Fall Racing in Cali

California is mostly known to kayakers for summer multi-days in the Sierra and some of the best quality granite. But every fall thousands of local cali paddlers assemble for the some of the best dam released runs you can find. A few years ago I decided to go to my first Feather Fest, it was an eye opening experience to paddle such quality rivers and be a part of such a core gathering of fired up paddlers. The North Fork Feather River is located about an hour east north east of the small city of Chico, CA. The characteristic of the river is made up of massive house sized granite boulder gardens with moderate steepness. Its sick!

This year I decided it was time for another trip back to Feather but this time I was going to stay for the legendary Gnarl Fest held on the steeper and gnarlier South Branch Of the Feather. The events corresponded well this year because of back to back weekends.

I left the comforts of home in the PNW and hit the road in my trusty Chevy Astro loaded up with all the essentials for a successful trip. The quiver I decided to bring was my Karma Unlimited for Feather Fest (long boat race) and the new Nirvana for Gnarl Fest. I was stoked to get to race the Nirvana on some steep and technical rivers for the first time for me.

I arrived at the Feather after the 10 hour trek south around 4 or 5pm on Friday. I was pretty tired from the drive so I opted to get not paddled the fish flow release of (500cfs) and wait to get my practice runs in the next morning before the race with proper flows. That night my good buddy Willy P and I made some dinner and kept the vibes mellow. The next morning we woke up to thousands of people who had arrived late in the night and eager to get on the water. I was really impressed with the size of the turn out. It was also perfect weather for paddling so I think every kayaker and rafter in Cali showed up. There was literally over a thousand people there on saturday morning.

We got up made some breakfast and suited up for some practice laps, The race is held on the Tobin section of the North Fork of the Feather. Its solid cali class 4-5 boulder garden style river/section. Its a 13-14 min long race and about 3 miles long. Its a super challenging section of river to race because there are over 20 different rapids that all look the same as you come into them. Something else that made it difficult is that the river flooded massively this past spring because of tons of snow and rain and many of the rapids I had remembered had changed significantly.

On the first practice lap I followed Will Pruett who was the champion from 2016. We made our way down the river trying different lines and seeing which lines we would take in the race. By the end of the run I was throughly confused and completely shocked how much changed from the last time I had run the river in 2014. I decided I would need to take another lap if I had any chance to put together a good race run. While I waited for shuttle I watched my go-pro and tried to memorize the lines. With about an hour to go before the start of the race we put on the the second lap, it went a little better but also was very clear there was no way to remember every single move. I decided I would focus on the rapids that I could loose the most time in and freestyle the in-between stuff. Over the years I have noticed that I can paddle pretty well when I am just reacting to what the river throws at me.

The race started promptly at high noon, I’m not a morning racer so I was stoked on the later start. Will lead off the pack of 70+ racers. I was second off and noticed that a bunch of rafters had just put on in front of all the racers. HA. Now not only were we dealing with a tricky river but we would be dodging rafts trying to squeeze though tight slots and run the big rapids.

I went hard off the start. Ive been racing paddle boards all summer and knew my fitness was good so it was time to put the cross training to work. Everything went smooth till about 5 minuets into the race where I caught up to the rafts. Because I saw the raft clogging the main channel I took an alternative line and squeaked by. At about 10 minutes into the race I was getting lactic but put my head down and powered to the finish. I crossed the finish line exhausted. In long races it’s really hard to tell how you did. Everything feels slow but I was confident I pulled as hard as I could. I think this style of racing favors who is willing to endure more pain. I can tell you I was smashed at the end. My arms were pumped and hands were cramping. OH yeah, I remembered I still had to take a short boat run……. geeze. I was almost going to skip it because I was beat down but once I cooled down a bit I decided to give it a go. The short boat run also went about the same, some raft dodging some weird lines and confusion. At one point I thought I missed the finish line, I thought I had paddled pasted it and I couldn’t figure out where I was on the river but I kept paddling hard and eventually figured out I was only two thirds the was down. I went a little easier in short boat because I was so tired from long boat and knew if I went too hard I would make mistakes. I made it to finish taking some unconventional lines that might have actually been faster then the traditionally run lines. It was a super fun race in hindsight. It was challenging and different. I liked the fact that I did not know the lines and had to just wing it, relying on instant and fitness.

After the race runs, we did a stoke float. This was my 5th lap of the day so I just enjoyed it. Taking the fun lines and not trying to go fast. I took some time to look around and admire the beautiful river and paddle with people I don’t get to paddle with all the time.

That evening the results were announced in the midst of the party, which is a big part of any Cali river fest. I was stoked to learn I won both short boat and long boat earning the title of King Of Tobin 2017! YEWWW

The following day I went over to the South Fork of the Feather (The Gnarl). It’s about 2.5 hours from the North Fork just south of the little town of Qunicy. I was super blow away with the zone it was in! Such an off the beaten path kinda place which gives it a special vibe. I didn’t know what to expect at all. Will and I ran the river the next morning. The first bit is super steep and has a 25ft drop mixed in with some really gnarly rapids and tricky boofs. I was stoked to be in the Nirvana on this creek. I really cant say it enough that boat makes kayaking the Gnarl so damn sick! The run is 9 miles long in total and truly a classic day run for Cali, it has dozens of long technical rapids and even a few portages. I was stoked but tired after the weekend of racing and decided to go chill out for a few days before the next race.

I came back a few days later and there was a medium sized group of hardcore GNARL paddlers gathered and were ready to rumble. This race is super short (3min) but super GNAR. My plan for this race was to go HAM. I came out swinging, It went super well off the first sick boof, not getting caught up in the breaking boil that was just above perfect 10 footer. I kept it smooth into the first crux rapid, and I sprinted through the pool above the 25footer. I had a weird line that sent me a littler further right then I planned but it panned out well. Just after that was the true crux of the race. A little 5 footer that you had to land on top of a boil and not get pushed into the eddy on the left. I came in hot and pulled hard on a rightly but immediately knew I was going to get a weird exit. I squarted into the eddy but with a big correction stroke I kept from spinning out completely and clawed my way off of the undercut wall and made the eddy. I lost a bunch of energy doing this and it also was about 5 seconds slower then the perfect line. Thats racing. I got back on line and finished the following 4 moves/rapids pretty well. Another really fun race lap done and dusted shared with some of the best paddlers on the west coast in attendance, good vibes all around! We all paddled the remainder of the run together. The crew included Evan Moore, Evan Garcia, Willy P, Jason Hale, Jordan Golnick, Johnny Chase, Rush Sturges, Carson Lindsay, Connor and many more! legendary crew to say the least!

After a rally fun shuttle ride back to the put in and party site the results were announced. Evan Garcia took the win and new course record (2:41), I was just 1 second behind him, Willy P was 3rd, Rush was 4th, and Connor was 5th. A White Salmon Sweep in the top 3. YEW! The party went off, with the drink of choice and main event sponsor Four LOCO as tradition goes. Good times were had. Another Gnarl Fest in the Books! Ill be back for sure. Thanks to Justin Patt and Willy P for making this event go down.

The Fall is a great time to be in Cali. I loved it, it was a nice chance of pace and amazing paddling. Thanks to everyone for the good times on and off the water!

Check my Instagram account for videos from these events @isaaclevkayak

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