The North Fork Championship is perhaps the event that best showcases the sport of whitewater kayaking; simply because it’s more than a race, and kayaking is more than a sport, it’s an attitude, a mindset, a community and a lifestyle. Of course the “Jake’s” race on the class V+ Jacob’s Ladder section of the North Fork Payette is what’s most hyped up, but what makes the North Fork Championship so much fun, whether you’re there to just paddle for fun or to race, is the connectivity of ridiculously entertaining moments lived on and off the water during the four day event. If you have never attended, think no more and book your weekend for next year. In the meantime, here is a little taste of how RAD this year’s NFC VII was!
The official event starts on Thursday, but most athletes arrive earlier to get use to the rather uncommon whitewater features present on this river. It’s also a moment where some of the best paddlers on the planet emerge from the four corners of the globe to reconnect with their whitewater community.
“Otter slide” is a strategic campsite located on the lower five miles of the river. Little by little, the place fills up and a happy mass swamps the campsites in the evening. Idaho’s whether is quite perfect, so everybody hangs out in board shorts and flip-flops until the sun goes down, and beyond. In the mornings, after 10 am, the campsite empties as the whole tribe migrates to the river, most likely to run a “T to B” (top to bottom). Fifteen miles of world class whitewater; steep, road-side, no flat water, just fun. Two hours of paddling for a five minute shuttle, that’s hard to beat!
During the descent, kayakers get the chance to paddle “S Turn” and “Jacob’s Ladder”, the Expert Division and the Elite Division race courses. So you may be thinking “if the races are on those two rapids, why paddle the whole river and not just train on those two rapids?” The answer is simple, it’s too good to miss out on! Also, the whitewater on the North Fork is so sporadic and unpredictable, that to really perform well on race day you can’t just plan where and how you will put your paddle strokes. You have to know the character of the river, and train yourself to react fast to its unpredictable behavior.
In fact, the North Fork is not the only river to paddle in the area. The South Fork and Middle Fork of the Payette both offer incredible kayak runs for intermediate and beginner paddlers, which is a huge plus since not everyone paddles at the same level, yet we all like to paddle together right?! A big advantage to paddling at the Payette River is there is something for everyone; you can paddle class V “stouts” in the morning with your buddies, have a bonding moment with your dad paddling a class III fun section right after lunch, then teach your friend how to paddle in the evening, and everyone has fun!
Kokatat, beyond making extremely durable and stylish kayaking gear, is also a proud sponsor of the North Fork Championship and the official sponsor of the Expert Division race, which is also the qualifier for the Main Event race on Jacob’s Ladder. Why the qualifier? The Kokatat qualifier kicks off the North Fork Championship and is a really fun day for all. It’s a downriver sprint through class IV/V whitewater and is open to any expert paddler that feels confident to race on that section of the North Fork. Everyone gets to race in the qualifier event, even the athletes that already pre-qualified for the Elite Division in the Main Event – these are the top ten placements from the previous year’s main event plus ten applicants that were voted in to the Elite Division by the top 10 placements. The Elite Division must race the Expert course to obtain a time for their placement in the Main Event. And for those that haven’t yet qualified, if you paddle hard enough your dreams of racing on Jake’s might come true, as the top ten finishers will be called the Wild Cards and will receive an invitation to compete in the Elite Division for the Main Event. This Expert Division race gives the lesser known or young up and coming paddlers the chance to earn a wild card to race on the hardest course of the year!
The qualifier race is about 2 minutes long through the class IV/V “S Turn” section on the North Fork of the Payette. It’s challenging because there are so many lines on that rapid that it’s hard to know which one is the fastest. The format is very smooth; there is no set order so the racers can start whenever they are ready. The racers wear timing chips and the time will start and stop when racers pass under the Kokatat gates at the top of S Turn and at the eddy at the bottom. Then your time shows up to the millisecond on the results. Some people choose to follow a friend down the race course, others go on their own, but in either case the show is there to keep spectators highly entertained.
The events kick off around 9 am with the racers checking in to get their race packet, then everyone gathers under the Kokatat tent for a free breakfast and coffee. At 10 am the competitors meeting takes place to make sure everybody knows the safety rules. At 11 am the race begins and the kayakers have one chance to make the fastest time. The top 10 Expert Division finishers receive an invitation to race on Saturday in the Main Event on Jake’s. For the Elite Division racers that are already in Jake’s, it’s still important to go fast as their times will define their placement for the Main Event. The top 35 racers in the Expert Division will also have eligibility to race in the North Face BoaterX on Friday with the Elite.
Once everybody is finished racing, the whole crowd gathers for a group picture and it’s time to head to the city of Boise for the Whitewater Awards! Suspense is on, as the results of today’s race will only be revealed that evening in the heat of the crowed Egyptian Theater.
Every year the Whitewater Awards bring kayakers and the people of Boise to cheerfully applause the most epic media created by the world of kayaking, but first let’s hear the result of the Kokatat Expert Division/Qualifier race! The top ten of the day are announced and invited on stage to be introduced to the public. Alec Voorhees has the fastest time of the day, followed by Matej Holub and Gerd Serrasolses. Sheer happiness is visible on the faces of the people that are now qualified for Jake’s, but an important decision awaits them: to party or not- celebrate today’s win or save your energy for the big races that follow over the next two days…
The Whitewater Awards are peer voted by a group of nearly 200 of the world’s most elite whitewater kayakers, to honor, celebrate, and expose the incredible talent in cinematography, photography and athleticism within the sport. There are many categories and each of them will honor the winners and invite them on stage to say a few words.
The show is dynamic, fun and very impressive. In less than an hour, the public was able to travel to all the continents, see some of the best whitewater pictures taken throughout the year, witness the incredible resilience of expedition kayakers as they venture into the remote corners of the world, and discover the most amusing kayak short films ever produced. In my opinion the most impressive this year were the clips of Aniol Serrasolses line’s on Scott’s Drop in California, alongside the teaser of “Legacy” - the incredible resilience story of Scott Lindgren, produced by River Roots. This is how the whole definition of “kayaking” is brought to the public, by simple and powerful words and images.
On top of that, needless to say that beer is flowing and everybody gets really fired up to party with their old and new friends. The “Egyptian” can pack over 1000 people, and everyone emerged from the evening’s event with a huge smile. There again, the North Fork Championship managed to provide entertainment for participants from all ends of the spectrum. Coincidentally, as the theater closes it’s door for the night, the downtown Boise bars, opens theirs…So, let’s leave to the imagination what happened with the rest of the night!
Boater cross races are always a crowd pleaser. It’s unusual in kayaking to be with so many people on the water, and it changes the game. You are no longer just challenged by the river, but also by your peers; it’s not only about getting the cleanest and fastest line, but also how to strategically position yourself amongst a battling crew of paddlers. The BoaterX race is also on “S Turn”, which adds to the challenge because now everyone knows the course quite well after the Kokatat Qualifier.
In order to give participants and spectators time to clean up their game after the Whitewater Awards, the race doesn’t start until 3 PM, which is great planning! By mid-afternoon, the racers have gathered and the Safety team explains the rules once again. Its show time once again! Teams of six race down S Turn rapid, and only the top two in each heat advance to the next heat, with a final heat of the top 6! The show is thrilling, and in some cases paddlers get taken out of the game at the finish line, just as they thought they had made it.
At the end of the BoaterX race, everyone heads to the town of Crouch – one of the greatest small towns in Idaho, kind enough to open its public park to the event. This is where the event festival takes place with Vendor booths and camping for all. All the influential companies in the whitewater industry set up their booths in a big circle around the main stage. Crowds roam the booths to check out the displayed products and novelties. As the sun is setting, live bands animate the ambiance while everyone gets ready for the next day: The Main Event on Jake’s.
The weather forecast for the big day was cloudy, but the extremely positive energy of the event didn’t block the sunshine. By 8am, the campsite swarmed with activity; racers stretching and warming up, like Warriors getting ready for battle, and spectators gathering all their supplies needed for the length the show. The Athletes and event organizers made their way to the “Dirty Shame” (a local restaurant and bar) which provided a hearty breakfast for the competitors. All sat down in a friendly vibe, chatting about what line they would take, who would win, and who to bet on…etc.
One great fact about the race on Jake’s is that there is strictly no way to rationally predict a win. In fact, the winner will not necessary be the best, most precise paddler, but the one who can manage to reach a flawless head game, drop the pressure and just deliver a smooth, stress-free run. Let’s put it this way, any of the paddlers selected to race could take the win, it’s just a matter of how well you can deal with the unpredictable and unforgiving character of the North Fork during one of the two runs.
After the preparation, competitors load up in a big school bus towing a trailer full with their kayaks. There is no more thrilling moment than riding all together towards the battle field. In the end, no one is here to compete against each other, but rather to each give our best, for the public, and the river.
Everyone is a little nervous, but also very enthusiastic about today’s challenge. It’s not every day you get to race in front of so many spectators; and for kayakers that spend most of their lives in remote areas or just bumming at the local campground with a bunch of dudes, today’s level of attention is enough to spark an unusual energy. The North Fork Championship makes paddlers feel like they are super stars!
One of the highway lanes was blocked at the event site, giving extra space and safety for the crowds. The area was packed with sponsors and vendors tents, and huge crowds. The diversity of spectators was amazing; from babies to grandparents, everyone was here to cheer on their favorite kayaker. It was quite something to see, that most of the competitor’s parents were actually here, and that the event is a gathering rather than just a race.
The Main Event is a giant slalom race comprised of seven gates through Jacob’s Ladder and Golf Course’s class V+ whitewater. The race is timed and if the racer hits a gate they will face a five second penalty, and missed gates will add fifty seconds to their final time. Athletes get two runs, and the better time will be kept for their final score. The racers charge off the Red Bull ramp above Jake’s to initiate the start of their run, and continue through the end of Golf Course and the last gate where their time will end. The racer who gets the fastest time through the course will be crowned King of the North Fork Championship.
Towards the Red Bull ramp, racers are getting ready to drop in for their practice lap, and all the attention becomes directed towards the rapid. For paddlers, the practice run is always a challenge because if you do too well, chances of repeating during the race are slim. Once everyone has had one practice lap and the logistics for the race are set, it’s time to get at it.
One of the most difficult parts of this slalom course is to actually make gates one and two on “rodeo hole”. This move will be missed by a large number of paddlers, and will be the cause of great frustration for those who miss it on both runs. For the spectator, however, it’s awesome! If a paddler makes the first move, the crowd cheers harder, hoping to see the winning run occur before their eyes, but wait, it’s far from being over.
After that comes rock drop, where 2 upstream gates challenge the paddlers with moves straight out of the slalom Olympics, but through a class V rapid. The first one on river left is fast and punchy, but you have to slow down quick for an incredibly hard ferry to the other side. If you miss that ferry it’s over. The eddy on river right is small, and if you blow it there is no way to come back up.
Then follows another move on “Taffy Puller”. This year the organizers choose to put an upstream gate on river left. Easy looking, but hard to get to. In the chaos leading to the gate, it’s very frequent to clip a rock that will send you off line. After that one last move to make, but at this point most of the paddlers are already tired and the muscles are struggling to respond to the excruciating effort needed to cross the river and make the last eddy turn. It’s not unusual to see racers stuck for over 5 second near the gate, struggling with all their strength to pass above the gate and back into the flow. A quick left draw on “Oceana” then shoots you river left, close to the rocks. That’s when your almost there but everything can still go wrong. Then comes the final sprint.
During the race, everyone watching would notice the fast pace of Aniol and Gerd Serrasolses, and Dane Jackson. It was clear that these three were on another level, but who would win and be crowned the King of the NFC?? That is a question to be answered later, because now it is Stoke Float time!
Stoke Float is something that is perhaps the soul of the North Fork Championship, where everyone gets on the water and celebrates life and rivers. Any kayaker, racer or not, young or old, who is confident kayaking the North Fork Payette can join this mob at any time. This is a time for the paddlers of this generation to give respect and attention to the ones who came before us and lost their lives on this, and other powerful rivers. This is also a chance for all paddlers to finish up the competition aspect of the weekend, and stoke the celebration part!
Back in Crouch, things are starting to look like a party! James and Regan Byrd, the amazing organizers of the NFC event, are on the mic giving big shout outs to all the partners that make this incredible weekend possible. People are stoked, and ready to party, but first let’s hear the results!
Top ten is stacked, with spaces between some of the racers inferior to a half second. Team Kokatat’s paddlers are on the stage, with Evan Moore in 6th and Pedro Astorga in 10th. Jules Domine nearly made it but finished 11th.
Now comes the podium…. And what a surprise! Dane Jackson, 2-time consecutive winner of NFC V and VI takes a 3rd place finish at this years NFC VII. Second place goes to Gerd Serrasolses, and a new champion is crowned with Aniol Serrasolses taking 1st place and being crowned King of the North Fork Championship!
Now there will be a party, and an effervescence of joy and friendship takes over the whole valley…
See you all next year for the most epic week-end of the year!
Check all the results
simply because it’s more than a race, and kayaking is more than a sport, it’s an attitude, a mindset, a community and a lifestyle.