By Eric Jackson

Great Race to Watch- looked like an even better race to race!

This year’s North Fork Championships was my first one, and a first for most of Team JK. The race is typically scheduled on top of other big events, like the GoPro Games, or this year FIBARK and we are already in Colorado, making it a hard sell to drive out and skip some of the biggest events of the year. This year we skipped FIBARK to come to the event because it was the weekend before Payette River Games which is on the same river in Idaho, the North Fork of the Payette.

The Race is a combination of an invite by the organizers of who they think will be fast (I am never a fan of a popularity contest and local organizers often don’t know the fast people outside of their own circles) but it also has 10 slots for the top 10 finishers from the previous year (great idea) and a qualifying race with 5 “wildcard” spots. It is held on Jacob’s Ladder, one of the most impressive rapids on the river, and considered the most difficult.

Isaac in his homemade design

The race starts with a ramp into the fast moving water at the top, and then has 2 gates that are the determining factor in the race followed by 3 more at the bottom that guide the racers on the section of river the organizers want them on. Only 50% of the paddlers, at best, made gate 2 during their race runs. This gate was a ferry in Rock Drop out of a tough eddy across a screaming jet of current through a hole that didn’t want to catch you and hold you well enough for you to get far enough to river right to make the gate. The rest of the gates were straight forward and it was a matter of racing the rapids to the finish line on this 2 minute course.

Results- penalties not shown separately. Times include penalties.

The format was simple- 2 runs- best run counts, but there are penalties in slalom for both hitting and missing gates. Hitting a gate 5 seconds- missing- 50. Like the slalom I raced in the 80’s and early 90’s. There was one gate judge on each gate making the call, no protest, no inquiry, just accept the score and move on.

I was watching my second race in two weekends (hurt shoulder from homestake training in Vail) and it was another one of those out of sorts days for me, just watching, cheering, and not paddling. It was a good experience for me and I was able to watch many of my competitors and team members in a new light, without having to focus on my own race. Most of the racers were both nervous and in good spirits. The second gate was the focus for everyone, as it was a make it or lose proposition and many missed it on both runs, like Isaac Levinson who is fast and won the Homestake Creek Race the previous weekend, but unfortunately had a 50 on both runs here. Lluis Geltman, a former slalom racer from Washington, DC (who I paddled with quite a bit back in the day there) won this race last year, but missed gate 2 on both runs this year. Dane had the winning time on first runs with a 1:59 but had 2 gate touches making his time a 2:09 and not winning. There was electronic timing, like at running races with a “chip” and there were times at the finish, but they were never made public to the racers or the spectators. There was also penalties for the racers on paper immediately, but that information was kept secret until the awards.

It became apparent that nobody knew what was up during the race and the racers could only do their best on each run, but without any times/penalties nobody knew who was in first, second, or last. Racers who thought they did well had to wait to the party to see if the gate judges said they made the gates clean or not, or made them at all. Hopefully next year they’ll sort that out and make sure the announcer who is calling the race has the race results as the race goes on. This will allow the spectators to participate and the racers to know what they are facing and how they are doing.

I watched the entire race and my favorite spot to watch from was the starting line. You could see how each person was handling the pressure and see the start through the first three gates. Many people liked to watch at Gate 2 (rock drop) as well.

Rush Sturgis at the ready…

Dane was paddling the course very well in practice and had the fastest time on first and second runs, with a 1:56 on his second run, but missed gate 2… On second runs Jules from France and Igor from Czech paddled cleanly through the course and had great runs taking the top two spots. They were 4 and 6 seconds slower than the fastest times, but had no penalties and took top 2 with Evan Garcia taking 3rd.

Great promotion surrounding the race, and great race course, lots of great racers!

The Karma did very well with more top 10 finishes (three) than any other boat- There were also Tuna, Raptor, Remix, Mamba, Pryanha, Lettman in the top 10.

A few tweaks on this race from a competition side and it can become a staple on the tour! Nothing that isn’t easy to fix. Two Gate judges- one from upstream angle, one from straight across from the gate angle- as there is no way to judge Gate 2 in particularly and be accurate with a single judge, when the paddlers are barely missing it, or barely making it in most cases and the gate is over their heads. Winning or losing comes down to that judge’s call. Easy calls are easy, hard calls are not possible to make without the two angles. I feel bad for the gate judge there trying to pull off so many hard calls by himself. I am sure it was stressful trying to get them right. Getting the times and penalties radioed up to the announcer and printed out or on a screen as the race progresses would give the spectators and competitors something to follow and work off of as well as help eliminate possible transcribing errors, etc.. that happen in almost every race/freestyle event I have ever competed in. With those minor tweaks, the NFC would take a nice leap forward again, making the competition side of things professional as well as the rest of it.

I was really impressed overall with the job the organizers did with so many aspects of the race. Hopefully this will be something that grows and stays as a part of the scene for years to come! Hopefully there is an open weekend that doesn’t conflict with other big events next year as well, allowing the top paddlers to do the tour without having to pick and chose, splitting them up.

Maybe I’ll personally have better luck next year and be injury free. In my 30 years of full time competing, I have only missed races/freestyle events due to injury a few times. This one was not so serious I couldn’t paddle, but serious enough that a bad stroke/brace on the same shoulder would have put me out for the season, potentially. Missing 2 races to heal up and rehab but being able to compete in the World Extreme Racing Championships (Sickline) in October seemed like my best option. My recovery is going well and my shoulder getting held back in place and my tendons calming down, but still needs quite a bit of Advil to keep the swelling down. Looking forward to competing in the Payette River Games this weekend and fingers crossed and right arm in close. :)

Another EJ Blog… next one coming after Payette River Games… We’ll see where the $100,000 gets distributed!