By Scott Willoughby
For 364 days out of the year, the International Bridge overlooking Gore Creek serves as one of the polished gems of Vail, an iconic outlook opening the window to postcard-perfect vistas of scenic snowcapped peaks and sparkling mountain streams.
On the final day of the GoPro Mountain Games each June, however, the bridge takes on a decidedly different disposition — harboring a fleet of whitewater trolls poised to destroy any semblance of serenity like a swarm of wrecking balls busting through a jailhouse wall.
Their formal name is "8-Balls," and according to king troll Chris Baer, their unique blend of fearlessness and, shall we say, "density" combine to create the single most exciting spectator event in the world of whitewater.
"It's rad when you're down there because the crowd is 20-people deep on the bank and you're in kind of a little coliseum down there — the coliseum of carnage," said Baer, an 8-year 8-Ball who drives his van from the bucolic banks of the Arkansas River to the dynamic core of Vail Village precisely one day a year. "It's a full-on spectator sport, and you're in the pit. That's the highlight reel right down there."
The 8-Ball Race is an event unique to the GoPro Mountain Games, a chaotic kayak race that caps off four days of adventure sports, art and music like an edgy rock band smashing guitars and diving into the mosh pit before anyone can demand another encore. It's a race with a twist, as the gang of 8-ballers lurking behind boulders and beneath the bridge paddle headlong into oncoming river traffic and start dishing out licks in an effort to alter the outcome.
"It's all for the benefit of the spectators," says 8-Ball Race emcee Brian "Goldy" Goldrich. "Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to be an 8-Ball pro.' It's all for fun."
Nobody, that is, with the possible exception of Baer.
"I raced it once and it turned out that wasn't the best plan," said Baer, 38. "So I started 8-Balling and now I swear this event was built for me. They just get all these poor suckers to come on down and let me smash into them all day long, which is kinda cool. It's like 'American Gladiators' meets kayaking, and who doesn't want to be 'Blaze?'"
Blaze, er, Baer was bestowed with the title of unofficial 8-Ball MVP at the 2016 GoPro Mountain Games, an award that comes with a couple of bloody knuckles and a smattering of selfie requests from strangers taking in the show. Eventually there are even a few high-fives from forgiving competitors he clobbered with his kayak, simply because he could.
"I've done a handful of the other events, but this is the one I keep coming back for," Baer said, adding he'll return "for sure" in 2017. "It feels like a legit arena sport. Welcome to Thunderdome."