‘The Safest Most Dangerous Race in the World’
Photo: Matt Fields-Johnson
(Ed’s note: This story was first published in the July 2010 edition of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.)
Eyes focused dead ahead, her trademark red hair streaming from her helmet, Shannon Carroll drives her 11-foot race boat powerfully toward Gorilla, the defining drop of the Class V Green River Narrows. Then, about a boat length before the lip, she inexplicably catches an edge, flips, and is swept over the 18-foot drop, still upside down. Her kayak strikes the rock shelf below with a deep THUMP.
Before three tethered rescuers can reach her, Shannon rolls up and begins paddling furiously for the finish line. A roar of approval erupts from the 1,000 spectators lining the mist-blasted boulders of this steep-creek Nirvana.
The narrow canyon feels like a Roman coliseum, with fans carpeting the gray granite and sunlight filtering through brightly colored fall leaves. The fact that this show of carnage and grit came courtesy of a local girl just adds to their fervor. A good portion of the onlookers clutching dogs, kids and cameras are on a first-name basis with Shannon. Others are moms, dads, sisters, brothers, girlfriends of the 150 racers. They come to cheer their paddlers and the safety crew who make the event what R.T. Hale, dad of former champion Jason Hale, calls “the safest most dangerous race in the world.”
The Green River Race has come a long way since 1996 when whitewater guide author Leland Davis, then a college student, organized a group of 16 friends for the first race. Al Gregory started racing the following year and won in 2000. Now 38, the bespectacled “Al G.” comes clambering over the boulders on river right, threading his way through the crowd for a better view.
“This is about the essence of kayaking,” he says above the thrumming rapids. “It’s about us chasing each other down the river at dark and turning it into a race.” An injury has sidelined him from racing, but it did not stop him from running the Narrows the day before—standing up—in a Thrill Seeker inflatable kayak. In tribute to this exploit, the race lineup lists him as the sole rafter.
Al G. is also the guy who calls Duke Energy to make sure water is flowing from the upstream dam when the race goes off at high noon the first Saturday of every November. For this 2009 contest, Duke is dumping water round the clock, and the Green is running a respectable 9 inches. This year also marks the first time all the past champions have gathered at the Green. The inaugural champion Clay Wright, as well as Hale, Gregory, Pat Keller, Andrew Holcombe and Tommy Hilleke, who has won six times, are all here.
Hale, who now lives in San Francisco, hadn’t planned to come, but Al G. and some other friends sent him a plane ticket. Green racers look out for each other. With scheduled water releases more than 200 days a year, this isolated chasm in the mountains of western North Carolina is a second home for a core group of Southeast creek boaters, and the paddling community becomes their second family. Amid the waterfalls and tortured boulder piles they form fast friendships, cementing them through shared adventures and the interdependence this unforgiving river demands.
The rapids are the same on race day, but the vibe is amplified. The enthusiastic throng has clearly enervated Chris Gragtmans, grinning widely and surrounded by his mother, sister and girlfriend. “There’s nothing like this race,” he says, still wet in his gear. “I compare it to going into battle. There is nothing else in my life that gets me going like this race.”
Gragtmans started in the poll position, but mistakes at Go Left and Die and Nies’ Pieces cost him precious seconds. Holcombe won the day with a course-record 4:18 in the long boat, bettering the old mark by nine seconds. He then hiked back to the start and won the short-boat class. Adriene Levknecht also scored a daily double, smashing the women’s long boat and short boat records with times of 4:59 and 5:18.
“The course is really fast this year and everybody is in really good shape,” Cragtmans says as racers speed through “Go Left and Die,” where the race line requires a tricky boof off a huge submerged tree trunk, followed by a 10-foot drop into a narrow channel divided by a meat-cleaver rock. Cragtmans stops mid-sentence as a racer in an army green kayak pins on this chunk of ugliness.
For a few seconds, only the bottom of his boat can be seen. The boater stretches his head to the surface and, bracing furiously, tries to wiggle off as safety boaters scramble to toss ropes. Finally, he manages to fight his way around one side of the rock and drop into the pool below. There his boat floats upside down for an uncomfortable second before, looking spent, he rolls up and paddles off to face Gorilla downstream.
The crowd roars its approval. -– Harrison Metzger