Photos by Mike Leeds
Story by Aaron Mann
When I first heard of about the North Fork Championship five years ago I thought it sounded like a cool event, but after competing in NFC V, my opinion has dramatically changed. From the Melt Awards to the premier Elite Division giant slalom, James and Regan Byrd’s creation has undoubtedly become the world’s best overall extreme kayaking event, period.
Normally the Class V+ whitewater of the Jacob’s Ladder and the Golf Course rapids is difficult enough of a challenge for experienced boaters, but by adding seven gates to the rapids, the NFC takes things to the next level. Coming from the world of slalom, I assumed that the course design philosophy at this event would be similar to that of a traditional slalom race: challenging gate combinations that are make-able yet hard to do fast. On the contrary, James likes to set difficult moves which, if not done properly, result in missed gates and spectacular blowouts.
This year, with lower than expected water levels, James tried something new, shortening the overall length of the race so he could set extremely technical gate combinations. With the hardest move being the first two gates through Rodeo Hole (down-right to an up-left), you immediately had get on your game coming off the start ramp. Though easy to make, the up-left to up-right gates at Rock Drop proved to be a spot where time could easily be won or lost. The next move, an up-left at Taffy Puller, required patience and precision at that moment when your arms begin feeling like noodles from lactic acid. Even if you’re able to make it through all the gates fast and clean, the make-or-break sprint to the finish through the Golf Course awaits.
To my surprise and personal frustration, even with a field sporting some of the biggest names in whitewater kayaking from around the world, nearly half the competitors (including myself) failed to make all the gates on either of their two runs down the course. In the end, the top-10 finishers were comprised of some familiar names with Dane Jackson literally winning the crown, but the second-place finisher came as a total shocker to most: lefty C-1 Timothy Allen Dennis (aka Tad).
Sure, I know what you’re thinking: How could a someone who willingly handicaps himself by kneeling and using half a paddle finish second in a stacked field of phenomenal kayakers? Besides the fact he is one of the best whitewater C-1 paddlers out there, the gates were set up perfectly for a lefty to go as fast as a kayak. This enabled Tad to stay on his onside coming in and out of nearly every gate and attack the course with speed and precision as if he were paddling his slalom boat. The fact of the matter is that the NFC is a difficult race no matter who you are or what boat you’re paddling, which makes Tad’s result just that much more remarkable.
The most impressive run of the competition by far belongs to the man known as “King Hesh,” Mr. Kyle Hull. After a few bobbles on his first run, Hesh laid down a scorching raw time of 1 minute, 54 seconds, over 3 seconds faster than Dane Jackson’s winning run. Unfortunately, a 5-second penalty on the second-to-last gate stymied Hesh’s bid for the crown but was not enough to knock him off the podium. No one seemed more surprised by his result than Kyle himself, who initially was nowhere to be found when he was announced as the third-place finisher at the awards ceremony.
Whether you’re a spectator or competitor, you cannot go through the NFC experience without feeling the dedication and passion James, Regan, and the many volunteers have for this event. They have truly created something special that is beyond compare.