Written by Carmen Kuntz. Photos by Ben Marr.
You snap your helmet on and stretch your skirt over the cockpit of your kayak. Sitting on the top of the 30-foot Red Bull ramp, a view of the snarling, shallow and fast whitewater of the North Fork Payette River stretches out before of you.
Crowds in the hundreds hug the banks, with a presence and volume unlike any other kayak competition. Music is pumping, almost vibrating the surroundings. Your friends are standing behind you, and a vibe of equal parts nervousness and pure, raw stoke is palpable in the summer air.
Your goal: make a clean run down Jacob’s Ladder, the dangerous and challenging giant slalom whitewater course. Don’t touch the gates, and definitely don’t miss them. Stick with your lines and stay out of trouble. (Trouble being the shallow and violent holes that pepper the course.) And hope that your time is fast enough to land you on the podium against the best of the best.
The horn sounds. All nerves and fear dissolve the instant whitewater envelopes you. It’s on. Welcome to the North Fork Championship.
Held on the North Fork of the Payette River in Banks, Idaho the North Fork Championship (NFC) draws a stacked roster of paddlers from around the world. Athletes must be invited and wild card spots are available for the taking through preliminary rounds. There will likely be no other point during the year where this many of the sport’s top athletes congregate. It may be surprising then, that competition and camaraderie balance this race. Athletes gaze at the river together, working on lines and moves like teammates. They run safety throughout the course and share cold pitchers of Payette Brewing Co. North Fork Lager during the event wrap-up and afterparty.
Since its inaugural year in 2012 the unofficial slogan for the NFC is “a section of whitewater few would paddle – let alone race.”
Crowned the King of the NFC in 2013, all mountain athlete Louis Geltman gives Mountain Life an athlete’s perspective of the race including water levels, wearing the crown, and the dangers of this river.
Mountain Life: How is the NFC different from other whitewater kayaking competitions?
Louis Geltman: I think there are a lot of things that are different about the NFC. The first and biggest thing I would say, though, is just the massive amount of work [race producers] James [Bryd] and Regan [Lawson] put in to making this thing go off. All the little details, all the emphasis on making it a really rad spectator event—both in person and as a media event—are just on another level. Beyond that, though, it’s really just gnarly. The NFC is the scariest race I’ve ever been a part of.
ML: Is the giant slalom style of this race influencing other whitewater races?
LG: I think there’s a lot of stoke for the giant slalom format, but it’s tough to replicate just because putting on slalom races is way more work organizationally. You need to hang gates, have judges, be able to walk back up for multiple runs. Just a lot of logistical hurdles. That said, I think people are really stoked on it, and it’d be great to see more of them.
ML: Are you involved with any of the organization of the NFC? How many NFC races have you participated in?
LG: I haven’t been involved in the organization, but so much thanks for the people who are. I raced in NFC II and III, and I was on the list for NFC I, but I was injured and couldn’t race.
ML: How did the community and James Byrd come up with the idea for the North Fork Championships?
LG: James is just so full of stoke and energy, and I think what he really wanted was something that was going to be big and gnarly and attention-grabbing. A lot of inspiration from events like the Red Bull Rampage, I think.
ML: The NFC is one of only a handful of kayaking races with sponsors and a prize purse. How big of a role do spectators and sponsors play in the race, the festival, and the weekend as a whole?
LG: I think from an organizational standpoint, those things are probably pretty key for all the resources James is able to bring to bear. As a racer, though, I think the river and the other paddlers are what provide the most energy. The spectators and the party vibe all weekend really pull it all together, though.
ML: This race is known for being dangerous. How do you deal with the strong element of risk while racing?
LG: It’s hard for me, honestly. The first year I was there, all I was trying to do warming up before my first run was to make my heart rate go down. I’ve never been part of another event that felt like that. I have a lot of experience racing, though, so once the countdown starts, I’m pretty good at being focused on what’s in front of me.
ML: Do you anticipate this year’s race, the IV North Fork Championship being different than last years? If so, how?
LG: Hard saying. I know James is really focused on keeping it stout, though, and I think there may be some more gates and a new course this year. I’m sure whatever he has up his sleeve, it’s going to be rowdy.
ML: The North Fork Payette is often referred to as a ‘big water’ river, but the sections that are raced (Jacob’s Latter and the Golf Course) actually quite shallow in places. In previous years, high water levels meant the course could change overnight. Do you think the dry weather and subsequent low water levels in the west will affect the race this year?
LG: I’m sure there’ll be good water. I think Idaho is doing better than most of the West for snowpack, and I know James has a good relationship with the dam operators. Also, the last time snowpack was really low in Idaho, there ended up being a huge June rainstorm, and the North Fork ended up higher than anyone had ever seen it since the reservoirs were full and they couldn’t hold back the water. You never know, I guess, but I’m not worried that it won’t be gnarly…
ML: As the II North Fork King in 2013, you have experience wearing the crown as well as bib #1 in the 2014 race. Without giving up your secrets, how do you train for the North Fork?
LG: Ah, I just paddle a lot and have a lot of slalom experience from when I was younger. I think part of what worked for me that year was that I had a pretty realistic idea of what was possible. A lot of guys were just really going for broke, and I figured if I could just be high in the ups and not make any big mistakes, that would be a competitive run. Everyone’s getting better every year, though, so maybe now you’ll really have to send it…
ML: Can you describe the energy on shuttle bus that transports the athletes to the top of the river and the start ramp? Is there a feeling of camaraderie or competition?
LG: Definitely lots of nervous energy, and way more camaraderie than competition. It’s kind of intense, but good vibes, for sure.
ML: What is going through your mind at the top of the Red Bull start ramp? Can you describe what that feels like?
LG: It’s kind of a mix of things. Partly kind of feeling like a badass with all these people watching and hyped up music and tons of energy. Mostly just trying to be super calm, though, and thinking about being loose and putting down good lines.
ML: In 2013 when you came through the finish line of Jacobs’s Ladder with what ended up being the winning time. What was that like?
LG: Honestly, I felt really relieved to have put a good run in the bank, but I didn’t for a second think it was the winning run. I thought top 10, for sure, maybe top 5, but it never even crossed my mind that that might have been good enough to win until James kind of started dropping hints and getting me amped up at the party.
The NFC gains more momentum each year and has evolved into a festival-like weekend with live music and mini film festival and boatercross races. The event operates thanks to many volunteers, community members and local sponsors. But the glue that holds this event together is power couple Regan Lawson and James Byrd, Boise locals and founders of the NFC.
A truly unique event and the biggest of its kind, the NFC displays kayaking in its rawest form. For spectators and racers alike that makes for a full on weekend that continues to progress and push whitewater kayaking.
About Louis Geltman: Louis lives in Hood, Oregon and works as Policy Counsel for Outdoor Alliance, an advocacy group working on public lands issues on behalf of the human-powered outdoor recreation community—kayakers, climbers, mountain bikers, and backcountry skiers.
This just in! The 2015 top-ten NFC finishers: