North Carolina's Green Race a down home classic

The torrential rains that kept classic southeastern U.S. rivers running well into the fall means the locals will be all the tougher to beat at the Green River Narrows Race on November 7. "The phrase has been 'the southeast is back,'" says Chris Gragtmans, a Dagger- and Astral Buoyancy-sponsored Asheville, N.C. boater and defending Green Race Ironman (short and long K1 combined time) champion. "We've had a lot of droughts over the past three years but things are looking up these days."

Home Field Advantage

With regular releases on dam-controlled rivers and huge events like Gauley Fest in West Virginia, the fall is perennially the prime time for southeast whitewater. But this year, Gragtmans says all of the favorites have been going off—sometimes at frighteningly high water levels. In September, Gragtmans was among the second group of boaters to descend the flooding Toxaway River, a North Carolina Class V run which suffered two riverbed-altering landslides in the freshet. "It felt like we were running a whole new river," says Gragtmans. It's scary when riverbeds change. We couldn't paddle it the way we usually do and ended up doing a lot of scouting."

Meanwhile, paddlers are flooding to a growing list of southeastern creek races. The first-ever Ocoee River Race saw a solid number of competitors charging a classic Tennessee run in mid-October, and Gragtmans says upwards of 70 paddlers participated in the gruelingly long Gauley Fest Animal Race on the technical upper section of the Gauley River. "It typically takes the fastest guys about an hour to finish," says Gragtmans. "Having so many people willing to go through that kind of pain is really cool."

Next up is the Green Race, North America's keystone creek race on the Class V narrows of the Green River, where Gragtmans is hoping to use local knowledge to his advantage on a stretch of river he paddles 20-odd times each summer. "Historically, it's been won by people who live in Asheville," says Gragtmans, who has competed in the race six times. "But it will be interesting this year. People with slalom and downriver racing backgrounds are starting to come over to creek racing. These paddlers know how to train. It has always kind of been trial and error for us."

Home Field Advantage

Despite its growing popularity—up to 150 boaters from around the world are expected to compete in the 2009 Green Race and organizers are expecting hundreds of spectators to cause traffic and parking problems—the event is still decidedly grassroots. Winners receive no prize money; all that's awarded is a stained green glass trophy—and a healthy wad of respect. "That's the coolest thing about it," says Gragtmans. "Being the champion is deeper than any physical prize." – Conor Mihell