ELKHORN CITY, Ky. – Gerald DeLong has paddled whitewater rapids across the country for nearly 30 years, but it’s an eastern Kentucky river that courses through his veins.
Like the thousands of others who have kayaked, canoed and rafted their way down the Russell Fork River, a 15-mile stretch of water from Virginia to Kentucky, DeLong finds its rocky twists, turns and treacherous gorge irresistible.
“You just have to love the water,” said Delong, 50, of Elkhorn City, taking a break from a chilly morning kayaking trip to catch his breath and munch on salmon slices.
DeLong, known as the “Father of the Fork” to some, and his son, Matthew, will join about 500 others for this weekend’s Russell Fork Rendezvous, an annual festival celebrating the river’s natural obstacles and the last high water of the season.
About a dozen, including 26-year-old Matthew, will enter the Lord of the Fork race – a high-speed trek propelling kayakers around the four-mile gorge, taunting them with jagged rocks, powerful waves and narrow outlets.
For whitewater enthusiasts, it’s the best time of the year to run the Russell Fork. Each weekend in October, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases the dam at the Pound River in Virginia to bring water levels down for the winter.
Spilling nearly three times as much water downstream across the Kentucky state line into the Russell Fork, the result is four weekends of faster, higher waters that draw paddlers as far as Europe and Australia.
“They come from all over the country, the world, to paddle this river in October,” said festival organizer Steve Ruth. “We draw the upper echelon of kayakers in October.”
Moe Kelleher, 21, traveled from his native Ireland just to participate in the Lord of the Fork race. His buddy, Dave Finney, 23, of Roanoke, Va., will join him, hoping to get through the gorge without any flip-overs, cuts or broken bones.
“I just close my eyes the whole way down,” Finney laughed after finishing a recent practice run.
While the river ranges from milder difficulty levels, the gorge’s obstructed, turbulent rapids, steep drops and congested chutes have earned it a Class 5 label by expert boaters.
Typically, Class 5 rapids are meant for only the most experienced of paddlers who have the endurance and skill to maneuver such dangerous waterways, according to American Whitewater. The North Carolina-based environmental group recognized for its expertise in paddling and safety has marked some 45 rapids nationwide as Class 5.
While some whitewater veterans, like Gerald DeLong and Ruth, have crossed the gorge at their own pace, they refuse to race it.
“You have to get your mind set for it,” said Ruth, before adding with a laugh, “Only crazy people race.”
The heightened momentum of the Lord of the Fork competition, named after Jon Lord, who drowned in a kayaking accident at the river in January 2004, splits the best into racers and non-racers.
Daniel Helbert, 21, of Coeburn, Va., said the key is to “become one with the river,” before actually racing the gorge. Helbert, who has paddled other Class 5 rapids in West Virginia and Tennessee, said he’d probably be ready to enter the Lord of the Fork next year.
“I want to get used to these high water levels,” Helbert said. “It’s very intense in places.”
For Sara Martin, the allure of Russell Fork in autumn is less about competition than nostalgia. This is where Martin’s future husband took her on their first date, where he proposed marriage and where they had their wedding.
“This is our home away from home,” said Martin, 27, of Canton, N.C. “To me it’s a very spiritual experience here. … You have to respect this river.”
ON THE NET
Russell Fork River at http://www.russellfork.info