By Eric Jackson

Downriver Race on the Numbers… Nick, EJ, Pat

1984-2015- 31 years where my obsession for competitive kayaking too the front row on everything I did. Why? Was that my curse or my blessing? Clearly, from my point of view, it has been my blessing. I had something to sink my teeth into, that I was able to get really good at, that provided me with a healthy lifestyle, friends, family, and a business.

I have traveled the world for training, competing, expeditions, and business every year for the past 30 years.

In 2015 I set my sights on a new goal- to be the number one ranked Tournament Bass Fisherman in the World. This is taking some of my bandwidth, of course, and the excitement I feel for this goal is no different from what I felt for becoming a world champion kayaker.

Where does that leave my whitewater kayaking, people wonder? You can’t turn off a fire and my fire has burned so bright and long for my kayaking that I have a mountain of coals and plenty of wood on that fire still. What the hell does that mean? It means I can leave my kayaking alone for a few weeks while I am off fishing and come back to it and with a day or two of training I am back in action. It is like throwing a few logs on a fire that is still burning hot. Add a competition to the mix and that is like throwing a gallon of gasoline on it as well.

I have been paddling my MixMaster for most of the season as that has been my favorite boat to shred the river this spring so I hadn’t done a Phonix Monkey, McMnasty, or aerial moves since… Last year in the spring, I guess. My Ranger fishing boat has 250 hp of two stroke madness and goes 75 mph, but it really doesn’t translate to any kind of kayaking skill. I have been in my Nirvana this winter when the creeks ran. Bear Creek, etc.. but only once a month or so.

Spring hit and I was scheduled to compete around Colorado in both races and freestyle events. What would that be like? My conditioning has been spotty with a combination of speed disc golf for running (13 minutes for an 18 hole round), some push-ups, chin ups, and dips, and kayaking when I am home. 6 tournaments this spring got in the way of any kind of kayak training, but I did get some good time in my MixMaster and that is a great workout. Will my specific freestyle skills work? How about my racing skills and will I have the horsepower for speed and the endurance to stay the course? I would find out by competing in the BV rodeo and doing the Numbers Race on the Arkansas River in Buena Vista, Colorado the day after I arrived from a 2 day drive from TN.

I arrived in BV and managed one training session in my Rock Star before the event. Surprisingly I remembered just about everything, even though I hadn’t done a Phonix Monkey in about a year, for example. When prelims started I figured I had nothing to lose, nothing to be nervous about. Not that I really ever got nervous in competition, but the pressure of winning was off. I managed to get 5th in prelims and semi-finals to make the finals. I didn’t make the finals here last year, so I was quite fired up to get to go to the big show. In finals I started off in 3rd place with a 950 point ride. On second runs I got knocked down to 4th, but bumped back up to 3rd with a 1080 point ride. I got bumped back down with Nick,Stephen Wright, Greg Parker, all beating that 1080 by the end of the 2nd ride, but was ahead of Tom Dolle. On our final rides, I had my best one getting a 1283 and stepped it up, but was 5 points behind 3rd place, and 50 points behind 2nd place. Nick won with a 1600 point ride and killed it. I was fired up to be in finals and put on a good show. I stepped up my game on each ride, but was just short of what the other boys were doing.

I also got to take KC in a Dynamic Duo while Kristine did her first river run in her own kayak in a long time (Emily talked her into it!) on the “Milk Run” of the Arkansas… Here is that video- I was so proud of Kristine who was quite terrorized for most of the run!

Numbers Race- I didn’t get a lap on the Numbers before the race and would have to “Read and Run” the lines. I also haven’t raced in a year, just got to the 8,000 foot altitude, and didn’t know what pace I could handle for the 15 minute race without crashing. Luckily for me Andre Spino-Smith offered to go before me and I might be able to see his lines. I was paddling my Nirvana. Nick Troutman was behind me and Pat Keller was right with us as well at the start with 30 second intervals. It was fun racing this stretch of water and trying to put my boat where it belonged without knowing where the holes, waves, fast water, etc. was until I got there. I stopped trying to follow Andre as he was too far ahead and I was not managing the water right in front of me. I started off too slow, went too slow in the middle, and suddenly I saw the finish line and realized that I raced at a pace that I could have done for 2 hours instead of 15 minutes. That is actually a fairly fine line, but I managed to catch Andre in the last 2 minutes of the race and made up most of my time on him right at the end. I finished not tired and was a little bummed that I didn’t get a lap in for training to set my pace. I still took second to my son-in-law, Nick Troutman, and just ahead of Pat Keller who has won a few races over the years himself. Nick and I beat most of the “Long boats” in our Nirvanas and that created quite a stir as the kids at the starting line were all talking about how fast the long boats would be. It was a reminder that just because somebody is a pretty good kayaker, doesn’t mean they know how kayaks work. A boat like the Nirvana is actually faster for most people than a long boat due to the dry bow and easier to control design. I think if they were paying attention, they may have learned something at this event… however, just like every subject in life, if their prejudices are too strong and their mind isn’t open to new ideas, they’ll justify the results in their head and won’t learn anything.

Another big part of BV is CKS Paddlefest activities like selling boats in the store, demoing boats on the whitewater park, teaching clinics, and some good dinners and parties at night. We did all of those things…. Burning the candle at both ends… when to sleep???

Off to Lyon’s Outdoor Games- near Boulder, colorado… Lyons was one of my favorites, but it was destroyed by floods. FEMA and the citizens of Lyons fixed it all back up, better than before! Meadow Park is now amazing, and the town is looking great. With 10% snowpack in the front Range water levels were low. However the Creek Race Course had perfect levels somehow. The Freestyle hole was super shallow. In the Creek Race, I had a decent first run with a few minor mistakes that I planned on fixing, mostly connecting with three different rocks that killed my momentum. We didn’t know our standing after first runs and the best of two runs count. I assumed I was in the top 5 with it, but also knew I could improve a lot. This is a 2.5 minute race on class 5 whitewater, shallow, fast, technical. My second run started off great, but I overturned a boof and went left of a rock that I wanted to go right of and ran almost dry and it was right before the steepest section. I was not going to make up that time and beat my first run. I showboated the rest of the way down, talking to the spectators and just cruising it. The results had me in 4th behind Tad Dennis, Matthias from Argentina, and Nick Troutman who took first (second race win in a row!). I was 5 seconds out of first and certainly could have done that, but such is how racing goes…. it isn’t being capable, but actually doing it.

In the freestyle, I managed to make finals again, and was paddling pretty well. Clay Wright took top 3 and I was so proud of him. He hasn’t made top three in a while. I took 4th or 5th (can’t actually remember). Greg Parker won and Nick was second. We had a party at Matt Booth’s house for Marty Cronin’s 50th birthday. Saw lots of friends and had a great time. The next day was “Burning Can Festival”… Kevin Parker got us tickets and we got in the backdoor. Imagine a loop of beer vendors with over 100 vendors offering free samples…. We did the unimaginable…. we made it around the loop, more or less… I skipped the cider, and it closed down right on the final leg of the loop… Marty well well toasted for his 50th, and we kind of broke Yoshiko from Japan, who I had to lay down in my Titan so she wouldn’t be laying in the field. Kristine came and picked us up and drove us back the 1 mile to the RV. I was not in the mood for drinking beer for a couple of days after that!

Marty a few beers in with another beer making dude…

Nick and I took our sons (KC and Tucker) down the river in their own kayaks. KC didn’t want to wear a spray skirt. We paddled the class 1-2 whitewater together through town and both boys had a great time. KC commented on how easy it was. He kept filling his Shooting Star up with water from the waves and we had to empty out, but otherwise he was rocking that boat. I am seeing a kayaker starting to emerge in him!

GoPro Games: This is a busy week! Four kayaking events, 1 running event, 1 SUP event, and disc Golf tournament was what I signed up for. The first event was supposed to be Homestake Creek, but we raced at Dowd Chutes instead due to low water. Everyone was actually quite fired up for this race and it was super fun. It was like a slalom race on big water, kind of… I got to train for this event for two days, but so did everyone else. Many of the best racers in the world were there for this one. Olympic Silver medalist/Red Bull Athlete Vavre from Czech, Matthias from Argentina, Issaac Levingston, Tad Dennis, Dane Jackson, Nick Troutman, Gerd from Spain, etc..

My first run was conservative in the lines to get them right and most of them went well, but I tripped on my paddle and had to spin one move and it cost me some good time. I was in 8th after first runs. My second run was going epic until I miss a gate, so my first run got me into finals (top 10 made finals), and I was still in 8th. Here my run…

My finals run was awesome start to finish, but the water had dropped substantially and my time only improved 3 seconds over my best run. Everyone’s finals runs were slower due to low water but mine, but my 3 second improvement didn’t move my placing… finished in 8th place. Gerd from Spain won.

In the Freestyle- I made 5th in prelims and my second ride of prelims I was on fire. I was able to play to the crowd, nail my moves and put down a big score, the second biggest score of prelims. Semi-finals was the opposite. Both of my rides I stumbled on my Phonix Monkey and flushed out of the hole multiple times and took dead last in semi-finals getting 10th and having to watch finals from shore. In finals it was a nail biter between Hunter Katich and my son, Dane. Hunter took it with a 1660 to Danes 1580. Big scores and big rides by both athletes.

Here is my POV of my Freestyle Run:

Emily, my daughter, won her 10th Freestyle event at the GoPro Games (formerly Teva Mountain Games). What an impressive feat!!

We did the Downriver Race next- a 20 minute race on class 1-2 through Downtown Vail. Lots of racers at the starting line this year with over 80 total going in 30 second intervals. I started behind Dally Kellogg and was chasing him the whole way. After a few weeks in Colorado I was both used to the altitude and have been paddling hard and was able to pace myself better than in BV. I managed to finish in 5th place behind some of the fastest racers out there, but ahead of some of the fastest ones, too. My son, Dane, was right behind me and Nick just behind Dane and Vavrinec from Czech behind Nick. It felt good to do so well in a physical race like this against the young guys.

5K Up- Mountain Race- I decide to try a running race up the mountain and back… In typical EJ style, I lined up near the front, along side lots of runners in their team outfits from different schools, clubs, etc.. When the gun went off I sprinted ahead for the lead and tried to see how long I could hold it… 2 minutes more or less before the pack started passing me. Nick gave me that “Really?” look. I knew this was dumb from a racing perspective, but it was fun from a “hey look, I am winning” perspective. I paid for it with lactic acid, burning lungs, and dead legs for the entire race up the mountain. I had to walk several sections of steep grade. I managed to finish it strong on the downhill however as I am not afraid of running down steep stuff even with loose rocks, roots, whatever… I did a lot of running on the AT Trail back in the 80’s -90’s and would fly down the mountain. I was not fast, but I did win my age group. Nick beat me by 2.5 minutes and finished 9th overall against 294 people. I was 36th overall. Emily did really well also and she entered into 3 running events!!

In the Disc Golf I had a good start in the “Skills” section where you did 9 putts (10-20-30 feet) and I put in 8 out of 9 putts which only a few did. My speed where I actually put it in the hole was only 49mph and people did over 60. i was above average by a little. In the accuracy 9 holes of “t shots” I was middle of the pack but had to use a mid-range and I only use drivers for that. I finished at 29 while the record was 17. In the 18 hole prelims round I was playing very well and was at -3 with one hole to go and we got called off by the fire department due to a wildfire. Somehow I imagined that 17 holes would count for something (which would have put me in finals assuming I got a par on the last one or even a bogie), but I got a DNF. I really wanted to play the last hole but the guy with me who had the score card wanted to bail and ran with the card and I never saw him again. (he was one of the top pros and told me that they would count the round). I was bummed about playing for three days and getting a DNF. It was my first ever tournament for disc golf. Having a course at my house I have gotten pretty good at it and wanted to compete. The course we played was epic and super fun, however, even if it was 17 holes and I didn’t get scored.

8 Ball- Well, I still have never made finals in this event. I used the Antix in this race to keep my stern from being manipulated by 8 Ballers. I was doing good and on my 3rd round of knockouts when I made a tactical error and went for the shoreline sneak at the finish line and the 8 Baller self-sacrificed and put himself in harms way. I put my boat on top of his head and flipped him over but got stopped and then two more guys drove me into the wall and pinned me there, 10′ from the finish line while the other three competitors paddled across the finish line. Fun race, good moves, but a single bad move is all it takes!

Watch me nudge a Kellogg Kid into an 8 baller…. Didn’t realize it was him at the time…

SUP Cross- ha, another sob story where I was doing well and on my 4th round of knockouts when the starting whistle failed and I looked up only to see the other three guys going around the corner while I was waiting for the whistle. I started on river right and the other guys on river left and they heard the whistle that didn’t whistle. I sat there ready to pounce, head down looking at my board. Clay felt bad and apologized but there was nothing we could do to start over. I tried to make a final desperate pass at the last gate and managed to knock two guys in front of me off their feet but both fell onto their boards and by the time I got around the gate they were up and out of that gate and beat me to the finish line.

Lots going on in Vail! With 2 kids competing, and a son-in-law, 2 grand kids, KC, Kristine, Courtney, all of Team JK, 4 dogs, etc.. it is crazy time! Kristine holds everything together as usual. Thanks Kristine!

We drove from Colorado back to Tennessee… and I have already done a trip to Canada and back and getting ready to head to Detroit Rock City in two days for my next FLW Tournament… “Fish on!”