Photo: Colin Moneypenny

(Ed’s note: The 2011 Ain’t Louie Fest just wrapped up: See a photo gallery from Colin Moneypenny here, and below, a video from this year’s gathering and a feature story from the July 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak.)

By John Grace

Whitewater canoeing does not attract the large and consolidated following of its stepchild, kayaking. Since the advent of plastic kayaks more than 30 years ago canoes have been consigned to permanent minority status, with the noteworthy exception of 10 days each March on the whitewater that flows off the Cumberland Plateau around Lenoir City, Tennessee. For those glorious few days in the wet Appalachian spring, open-boaters reclaim their place atop the paddling hierarchy, and if any kayaker feels bold enough to question this old-world order, Michael "Louie" Lewis will happily, and emphatically, set him or her straight.

» Gallery: Ain’t Louie Fest 2011 »

As they say in East Tennessee, Louie has got a mouth on him. His online alter ego was once banned from the online paddling forum, Boatertalk, but that, he explains, was all a big misunderstanding. Behind the venomous tongue lurks a generous and hospitable soul eager to share his hometown rivers with fellow canoeists. But when friends began to call this gathering Louie Fest, he immediately set them straight. "Call it whatever you want," he said. "But it ain't Louie Fest." The name stuck.

That was about six years ago—no one seems to agree on the exact date—and every year since, groups of canoeists have traveled from the far corners of North America to paddle together in the relative warmth of the southern Appalachians. Lenoir City’s proximity to whitewater classics such as the Tellico, Little, Clear Creek, and numerous others, makes this a perfect destination for an action-packed whitewater canoe trip.

Canadian legends such as Mark Scriver and Paul Mason make the trip, as do homegrown heroes like Eli Helbert and dozens more, from wide-eyed newbies to grizzled old river-runners with creaky knees and endless river tales. Seeing these lifelong canoeists execute moves with a grace native only to the canoe draws beginners down the single-bladed path. That the sport's elite are so approachable and encouraging assures that many will stay on it.

ALF, as it’s affectionately known, is not without characters either. Any time you get an eclectic group together, there’s sure to be a few gems. Canoeists as a group aren’t exactly known for fitting the mold. The nature of choosing a craft and a style noticeably more difficult than any other doesn’t lend itself to the masses. This became especially evident the first Sunday of the event, during the Tellico Ledge Race.
Roughly 30 canoes gathered in the slack water above the first drop, waiting for the gun to signal a mass-start, rubbin' is racin', Ricky-Bobby-rules free-for-all to the bottom of Baby Falls a mile downstream. The canoeists were divided into three classes: Superheroes, Mortals, and The Lost Tribe, with Superheroes being sponsored boaters, Mortals being regular Joes, and The Lost Tribe being a group of boy scouts from central Tennessee. The first Mortal finisher would win a new Mohawk Maxim canoe, graciously donated by race organizer Richard Guin of Mohawk Canoes, while the first Lost Tribe finisher would win a new Mitchell paddle. The sponsored boaters, Guin explained unapologetically, didn't need to win anything. The spectators won the privilege of getting to watch 30 canoes bomb over the ledges of the Tellico, and not without carnage and excitement.

While spending the week in Lenoir City, I was able to paddle five different rivers with several paddling crews hailing from Birmingham, Alabama to Ottawa. I captured images I thought I’d never see: 20 canoeists paddling down Class III-IV Tremont in the Smokies; 12 canoes running the Class IV-V Watauga in North Carolina; 17-foot Old Towns with no floatation bombing waterfalls; and, everywhere I turned, smiling faces. I learned about techniques such as the GDI’s Fainting Goat and what it takes to make a good "dump rock." Most importantly, through my camera lens I saw the spirit and camaraderie that will always keep whitewater canoeing a vibrant and enjoyable pastime for thousands of people. While their numbers may be far fewer than their double-bladed brethren, the passion that drives and unites paddlers from Quebec to Mexico for Ain’t Louie Fest is unmatched.

John Grace is the co-founder of Lunch Video Magazine, a quarterly whitewater video series.