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The point is that creeking, despite its superficial appearance as the most ridiculous sort of risk-taking, is actually one of the more carefully deliberate endeavors in all of paddling. First you learn to roll a kayak in flat water. Then you accustom yourself to the moderate rapids of, say, the Blackfoot. When you’re ready (sound judgment required here), you start running Alberton Gorge, progressing from just-don’t-swim survival paddling to a purposeful downstream dance from feature to feature. You meet new people, you challenge each other and yourself. Maybe you see a YouTube video of kayakers making Big Timber Creek look easy, or you get invited to watch a race on Bear Creek. Maybe you think: I could do that...
“The progression of what it takes and the commitment to get to that spot is a really beautiful thing,” Cheyenne says. “You can kind of refine your skills in a way that brings you a certain level of balance, muscle tone, muscle memory, so that when you step up and want to run something challenging, you’ve been training and working your way up to being ready to do that.”
July 23, a full month after Best of the Bitterroot’s originally scheduled start, the creeks are dropping and the race is on. Todd and Matt are unpacking gear in the Kootenai Creek trailhead parking lot when two rock climbers pull up and start unloading their own equipment.
One of them takes in the expanding profusion and says, “You’re gonna kayak this shit?”
“You guys are gnar-dawgs,” his partner says admiringly.
Matt says, “You guys are climbers? You are!”
“Naw, man,” says the first climber. “We’ve got rope.”
I note, not for the first time, the reflexive self-deprecation common to people who do extraordinarily difficult things very well.
Kootenai Creek is a short run, almost absurdly so in light of the coordinated effort necessary to run it: just a few hundred yards, less than a minute from start to finish. From a well-chosen rock near the end, you can see the whole course, minus a sharp turn at the top. You will be looking up. Eight kayakers show up for the race, including Todd and Matt and Cheyenne. Each of the eight takes two laps on the creek, with the times combined and recorded on Matt’s laptop. A safety boater waits in an eddy at the take-out, and radio relays with throw ropes are positioned on outcrops along the course. The laps alternate between spots of stony shade and blazes of white spray. On shore, boater Ryan Witkowski has a rock fall on his finger and loses a nail, leading to a short delay. Cheyenne breaks her $400 paddle on a rock and still manages to execute a dicey roll with the single-bladed remains.
Todd isn’t so lucky. He misses a must-make brace and then flubs a roll—happens to the best of them—and ends up swimming. I see him upstream, midstream, toppling face first over a drop, kayak behind him, paddle in hand, Go-Pro camera mounted to his red helmet, eyes big but composed. His crew fishes him out up a steep rock wall. He’ll regroup and complete a second run, coming in at 8th place with a DNF (did not finish) time of 1 minute and 11 seconds.
In the parking lot later, friends and family and awestruck landlubbers outnumber creekers by at least three to one, and I introduce myself to Matt’s mother. I ask if she worries. She tells me that she and Matt’s dad have had to acknowledge the dangers. They have friends who have lost sons to kayaking, but they’ve decided it’s unwise to squelch their son’s passion.
“Besides,” she says, “it keeps them out of the bars.”
Behind her, a kayaker named Zachariah Campbell reaches into a cooler in Todd’s van for a cold PBR. Todd, taking his swimmer’s medicine, drinks it from a neoprene booty.
The next day, on Bear Creek, the water is falling quickly toward too-low. Seven paddlers take on the longer run, about a mile, with a two-mile hike to the put-in. The Bear Creek run is arguably tougher, too, with features named Tijuana Crack Whore (an elbow-munching boat-wide crevasse), Hotel California (you can never leave...) and Brave Bear. Bear Creek is a one-lap, one-time race.
Todd bounces back to take Bear with a time of 2 minutes and 19 seconds—7 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Matt. Along the way he wins the Brave Bear award for navigating a long stone slide half-submerged and going over the run’s main falls backwards. His trophy is a bronze-plated—well, spray-painted, probably—neoprene bootie.
Bear is too long to take in from one vantage, and halfway through the race I exit my black-fly-ridden rock ledge and walk downstream to find another place to watch. Passing me, a woman walks uphill with her young son and two young daughters in tow. As they pass me, the littlest girl, in a pink dress, tugs at her mom’s hand.
“Mom, can I do the kayak race?”
Mom, having misheard, says, “That’s where we’re going!”
Two beats later, having realized what was asked, Mom clarifies: “Well, now, honey, we can’t do the kayak race.”
Not yet, anyway.