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,