Creek Racing is Back—And this time it’s serious

This story is featured in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.

Words: Joe Carberry
Photo: Mike Leeds

Creek racing

Photo by Mike Leeds

Watching 30 of the world's best paddlers charge a giant slalom course on Idaho's signature Class V drop, I couldn't help but think there was more to the North Fork Championship than dudes paddling fast through a massive rapid.

Hundreds of spectators lined the banks at Jacob's Ladder, the storied river's most challenging drop. Remote control helicopters carrying hi-def video cameras buzzed overhead. And as these splendid athletes slid down a plywood launch ramp at the top of Jake's with the crowd pulsing to their every stroke, I realized, it's the drama that works. The athleticism, the carnage, the simplicity. And how all of it could be so easily digested by a mass audience. The potential is more real than ever. And seriously, it's about damn time.

I've been covering whitewater for 15 years. I grew up with the sport, a hopeless river romantic. So give me some leeway as I rewrite, in more elegant prose, I hope, a statement I've penned before: We're in the middle of a creek-racing renaissance, an expansion of the sport's competitive realm.

It's easy to be skeptical. Any whitewater fan worth his throwbag knows how many creek-racing series have come and gone over the last decade or so. But as the traditional freestyle kayak circuit continues to
disappoint both fans and athletes as a true showcase of paddling talent, a creek-racing renaissance is exactly what whitewater needs. Here's why it just might work.

The North Fork was the second stage in the six-event 2012 Whitewater World Series, which is overseen by the Association of Whitewater Professionals, a loose confederation of pro kayakers led by Patrick Camblin. The AWP makes all decisions on locations and athlete rosters, and ensures that the series comes to the rivers that best showcase the sport—places rich in river-running lore, and with strong grassroots support.
In 2011, Frenchman Eric Deguil won the first AWP world title in a tight race with Atlanta's Isaac Levinson that came down to the final event in Mexico. This year's series finishes with North Carolina's famed Green Race in November after stops in Norway, the Czech Republic and Austria—a true international tour.

"The organizations (that oversee competitive kayaking) have always felt disorganized to me—so focused on what's right in front of them that they miss the big picture," says Camblin, 30. "It's crazy that there hasn't been more done on the alternative events (like the Green Race). And with Internet and social media, we have the tools to push the word out so we can increase our impact and reach more people."
In tapping popular, pre-existing events, the AWP has followed one of kayaking's core philosophies: go cheap. Making their series relatively recession-proof, Camblin and the AWP are simply creating a points series out of existing grassroots events in both the U.S. and Europe, allowing organizers to implement their own nuances and sponsors. Costs are, shall we say, minimized. But those costs would cripple the AWP were it to organize each event, something that has bogged down past race series.

The World Series has another thing going for it: A robust group of young, enthusiastic, and extremely bold competitors. Of the 78 racers that entered the North Fork Championship, 70 percent were in their 20s, and nearly 60 percent were under 25. They include young boaters from slalom and freestyle programs around the world making the transition to creek racing. And they can sniff the opportunity, as a pack of racers headed straight from Idaho to Norway.

"There's so much more talent now," notes Camblin. "It's funny too with all the 'kayaking is dying' stuff a couple a years ago. This core has been growing for a while. They're young and motivated."
With a set of emboldened athletes in charge, the World Series' potential is limitless, but even Camblin admits a title sponsor (and with it, cash prizes) would ensure the tour's growth and sustainability. Until then, we can only trust that the athletes' stoke will see us through.

— Stay tuned to for results from the Devils Extreme Race, the next scheduled World Series stage, Sept. 1 in the Czech Republic.