Thursday, October 18, 2007

Russell Fork

Video: Russell Fork
(If you plan on boating this stretch of river, pay attention to the sheer number of undercuts in this video)

Russell Fork Gorge

With a lack of water across the majority of the east coast, we too have to travel to paddle the good stuff and after putting it off for three years, the time came to head towards the Russell Fork Gorge to knock out this East Coast classic and bring our readers a new installment of excitement in an otherwise drought ridden landscape.

The trip began as an idea during Gauley Fest with an invitation from Russell Fork enthusiast Willy Witt to show some of his Pittsburgh friends his favorite river. On Friday October 12, three vehicles departed for the Fork to tempt our fate with this notorious stretch of river. As we stood around the campfire Friday evening, those of us who hadn’t run the river before spoke only briefly of the dangers the river is known for, instead choosing to spend time visiting with the veritable who’s who of the East Coast creeking scene and enjoy what could be our last night alive.

Saturday, we left early to take in the sights from Breaks Park. Here you can look down into the gorge, and see just how drastically cut the mountains in this region are, and how in it we would be during our journey. From over a mile away, Fist rapid is easily spotted from one of the lookouts and discussion began of the numerous tragedies that have befallen this particular location.

After spending an hour or so checking out the surroundings (which were spectacular and worth the drive even without the paddling), it was time to put paddle to water and fire this up. We put in around 12:30 pm and headed down through the boogie water, taking in the depths of the gorge and the overhanging rock formations that make this place unique. Truly, it is one of the most astounding locations you can paddle in and you can’t help but stop and take in the surroundings.

Group putin

Willy showing off the scenery

As we rounded an overhanging bend to the left, the first of many scouts began. We all exited our boats to scout Towers rapid from a rock in the center of the river. This rapid lets you know immediately what you have just gotten yourself into. The majority of the rocks in the river are undercut in bad directions, and the lines usually involve very precise boofs into moving water, followed by a definite need to stay upright and keep paddling. In this situation only three of the seven members of our crew decided to run the main line, Jeff Macklin, Mike Bailey, and myself (Jason Hilton), while the rest opted for the river right line, which involves the dodging of a decapitation rock as you boat through a narrow shoot. All lines ended well, and it was time to face the maker we had stared at hours ago from a mile away.

Mike bottom of Towers

When you get to Fist, it is very clear. People are out on river left, walking without even a scout, and a large rock that does a very poor job of hiding a water-swallowing cave looms in the distance. The group immediately leapt from the water and began the scout. I had come to the river expecting to creek down the left side and hairy ferry in front of the Fist cave, but the more I looked at the rapid, I figured I was likely risking my life just as much by just firing down the main line so why scrape the plastic off of the boat (as I have a tendency to trash my boats in this way anyway). Willy demonstrated the main line and Mike and I both went up for the run, while others setup to take pictures and the like. I have to admit, this one made me more nervous than most. Something about watching more than half of the water disappear under a rock I was going to travel at speed immediately to the right of can do that to you, but I went back to Kayaking 101 and figured I would lock my vision on the five foot channel of water that passes by the Fist and off I went. At the bottom of this rapid, a collective sigh of relief goes out as every person gets by.

Willy @ Fist

Mike next to the Fist cave

These cliffs are everywhere

From here we ran Maze, which is a nice reminder of the boulder rapids from home only with large undercuts everywhere, and on through Triple Drop, after a brief scout from river left. More boofs, ferries, and undercut dodging brought us to the elegantly named El Horrendo. This rapid is much bigger than the others on the river, includes some undercuts on river right at the bottom, and one of the biggest holes I have ever seen on a creek run. And the best part, the line involves you hucking yourself into said hole and hoping you will come out on the other side. We stopped to shoot some video, and the hucks began. Everyone had decent lines through “the horrendous,” and Willy and I walked back up to huck again. There is something very interesting that happens when you release yourself to the river’s mercy as you fire off a launch pad and into a giant hole. I haven’t quite come up with the words to describe it, but it feels like a chosen release of control in a situation where control is imperative. Those of you who have run Sweets Falls on the Upper Gauley have some understanding of what I mean as you plunge over the lip and into the hole at the bottom.

Jason @ 3rd Drop

Troy @ 3rd Drop

Bob @ El Horrendo

From here we continued to boof, dodge, and eddy catch our way to Climax, a neat eight footer into a very tight box with an ominous rock to avoid on river right in the exit. One last big boof and it was over, boogie water to the takeout, drinks by the campfire, and elation of having finally knocked out this spectacular river. Sunday saw another run through the gorge, equal success, and the long drive home. Big thanks to Willy Witt for putting this trip together and for great lines both days, you’re the man!

Jason glad to be done

End of the Fork

More photos cane be found here