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The Lord of the Fork

The white water of the Russell Fork is some of the most difficult and dangerous in the country. Every year on the fourth Saturday in October, kayakers come from around the world to test themselves in the Lord of the Fork competition at Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Kentucky and Virginia.

Eight miles of the Russell Fork runs through the park, said Austin Bradley, park superintendent. “It’s just absolutely gorgeous in so many places. It’s one of only a handful of examples of unspoiled Appalachian territory.”

Steven Ruth, liaison for the Elkhorn City Adventure Tourism, said the fork gained its towering reputation among kayakers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“It became known as ‘the beast of the east,’ by far the most dangerous and difficult commercially rafted river in the United States at that time,” said Ruth.

James Stapleton, an environmental biologist, agreed. “In the early days, it was considered nearly impossible,” he said.

Informal kayak races were held for years, but the first officially timed race was in 1996.

Local kayaker Jon Lord gained a reputation as an upper echelon boater. But In 2004, he lost his life on the river. “He’d run the rapids hundreds of times before,” said Stapleton. “I think it’s a numbers thing. The more people going down particular nasty rapids, eventually the odds are going to catch up.”

The race was rechristened “The Lord of the Fork” in honor of Jon Lord. Now the race draws 50 to 60 of the best paddlers in the world.

“In the last five to six years, we’ve had winners from New Zealand, from France, from Great Britain, and from Colorado,” said Ruth.

The kayaking community is close knit, said Bradley, and the kayakers are good stewards of natural resources. Ruth agreed. “It’s not really a sport; it’s a lifestyle for these folks. And it’s certainly a brotherhood and a sisterhood. So it’s special to be part of that.”

Stapleton believes Jon Lord would have loved to see the race as it is today. “Jon would challenge you,” he said. “He was all about the race. So in a sense … Jon will live on. When we paddle the river, Jon lives with us for sure.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2108, which originally aired on February 20, 2016. Watch the full episode.