"Not only is this race difficult and competitive but dangerous," its co-creator says
The race involves 30 of the best whitewater kayakers in the world negotiating a course of explosive rapids
“Fit Nation: Around the World in 8 Races” will air three times on Saturday, August 25, between 1 and 6 p.m. ET and one time between 5 and 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, August 26.
Humans can’t live without water. We drink it. We bathe in it. We use it for transportation. We marvel at it. And we play in it.
But unaided, we don’t live very long under it. Water can kill as easily as it can clean. Trapped or unconscious under the surface is game over. Which means that a kayak race, especially in expert-class rapids, is flirting with disaster in a way foot or bike races rarely do. (There’s a reason swimming is always the first leg of a triathlon.)
I don’t know if that makes the folks competing in the North Fork Championship kayak race – held annually in a turbulent snake of river about an hour north of Boise, Idaho – more brave or foolhardy than other athletes, but it means the attention and precision they bring to their sport is as much about speed and agility as it is about survival.
“It’s different than other sports,” said James Byrd, who created the race along with his wife, Regan. “Not only is this race difficult and competitive but dangerous. You are there to do the best you can, but you are also trying to stay safe. [The athletes] are not OK until they are off the river. That adds a whole other layer of energy to the sport.”
There are a number of subjective superlatives that the close-knit and supportive whitewater kayak community uses to describe the North Fork Championship, which ran for the seventh time this year: the most competitive, the most challenging, the most difficult, the most dangerous, the best, the hardest, the gnarliest. But what the community agrees on is that due to the technical level of the natural course and the unique way competitors earn a spot in it, all whitewater kayak competitors in the world want to win – or at least join – this particular race.
Like any epic character, the race itself has an interesting origin story. Byrd moved to Boise for a job in nursing because the area was famous for having the best whitewater rapids in the lower 48. But when an old college football injury kept him off the rivers for a time, he channeled his passion into organizing a race that is international, celebratory and as fun as it is serious.
“The community needed a platform to showcase their skills,” he said.
The spot he and his wife chose was already legendary: Jacob’s Ladder, a kilometer of “expert” class V-plus rapids on the North Fork of the Payette River. Before the first Jake’s, as the race is commonly called, maybe three or four locals a year would bravely run it, usually at high water, when it’s faster but also more insulated from obstacles.
North Fork is known for its sharp rocks, Byrd explained, because blast debris was blown into the river when train tracks and a highway were created on either side. The proximity to road is another advantage to the spot; rarely are world class rapids so easily accessible to spectators.
As for the class V-plus designation, Byrd explained that, based on an the American Whitewater Rapid Classification System, a class VI is very dangerous and often considered unrunable – until someone does it, and then often it becomes a V-plus.
“When we first announced the race, [some people told me] they thought it was too dangerous, too hard,” he said, “But the elite athletes can handle it.”
Rollin’ in the deep
Even before the elites compete, the weekend kicks off with the Whitewater Awards ceremony – think Oscars, but with categories such as “best river steward,” “best line waterfall,” “rider of the year” and “best freestyle trick,” instead of best director. Videos and photos from around the world show these feats of kayaking greatness.
The weekend also includes a popular “boatercross” (a kayak version of motocross) on the Payette in which five heats of six paddlers compete head-to-head and try not to collide before reaching the finish line.
The main event comprises 30 of the best whitewater kayakers in the world negotiating a highly technical slalom course along the explosive rapids of Jacob’s Ladder. The river valley is flanked by more than train tracks and highway; forest-covered mountains in all directions add to the appeal of an outdoor sport that often takes place in the prettiest of places.
Along the course is a party. Hundreds of family, friends and fans find precarious perches along the boulders or are up in chairs overlooking from the roadside. An announcer gives play-by-play, and a DJ spins tunes at the start of the race.
It’s easy to spot the starting line, because it’s a giant slide. The kayakers take turns chuting down a 29-foot ramp leading to a 10-foot drop into the water – at which point there is no turning back.
“It feels like when you’re in an airplane and it takes off, and it presses you against the back of your seat,” said Byrd, who helped build the ramp, along with his brothers and dad.
The swift current soon pulls the racer into a frenzied route of waves, falls and eddies. “Irregular” and “explosive” are how Byrd describes these particular rapids. At some points along the course, it’s so turbulent that views of the colorful kayaks themselves are erased in the churning white foam cauldron.
The slalom course is a series of seven gates (PVC piping on overhanging wires) that the athletes must go around, either left or right, meaning downstream or upstream. Going against the current, like a salmon with arms, requires furious pumping of limbs while balancing in choppy waves. If they touch the gate, it’s a five-second penalty. If they miss it completely, it’s a 50-second penalty.
As for the rest of the Jake’s, it’s an unceasing series of kinetic explosions. Waterfalls lead into small but powerful whirlpools called holes. Waves wash up into jagged rocks. Flipping over, or “rolling,” is sometimes unavoidable but dangerous, as head injuries can occur in water too rough to see through. And these individual features have been given colorful nicknames that evoke peril, such as “taffy puller.”
“We like to think we’re under control in there,” said one of the finalists, Will Grubb, but to watch it from the sidelines, it looks more like barely controlled chaos.
At its most tumultuous points, the sound of the crashing water is deafening – a whitewater noise machine drowning out even cheers from onlookers just 10 feet away on rocks at the water’s lapping edge.
From start to finish, it takes most of the racers just over two minutes to traverse the 1-kilometer course. This year’s fastest time was one minute and 49 seconds. Last year, the water flow was faster, and the winning time was one minute and seven seconds.
The course ends at the start of the river’s next stretch, called the Golf Course because it’s so full of holes.
The race consists of 30 racers who can use the best time from two attempts. Ten were the top kayakers from the previous year. Ten others were applicants voted in by the first 10 in a process that tends to favor international racers who need to plan further in advance. The final 10 are the top finishers in a qualifying race two days earlier. This year, there were a record 107 kayakers in the qualifier.
This year, all the elite competitors were men. The one woman who entered the competition – Nouria Newman of France – didn’t qualify but has made it in the final race in previous years by qualifying or being voted in. There is diversity in ages, from teens to mid-50s, and geography, with competitors from Germany, France, Mexico, Peru, Canada, Chile, Spain, New Zealand, Russia, the UK and Argentina. Vavřinec Hradilek from the Czech Republic, who won a silver medal in slalom at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, competed at North Fork this year.
In the end, it was Aniol Serrasolses of Spain who took the crown in 2018. In addition to $5,000 in prize money, the winner gets an actual metal crown with his or her name engraved along with those of past winners. Local Alec Voorhees, 21, won the qualifier race; he’s been paddling this stretch of the river since he was 11 years old.
The prize money is the highest in the sport, but the real money is in endorsements, lucrative enough for some paddlers to turn pro. Next year, Byrd is confident the North Fork will also take it to the next level as host of the sport’s world championship.
One paddle in front of the other
For anyone with dreams of North Fork or Olympic fame, whether they are new to the sport or have been paddling since they were a kid, the advice is often the same: more time on rivers.
“A lot of people’s main training regimen is just kayaking as much as possible,” Voorhees said. “You can be the most fit, jacked guy in the gym, but if you’re not comfortable on white water, precise with your technique, it doesn’t really matter how fit you are.”
That said, “if you lift weights, you get faster, stronger and better,” said Byrd, who has whitewater kayaked since he was 9 years old. He’s noticed an evolution in the sport when it comes to conditioning, with pro athletes now working key upper body muscles in the shoulders, forearms and back to build endurance. Not all of them are going to a gym, though; some are doing pullups on three branches, he said.
And when it comes to particular races, getting in as many practice runs as possible is vital as every run is different, even on a race like North Fork, in which the slalom gates change every year. “There’s no training for this race other than on the North Fork, really,” said Grubb, who competed for the first time this year.
Although you can get gear used, there is enough needed that disposable income is a prerequisite for the sport. You need a kayak, obviously – and a whitewater kayak is different from a sea or ocean kayak – which can cost around $1,200 for a competitive one. Then, you need a skirt (the part that creates a seal between rider and seating area), a helmet, paddles, a life jacket, a whistle, a throw bag (for emergency rescue) and, in some rivers and competitions, a dry suit. Of course, the experience is priceless.
Flirting with disaster
People die whitewater kayaking. On the North Fork of the river, it’s about one a year, Byrd estimates. He compares the stakes to another sport. “You wreck skiing, and you can breathe, you’re not moving still,” he said.
Organized races have added safety precautions in addition to mandatory life jackets, including rescue and medical professionals on site. North Fork has an ambulance and hospital helicopter at the ready. “I’m not gonna say it’s super safe,” said one of this year’s elite paddlers, Andy Hobson, “but yeah, it’s as safe as it can be.”
In general, it’s important to gradually build skills before tackling new classes of rapids and use guides or other experienced paddlers to explore new whitewater. Drowning may be a rare worst-case scenario, but back and shoulder injuries are common, too.
In a 2001 analysis of whitewater kayak injuries published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, hitting an object was the most common cause of injury (44%), followed by traumatic stress and overuse (25% each), and the most common types of injury were abrasion, tendinitis, contusion and dislocation. The shoulder was the most commonly injured area. Almost all (96%) of the injured reported a complete or good recovery.
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And despite the risks, kayakers will generally tell you it’s worth it for the thrill and access to nature. “It isn’t for everyone; you’re overcoming fear,” said Byrd, but if you build the skills, it’s “insanely fun.”
It’s also a way to live more attentively and mindfully. “The feeling is just living in the moment right,” Hobson said. “You can’t think about anything else except what’s going on in front of you.”
And then he added, channeling Ferris Bueller: “sometimes life just passes you by really quick, so it’s a beautiful thing to have something that can slow it down.” That’s true even when you’re barreling down rapids.