BIG EAST MELT: Part I, New Haven Race

Lucky Number 7 for Bristol, Vt.'s grassroots New Haven Ledges Race

Video courtesy of Ben Barlow / Dragonfly Media
Photos and story by Eric Adsit

The New Haven Ledges in Bristol, Vt., is a staple in the Northeast paddling community. It's roadside, close to Burlington, and runs through most of the spring with a wide window for flows. It's also home to the New Haven Race, one of the first big gatherings in the northeast each year, in which racers compete to become the next New Haven Legend.

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But a grassroots kayaking race in rural Vermont doesn't just pop up out of nowhere. What began as a casual idea over takeout beers between friends has become an eagerly awaited annual event now in its seventh year. That growth is due largely to the efforts of local paddler and event coordinating guru Ryan McCall.

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"This year we had perfect levels, good weather, and a strong turnout," McCall said. "I have to thank Will Seegers, Ben Schott, and Connor Laird and the other volunteers that put a ton of time into this event. Not to mention the boaters that keep coming back, and Dave Packie for having the foresight to start this thing in the first place.”

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The New Haven Race began in 2009 with exceedingly high water and a head-to-head style race on the Lower New Haven. A time trial along the full length of the run saw five competitors, one of which swam above 15-foot Toaster Falls. Original organizers were quick to adapt the race, hoping to draw more competitors. In 2010 they introduced a time-trial qualifier for the final head-to-head brackets, but sub-freezing temperatures kept the event from thriving. In 2011 Bliss-Stick offered a $1,000 to the winner in exchange for title sponsorship, drawing a slew of professional kayakers who duked it out in a series of double elimination head-to-head races. Hoping to return to a more grassroots, local friendly event, the organizers chose not to offer a cash prize in 2012 and returned to a time-trial format with a start ramp, and classes for long-boats, creekboats, and short-boats.

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By 2013, the ideal course had been very nearly dialed in, but excessively high water proved prohibitive to all but the most confident of racers. A time trial ending just above the crux of the run was used as a qualifier for the finals, where racers faced off in a series of time trials through pushy boulder gardens and large holes. 2014 would finally allow racers and organizers alike to work out the kinks of their ideal racecourse, and this year, everything came together to create a perfect day of racing.

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"We've discovered that folks just want to boat and paddle fast. Earlier on we tried to make it about the spectators. The Head to Head was exciting to watch, but racers hated it!" says Ryan. "The vibe is like getting together for a day of boating with 40-50 of your best friends."

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The New Haven Race has seen many iterations over the years, but the time spent experimenting has paid off. The race course, beginning with a ramp just above a steep constriction travels .53 miles through the technical crux of the run, several boulder gardens, the namesake Ledges, a burly hole, and ends just below 15-foot Toaster Falls. Competitive times are in the low four minute range, making this a similar length and format to the iconic Green Race in North Carolina. The roadside rapids make it easy for spectators to catch most of the action, and most importantly, it brings the paddling community together in a way that few events can.
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"I think this is what the race is all about," says Jordan Vickers, a consistent top-ten finisher, as he puts on for a third lap after the race is over, "getting a huge group of friends together that come out to race and stay for the company."

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Amongst that company, Justin Beckwith claimed the New Haven Legend title, finished atop both the long- and creekboat classes. (Check out full results below posted from the race’s Facebook page, and read more about Beckwith’s 60-mile, single-day run of Vermont’s Mad River during 2011’s historic Hurricane Irene floods.)

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Stay tuned as we chronicle other tales from this spring’s Big East Melt.

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