Photos by Scott Martin and text by Chris Gragtmans
I’m going to throw it out there—New York is becoming one of the best stops on the North American extreme race circuit.
Envisioned by organizer Kenny Unser, the King of New York series consists of four races, all on unique and challenging Class IV-V racecourses, in a battle to crown the overall champion. Starting with the Black, a race perfect for the first-time extreme racer, the series also features time-trial competitions on the pool-drop Racquette River, the short but explosive slide section of the Beaver, and a mass-start finale on the classic Moose River. In addition to the bragging rights of the events, the Racquette and Eagle races are part of the Association of Whitewater Professionals’ World Series, a point-series compilation of the most prestigious races on the planet.
The Black Race and Festival, held last weekend, is Stop No. 1 on this circuit, and it never disappoints.
The Black makes up a challenging endurance racecourse. The river is a Class IV stretch of whitewater that can be run in anything from freestyle to wildwater boats. It boasts about five world-class play spots at different levels, a 12-foot waterfall and beautiful canyon with juicy rapids, jump cliffs and raft-surfing holes.
The race is always held at 5 p.m., allowing out-of-towners time to take a practice run and get acquainted with the river. It is also a mass-start format, with 25-plus paddlers facing upstream and waiting for the gun to go off, me being one of them this year.
The race itself was a blur. I had a good start and got out to an early lead, but quickly realized that I was in the crosshairs of racers AND spectators alike as fireworks skipped past me on the water and exploded around me. Only in Watertown … haha.
After avoiding the explosive assault, I tried to focus and find my tempo; thirty minutes of battling is tough to pace for. I had a small spinout after a rapid called Knife’s Edge, and local favorite Justin Beckwith passed me. The crux of the race was just ahead: the Glen Park Dam and Falls. A 6-foot drop onto rocks, every racer was nervous about it, but all of us knew that we were too competitive to portage around it. One by one we boofed and crashed onto the rocks below, with varying degrees of success, and then tried to hold it together off of the 12-foot waterfall downstream.
From there on it was consistent action through the Class III and IV rapids of the canyon. Justin Beckwith ended up edging me out to take the win, and Brett Mayer came in a close third.
-Backward start causing all kinds of chaos immediately
-Fireworks being shot at lead competitors three times throughout the course
-Running a sketchy 6-foot dam (none of us would have done it otherwise, but our hunger for the win pushed us.)
-Spectators mooning competitors at the Poop Chute rapid
-A brutal flatwater slog to the finish line
-Heckling of the later racers
1. James Beckwith
2. Chris Gragtmans
3. Brett Mayer
4. Tony Gianfagna
5. Dave Gardner
CLICK HERE for full results.
The finish line was nothing but camaraderie and celebration of the river, and those themes continued throughout the afternoon and evening. The traditional float-ee-o competition soon followed. This is a Black Festival tradition, and it involves participants surfing creative and hilarious inflatable props in Hole Brothers, the main playspot in the whitewater park. Those shenanigans are soon followed by a rowdy party, this year with the theme of “anything but clothes.” Paddlers from all over the northeast danced the night away.
The next King of New York series race is the Racquette Race, held Aug. 31. Be sure to stay tuned to canoekayak.com for wrap up and results.
Thanks to Kenny Unser for organizing the event, Hudson River Rafting Company for the festival venue, Bryan Hartman for the shuttles, and everyone else for the photos.