By Joe Carberry
A beautiful thing happened on the river this weekend. The world's best kayakers met on one of Earth's toughest whitewater runs to test themselves and push the limits of the sport. It was a pinnacle moment. And everybody knew it.
Despite rain showers and inconsistent weather, hundreds of people lined the banks of Idaho's North Fork of the Payette as paddlers dropped off a steep Red Bull-sponsored ramp above Jacob's Ladder and charged through Rodeo Wave, Rock Drop, Taffey Puller and on into Golf Course.
And those hardy spectators were even more pumped to see one of their own win it all. Despite a field packed with the biggest names in whitewater, local boater Ryan Casey was a favorite going in. The 35-year-old Hailey, Idaho native grew up running the North Fork and has studied the river’s every rock and wave since he was 19 (he's also one of the most underrated paddlers of the last decade with impressive descents in Nepal, Peru and Russia among others). His two runs down Jake's were some of the cleanest all day.
“Home turf advantage for sure,” Casey said. “But, really, I wish we could all just go paddling instead of running Jake’s over and over again.”
Early Saturday morning, before world class paddlers like Pat Keller (below), Rush Sturges Chris Gragtmans, Ben Marr, Andrew Holcombe and all the others chased gates through the giant slalom course at Jakes, they gathered for a quiet breakfast at the Dirty Shame in Crouch, Idaho, discussing their lines and working together on strategy. The humility in the room was palpable.
"I didn't have my best race but I'm just happy to have survived it," Sturges said afterward. "I think every kayaker feels the same way. Just running Jake's on its own is a scary thing to do. When you couple a race in it just adds to the intensity factor. End of the day, everybody getting to the bottom safely, it was a very successful event."
Jacob's Ladder certainly showed its teeth, forcing two swims and several aborted race lines where paddlers were rescued from precarious positions and opted out of their runs. With an impressive vertical drop along Idaho's Highway 55, "Jake's" is a complicated maelstrom of rowdy hydraulics and sharp rocks. Spectators at the bottom of the rapid were actually looking up at a mountain of whitewater as the paddlers began their descent down the North Fork's crown jewel.
Kayakers were required to catch the eddy at Rock Drop (a standard move) after punching through Rodeo Wave about 20 yards above. They were then forced to pull a dangerous ferry from river left to river right, using the backwash at Rock Drop to make a gate on river right. Two more tough gates followed, one at Ocean Wave and another below in the heart of Golf Course. "Getting to the right bank was definitely a crux," Casey said.
Organizer James Byrd pretty much nailed it on all accounts, organizing shuttle rigs, meals and safety to help create one of the best race venues in recent memory, especially considering the ease of viewing for spectators. "All the amazing paddlers were here," said Tyler Bradt who ended the day second. "The North Fork is this infamous place with amazing whitewater that you hear about since you start kayaking. To have this type of event organized at Jacobs Ladder is really amazing. James did a great job." Canada’s Mikkel St. Jean-Duncan finished third.
Despite the big crowds and coliseum-like viewing area, paddlers were forced to block it all out and focus. "It's great, it's a spectator event, it's roadside but Jacob's Ladder is that type of rapid where you drop into it and there's nobody there but you," Bradt said. "You are very alone on that rapid even with hundreds of people on the bank."
The scene that ensued after Casey’s victory was announced at the awards ceremony was a show of pure spontaneous joy as Gem State paddlers celebrated with their native son. Casey was nearly gang tackled by a crowd of revelers as he approached the stage and then forced to guzzle a beer through a bong made from a Pink Flamingo yard ornament lovingly nicknamed "Flabongo." The 6’7″ paddler was then hoisted atop shoulders for a free celebratory ride through the crowd.
"I feel good that the energy came," said Byrd. "I did everything I could to get everybody here. They came and it worked. Everything worked."
Notes from the Serious Side: The North Fork Race is part of several different points series: The Western Point Series and the Association of Whitewater Professionals Whitewater World Series. The AWP, formed by Pat Camblin, seems to have the most steam. Last year's Whitewater World Series champ was Frenchman Eric Deguil followed by slalom crossover Isaac Levinson (Atlanta, Georgia) and New Zealand's Sam Sutton. Levinson wasn't able to compete on the North Fork because of a shoulder injury suffered after he was accidently speared by Bradt in a practice run earlier in the week on a section above Jake's. The Little White race kicked off the six-event series. Next stop is Voss, Norway June 28. Casey and Bradt both earned automatic bids into the Whitewater Grand Prix this December in Chile.
Look for a C&K wrap-up vid from the North Fork Championship, coming soon. Top shot, Evan Garcia by Mike Leeds.
1. Ryan Casey
2. Tyler Bradt
3. Mikkel St. John-Duncan
4. Wilz Martin
5. Geoff Calhoun
6. Pat Keller
7. Ben Marr
8. Evan Garcia
9. Jakub Nemec
10. Fred Coriell
11. Kyle Hull
12. Rush Sturges
13. Jonny Meyers
14. Tristan McClaran
15. Lane Jacobs
16. Andrew Holcombe
17. Chris Gragtmans
18. Darren Albright
19. Jesse Murphy
20. Dan Menten
21. Chris McTaggert
22. Dan Simenc
23. Ryan Lucas
24. Ben Luck
25. Mira Kodada
26. Zach Fraysier
For complete times, click here.