By Susan Hollingsworth
Vitamin D unexpectedly struck the Pacific Northwest this past weekend, gracing the annual Northwest Creeking Competition with a blanket of sunshine that had competitors and spectators dazed with disbelief. Looking at the perfectly padded-out water levels and knowing that April is still far from summer, it didn't make sense.
"No words, just gasps and dropped jaws," exclaimed Ryan Young, a local Portland kayaker, after completing a race lap down Canyon Creek in Sunday's 80-degree heat.
It was the river gods' remittance for last year's constant downpour and race-canceling, flood-stage water levels. Perfect weather and good flows meant that this year would be the first successful multi-course creek race in the Northwest.
"The two rivers that we race on are classic Northwest style creek sections," claims Luke Spencer, race organizer for the past seven years. After losing Canyon Creek of the Lewis to a massive logjam in 2009, the event moved to the nearby Class III-IV East Fork Lewis, opening the race to a broader range of abilities. "It's tangible to all levels of paddlers," Spencer says. "Some of the pros are out there, but they're flying low-pro so it's not intimidating."
In 2011 the logjam flushed and boaters demanded the return of the Canyon Creek race. Luke had no choice but to combine the races into a two-day tribute to Northwest whitewater.
Races began Saturday morning on the East Fork, and the carnage came as quick as the sunburns. The presence of sun may have even tainted judgment, helping convince racers to go faster, push harder and inevitably swim more. Safety crews deployed ropes as fast as they could repack them. In the final rapid, a hydraulic known as John's Hole, safety teams estimated a 70-percent flip rate as the competitors hung on for the last few hundred yards.
Heather Herbeck, a staple figure in the Northwest creeking community, received the hero award for the day after using a surging pillow against a wall to right her kayak, then hand paddling out of the boils to continue the race. Most others had just swam.
Afternoon Frisbee sessions broke up the day and the pale white skin of northwest kayakers blazed proudly. Girls broke out bikinis, racers dusted off the shorty-tops and crisp PBRs popped open all day.
Even the schwag was higher quality. Pint glasses filled with Ninkasi beer and printed with the NWCC logo clinked across the campground after the crowd devoured the tri-tip, grilled pork loin and vegetable stir-fry feast, provided by the event's major sponsor, Next Adventure.
The top three competitors in every class received a commemorative mug and a purposely awkward hug from Luke. Darren Albright pushed semi-retired Tao Berman out of the number one slot, with Louis Geltman only two seconds behind. Returning to take the winner's mug for the longboat class and the mass start, Darren swept the competition on the East Fork races.
Luke proudly announced the female win to a racer who continually beats not only the other ladies, but also most of the boys. "I know she's faster than her fiance," claimed Luke into the microphone as a blushing Kim Russell stood up to accept her mug and hug.
Even though the sun had set, the celebrating naturally continued into the night. Topo Duos might have gone off Sunset Falls under the clear, starry sky and campfires may have not been extinguished until dawn. Sunday morning came and no one seemed to remember clearly. It didn't matter; another day of sunny creek racing lay ahead.
Despite higher than average flows, the Canyon Creek race turned out a significant number of racers. Spectators weaseled their way aboard jet boats and sped up the lake to watch competitors descend the final waterfalls into the finish line.
"The course is so amazing," Luke says. "It has all the characteristics you need: ledges, a bigger waterfall, boulder gardens, and twin falls right into finish line. It's just great to be in that spot."
Tao came back to take the win and Kim held onto her title on Canyon, but up in the takeout parking lot, everyone claimed a little bit of the glory. "It's like I won today," said Adam Elliott, a spectator for the day. Others agreed, they had all won that weekend.