Two creek boat races define our region: The Green River Narrows Race, in Saluda, N.C., and the Lord of the Fork race on the Russell Fork in Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia/Kentucky border. Both races cover class V creeks, and both attract the best hair boaters from around the world, but their similarities stop there. Here’s a look at how each race, and river, breaks down.
Lord of the Fork Race
October 17-18, 2011
The River: The Russell Fork “Gorge Run” is four miles of class IV-V+ whitewater dropping 180 feet per mile through the heart of Breaks Interstate Park and the 1,600-foot deep Russell Fork Gorge. It’s a natural flow river that locals run three to four times a week, nine months out of the year. In October, that natural flow is augmented by four weekends of dam releases on a tributary that pumps 800 to 1,100 cfs into the gorge. “At high water, it’s a pushy river, but still demands creek boating maneuvering,” says Steve Ruth, a local Elkhorn City boater who runs the Russell Fork 100 times a year. The race course covers a two-mile stretch that’s packed with four class V’s and just as many class IV+ drops. “The Russell Fork is a badass river,” Ruth says. “It’s not as hard as the Green, but it’s more dangerous because of all the undercut rocks.”
The Race: The first Russell Fork race was started by Olympic boater Chris Hipgrave and his paddling partner Brent Austin in 1995. It was an under the radar affair, with only seven boaters showing up to compete. “We were so worried about liability, we didn’t really tell anybody,” Hipgrave says. “Extreme racing hadn’t caught on yet. There was no Green Race at the time. But we wanted to step up the racing difficulty, so we challenged each other to see who could paddle the Russell Fork the fastest.”
The Lord of the Fork has grown from a handful of competitors to a solid 50 in the last few years, pulling in some of the best boaters from around the world. Still, it’s a low-key, grassroots event with no sponsors, no cash, no real registration except for a waiver boaters sign before taking the shuttle. The Russell Fork Rendezvous is a weekend-long celebration that’s grown out of the race that is billed as the “anti-Gauley Fest,” meaning the crowds are small and the boat demos and manufacturer branding is nonexistent. There is belly dancing though.