Bluegrass Wildwater Hosts Annual Beginner’s Kayaking Clinic on Russell Fork
By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
As my “Year of the Paddle” continues, I’ve learned a few things about life on Kentucky rivers. Among the most valuable lessons is this one: When “swimming” in whitewater, keep your feet high and in front of you, and pay attention to the level of your rear-end in the water.
This insight came during the Bluegrass Wildwater Association Beginner’s clinic last month. The annual two-day gathering of whitewater enthusiasts is held at on the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River near Elkhorn City, Ky.
At the northern end of Pine Mountain the river has carved a spectacular 1,600-foot shale and sandstone gorge, which is preserved by the Breaks Interstate Park. The river drops dozens of feet as it makes its way from Flanagan Dam near Haysi, Va. to Elkhorn City, Ky., creating a perfect 16-mile long playground for whitewater boaters of all skill levels.
Expert paddlers, who have both skill and gumption, can tackle the Gorge section with its narrow, technical Class 5+ rapids. Beginners, like myself, can learn on the milder, lower section, which contains only class III rapids. The upper section is a scenic, with class II-III rapids and is a popular rafting run too.
The Russell Fork is truly eastern Kentucky’s premier destination for whitewater, which is why it is one of the BWAs favorite spots to teach newbies.
For less than $100 per person, the clinic includes two days of instruction, meals and snacks, riverside camping, shuttles and lots of entertainment.
BWA organizers rely on its membership to volunteer as kayaking instructors. Volunteers range from weekend warriors with decades of boating experience to professional paddling athletes.
Rivers are wild creations, which are both unpredictable and powerful, meaning whitewater kayaking can be a dangerous sport. It is important to learn and practice proper paddling and rescue techniques. Both are emphasized at the clinic, which matches participants with instructors in small classes based on skill level and experience.
Although I have two decades of padding experience, I’m still a newbie when it comes to whitewater kayaking. The clinic was a perfect chance to practice skills I’ve only tested in calmer waters, and pick up new ones.
For example, when attempting to “peel out” of an eddy into the strong main current at Ratliff Hole, I capsized and could not right myself. Despite having a solid pool and flat-water roll, thanks to BWA pool sessions, I could not get it in live-action whitewater. Instead I practiced my T-rescue.
I proved later, however, that I could successfully navigate my boat in strong currents when I made it through the meanest rapid of the day, Meat Grinder. A class III+ rapid it is a series of drops with a hydraulic feature and strong waves.
I won’t ever forget the rush I felt as I peeled out into the eddy after it, to the cheers of other clinic participants!
Several hundred yards below Meat Grinder it is Pinball. A boulder field, Pinball is described as a “mild class III rapid.” The line our instructors advised us to follow split it up into three sections.
We would catch and exit eddies to right, center and then far right of the river as we made our way through it, meeting an instructor at each stage. This would help us practice our “peeling in and out” skills, they said.
I certainly needed to work on them as evidenced by my earlier mishap. But, I was buoyed by my success at Meat Grinder and confident I could take on Pinball with no trouble.
Rookie mistake. I was the first to try Pinball, and the first to fail and swim. But I wasn’t alone long.
All three paddlers in my class flipped, were unable roll, and made wet-exits from their kayaks. As a result, each of us was tested on our understanding of basic whitewater swimming rules.
It’s been a month, and I can still feel where a rock made contact with my derriere. The next time I take on Pinball, you can bet my hind-end will be floating high on the water or, better yet, I’ll stay in my kayak.
The Breaks Interstate Park is truly a world-class destination for paddling, hiking and climbing. For more information visit www.BreaksPark.com.
Learn more about the Bluegrass Wildwater Association at www.bluegrasswildwater.org