Katrina Van Wijk

Katrina Van Wijk at the 2014 North Fork Championship. Photo by Jessica Murri

Do you think Katrina Van Wijk is the Female Paddler of the Year?

By Jessica Murri

The day before the North Fork Championship's marquee race at Jacob's Ladder, Katrina Van Wijk learned that she would be the first woman ever to compete in the prestigious race. She marked the occasion by getting the words “TiTS DEEP” tattooed along her rib.

“‘Tits deep’ is something that my girlfriends and I started saying on the river as a kind of morale boost,” Van Wijk says. “It just spread. The mission became to empower women in extreme sports—that we can do it like anyone else.”

Getting on the prestigious list of the North Fork Championship elite race is one of the most “tits deep” things Van Wijk has done. Thirty racers are picked from a pool of applicants, on an invite-only basis. Van Wijk was one of four women who applied, and the only one chosen. Even so, she was listed as an alternate.

Race organizer and founder James Byrd explains that racing Jacob's Ladder—almost a mile of Class V+ whitewater on the Payette River 40 miles outside Boise, Idaho—has nothing to do with gender. He's adamant about not making a separation between men’s and women’s divisions, as most kayak events do.

“Let’s make it a level playing field; the best of the best,” Byrd says. “This is a hard river. People die on it. There are few women that are strong enough or skilled enough to run it. It’s definitely not a gender thing. It’s just for the best paddlers.

Why Van Wijk? "Katrina is one of the boys," Byrd says. "When I saw she applied, I voted her in."

Van Wijk is no stranger to competition. She's a sponsored athlete, took first in the women's down river at the Little White Salmon Race this spring, won the Green Race in 2013 and placed in the 2012 Whitewater Grand Prix.

This section of the North Fork Payette regularly takes the lives of experienced kayakers, though the race itself has never had any fatalities.

Tren Long has run safety during the race for the past two years. He has been teaching swift water rescue classes for 15 years, and understands the difficulty and unforgiving nature of this run. He said the mechanics of paddling can make a big difference for women. “If you’re a strong guy, it’s easier. Having less body mass makes running big water more difficult.”

Emily Dickerson doesn’t disagree. She runs the North Fork regularly and competes in other races around the Northwest, but she has no interest in competing in the North Fork Championship.

“Women, we have a different style of boating. Dudes can power through things,” Dickerson said. “We have to have finesse. We will get knocked off our lines. People don’t break their legs or scrape their arms kayaking like they do dirt-biking or playing soccer. But people die in our sport."

Katrina Vank Wijk

Roll Model: Katrina Van Wijk signs an autograph for a fan at the 2014 North Fork Championship. Photo by Jessica Murri

In her Liquidlogic Remix 79, Van Wijk did get knocked off her line during the June 14 race. After Rock Drop, she struggled around the first gate and flipped upside down on her ferry to the second gate. She fought her way down the rest of the course, flipping again near the bottom, where she was upside down long enough for safety crews to prepare throw bags.

She finished the race in 3 minutes, 24 seconds—last place. But she is confident this is only the beginning of women making their way into the NFC, beyond the qualifier and boater cross races, which have a handful of female paddlers each year.

“[There have] been times where you don’t know if you’re really welcome here or whatever,” Van Wijk said, “especially when we were younger and the teenage boys always think this is a man’s world. But once they get over that and you get over that, you realize everyone’s out here for the same reason: because we love it. Gender doesn’t matter, and we kayak because it brings us to these insane places. And every rapid brings personal challenges and goals along with it.”

Katrina Van Wijk

Katrina Van Wijk racing at the 2014 North Fork Championships. Photo by John Webster

A version of this story ran in the Boise Weekly.