The Canoe & Kayak Awards ready for the show.

The paddling community gathered in downtown Salt Lake City Thursday night to celebrate the past year's most inspiring paddlers, adventures, and expeditions, as well as the sport’s best filmmakers and most worthy philanthropic causes at the 2013 Canoe & Kayak Awards presented by Verizon. And after 11,000 votes, an all-star cast of presenters announced the deserving winners, nominated by their peers and selected by readers and everyday paddlers.

In a year highlighted by expedition kayakers pushing themselves higher, farther and deeper, notably along the headwaters of the Amazon, it was a group of four Midwestern canoeists who took home the coveted Expedition of the Year Award for a four-month, 2,600-mile trek across Canada’s Northern Territories, from the Pacific Ocean to Hudson Bay.

“This is such a big surprise, we didn’t even prepare a speech!” said Trans-Territorial team member Steve Keaveny, accepting the award with Winchell Delano, along with the C&K Expedition Grant presented by Shred Ready, a $2,500 check delivered on stage by Shred Ready’s Tom Sherburne, to be applied toward the team's next expedition: a 2,900-mile trek from Minnesota to the Arctic already being discussed at the after-party.

The voter support for extended canoe journeys continued with the new Spirit of Adventure award, which went to Dominique Liboiron for his heavy-hearted canoe adventure delivering his late uncle Mitch’s ashes to New Orleans, paddling them there from Saskatchewan. Liboiron dedicated his award to those suffering from the Bow River Flood, one of the worst floods in Canadian history and which wiped away the town of High River.

Whitewater paddlers, however, got their due accolades with the announcement of the Female and Male Paddler of the Year awards.

The world's best female paddlers accepting the award for Nouria Newman.

Nouria Newman, the 21-year-old French phenom who made an overwhelming claim to the 2012 Whitewater Gran Prix title, took home the Female Paddler of the Year honors.

“I’d like to thank the amazing chicas that got nominated along with me, and I hope I will get to paddle with them soon,” said the slalom-creek racing crossover who accepted the award from France through video. In excitement for her win, the world’s top female paddlers gathered on stage to accept her award and cheer with the crowd. Katrina Van Wijk concluded, “Women are just badasses.”

Meanwhile, amid a stacked field of accomplished athletes, the crowd of more than 300 people erupted to guest presenter Tommy Hilleke’s announcement of Evan Garcia as the Male Paddler of the Year.

“That’s why we’re here: the small tight-knit community, the amazing passion, the hard work … I love it,” said Garcia, whose year included a rash of creek racing wins and notable expeditions including the first top-to-bottom descent of the world's steepest navigable river section on the Rio Santo Domingo in Chiapas, Mexico. “Life’s so much sweeter for the people in this room, it’s what I’m all about.”

The filmmakers and photographers who can capture these athlete’s feats and tell the story of these expeditions were also honored at the Awards. C&K Editor Jeff Moag kicked off the night with the presentation of the Achievement in Filmmaking Award. Male Paddler of the Year nominee Ben Marr accepted the award on behalf of Fish Munga and filmmaker Steve Fisher, whose film ‘CONGO: The Grand Inga Project,’ set a new bar for feature-length paddling documentary storytelling.

From another corner of the globe, Darin McQuoid’s stunning shot of Shannamar Dewey dropping through Nishizawa Canyon, Japan, took home the Photo of the Year Award presented by Body Glove Footwear, with 12 final images—including the three reader-submitted finalists from the first annual People’s Choice Photo Contest—displayed on canvas prints for guests of the Awards to tally the final votes.

The crowd cheering on the winners.

And speaking of bigger pictures, Jason Craig presented the Paddle with Purpose Award. The 20-year-old freestyle standout, who bounced back from a devastating 2011 paddling accident, spoke to the healing power of paddling.

“I am here because of the people who believed in me,” said Craig in a heart-felt delivery, presenting the award to First Descents, recognizing its work empowering young adults fighting cancer with a free chance to tackle outdoor challenges, and to paddle beyond their diagnoses. First Descents’ Sarah Hubbard accepted the award noting how “kayaking is at the heart of First Descents,” and that the award, “means everything to us.”

In the heavily anticipated final presentation of the evening, guest presenter Scott Lindgren, Emmy-winning cinematographer and icon in expedition-paddling filmmaking, took the stage to present the Lifetime Achievement Award to Rob Lesser, recounting a short oral history three decades in the making of Lesser’s exploratory journey from Idaho to the Grand Canyon of the Stikine and into paddling lore.

The award was another feather in the crown of “Rapid Rob,” a whitewater kayaking pioneer and explorer whose name is as synonymous with the “Triple Crown” of Class V expedition kayaking (including sections on Alaska’s Susitna and northern B.C.’s Alsek and Stikine rivers) as it with promoting the sport, the paddling lifestyle, and with helping preserve the rivers that he helped put on the map (notably including his Idaho hometown run of the North Fork Payette).

Lesser, at age 67, accepted the award, humbly stating, “I am proud to accept this award, but it is you of the new generation that are taking this sport to the next level,” giving a nod to Marr, who completed the Stikine run in 2012 by paddling the canyon’s final un-run rapid. Lesser also invited his paddling partner John Wasson to the stage, thanking him by saying that if not for Wasson, “I never would have made it.”

Canoe & Kayak Staff celebrating with the Legends of Paddling

In addition to Lindgren, Hilleke, and Craig, awards presenters included paddlesports fixtures such as sea kayak expedition savant Sean Morley, Lisa Kincaid and Spirit of Adventure presenter Darren Bush. Nominees as well as some of the biggest personalities in the sport came together in one of the greatest nights in paddlesports history to celebrate one another. Reflecting on the multiple generations of paddling greats in attendance, C&K Editor Jeff Moag said, “Our sport has a rich, rich history and an incredibly bright future. We’re honored that so many of those people are in this room tonight.”

Special thanks to the sponsors: Verizon, Body Glove Footwear, NRS, Shred Ready, OtterBox, and Outdoor Retailer. Stay tuned to and for full video coverage of the night.