By Scott Willoughby
Before there ever was such as thing as the GoPro Mountain Games, Mike Mather was that guy: living in a van down by the river. Now, some 15 years into the formal Mountain Games legacy, it's passionate young paddlers like 19-year-old Alec Voorhees who are filling that void, camping out at the start of the Coors Light Steep Creek Championship race all week to get as many practice laps as possible during peak runoff on Colorado's Homestake Creek.
Mather, meanwhile, surveyed the scene from the comfort of his hotel room, coping with his own version of pre-race jitters. As the head of safety for the burly Class V creek race down the chossy cascade dropping nearly 500 feet per mile, he knew full well that Homestake would be flowing fast and furious come race time Thursday. And he and his local safety team were among the rare few who understood just what that might mean.
Surging at more than 550 cfs on the morning of June 9, the creek was running at more than twice its peak recorded flow of 243 cfs on that day in 1985. Across the internet, flow gauges monitored by sensible experts like the folks at American Whitewater summed up the historic high water conditions at Homestake Creek in two words: Not Recommended.
But the pros making their way to Colorado for the Mountain Games don't pay much heed to digital advice. Especially on race day at one of the biggest kayaking events in the country. The race would go on, recommended or otherwise.
"My first run was a disaster," said eventual women's winner Nouria Newman of Tignes, France. "I flipped and couldn't roll fast enough, went in the worst spot, upside down hitting rocks — head, shoulder, everywhere — kind of battled through it to the finish, but it was just horrible, everywhere."
Newman's struggles were hardly unique. Of the original 44 men and five women registered to start the race down Homestake Creek on Thursday, at least 10 of them took the internet recommendation to heart and did not launch their kayaks at all. Of the remainder, only 28 went the distance to complete the entire two-run race. The rest either bowed out or required a rescue from Mather's assembled team of local pros and Joes most intimate with the run.
"My props to the safety crew," Newman added. "We're racing here, and it's hard, but we also have to remember that it's also super hard for them to keep us as safe as possible, and it's not without risk for them."
Few, if any, of the 15 safety team members still kayak Homestake Creek. But on Thursday they worked as hard as any racer, bailing out paddlers pinned against rocks, throwing ropes to battered swimmers and performing at least three "live bait" rescues where crew members jumped into the frigid rapids tethered to a rope in order to retrieve racers dislodged from their kayaks. Despite a few tense moments, in the end, no one was seriously injured.
"That's one of the benefits of the local guys running safety is the familiarity of it. We know what to look for. We know the diurnal ebb and flow; we know the snowpack; we know what it's going to be like at race time," said Tim Kennedy, a safety crew member who began paddling Homestake Creek in 1994. Kennedy won what was the original whitewater festival's marquee event known as the Dowd Chute Shootout prior to its evolution into the GoPro Mountain Games. Now he aims for a top-15 finish in the longboat race down Class II-III Gore Creek and lends his expertise to river safety at the event.
"I was the young guy back 20 years ago," he said. "I'm 44 now. I can't compete against 19-year-old Alec Voorhees, even if I did paddle 300 days a year."
For first-time race champion Voorhees of Meridian, Idaho, the raging river came as a welcome sight. In his second year competing at Homestake, Voorhees took advantage of the higher water level to notch the winning time of 1 minute, 29.14 seconds.
"I was loving the course," Voorhees said. "With more water than usual, it felt a lot like my home river at the North Fork of the Payette (in Idaho). The higher water level is more my style, so I was really confident going into the race."
Dane Jackson of Walling, TN, actually posted the day's fastest time with a new course record of 1:28.41 in qualifying. The raucous high-water conditions drove him off-line in the finals, though, and he settled for fifth place. Isaac Levinson of White Salmon, WA, and Nick Troutman of Walling, TN, rounded out the top three.
Dane Jackson getting thrown off line with style in his final run:
— Stay tuned for more coverage of the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colo.
Read more about the winners on C&K