquid Logic Stinger was one of the most popular choices. While many paddlers enjoyed their creek boats, the Jackson Kayak Antix 2.0 was the most talked-about boat at camp, as the combo of bow rocker with a playful stern proved to be the most fun way to enjoy the river for those ready to half-slice down class V.

My boats of choice for a weekend of racing and play

While it was my first time at the Russell Fork, I was able to squeeze in two practice laps before Saturday's race.

After backendering my Liquid Logic Stinger in Triple Drop, I clinched the coveted 72nd place in this race. Only 71 behind Dane Jackson. Nice.

With only one weekend to paddle this river, it was hard to take racing too seriously when slicing down the river in the Antix 2.0 was just too much fun.

While many people wouldn't think of Kentucky as an obvious pick for their bucket list, every paddler deserves to experience the magic of the Russell Fork. From the paddling, to the lifestyling, to the fall colors– if you haven't been to the Russell Fork River, I can't recommend it enough.

Falling off the seal launch upside down

Did you beat Nick Gilbert in the Lord of the Fork race? Leave us a comment!

1 comment

Darryl Knudsen

Darryl Knudsen

Last paddled the Russel Fork in 1998. Still remember that day fondly as an epically fun day of whitewater. It’s with nostalgia that I remember having fun spinning 360s in the wave above El Horrendo before heading down. Now, I’d probably walk the whole thing. Well, I’ll always have my memories. If the Russel Forkmis in your wheelhouse go enjoy it; it really is a hoot!

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