In early March, canoeists from all over the U.S., Canada and even Europe gathered in tiny Lenoir City, Tenn., to paddle some of the Southeast’s finest rivers and creeks. The Tellico Race kicked off the nine-day Ain’t Louie Fest gathering, and among the 100 or so canoeists who participated were a dozen female paddlers, marking the first year in the race’s almost decade history of a women’s class and demonstrating the growth of females in the one-bladed sport.

“It’s been great meeting and paddling with so many exceptional women,” Sabrina Barm from southern Germany said. “I’ve never gotten to canoe on such a high level with women before.” Barm won the women’s solo class, passing many men along the way. Like Barum, most of the women who participated had never met other female canoeists before the festival. Ghyslaine “Gigi” Rioux, the only woman to compete in the 1997 Ottawa Rodeo Worlds (who also finished in the top five), said, “I’m used to competing rodeo and only being against men, so I was really happy to be in a race today where there were women.”

Ain’t Louie Fest has been around unofficially the last 20 or so years as Canadians from Quebec and Ontario would break from their frozen homes to migrate south and begin their boating season in Tennessee’s warm waters. Michael “Louie” Lewis, for whom the festival is not named he claims, would show the Canadians down the rivers and offer his home and hospitality. Then about five years ago, in response to stories calling out canoeing as a dying sport waiting for the fossils to kick the bucket, the local and the foreign single-bladers decided to start their week off with a race down the Tellico to see just how many of the fossils remained. About 80 people showed up to that first race, and since then it has grown to more than 300 people boating, racing and cheering.

This year, seeing and getting to compete with one another was certainly a surprise that the women hope keeps popping up on the river. “I think with boat designs coming a long way, we’re going to see more female open-boaters,” said Stacy Stone, a local Tennessee paddler and the front half of one of the women’s tandem teams that competed. “More small-boat designs are coming out, allowing women to find ones they can push themselves in.”

The women were stomping it, too, rubbing elbows with the boys on the Class IV+/V boulder gardens and creeks around Tennessee and North Carolina. They also showed their stuff at the Tellico Race, a one-mile, Class III+ downriver run ending at the bottom of a 14-foot waterfall. Women raced both in solo and in tandem teams. Some ran clean lines, others more than ate it, but everyone made it through to the end.

After starting the first women’s class for ALF’s Tellico Race, the women have simpler aspirations for next year:

“We want a woman on next year’s bumper sticker!”

McDaniel racing to the finish at the bottom of Baby Falls. Photo: Joshua Tipton