By Susan Hollingsworth

Photo: Adam Elliott

Name a steep creek competition after the “Northwest,” a region known for capricious weather and copious precipitation, and it should be no surprise when river levels skyrocket overnight. Still, waking up to three times as much water flowing through the narrow gorges on the East Fork of the Lewis River elicited surprise—and trepidation—from most competitors.

This year’s Northwest Creeking Competition, held April 16-17 on the East Fork Lewis River and Canyon Creek in southwest Washington, set the record for high water, according to race organizer Luke Spencer. While race organizers and safety crews evaluated the course, a handful of competitors opted for a practice lap on the 3,400cfs surge. This time, most threw the fast lines out the window and settled for scouting out lines with the least potential for beat-down.

So when Spencer announced that the race course would be changing to an upstream section, no one had time for another practice run. Now, roughly fifteen minutes of unknown ledges and holes would surprise every racer and Sunset Falls, the 15-foot waterfall that typically serves as the start, would mark the finish line.

Game on. The day delivered the standard exhaustion-induced swims, token nasty waterfall lines and even an illusive Tao-Berman-combat-roll. The ladies of Femme 45 led the spectator assault with horns, noisemakers and blow-up kiddy pool toys, eagerly awaiting carnage.

Rafts chose to race through the standard course—keen to remind everyone that kayakers found it unsafe. They stuck together through the meat to maintain safety and restarted the race after the gorge, avoiding any major upsets.

Competitions continued even through the evening’s BBQ. Bets were placed as two boaters faced off. Downing two fully-loaded hamburgers (each) as fast as possible, the spectators got one more opportunity for rowdy cheers. “I didn’t even kayak and I lost to Tao Berman,” said Nate Garr, who then handed over the $5 bet to Tao.

Awards went out to each class, but it was the ladies who scored big. Kim Russell, the winning female kayaker, took home a cash purse of $200 thanks to Big Dog Kayaks. Second and third place even got some love, taking home envelopes stuffed with a $100 and $50 bill.

The Canyon Creek race, slated for the next day, April 17, had to be officially scrapped; the river still pumped more water than safety crews could manage. However, a handful of racers wouldn’t hear it.

"An eight person mass-start race through the gorge at high water made for one of the most exciting races that I've competed in in a long time," said Berman. Despite several swims from racers in a practice lap, the competitors polished off the run cleanly. (Berman recovered well from his last-place start to win his third race of the weekend.)

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