Russell Fork Gorge

This past weekend I made a trip up to Kentucky to kayak the whitewater gorge section of the Russell Fork River. I’ve heard people refer to it as the Grand Canyon of the East, and it does not disappoint. Running the river in a kayak may actually be easier than finding a road to this remote section of the southeast. The closest town is Elkhorn City, Kentucky or Haysi, Virginia. The river put-in is actually in Virginia, and the take-out is in Kentucky. The main obstacle to getting there is finding the shortest pass over the Appalachian mountains that run down the border between the two states. Millions of years ago the African continental plate “bumped” up against the North American continental plate to create the Appalachian mountain range. The range was as large or maybe even larger than the present-day Himalayas. After the African continent split apart and moved to its place on the earth today, the Appalachians eroded due to wind and ran and glaciers down to what we see today. But this created the 6 hour drive to the gorge as well. The drive is worth every minute. The steep mountains surround valleys that have been transformed through family generations into farmland. These valleys are full of nutrient rich topsoil that has been eroded from the tops of the mountains, and the rivers that my friends and me kayak bring these nutrients down from the peaks. After we make the first pass, it is obvious that coal mining is king here. Even the roadside cliffs show exposed striations of the black gold that brought most of the families to this remote area of the country. Most of the roads follow rivers through the mountains but on a couple of occasions we are forced to go up and over. Once we start approaching the Russell Fork gorge, the landscape starts to change. The road no longer follows a small river in a flatten out valley. We are driving along drop of cliffs on one side of the car and gorge walls on the other. A winding dirt road takes us to the put-in. The trees were in peak for the fall colors. Gold leaves dominated the landscape, and there were reds scattered throughout area as well. The first 3-4 miles of the river is a relaxing but great prep run through some Class 3 rapids. Many flat sections followed by 100 yard rapid sections. This was when we got our first glimpse of how the river has formed this gorge. Layers of sedimentary rock were exposed to show the geologic history of the place, but there were also igneous intrusions that had refused to erode. These left behind huge cliffs or chimneys that stretched up towards the sky. Most of the igneous rock looked to be made up of  mafic material. The sedimentary layers looked to have been under enormous pressure at some time. The layers looked like waves on some of the river’s walls. As we approached the Class V section of the gorge, the river got steeper and the walls did too.

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One Response to Russell Fork Gorge

  1. jessicatibbs says:

    It’s amazing how when you’re just out having fun, you start looking at the different geological aspects of the area. And now we can actually pinpoint some things about the area. Especially how this area was formed (through the colliding plates) and the layers of rock that form it. But it sounds like it was a beautiful scenery.

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