By Carmen Kurtz
The Canadian near-frozen north has been steadily gaining a reputation as the place for big-water hungry kayakers. Melting snowpack fueled by spring sun or spring showers sees the rivers of eastern Ontario and northern Quebec rising to create raging big water and monstrous surf waves. It's the Promised Land for whitewater kayaking.
"People came from all over. Everyone knows the reputation of Quebec and Canada in the spring; it's the biggest and sickest whitewater in the world." —Bren Orton
Some kayakers travel north searching for waves to surf, willing to literally “stakeout” for prime water levels. But in recent years, with increased knowledge of snowmelt patterns and the characteristics of different rivers and rapids, there has been a slight shift from soul surfing and wave hunting to multi-stage whitewater kayaking competitions.
Following the highly progressive format of the late Whitewater Grand Prix (WWGP), a new collective of whitewater rippers calling themselves SEND, have taken the torch from the WWGP creating Unleashed, a new multi-stage kayak comp. Held from April 28 to May 7, the SEND crew (Bren Orton, Adrian Mattern, Dane Jackson and Kalob Grady) invited some of the top big-wave kayakers to taste the north. Over the course of the 10-day competition, 15 men and five women would battle it out for cumulative points in four stages of the event to determine the best all-round kayaker.
"The whole aim of the event is to find the best all round whitewater kayaker in the world." —Bren Orton
The event premiered this year with the three-trick freestyle stage at the Ruins on the Ottawa River, followed by a big-water boatercross race on the flooded Rouge River in Quebec. Big water and a homemade giant slalom course on the Basse Cachée River (just outside of Quebec City), saw the competitors taking lines and hitting eddies that added an extra challenge to the already huge run. And finally, the wrap-up event was a 10-trick freestyle comp on the newly discovered Molly wave on the Mistassibi River.
With the freedom that comes from being unattached to large sponsorship, the event was self-funded, asking each athlete for a $50 CAD entry fee that went directly to prize money, as well as leaving each athlete responsible for food, travel and accommodation. Kayakers were invited to attend the event only after the organizers went through applications. The water here is real big and real cold. "This type of whitewater is just not for everyone," says organizer and big-wave Brit Bren Orton.
"The application and invitation process is to ensure no one gets in over their head. I want to know that someone will nail the line, or they won't get on the water." —Bren Orton
Competitors also provided safety for each other during the event as well as contributed to media, furthering the simplicity of Unleashed as a grassroots event.
TO BE ANNOUNCED
For a competition this innovative, being fluid and adaptable was key. The location of each event was decided on the day of, or just days before the event itself. Very much in the style of Stakeout, Unleashed gave organizers lots of time to predict and scout for the best event location based on fluctuating water levels. "Most of the other kayak comps I've done, you know where they will take place and you know what the water levels will be," says big-wave up-and-comer and second place finisher Brooke Hess. Unleashed had a rolling plan that would give athletes at least a day of practice or rest in between stages, which is necessary given the beatings bodies take on water this fast and big. Progression means pushing yourself, and for some, like Hess, it was their first time surfing some of these northern giants.
"It was a way for me to push my own paddling, by paddling and competing with the best big wave paddlers in the world.” —Brooke Hess
DANE AND DARBY DOMINATE
Using a points system based on each athlete's finishing position in each event, Dane Jackson and Darby McAdams came away with the wins. Unleashed tested kayakers in a number of disciplines of big-water paddling and created their own scoring system for the freestyle components, placing an emphasis on amplitude, style and use of the wave. The camaraderie of competing while encouraging and looking out for each other was another unique aspect of this event.
"More of a supportive atmosphere vs. competitive atmosphere" —Brooke Hess
TO BE CONTINUED
Executing the inaugural event without a hitch, the Send boys plan for Unleashed to have a long shelf life. "Oh yeah, we are gonna try and make it happen every year," says Orton. "The annual event in Quebec will always be the plan but we want to bring it to other countries as well." Uganda is high on the list for a similar style Unleashed event, and more rivers will be added to the hit list.
Unleashed was an event run by kayakers, for kayakers with the main focus on having a good time while progressing the sport of big-wave freestyle. "It was honestly just a fairy tale start to finish," says Orton. "We got the best water levels we could hope for and people were just so on board." Let the dream live on and let the progression on big waves continue.
For a full list of results and media from each stage, check out the SEND Facebook page.