Elkhorn City Growth? … Just Add Water!

This is a guest post by my good friend Brent Austin.  Brent is an attorney from Lexington, Kentucky.  Brent has been coming to Elkhorn City and the Russell Fork for years and has a unique perspective on how Elkhorn City can reach its true potential.


I have been recreating in the Breaks Interstate Park and enjoying the Russell Fork river, since the fall of 1989. Some of you may remember those days, especially in the early 90s when each fall, the towns of Elkhorn City, KY and Haysi, VA, would be jammed packed with “Rafters”, the term given for each and every person that “rode” the river, whether in a raft, kayak or canoe. We would sit in amazement while raft load after raft load came careening down El Horrendo and other rapids in the Gorge. Back then, the Gateway Motel was jam packed and you could not count on a room. The Breaks Park was filled with campers who had come to paddle the river from all over the world. The Rusty Fork Restaurant was not there yet, so many of us jammed in long lines at the Breaks Buffet waiting to eat. The room was usually filled with whitewater folks and it was clear that this area had promise. At that time, areas like Bryson City NC, home area of the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and Fayetteville, WV, situated close to the New and Gauley Rivers, were just starting to grow from the tourism that the rivers in the area brought. And, so it seemed that the potential of Elkhorn City, KY could, too, become such an end target for the discerning whitewater and outdoor adventurer. Heck, even me and James Stapleton thought, for a moment, back in 1995 that the town was perfectly situated for our new outdoor recreation store we considered opening: Appalachian Outdoor Center. We even had Tee shirts and hats embroidered while I was on a kayaking trip in Nepal that year. All we needed was for the Army Corp of Engineers to do what they did at the Gauley River and boom! Instant presto, we would have water and a destination for paddlers all over the world, just like in Bryson City and in Fayetteville. Of course that was when we were a bit younger, less jaded, had that fire in our belly, and thought we could reason with the Army Corp to get managed releases.

Years later, with many gray hairs on my head and in my 50s, I now find myself heading to the Russell Fork from Lexington every chance I get, water level dependent. But, there are now newer, younger paddlers and we have had many studies performed, the river environment the subject of a doctoral thesis and even plans for a whitewater park, if we could get the ACOE to commit to provide us with 200 – 250 cfs, a few times a week for a few hours, during the summer. But, none of that has led to any change in the water management since the early 90s and today, with water management, other than in the first four weekends in October, erratic, undependable and impossible to predict for those not glued to the various gauges, lake levels and flow management criteria, folks look and they go elsewhere. Even then, other than those of us close enough to make a day trip, the RF remains off the radar for the bulk of the world’s whitewater paddlers, again, unless we are talking the first four weekends in October.

Recently, I have been frustrated because as I age, have a family and work responsibilities that keep me close to home, I really look forward to opportunities to go to the Breaks, paddle the river and do some of the activities in the area that my family would enjoy as well. This past Memorial Day is a perfect example. I wanted to go to the river and saw that the lake was a bit over summer pool and that it was not high enough to be a problem. If the ACOE had chosen to do so, they could have saved the 300 cfs release they started on a Tuesday and ended on a Thursday, for the weekend, thus guaranteeing that there would be flow for recreation over the weekend. A simple “call in” recording announcing the release for the weekend, would have spread like wildfire on Boater Talk and other paddling forums, and no doubt, the area would have seen a large influx of folks from all over. But, there was no water left by the weekend and that was not an opportunity for me and my family to come enjoy the river. As a result, we went to the Smoky Mountains where I paddled the Cheoah River and we spent our money eating out in Gatlinburg instead of in the Pike County area. It seems kinda simple for folks like me: Do you want to see Elkhorn City grow? If so, then “Just Add Water”. You will be stunned what will happen.

See you on the river,

Brent Austin


3 responses to “Elkhorn City Growth? … Just Add Water!

  1. I returned home to EC and attended Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, VA from 2002-05. That school’s existence, the creation of a new pharmacy school, the presence of UVA and VA Tech, moving the whole town, etc. were all end results of impressive cooperation between local, state and federal governments.
    Eastern Kentucky has never enjoyed the fruits of such common goals and efforts. With our political climate, probably never will.
    It seems like a small task to implement a cooperative plan for when the water is released into the RF. Give KY a little notice. Move the release from Tuesday to Saturday. Alert the local and state tourism offices. Implement a simple, pre-planned, inexpensive communication program of social media and press releases that gets the “news” of the release out to the appropriate markets. Have a plan in place for local business to capitalize on this “instant weekend festival”.
    If Grundy can literally move mountains and create a center of higher learning in small-town southwest VA, you would think KY’s local, state and federal politicos would stop their banter for just a minute and coordinate an effort to get a little cooperation from those involved in releasing water into our beloved Russell Fork.

  2. “Only if,” seems to be a common theme to soooo many conversations I have had over the last several about what I consider to be one of the most viable tourism opportunities in Eastern Kentucky. I am blessed to know Tim Belcher, Steve Ruth, and Stephanie Richards all who have fought tirelessly to try to get folks to see the BIGGER picture in Elkhorn and on the RF. We all feel we are falling on deaf ears. The powers that be can’t understand that the third largest industry in the state, tourism, can be a sustainable business in Elkhorn, but there must be waterflow. And, it must be consistent for marketing purposes. But, truely how hard can it be to tweak a plan to schedule releases that would benefit the weekend travelers and those who would be bringing new money into the local economy.

  3. I have been coming to Elkhorn City to paddle and film the Russell Fork since October 1981. There were only a handful of whitewater paddlers that first year I visited but they came from all over the country – some had driven from states as far away as MO, VT and CO to test their skills on the world class rapids of the RF Gorge. The short 5 minute film I made that year premiered in Lexington and was the first glimpse most paddlers in KY, or anywhere, had of the dramatic whitewater of the Russell Fork. The visually spectacular rapids of the RF Gorge so inspired the volunteers of Bluegrass Whitewater Association in Lexington that they decided to establish the National Paddling Film Festival – an event that will be celebrating it’s 30th anniversary in 2013. While the RF continues to inspire, thrill and attract boaters from all over the globe, the river’s full recreational potential remains as restricted and unrealized as it was in 1981 with releases still frustratingly limited to only a few weekends in October. One would think that a stream which has given so much inspiration to generations of people and enjoys an unmatched, worldwide reputation, would have years ago taken it’s place among the other economic giants of whitewater industry in the eastern US. Rivers like the New and Gauley in WV, The Ocoee in TN, The Nantahala in NC and the Youghiogheny in MD. which now provide extensive economic benefits to once depressed areas. Unfortunately, the long sought for summer recreational releases on the Russell Fork that would allow Elkhorn City to take it’s rightful and prosperous place with these others, stubbornly remains just a hoped for dream.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s