Sometimes the Monkey Spanks Back
By Harrison Metzger
The kayaker flips brutally as her boat twists off the launching pad of Gorilla. Upside down beneath the heavy curtain of whitewater, she plummets 18 feet into the deep rocky vortex, her boat impacting the underwater shelf below with a deep THUMP!
That noise is heard dozens of times throughout Saturday's 2009 Green River Race, but with a scary difference in this case: the paddler is upside down upon impact. Yet before three tethered rescue swimmers can reach her boat, she rolls upright and paddles out of the swirling eddy at the base of the falls, apparently uninjured by the crash.
Applause erupts from hundreds of spectators perched on mist-blasted rocks above Gorilla and its brethren in mayhem: Green Scream Machine, Nies’ Pieces, Power Slide and Rapid Transit downstream; and upstream, Pencil Sharpener, Chief, Zwick's, Go Left and Die, Boof or Consequence and Frankenstein.
Yells of "yeaaahh!" and gasps of "whoah!" reverberate throughout the coliseum of hotel-sized boulders lining the shore, announcing the procession of racers as they boof, splat and plunge down the Class V Green River Narrows.
About 1,000 people, mostly young and clad in fleece and hiking boots, have climbed 600 vertical feet down into the thundering cleft of spurting granite for the show. They've come to cheer more than 150 kayakers, a handful of C-boaters and two open canoeists dropping the vertical rapids.
Photos: Matt Fields-Johnson
The Green River Race has exploded as the East Coast's biggest extreme downriver attraction since 1996 when Leland Davis organized a group of 16 friends for the first race.
"It's the most exciting outdoor event in the world for me," says Al Gregory, 38, a five-time Green racer who won the championship in 2000. "This is about the essence of kayaking, about us chasing each other down the river at dark and turning it into a race."
Gregory, known to all as "Al G.," is the guy who calls Duke Energy to make sure there is water released for the race. This year Duke is dumping water round the clock as it draws down Lake Summit upstream. Combined with natural inflow from recent healthy rains, the Green is running a respectable 9 inches or so.
"We have a little higher water — it's really ideal because people can practice," Gregory says.
Gregory is not racing although the race lineup lists him as the sole rafter, paddling a "long R-1" a 13'11'' Shredder. It sounds like a joke, but the day before the race Gregory strided the Green standing up in — and getting repeatedly ejected from — a Thrill Seeker IK.
This year is special because it's the first time all the past champions have gathered at the Green. This year's race includes past champions Clay Wright (inaugural winner), Jason Hale, Gregory, Pat Keller, Andrew Holcombe, Chris Gragtmans, and Tommy Hilleke who has won six times. Only Gregory and Keller are not racing this year, due to injuries.
Hale, "the original inspiration and fuel behind (the race)" lives in San Francisco and wasn't going to attend this year. Gregory and his other friends got together and sent him a plane ticket.
"I called him and politely told him he had come and to get his days off from work," Al G. says. "He and Tommy ran the Green four times yesterday practicing and I think they ran it once this morning. They want a crowd showing."
A show the crowd got, not just from the top ranked paddlers but from all the racers daring to paddle the East's most difficult dam-controlled class V river at top speed.
More than any other river in the East and perhaps the U.S., the Green has shaped the nation's top creek boaters, their boats and their attitudes. Running on average more than 200 days a year, the Green is the reason this area is home to Liquidlogic Kayaks, Watershed and Green River Adventures, hundreds of creek boaters — and one Sasquatch.
The hairy-looking fellow taking a break behind a boulder above Go Left and Die is Alex Ohman, 23, of nearby Johnson City, Tenn. He's wearing a Gorilla suit he borrowed from a friend for a mountain bike race.
"Since I went over the monkey upside down about a month ago, I just had to wear it," he says.
Flipping in the notch and rolling partway up, Ohman had better luck than some other Gorilla-swimmers in Saturday's race.
"I was right where I needed to be and I didn't hit anything — well I must have hit something because my helmet got scratched," Ohman said. "It was luck. And even though I had that incident, it was one of the most fun days on the river for me. I got to the takeout and completely forgot everything that went wrong."
Although most of Saturday's lines were fast, clean and skillfully landed, there were a number of tense moments that paddlers involved would probably rather forget.
Seconds after Ohman loped off downstream in his gorilla suit, a kayaker in an army green kayak pinned on the sharp rock splitting the flow at the bottom of Go Left and Die.
For a few seconds, only the bottom of his boat was showing. Then he fought his head to the surface and, bracing furiously, tried to wiggle off as the crowd above yelled and safety boaters scrambled to toss ropes.
Finally the broached kayaker managed to fight his way around one side of the rock and drop into the pool below. There his boat floated upside down for an uncomfortable second before, looking spent, he rolled up and paddled off to face the ape (the rapid, not the guy in the monkey suit).
Top-seeded Chris Gragtmans, in the poll position because of Keller’s injury, was smiling, but he said he was not too happy. Mistakes at Go Left and Neece's Pieces had cost him precious seconds. Although his long boat time of 4:35 tied his winning finish from last year and was only one second off his personal best, it wasn't good enough to win first.
"The course is really fast this year and everybody is in really good shape," he said. "The caliber of paddler is just increasing every year too. It's a pretty crazy event to be involved in."
More than an hour before the final racers splashed down at the finish line below Rapid Transit, Gragtmans made his prediction of the winning order:
"My guess is the order will be Andrew Holcombe, Isaak Levinson and Eric Deguil. Fourth could be me or a couple other people."
Gragtman's prediction was uncanny in its accuracy. In the long boats, Holcombe repeated his first place long boat championship from 2007, setting a new course record 4:18 that broke the old one by nine seconds. Levinson was second, also breaking the old record with a finish 4:25. Eric DeGuil took third at 4:29, followed by Eric Hurd, who tied with Gragtman's at 4:35. Adriene Levknecht shattered a record in the women's long boat class with a 4:59 finish.
Despite the disappointment of not winning first place, Gragtmans was charged up to race before the enthusiastic throng of supporters lining the shore. They included his mom, his sister and his girlfriend. "They are always down to come out and watch the mayhem that goes on," he said.
He has competed in many sports, but "there is nothing like this race," he says.
"I compare it to going into battle. There is nothing else in my life that gets me going like this race."
Broken paddles, bruised egos
Back down at Gorilla, boats are getting looped and endered in "Speed Trap," the hole formed by the horizontal jet of water at the bottom of the main vertical drop. Kayaker Curt Lamberth grins gamely as he rolls up holding a paddle with one blade snapped off. It takes about 50 seconds for the crew on shore to toss him another stick.
It's closing in on 3 p.m., three hours after the starting gun, and the sun has long since crossed the narrow gorge top above, leaving the crowd in chilling shadow and spray from the rapids. In quick succession, two kayakers are thrashed: a hand paddler who swims the main drop from the top and another boater who gets vacuumed out of his cockpit at the bottom. The safety crew is on the ball and doing their best to keep swimmers from washing into the class IV+ drops below.
Throughout the crowd, people keep asking: Where are the canoes? They crane their necks as the ringing of a bell announces each boat coming through the Notch above Gorilla, hoping to see that rarest feat: an open canoe running a Class V waterfall. They wait for Eli.
Eli Helbert, multiple world champion rodeo canoeist, is running his eighth Green Race. For only the second time, he has a competitor in canoe — gutsy young Wes Gentry.
Eli has styled the course many times including clean and dry landings at Gorilla. But today things go awry for The Canoe Guru.
Eli lands a great boof off the Pencil Sharpener, the first entrance drop to Gorilla. But instead of ferrying river left to get a right angle through the narrow Notch, he tries to cut through with less angle. His Esquif Prelude catches a rock in heinously undercut Notch and flips him just above the main drop. He rolls up, but flushes down the beast sideways, backwards, full of water.
Ejected upon impact, Eli is out of reach before rescuer Chris Harjes can grab him. After a bruising swim through the mammoth slides downstream, he gets to shore. His canoe stays stuck in Speed Trap for more than a minute until the tethered rescue crew pulls it out.
As hundreds of spectators start clearing out, hopping over massive boulders and climbing fixed ropes up the steep ravine out of the gorge, Eli watches Gentry, the other open boater, launch his canoe off Gorilla.
"I'm good, just sort of a bruised ego," says Eli, who has never before not finished the race. "I was lucky I was wearing a lot of padding."
As he walks upstream to get his canoe and paddle out, a fan yells out: "Hey Eli, you're amazing!" It's a good word for anyone willing to brave the Green at top speed in front of a giant crowd.