Recently, the Bluegrass Wildwater Association celebrated the non-profit organization’s 25th year of sharing memories on the Russell Fork river, as it held its 2019 Russell Fork Rendezvous.
The four-day festival, which began on Thursday Oct. 24 and lasted until Sunday Oct. 27, was held at the Haysi Kawanis Park in Haysi, Virginia, and featured a weekend full of of camping, paddling, hiking and other fun outdoor activities for boaters from all over. However, only two years ago the fourth weekend in October was celebrated in Elkhorn City, where the festival was held for more than 23 years, according to Bob Larkin, the event’s organizer. But after facing
“harassment” from city police and the mayor, the festival moved relocated to it’s original “home” in Haysi, where Larkin said town officials “rolled out the welcome mat”
The first rendezvous occurred in 1996 in Haysi according to Elkhorn City resident and the person responsible for bringing the rendezvous to the city, Steve Ruth, after a then-Elkhorn City council member told festival officials there wasn’t a “place” for the festival in the city.
“They told them that they didn’t think they had a place for the festival, here in Elkhorn,” Ruth said. “They then went to Haysi and the town immediately hooked them up.”
It remained in Haysi for around five years Ruth said, until the person coordinating the rendezvous had to step away. That’s when Ruth said he was approached by festival officials, who inquired if he was interested in taking over coordinating responsibilities.
“I told them I would be more than happy to do it, but I can’t do it in Haysi, it has to be in Elkhorn,” Ruth said. “They said ‘Well Ok, if you’ve got a place in Elkhorn to do it, then we’ll move it to Elkhorn.’”
The Russell Fork Rendezvous then moved to Elkhorn City where it was held on Carson Island, and thus, the love affair between the city and the kayaking community began.
“We were providing things for boaters to do. There were things in Elkhorn to do,” Ruth said. “We were doing ‘Paddler Appreciation’ events, the rendezvous, we had other events that were happening on the weekend here in the city.
“The love affair going on with the boaters and Elkhorn City, before (Mayor) Mike Taylor got elected, was incredible,” he added.
Ruth said the love affair was so incredible that someone even made “thousands” of “It’s always sunny in Elkhorn City” bumper stickers and he recalls a time when he’d see those placed on the back of vehicles all throughout the area.
“There were thousands of them out there,” Ruth said. “I saw boaters from California with those stickers, I mean people were all over the place with them.
“It was a great thing between the community and Elkhorn City.”
Larkin affirmed that the love affair did in fact exist as he said the city became famous for the way it embraced the kayakers.
“Elkhorn City was really famous for being very kayak-friendly,” Larkin said. “I remember when I first started kayaking they always told me how friendly Elkhorn City was to kayakers and it’s a shame because Elkhorn City is much better suited, as far as location-wise for kayaking.”
The relationship between the City of Elkhorn and the kayaking community who attended the rendezvous began to sour after a dispute arose between the city and the owners of Carson Island, the private property, which hosted the festival. That, he said, created a rift between the owners of island and the city in regards to working together in organizing the event.
“You could just tell the city was losing interest in it or there was some in fighting,” Larkin said. “I’m not exactly sure what was going on because all the proceeds from the festival were going to the Elkhorn City Heritage Council and we always donate to the American White Water (Association).”
According to Larkin, around the upcoming 21st anniversary of the festival, the association found out it was not going to be held.
“They were going to let the festival die,” Larkin said.
Larkin and festival officials had already begun promoting the event as he said the group printed “a ton” of Russell Fork Rendezvous T-shirts that were already selling as quickly as they were made.
“So about a month before the event, we actually found out the city wasn’t going to host it, after I had already sold these shirts,” Larkin said. “I was just like, ‘well we can’t let this die,’ so we got it going and held it at Carson Island.”
The rendezvous remained at Carson Island for three years. However, that third year would be its last according to Larkin.
“On the third year, without any warning, somebody comes down and informs us that there is roadblock set up at the entrance to the festival,” Larkin said. “We were like ‘a roadblock, that’s weird’ and then the city chief of police (Bobby Sexton) comes down there and tells us that they will be conducting walkthroughs, despite the festival being held on private property.
“He said he didn’t care about the private property and that they would be conducting the walkthroughs,” he added.
The next night, police came to the festival to inform them of a noise ordinance, which Larkin said did not exist, and that they would have to “come down and force us to shut down at 10 p.m.”
Larkin said the whole situation blindsided him, as he said the festival had never experienced this prior.
“I was just like, ‘What is all this and where did all this come from?” Larkin said. “So I called the mayor and he apologized and said he had no idea what was going on, but that it would never happen again.
“He did say that there was a noise ordinance, but there was not one,” he added.
The Elkhorn City Clerk’s office told the News-Express in 2017 that there was no noise ordinance for the city at that time. The city would not adopt a noise ordinance until 2018.
According to Larkin, Taylor said the festival would not be shut down the second night, unless a resident made a complaint.
“So 10 p.m. the next night they show back up,” Larkin said. “10:01 p.m. the police are right there and they said they had received a complaint.”
Larkin said he later found out it was the Chief of Police Bobby Sexton who called in the complaint. According to him, Sexton was in Whitesburg at the time and called a complaint in to KSP, who then notified the Elkhorn City PD of the complaint. Police then proceeded to shut the festival down.
“The mayor had actually told me that,” Larkin said. “He said it was the chief of police who called in the complaint.
“You can’t have music festival with a 10 p.m. curfew, it just doesn’t work,” he added.
Larkin said he almost felt like the city was trying to cause an incident, just so they could bring in “state police or whatever.”
“They came in and was like ‘We’re going to shut it down and if anybody gives us a hard time we’re going to bring in the force,’” Larkin said. “I told them the could sit in the parking lot and I would shut it down.”
Larkin said Sexton came up to him and informed him the only reason the festival was having such a rough time was because “this is the first year” and that it “would be easier next year because you’ll be used to it.”
“I said next year the festival will be moved,” Larkin said.
Ruth agreed with Larkin’s description of the events leading towards the relocation of the festival but added his own thoughts.
“The bottom line is the mayor ran them off,” Ruth said. “There’s no other way around it, the mayor ran them off. We can talk about the police, but the police do what the mayor tells them to do.
“The mayor ran them off and then lied to their face about it,” he added.
According to Ruth, when the festival was held in Elkhorn City from 2004 to 2017 there were never any issues from locals and that, to his knowledge, there was only one arrest that occurred during that time and it was from a local to the city, who Ruth said he called on himself.
“We didn’t have people raising hell over this stuff going on,” Ruth said. “We didn’t have people complaining about boaters in town, until Mike Taylor got elected. And from that day, all of a sudden the boaters were a problem according to Mike.”
Ruth said its sad because the BWA would like to hold the rendezvous in Elkhorn City for a number of reasons but the biggest one, according to him, “location is everything.” And having the festival in Elkhorn allows the kayakers easy access to their true love, the Russell Fork. However, he said Taylor didn’t care about those matters.
“The mayor decided he didn’t want it in Elkhorn anymore,” Ruth said. “And he made sure it didn’t happen in Elkhorn anymore,”
“And you can quote me directly on that,” he added.
Shortly after the problems in Elkhorn City, Larkin said, festival officials began searching for a new venue. That’s when he said the Kiwanis Club in Haysi, Virginia, reached out and requested the group visit their park grounds, as the Kiwanis Club was interested bring the Russell Fork Rendezvous back to its original home of Haysi.
“We came up and looked at it, but I told them that we’ve been down in Elkhorn City and we support the community so we’re not going to move the festival,” Larkin said. “But the mayor of Elkhorn made that decision to move the festival extremely easy.”
According to Larkin, the Town of Haysi and Mayor Larry Yates welcomed the kayaking community with open arms.
“Just to give you an example of the type of welcome we’ve had here,” Larkin said. “I called Haysi’s mayor because I was looking for firewood. The day of the event, he said ‘don’t worry, I’ll find you some firewood,’ next thing I know I get a call from the front gate telling me there’s two dump-trucks filled with wood looking for you.
“So they dropped the wood off and told us it was free of charge,” he added.
Larkin said the locals were also extremely welcoming as well, something the BWA tries to in turn reciprocate to the community that according to him, “basically swooped in” and helped save the rendezvous. Larkin said the group “tries to support the communities that support us.” In doing so, the group only purchases from businesses within a 25 mile radius of the festival. The festival also allows local vendors which feature artists and craftsmen from the area to setup at the campground free of vending space and is given given free access to the festival.
“Anyone in the community has ample opportunity to come out benefit,” Larkin said.
According to Larkin, the park includes two stages, restrooms, showers and ample room for camping and parking, which has been “great” for trying to grow the festival.
“Even though the festival was on the verge of dying, we knew we wanted to build it back to its roots because we used to have thousands show up to this event,” Larkin said. “And with the support from the town of Haysi and the Kiwanis Club here, I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Yates said the town is 100 percent supportive of adventure tourism and is happy to help, along with the Kiwanis Club, the festival grow.
“I do think it’s a benefit for not only the Haysi Kiwanis Club but our town as well,” Yates said. From my understanding they saw around 500 people attend the Russell Fork Rendezvous this year and I know we saw vehicles from all over the country.”
Since the rendezvous returned to Haysi Yates said the chief of police and the rest of the towns PD have had zero problems from the kayaking community.
“The chief of police and all of his officers all report to me and they haven’t reported any problems from the folks who attend the rendezvous,” Yates said.
From a business standpoint, Yates said, he has reached out to a number of businesses this week following the rendezvous and after speaking to “about three of four” people who own their own business in the town he’s heard nothing but great things.
“I’ve got nothing but reports,” Yates said. “They saw an increase in retail sales, increase in food and gas, all the way across the board.”
Yates said that businesses reported anywhere from a 5 percent increase to a 15 percent increase for the weekend.
After losing the festival in 2017, Tony K. Tackett told the News-Express that losing any event in the area is worrisome and that the impact could be detrimental.
Tackett said 50 percent of visitors will purchase cigarettes and fuel during the course of their time at a festival or event.
“Those people eat three meals per day, whether it’s a sandwich from the gas station or a full-course meal from the deli of the Velocity Market,” he said.
He said that on average, a person will spend $25 per day, excluding fuel and other purchases.
“When you take 200 times $25, to a small community, to a mom-and-pop store, that is dessert with any steak,” said Tackett. “That’s what we have to remember because, it’s those mom-and-pops that we’re feeding business to that sustains them.”
Tackett said growing events in the area are forms of economic development, and are another way for the community to bounce back from the loss of coal jobs, something the area is still trying to navigate today.
Recently, a number of Elkhorn City residents signed a petition to have a wet/dry vote on the ballot of the Nov. 5 election next week. Some have said alcohol sales are a way to possibly trying to generate revenue, while also pushing the area to be more of a “tourism destination.” Something to which, Taylor has said at a past council meeting he was in support of tourism “as long as it didn’t come with alcohol.”
Taylor declined to comment on the Russell Fork Rendezvous issue.