By Conor Mihell

Only in open-boating can weekend warriors in over-sized Old Towns rub shoulders with world champion freestyle paddlers, sponsored video boaters and cutting-edge designers in nine days of revelry to kick off the paddling season. The event is Ain't Louie Fest (ALF), a loosely organized affair that wrapped up this week with a nebulous history that brings hundreds of whitewater canoeists to the rivers of the Southeast. "We've got some of the most iconic people in open-boating and everybody gets to paddle with them," says Knoxville, Tenn., native and canoeing phenom Dooley Tombras.

An ALF fixture is the Upper Tellico Race, a mass-start free-for-all in which the Tellico River is flooded by upwards of 70 canoes competing in juniors, mortals, superheroes and tandem classes, all racing to the finish line at 14-foot Baby Falls. "It's pretty shocking to the kayakers that randomly show up every year," laughs Tombras. "It's a spectacle that you don't see anywhere else."

Here are Tombras's six reasons to love ALF:

Canoe renaissance It's really cool that Louie Fest keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger each year. There were at least 200 people here this year. For everybody up north in places like New England and Canada, it's a time to come down here where the rivers are flowing and it's warmer. Everybody in the Southeast comes for the camaraderie. There's nowhere else in the United States you'll be surrounded by 200 open-boaters. It's still very much grassroots, it's not organized, there's no itinerary but at the same time it's grown.

Something for everyone It doesn't matter if you paddle Class II or Class IV, you can always find a large group of open-boaters ready to do a river at your skill level. It's the perfect gathering to meet lots of other canoers and step up your game.

Better Boating Louie Fest is helping to drive the progression of open-boating. People get together, see new boats and paddle with the best open-boaters in the world. This year I saw one of the sickest tricks I've ever seen. Shawn "The Animal" Malone ran Baby Falls on the Tellico standing up. He didn't stick the landing but his feet stayed in the boat so he crawled back into position and rolled up. We're starting to have fun combining elements of standup paddleboarding and open-boating.

Better Boats The big manufacturers were there: Esquif sponsored Canoe Movie 2, Mohawk donated a boat for the winner of the junior class at Sunday’s Tellico race, and it was the big coming-out party for the new Blackfly Octane, a radically short tandem boat. [Designer] Jeremy Laucks and a partner actually ran Lamance Falls on Crooked Creek in the Octane. It was pretty sick to see a tandem boof off a 22-foot falls.

Canoe Movie 2 premiere It was a pretty electric atmosphere—standing room-only in a pizza and microbrew place that was once old warehouse. Every seat was filled, the bar was full, and at least 100 people were standing around the walls. There was lots of cheering during the climactic moments of the movie and the crash scenes and carnage at the end. [CLICK HERE to see more on Canoe Movie 2]

Whitewater Central Places like Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Asheville, N.C., could argue they have better stuff in town, but I don't think there's anywhere that can touch Knoxville as a central location. We're surrounded by whitewater—the rivers of the Cumberland Plateau, the Smokies, North Carolina, Alabama. Even though it hasn't been a particularly wet March, there was lots of stuff to paddle because there are so many options.

Mohawk Canoes' Upper Tellico Race Results:

Superheroes (Pro)

1st Place: Brad McMillan
2nd Place: Dooley Tombras
3rd Place: Jeremy Laucks

Juniors (Under 21)

1st Place: Robert Wiggins


1st Place: Nathan Zumwalt