In June each year, the best kayakers in the world begin their migration to Banks, Idaho, to compete in the North Fork Championship (the NFC). The NFC is a legendary whitewater kayaking competition where the river community comes together to celebrate the North Fork of the Payette River. The event is famous for the high-quality whitewater and community that it draws out.
This year, the stakes were higher than ever: The North Fork was flowing at twice it’s normal summer flows, more athletes and spectators were present than any other year, and the Extreme Kayaking World Championships sponsored the event. Every year, athletes come to compete for the titles of “King & Queen of the North Fork”, but this year was the first year that the winners would be competing for the title of “World Champion”. The first day’s event was the Kokatat Qualifiers, an open invitation time trial meant that anyone confident enough to race the river could register for the qualifiers.
The North Fork of the Payette consists of 15 miles of continuous, big, Class V+ Whitewater. The competition takes place on two rapids on the “Upper 5” miles of the river; first two days on the rapid “S-Turn”, and the final competition on a monster of a rapid called “Jacob’s Ladder”, the rapid most people consider to be the most difficult and dangerous. The action started early in the morning on Thursday, where 140 racers lined up for their time trials down S-Turn; a powerful and confusing rapid with many lines. Out of the initial 140 racers, only 40 men and 10 women proceed to the next round.
Many people in the valley have friends and family who compete in the qualifiers, and it brings a level of intimacy not commonly found in other types of sporting events. Wet Planet has had several team members compete throughout the years. For several years, Wet Planet raft guide and kayak instructor Sean Madden has competed in the North Fork Championship, and this year he was back for more!
Beyond the intense whitewater, stacked competition, and beautiful scenery, the North Fork Championship has become known as the “whitewater family reunion” due to the number of boaters from around the world who come out to play every year. During the three days of the competition, there are also three days of world-class celebration at the Whitewater Awards and the North Fork Festival. After the qualifiers on the first day people began to make their way to Boise to watch the Whitewater Awards: a video competition and raffle held to celebrate the achievements within the world of whitewater in the last year, and raise money and awareness for organizations that support the river, such as American Whitewater and Idaho Whitewater United. The video competition is peer-voted by nearly 200 of the world’s best whitewater kayakers and is a showcase of some of the most impressive feats in kayaking of the year. At the end of the night, the winners from the qualifiers were announced, and the qualifying men and women took to the stage.
Day Two’s competition was a head-to-head which pitted the top 40 men and top 10 women against themselves, with the brackets broken down into 1st versus last, 2nd versus second to last, and so on. The competition lasted all afternoon, and people cheered as their friends and family raced against their heroes. Afterward, the crowd began to move to Crouch, Idaho – significantly closer to Banks – for the North Fork Festival. As the sun set into the hills, people flowed into the campground to enjoy a night of live music, games, and community celebration.
Saturday morning in Banks was full of talk at the Banks Cafe; who’s been training the most, who’s got the best lines, who’s going to win? It is hard for boaters to duplicate the same line on Jacob’s Ladder, the nature of the rapid is chaotic and unpredictable. Fifteen kayakers had been chosen to compete in “Jake’s Race”, a giant slalom course arranged on one of the most violent, challenging, and dangerous rapids on the North Fork. Seven slalom gates are strategically placed along the course in a manner that would challenge accomplished Olympic slalom kayakers, with the added challenge of Class V+ big water. Making contact with the gate is a five-second penalty, and missing the gate entirely is a fifty-second penalty; the racers would need to make it through every gate for a chance to win.
Each athlete would get two timed runs to perfect their line, with the best time used in the ranking. One-by-one the competitors launched down the Red Bull ramp into Jacob’s Ladder, with spectators lining the blast rock on the riverside. Watching Jake’s race is an incredible experience; seeing some of the best kayakers in the world descending one of the most legendary rapids in the Northwest is awe-inspiring. From the shore, it was hard to tell who was the fastest, but not so difficult to tell who was fast. Dane Jackson, Gerd Serrasolses, Joe Morley, Tad Dennis, Natalie Anderson, and Marian Saether were names on everyone’s mind after the competition ended.
After the competition ended, everybody took to the river for the annual stoke float! Paddlers of all skill levels would join this float on their preferred section of the river. The stoke float is a great way for the paddling community to get together on the water, and Banks has options for everyone with the Class I-III Main Payette, Class III-IV South Fork Payette, and the class V-V+ North Fork Payette.
People then began to make their way back to Crouch, where the scene was starting to look like a party. The stoke in the crowd was high as people grew excited about the winners! Saturday night, there was a raffle, drysuit derby, live music, vendors, and an afterparty at the Dirty Shame Saloon.
As the day rolled into evening, the winners were announced: Dane Jackson, Joe Morley, and Tad Dennis took the podium for the men’s division and Mariann Saether, Pavlina Zasterova, and Jen Chrimes took the podium in the women’s division. The crowd was psyched, and an atmosphere of elation and camaraderie filled the air. This epic event had come to a close for the year, but the evening of celebration with the river community had only just begun.
River Festivals are important as a way to bring the community together around the natural environment. In a day and age where many natural resources are threatened, it is important to show support for the natural world and the things in it that we care about. The North Fork Championship is more than a celebration of whitewater, it is a reminder that the North Fork of the Payette River was once proposed for a hydro-power dam, and a small group of paddlers banded together to save it. The North Fork Championship was once a small event held for locals and Class V kayakers, and now it has grown to showcase the passion of the international whitewater community.
Want to experience a local whitewater festival? Wet Planet hosts the annual White Salmon River Festival & Symposium every June, complete with a community rafting trip, kayak race, symposium, and community celebration.
Interested in paddling scenic Idaho whitewater? Consider marking your calendar for next year’s North Fork Championship, or a take a multi-day rafting or kayaking adventure with Wet Planet Whitewater on Idaho’s Main Salmon River.
Author Cyrus Shea works with Wet Planet’s Marketing and Base Operations teams. When he’s not at work, he can be found in his kayak on the river!