The month of May signals that spring sweet spot when there are lots of outdoor activities from which to choose. At this point, we can all agree: We’ve paid our winter blues dues, don’t you think? Out of the many spring events happening in Prestonsburg, make sure to add Levisa Fork Paddlefest to your calendar.
On the fourth Saturday of each month from May to September, kayakers and canoers convene at Combs Airport and River Park behind Billy Ray’s Restaurant in downtown Prestonsburg. It is here they catch a wave on the Levisa Fork River and make the serene 8-16 mile trek toward stream. It is the perfect opportunity to take in the breathtaking scenery that continues to draw so many adventurers to our town.
When Les Stapleton’s term as mayor began in January 2015, he saw the need to re-energize Prestonsburg’s economy through tourism. He knew more creative ways to promote local resources and draw outdoor enthusiasts would be a game changer for the town.
“Two things they can never take from us is the natural beauty and the natural terrain. We just had to activate people,” Stapleton said. Thus, the Levisa Fork Paddlefest event was put into motion, and a clean-up of the river was ordered.
Paddlefest is now in its ninth year and has steadily grown, drawing up to 100 boats each month from Prestonsburg and surrounding areas. One of the advantages of the Levisa Fork River is its slow-moving, gentle-flowing nature. It is easily navigable for families and beginners, but still enjoyable for experienced paddlers looking for a leisurely, scenic trek.
If you’re just getting your feet wet as a kayaker, it provides a great opportunity to strengthen your technique and get your bearings on the water with its calm riffles and easy floating conditions.
The Prestonsburg progression
The Levisa Fork Paddlefest has significant local support. It is a family-friendly event that connects Prestonsburg residents to the community they want to see thrive.
Life-long Prestonsburg residents Joe and Tiffany Campbell have been kayakers for the last eight years and have participated in Levisa Fork Paddlefest since the beginning. Joe is the Executive Director for the Mountain Arts Center. He supports the strides Prestonsburg continues to make as a community. Watching the town embrace its abundant resources, for him, is a matter of pride.
“So, it’s been really cool in the last 10 or 12 years to see this progression, you know, things popping up like that — outdoors, recreation in Prestonsburg — because I grew up here and, you know, I’ve seen a lot of changes for the good,” Joe said.
Over the course of the last decade, Joe has seen the expansion of hiking trails in Jenny Wiley State Resort and Park, and the creation of the Sugarcamp Mountain Trails and Prestonsburg Passage, Levisa Fork River clean-up and Levisa Fork Paddlefest.
He enjoys the opportunity to explore the town where he grew up, now that more hiking trails and paddling options are available. It helps that he can stay close to home instead of making a trip elsewhere in the region.
“It’s really, really good because before that we’d have to go to Red River Gorge or Pine Mountain Trail,” he said. “Both of those are an hour, hour-and-a-half away, for any kind of trails or camping. And, I mean, kayaking, that was either in central Kentucky or Tennessee or North Carolina.”
They have floated the entire previous 16.4 miles to Paintsville, though the current route of half the distance to Combs Airport is a happy medium for Joe and his wife now that they have a 5-year-old daughter.
“It is perfect because you put [your kayak] in right downtown,” he said. “You can drop your kayak off, go and have breakfast and coffee, and then head to Combs Airport to start the event. And once you get, shoot, 500 yards — not even that far down the river — you feel like you’re out of the city and it’s very serene. You get out 8 miles down there and you’re right back out there with convenient places all around you.”
Another plus of paddling in Prestonsburg? You get the best of both worlds. Paddlefest’s starting location in the city center is convenient, and within minutes you are surrounded by quiet wilderness and “beautiful scenery,” Joe said.
“You go under bridges and you’re next to roads for part of it, but you don’t realize it. Just the quietness, and everything is green around you from June until early September. They’ve done a good job cleaning the river up. It’s really nice — a nice getaway for a few hours to float.”
Though they weren’t able to get out on the river much last year, Joe and his wife plan to hit the water this summer. They have casually looked at tandem kayaks that hold up to two people, just in case their daughter wants to eventually take part in the family tradition.
“I think a lot of things have lined up in recent years … and I’m thrilled to be a part of it, really thrilled. I love the Mountain Arts Center and love Prestonsburg and it’s really cool. There are a lot of things happening and there are a lot of people in the right place at the right time, it seems to be.”
Where to float your boat
Levisa Fork Paddlefest will take place this year (2023) on May 27, June 24, July 22, August 26 and September 23.
Your journey begins in the River Park located down the hill behind Billy Ray’s Restaurant, 101 N. Front St., in downtown Prestonsburg to drop-off watercrafts. You’ll then register at Combs Airport (381 Airport Drive), where shuttles will transport you to the starting line. Free parking is available to participants.
Registration is $15, and not only includes a tasty lunch after your river trek but also a convenient shuttle service from your vehicle to the starting line. Registration opens at 8:00 a.m. at Combs Airport; all participants must be registered by 8:45am. Launch time is 9:00 a.m. The 8-mile trip usually takes anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on how fast the river flows that day.
You can bring your own kayak or canoe, or rent everything you need from local outfitters Pro-Fitness or Jenny Wiley State Resort & Park Marina for $35. Pro-Fitness will deliver rental equipment directly to the river launch location, which includes your watercraft, paddle, and life jacket. Make a reservation ahead of time to ensure you have the necessary equipment reserved.
Paddlefest is a yearly event that is co-hosted by Prestonsburg Tourism Commission and Paintsville Tourism with the support of the Prestonsburg Fire Department and Prestonsburg Parks.