From wild whitewater races to flatwater floats, here’s a rundown of the region’s best paddling fests.
Harpers Ferry Outdoor Festival
June 19 • Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Paddlers meet at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers for a full-day festival with live music, good eats, and plenty of water action. Comps include the Harpers Ferry Cup Amateur Raft Race and the Tim Gavin Down River Race, which honors the fallen paddler, who died in a kayaking accident in 1998.
Potomac Whitewater Festival
July 10-11 • Great Falls, Md.
The centerpiece of this fun weekend of paddling comps is the Great Falls Race, an epic downriver descent that drops 60 vertical feet through the Potomac’s tumultuous class V-plus Great Falls. Too rugged for your taste? This fest has additional events in freestyle, slalom, and boatercross, as well as clinics, demos, and a party at the Old Angler’s Inn.
James River Runoff Rundown
Statewide, Va. • July 10
Every year, river enthusiasts take a day to combine efforts and cover the entire 340-mile length of Virginia’s main waterway. You can take a mellow float in the mountains, paddle the wild whitewater near Richmond, or drift into the tidal waters of the Chesapeake. The goal is to raise money for every mile you complete to support the James River Association, the river’s main watchdog.
September 17-19 • Summersville, W.Va.
Small-town West Virginia hosts the largest river festival in the world. Gauley Fest was started in the 80s as a boater party to celebrate the derailment of a hydroelectric project that would have disrupted flows of the revered river. Now the fest is a full-on paddler rager with live tunes, a whitewater marketplace, and a rowdy late-night scene that has included boxing and mud wrestling. A new favorite tradition is the Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament that features over 1,000 participants. There’s also plenty of time to enjoy the Gauley’s class V rollercoaster.
October 22-24 • Wesser, N.C.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center serves up beer and brats by the river. Wash down your Jagerschnitzel with a Bitburger, while you watch paddler carnage on Nanny Falls with bluegrass in the background.
Russell Fork Rendezvous
October • Elkhorn City, Ky.
The epic class V technical creek section in the Breaks Gorge has proven dangerous for many a boater; see the best of the best take it on during the Lord of the Fork Race. After the action, paddlers party on Carson Island. Nearby bike rides and hikes abound.