In any sport, competition allows athletes to prove themselves. In whitewater kayaking, competition comes in many forms—be it freestyle, slalom, downriver or BoaterX to name a few. For the last couple of decades, class V racing has become commonplace, and for kayakers, the races are as much about the sport and progression as it is about the community.
The Gore Canyon Race, held on the Gore Canyon section of the Colorado River, has been around for more than thirty years. The Green River Narrows Race came about not long after in 1996. But it wasn’t until 2012 that one of the most iconic and well-loved class V races officially came into existence. Since then, the North Fork Championship [NFC] has remained one of the most well-loved, well-attended, and well-covered by mainstream media whitewater races in the sport. However, in January of 2023, the current organizers of the North Fork Championship announced via Instagram that NFC X would be the last.
I attended NFC for the first time in 2017. I had just started boating the previous fall and went to watch the BoaterX event with two friends from college who were also new to boating. We drove up and down Highway 55 after the event looking at the infamous rapids on the North Fork of the Payette River and wondered if we’d ever be able to run those rapids.
In 2019, we returned to Banks, Idaho to attend our first full NFC weekend. By then, my friends were regularly paddling the Lower 5, and I’d taken my first ever hole ride in Seymour’s on the South Fork of the Payette. We danced till we couldn’t feel our legs at the infamous Dirty Shame Saloon and watched as the best kayakers in the world raced down the insane features on Jacob’s Ladder. We met more new friends than we could count and people whose passions were the same as ours surrounded us. It’s maybe sappy to say that NFC changed our lives, but it sure feels that way. Now, those kinds of community whitewater events are disappearing.
In August of 2022, paddlers around Colorado geared up for Gore Fest, a yearly celebration of the Upper Colorado and Gore Canyon stretches of the Colorado River. Class V kayakers and rafters would spend the entire summer looking forward to one staple event: The Gore Canyon Race. Merely days before the festival’s kick-off, organizers posted on the Gore Fest Facebook page as well as on the American Whitewater website:
“Dear Gore Fest Community, It is with great regret that we must announce that the 2022 Gore Canyon Race is canceled. After holding the policy for this year’s race since May, our policyholder notified us less than a week ago that they will no longer provide insurance for Class IV and Class V whitewater events.”
While the downriver SUP race and freestyle events took place, the Colorado Boating community mourned the loss of the main race. Shortly after the cancellation of the Gore Race announcement, American Whitewater made an Instagram post to announce the cancellation of the Class V race on the Tobin section of the Feather River during Feather Fest. They too cited a lack of insurance coverage as the reason for the race’s cancellation.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world on its head, the fate of events and gatherings remained unknown and bleak. The founders of NFC, James and Reagan Byrd canceled NFC that year due to the pandemic. Rumors swirled about the paddling community that this would be the end of the NFC. But in 2021, the event came back triumphant with the Meridian, Idaho-based Voorhees family at the helm. The Voorhees have a long history with the North Fork itself as well as the NFC and were an obvious choice to take over the event.
The family strived to keep the spirit of the original NFC event alive while helping it to grow and become better than ever. North Fork IX was dubbed ‘The Reunion,’ and paddlers everywhere rejoiced that their favorite event was back to stay. NFC X in 2022 felt like a victory lap telling us that the NFC was back for good. The next generation of paddlers made an outstanding presence in the Jacob’s Ladder race, and the event boasted almost 10,000 spectators. When the Voorhees resurrected the NFC in 2021, the event felt unstoppable. But perhaps the last two years were just a last hurrah for one of the most well-loved Class V races in whitewater.
Hannah Kertesz has been a part of the North Fork Championships since before it was the North Fork Championship. She remembers a time when the race was a BoaterX format on the last three miles of the North Fork of the Payette and instead of sliding off the now-infamous ramp into Jacob’s Ladder, paddlers shotgunned a beer before running down the hill at Otterslide to their boats.
When the Byrds created an official event, everyone in the Banks paddling community was a part of it. Whether you were racing or not, if you were there, you were there to help. As the event grew, so did Banks’s acceptance of kayakers. Like climbers in Yosemite in the 80s, in the early days, kayakers in Banks were relegated to the farthest, hottest corner of the Banks Café parking lot. The community saw kayakers as tree huggers and outcasts. But year after year, more and more boaters showed up for the NFC and slowly, Banks and nearby Crouch and Garden Valley opened their arms to the boating community.
These days, if you drive through Banks during runoff season, you’ll undoubtedly see dozens of cars with whitewater kayaks on top, boaters enjoying a huckleberry ice cream on the porch of the Banks Cafe between laps, and many, many more people paddling the stretches of the Payette River. As the NFC grew, so did the progression in kayaking. When the event started, only the best of the best—plus Banks locals—were paddling Jacob’s Ladder regularly, if at all, Kertesz told me. But as more and more people began running Class V whitewater, the field of boaters racing to qualify for Jacob’s Ladder expanded.
To gain insurance for races such as NFC, the ACA requires each event to submit extensive paperwork to their insurance provider. This paperwork includes comprehensive safety plans, a participant vetting process, and details about the number of people racing, setting safety and spectating.
An event like the Green River Narrows Race, which doesn’t use the ACA’s insurance provider to insure its race is a fantastic example of class V race safety. (This is not at all to say other class V races safety teams are not excellent as well.) Green Race requires all participants to have run Gorilla, a technical class V drop, at least 10 times. To ensure this, the organizers reach out to all new racers for confirmation.
The safety includes a crew on live bait below Gorilla to roll flipped racers back over. Additionally, racers are required to always carry throw bags both in and out of their boats during the race. While a race is not the time to run a class V river for the first time, the safety measures in place during them are likely the best of any day of the year.
With event safety teams where they are, the ACA is currently working to gain more evidence to appeal to their insurance provider and to revisit the conversation around Class V races. Despite the challenges for races faced by the ACA in the last year as it pertains to insurance, they are still deeply committed to the health and growth of whitewater.
“In 2022, ACA instructors taught more than 3,000 instructional courses on rivers. Paddling on rivers can be intimidating and without a mentor, inaccessible. The ACA hopes to remove some of these barriers by providing opportunities for education and instruction at all levels and across multiple disciplines (canoe, kayak, sup, raft, packraft),” said Beth Spilman, the Executive Director of the ACA. They have also created initiatives that provide paddling and leadership instruction to participants from underserved communities to promote the growth of whitewater paddling across all disciplines. It’s clear from these two initiatives alone that the ACA has the health of whitewater in mind.
Their continued conversation with the insurance provider also demonstrates the value that the ACA places on not only Class V racing but fostering the safest possible race setting for participants and spectators. With a race like the NFC, where crawling amongst the banks of the North Fork to spectate the race sometimes feels as treacherous as the river itself, boaters welcome and understand the concerns over logistics. The ACA recognizes the importance of these events, perhaps more than anyone and hopes to be able to continue to support them in the future.
“Downriver races are important opportunities for the paddling community to come together, compete and celebrate the important places that are at the heart of why we love to paddle,” said Spilman. They encourage event organizers to seek out insurance that will cover Class V races and, in the meantime, to remember that there are many races held on lower classes of whitewater.
The cancellation of these races and by proxy, some of the most well-loved events and gatherings in the whitewater community is undoubtedly a great loss to the whitewater community. As these events have grown, the actual sport of whitewater remains to be one of the least participated in extreme sports. In 2019 the Outdoor Association and ACA reported 2.3 million participants in the sport in comparison to the 10.3 million skiers reported by the National Ski Areas Association the same year. For a small sport, races and festivals provide the biggest feelings of community and comradery.
“The Green Race brings the paddling and local communities together at the end of the year,” said Chelsea Grace, a key organizer of the Green Race. “And it’s not just about the best. It’s about all the people who have dreamed and trained to finish the Green Race, this is why 90% of the racers are there. It’s about the challenge, the accomplishment, and the celebration. Races like the Green Race are great for the sport—they continue to push innovations.”
Class V racing has been an integral part of the progression of the sport with feats like Dane Jackson’s sub-four-minute Green Race lap and the progression seen at these events has and will have lasting impact in whitewater. Progression aside, events like the North Fork Championship gave us the opportunity to have the best day ever on the river with 10,000 of our best friends. While nothing will ever replace the magic that the NFC created, there’s still hope. I’m sure that gatherings and competitive opportunities within the sport will change and evolve, and for now, we’ll look forward to the Green Race, applaud the few insurance providers still covering class V races and hope for an alternative that could bring back the fan favorites.