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Cispus Fest 2015

Grassroots Festival Planners Mount Grassroots Rescue

Story by Kyle Hull and Chris Morelli
Photos by Tait Trautman

When you organize an event that brings more paddlers (and more people) out to the wilderness, there’s always a stray thought that things could go wrong. Especially when your event involves a Class V race.

A unique situation went that way on the afternoon of Saturday, May 9, during the Cispus Race. We’d planned a short sprint-style race through the crux rapid of this central Washington gorge, one that would lead off a unique sloping 30-foot drop named "Behemoth," and then continue through the technical runout rapid below. The course would allow racers to focus on the technical aspects rather than simply pulling hard strokes.

Grassroots race planning in motion deep in the Gifford Pinchot Wilderness of Washington State.
Grassroots race planning deep in the Gifford Pinchot Wilderness of Washington state.

About 20 minutes after the first racer, a lone kayaker emerged near the course finish, asking photographers and time-keepers for help. Apparently his paddling partner had taken a swim and sustained a serious leg injury.

Racers Russell Davies and Rush Sturges lead the charge into motion, helping determine that though the kayaker was stabilized, he was still on the wrong side of the river, and rallying 30 racers and spectators back to the campsite. Abe Herrera helped spearhead the rescue with the local search and rescue, and within three hours of initiating contact, had the hurt kayaker (unaware of the festival) safely on the other side of the river and in the ambulance.

Racers Russell Davies and Rush Sturges lead the charge into motion, helping determine that though the kayaker was stabilized, he was still on the wrong side of the river, and rallying 30 racers and spectators back to the campsite. Abe Herrera helped spearhead the rescue with the local search and rescue, and within three hours of initiating contact, had the hurt kayaker (unaware of the festival) safely on the other side of the river and in the ambulance.
Festival participants help with the rescue. Photo Torrie Stokes / Small World Adventures

The collective experience of the paddlers on hand certainly expedited a difficult rescue. Had it happened on any other day on the Cispus, a rescue would have been potentially life-threatening.

But this was no ordinary day on the Cispus, and the Cispus is no ordinary river.

Unknown paddler engages Behemoth.
An unknown paddler engages Behemoth.

Deep in the Gifford Pinchot Wilderness of central Washington, a combination of runoff from the Goat Rocks and Mount Adams forms the Cispus River. This beautiful location combined with excellent camping, a classic section of wilderness Class V and a scenic Class III section below, makes the Cispus a worthy kayak destination.

With this season's low snowpack, the paddling community could access this gem a bit earlier than normal. With the gorge seeing increased runs last year, the area's local kayakers teased the idea of an "appreciation festival" for this beautiful area. So we spearheaded the Cispus Appreciation Service Project and for two days this May (9 and 10), the Columbia Gorge paddling community came together to celebrate the Cispus.

The secondary purpose of Cispus Fest was to clean up the area near (and on the way to) the river, which sees its share of outdoor recreation use — with the trash on the ground to show for it. So the kayaking community racked up karma points, filling a large number of trash bags. Immersion Research and Pyranha Kayaks even upped the ante by donating prizes to those who picked up the most.

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William "Jamboy" Griffith taking out the trash.

Friday morning opened with an influx of paddlers from all over Pacific Northwest. The stoke levels rise as the cell service ends. The day’s practice laps begin as paddlers rally to the gorge and set up camp, with cold fireside beers provided by Everybody's Brewing that evening.

The Saturday pace began rolling at the high-noon racers’ meeting at the takeout campsites. The Gorge Paddling Center van and trailer hauled boats and bodies as personal trucks loaded to the brim carted 27 racers and another two dozen other paddlers helping out with safety and media. The shuttle vehicles peeled out to put in above Behemoth, but not without less than a dozen stops to pick up trash!

Despite the unexpected rescue effort, the race went smoother than imagined, considering the risk of 27 people racing off Behemoth, without a single competitor shoved into the river-left cave (a constant safety concern).

Prior to the race, competitors speculated that two minutes would be a tough time to beat, yet the field began frothing when over half the field clocked times below two minutes. Isaac Levinson claimed the fastest time in 1 minute, 41 seconds, followed closely by Kyle Hull in 1:42, and Louis Geltman in third, and the remaining top 10 all within seconds of one other including a three-way tie for eighth, ninth and tenth.

Issac Levinson, winner of the 2015 Cispus Race.
Isaac Levinson, winner of the 2015 Cispus Race.

“I feel like it says a lot about the sport I love so much that the best pros in the world would interrupt a race to solve a rescue situation like that, expending such considerable effort and coming up with pretty impressive makeshift organization,” the injured kayaker wrote us after all was said and done. “Basically like it was no big deal. Thank you so much again.”

In the wake of the rescue and the successful race, the crowd’s stoke levels peaked as the party started under the stars with dancehall reggae ruling the night. From there, it was a blur of Ninkasi kegs and a late-night dance party that eventually slowed with the speakers shut down for a few hours until hazy paddlers awoke to mellow morning tunes.

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A Sunday crew of 25 held strong to wash away hangovers with a lap down the upper section, while another big group put on right at camp to paddle through the beauty of the lower section. The teams reunited for an afternoon 50-cc minibike race on a difficult, impromptu course (which James Byrd claimed as the first Cispus Fest mini-bike champion).

The success of an event like this truly speaks to the health of a local paddling community. To have 45 kayaks in the Behemoth gorge at once was a sight that had never been seen. And the vibes and smiles were abundant as everyone enjoyed getting out in the woods to reconnect with nature.

The idea and the message was just as simple: Come out to the woods, go kayaking, clean up the area, and enjoy the bonds of friendship that we all share in the paddling community.

Evan Garcia, Kyle Hull, Rush Sturges discuss river beta.
Evan Garcia, Rush Sturges, and Kyle Hull discuss river beta.