The Whitewater Rodeo 

Montana Whitewater Championships bring in the next wave of kayaking

Seth Warren was hard at work last Thursday afternoon. As the organizer of this weekend’s Montana Whitewater Championships, it was no surprise to hear him on his cell phone, rushing between classes, I imagined, or on the inevitable errands that stockpile when orchestrating a professional athletic event.

“I’m headed out to The Ledge right now,” reported Warren, his voice barely audible over the crackle of static. “Dude. I think I might lose you—bring your boat and come on out here.”

But Warren was not between classes, or running errands. He was at work in the only seat where you’ll reliably find him—the one in his kayak. The Ledge, just upstream from Johnsrud Park on the Blackfoot River, is one of several local gathering places where river hydraulics and the recent innovations of plastics engineers have merged forces, creating a trendy new form of boating: free-style “rodeo” kayaking.

Thirty minutes later I was at the ledge. A lone, dejected looking boater was loading his kayak on top of his car. “How is it out there?” I inquired, a little edgy at the prospect of getting in a kayak for only the second time this year.

“Not bad—there’s a group of guys down there that are just tearing it up, though. They’re really good.”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “I’m sure when I get out there the average level will drop a notch or two.”

I shouldered my boat and walked to the put-in. Immediately I felt out of place: My round-hulled, ten-and-a-half-foot Dagger seemed as conspicuous as a school bus when compared to the flotilla of flat-bottomed seven- and eight-foot boats gathered in an eddy on the opposite side of the river. These guys had the hip gear as well: river helmets molded in tribute to the Kaiser-style, metallic brain buckets of biker gangs of the ’60s and ’70s, wildly colored dry tops with built-in elbow and shoulder pads, graphite paddles with the look of sinister martial-arts weaponry, earrings, beards and goatees framing mischievous grins dripping with river water, as if a plot to knock off a half-rack from the local convenience store had just been hatched. Gazing self-consciously across the roiling Blackfoot, sizing up the torsos of kayakers bobbing like corks in boats that would fit in a coat closet, it appeared as if I had stumbled upon a brightly colored waterborne chapter of Hell’s Angels, and I was the innocent station-wagon driver that was about to get stomped.

I nervously ferried across the river, watching a paddler in an impossibly short yellow boat execute perfect flat spins on the lip of the wave formed by The Ledge. “Anybody here named Seth?” I inquired sheepishly. Paddles pointed to the man in the yellow boat.

“Hey-hey, you must be the Indy guy,” Warren welcomed, offering a reassuring high-five. He paused to assess my gear. “Damn, I think my boat could fit inside yours.” To fully comprehend the shorter-is-better evolution in kayaking, it helps to realize the focus of the sport has shifted in the past few years. Kayakers today are likely to spend as much time with the bow of their boats pointed upstream as down, seeking out features in rivers such as standing waves and holes. The short, flat-bottomed boats are the product of kayakers’ desire to “stick” in places where the river current slows, folds back on itself, or flows temporarily in reverse. While standing waves such as those found at The Ledge are relatively benign, the spot where a boater most often can spin, flip or cartwheel most reliably involves considerably more risk.

“Play boating” or “hole-riding” may conjure images of dainty canoe-rides or dark acts of perversion. The reality lies closer to the latter. A hole is a feature in a whitewater stretch of river that rafters and down-river kayakers have traditionally avoided until recently. They are formed downstream of large obstructions to a river’s flow. The bigger the obstruction, the greater the volume and velocity of water, the more unpredictable the hole will be. The precise reason some holes will trap a boater and not let go—a “terminal hole”—belong to a complicated branch of physics known as fluid dynamics. To summarize, picture a whirlpool of Melvillian proportions, with its axis tilted horizontally rather than vertically in a body of water. Instead of sucking down its vortex, like water down a drain, such a watery hell would push its victims down to the bottom and recirculate them back to the surface, occasionally for just enough seconds for the victim to suck in a quick breath before being sent on another oxygenless round trip. Such features exist at higher flows on the Clark Fork, and many other rivers. Boaters have died in them.

Of course not every hole is a “keeper,” and as kayak designs have advanced, and boaters have sought new challenges, paddlers have found the right places to spin, cartwheel, and surf their boats. Warren, who began paddling in his early teens near his boyhood home in Park City, Utah, marvels at the advances in boat design in the eight years he has been plying rivers. “We were this bratty group of kids with duct tape holding our kayaks and life jackets together. We wore bicycle helmets. None of us could roll if we flipped; and the Perception Dancers we paddled were 13 or 14 feet long.”

As quickly as Warren grew into a serious paddler, kayaks shrunk and shape-shifted into their present form. Kayaking evolved from a fringe sport practiced by crazies in 15-foot fiberglass boats to a sport accessible to weekend warriors with regular jobs and SUVs on which to strap their short, new boats. Warren has enjoyed a wild ride the whole way, managing to turn a recreational obsession into a way of life. In the past two years, he has paddled in Nepal, Bali, Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile. This weekend’s festivities have been organized in part as a project for a class at UM, where he majors in resource management.

“I paddled 300 out of 365 days last year,” boasted Warren, trying to explain how a native of Park City rarely skis anymore. “If you want the perfect powder day every day, get into a kayak.”

Or, watch Warren and other competitors from around the country get into their boats this Saturday at 11 a.m., 40 miles west of Missoula, just off the Fish Creek exit. The Montana Whitewater Championships will be held near here on the Clark Fork at a hole just upstream from a put-in known as Triple Bridges. (The interstate, a rail line, and a road all cross the river there.) Warren and a group of volunteers have been busy improving river access and viewpoints, lining up sponsors, contestants from around the country, judges, cash prizes for winners in the professional division, gear prizes, including a new kayak, for winners in the amateur division, and free T-shirts to the first 100 spectators. Preliminary rounds will take place on Saturday, with the qualifiers moving to finals on Sunday. Contestants will be judged on the variety and number of spins, cartwheels, and flips they manage to complete in a timed session in the designated hole. Crystal Springs Resort will host a post-paddling party. (These gatherings are generally not for the faint of heart. Fueled by beer and possibly other substances, kayakers can be notorious deviants, usually in direct proportion to the amount of river water absorbed in the course of the day’s events.)

Not every boater is cut out for whitewater rodeo, as I illustrated last Thursday at The Ledge. Rather than getting stomped, Warren and company offered friendly advice on how to ease onto a wave with limited skills and outdated equipment. A lack of success in this endeavor did not deter from the enjoyment to be had in the attempt. As light faded from the mid-spring sky in the river canyon, it was easy to guess at the reasons for the explosion in the popularity of kayaking. Watching the winter’s snowpack race oceanward from a river’s viewpoint is not a bad way spend an evening. The exhilaration of nailing a roll. The elemental pleasure of the rediscovery of moving water, what Kenneth Grahame described in The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.”

And then there’s the challenge of facing fear and discovering the truth. I decided last season the aforementioned aesthetics of river travel would suffice; I would not succumb to the urge to buy a hot-rod play boat. I’m forced to admit that since last Thursday, I have borrowed a friend’s newer kayak and latched on to the wave at The Ledge, the green water churning perfectly under that short flat hull. I was fooling myself. The sensation of riding on top of an entire river as it travels beneath you is unbeatable, something like stopping time for just a brief instant.

For anyone interested in a great beginner’s boat, mine is for sale.
Unlike Warren, I can usually be reached at the seat behind my desk.

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