The Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River is one mean, determined stream. In the region of the country where John Henry bored railroad tunnels through mountains with his hands, the Russell Fork did the same to Pine Mountain.
In the deep past, the Russell Fork breached Pine Mountain through a fault and carved a large horseshoe-shaped canyon right through it, the deepest east of the Mississippi River. The Russell Fork’s assault on 125-mile long Pine Mountain, now called Breaks Canyon, forms the mountain’s northern end.
This geologic fight between river and mountain is preserved within the 4,600-acre Breaks Interstate Park, a joint state park between Kentucky and Virginia created in 1954.
The Russell Fork’s tussle with Pine Mountain left behind huge sandstone boulders in the bottom of Breaks Canyon, forming some of the most dangerous and challenging rapids in southeastern United States. The gradient in Breaks Canyon approaches a stunning 180 feet per mile.
While Class V to borderline Class VI whitewater in Breaks Canyon is only for world class kayakers with extreme skills, the Russell Fork offers two floats that normal kayakers can enjoy. They may also catch some rainbow trout or smallmouth bass.
The Breaks Interstate Park is the perfect headquarters for a fall weekend of floating, fishing, hiking and scenic grandeur as inspiring as anything found out West.
The best water levels for both of these floats range from 200 to 1500 cfs (cubic feet per second) on the Bartlick, VA gauge on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Huntington District whitewater pages at www.lrh-wc.usace.army.mil/wc/whitewater.html.
The river upstream of the Russell Forks’ dangerous section flows through Virginia and gives the paddler three lengths of floats. Intermediate paddlers should enjoy this stretch as it contains several Class II to Class III rapids. The best put-in is just downstream of the confluence of the Pound and Russell Fork rivers at Bartlick, VA on VA 611 via VA 80 from Breaks Interstate Park. This float makes a 2.5 mile, half day trip. You can add nearly 3 miles to this float by launching in Haysi, VA at a parking area near the Kiwanis Park.
Some paddlers put in at the Flanagan Dam access off VA 729 via VA 611 just past Bartlick. This adds over a mile to the float, but makes for a much longer shuttle to the take-out at the Garden Hole Access off VA 80, just south of the park. The 1-mile gravel road to the Garden Hole is extremely steep in spots, especially the last quarter mile. A four-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended. Floaters should also heed the sign at the entrance to the Garden Hole Access for closure times.
A splashdam left over from the days of harvesting timber will impede those coming from Haysi or Flanagan Dam or boaters who put in above the VA 611 bridge over the Russell Fork. Run this dangerous obstruction on the right (looking downstream) or portage it. The splashdam runs across the river underneath the VA 611 bridge, so those doing the Bartlick to Garden Hole float can just launch downstream of it.
The first major rapid on this stretch is at the railroad trestle over Russell Fork and should be run on the right. The largest rapid on this section, the aptly named Twenty Stitches, should be scouted on the right as it changes with different water levels. The next rapid, Johnny Rock, is long and should be run on the right as well. After a long, slow hole, the take-out at Garden Hole is on the right. Once the geologic formation known as The Tower comes into view on your left, you are close to the take-out. Do not miss this take-out or you will be committed to the extremely dangerous 4-mile Breaks Canyon run. Kayakers with world-class skills have lost their lives on this stretch in just the last decade.
The second float begins at the Ratliff Hole River Access (also known as Potters Ford) off KY 80, a short distance south of Elkhorn City, KY. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources stocks trout here in April, May and October. The take-out is at the Elkhorn City Waterfront Park in downtown Elkhorn City on your left. You’ve arrived at the take-out when you see a derelict, rusty bridge with a new concrete one just downstream. Elkhorn City provides a small parking area off Russell Street. You may drive down a gravel road to the riverbank and retrieve boats.
This nearly 3-mile run presents the paddler with stunning bluffs that can make you seem rather small in comparison. It may be the most scenic float in Kentucky. The main rapid on this stretch is called the Meatgrinder, awaiting paddlers just downstream of the high railroad trestle. Run this rapid on the right.
During times of low water, paddlers may want to use the Carson Island Access via Carson Island Road off KY 80, just east of Ellkhorn City. The Russell Fork from Carson Island Access to Elkhorn City holds many shallow shoals, causing canoes and kayaks to drag bottom at low water. The float from Ratliff Hole River Access to Carson Island Access is roughly two hours, much shorter than floating into Elkhorn City.
This section of the Russell Fork lies completely in Kentucky and offers good fishing for rainbow trout and smallmouth bass. In mountainous streams such as the Russell Fork, smallmouth bass favor lures with some flash that mimic baitfish such as an in-line spinner or a chrome minnow-shaped crankbait. These lures are especially effective in the Russell Fork because the stocked rainbow trout also love them.
A chrome or white topwater propeller bait also works well from mid-spring to mid-fall. Russell Fork smallmouth also strike shad-shaped soft plastic swimbaits rigged on a 1/8-ounce leadheads. Switch to a heavier head if the water is up a bit.
Smallmouth bass migrate to deeper holes with less current in fall as water temperatures cool from the longer nights and shorter days. Target the deeper boulder-strewn holes in the Russell Fork at this time of year. Smallmouth will lay in wait in the roiling water just downstream of a submerged boulder and crush baitfish. They also hide behind partially submerged rocks and ambush unsuspecting prey.
The Breaks Interstate Park offers excellent accommodations ranging from luxury lake side cabins to lodge rooms with scenic views, as well as cottages. Campgrounds are also available in the park as well as two fishing lakes. Visitors can fill up their bellies at Rhododendron Restaurant.
Kentucky Whitewater offers guided rafting trips on the upper and lower Russell Fork. It does not offer trips on the dangerous Breaks Canyon section.
Click here for a detailed map.
Breaks Interstate Park: