This is our first year being exposed to downriver races and we have to say… they are a great family activity! If you pick the right ones they are a family bonding experience with high fun factors.
Hunter Vincent – GoPro Games
We dipped our toe into the world of Downriver racing at CKS Paddlefest (Buena Vista, Colorado) in May by participating in the Race to the Grill. This is a super family friendly race that is held on a 4 mile long class II+ section of the Arkansas River referred to as the “Milk Run”. There is a group practice run on Sunday afternoon for those that are interested and then the race is held late morning on Monday of the long weekend. It is a very laid back event with people in kayaks, canoes, tandem kayaks, rafts and SUP’s. Free shuttles are provided by River Runners so you want to a) drop your boat off at the put in to get it in line, b) drive your car down to River Runners at the finish line and c) sign up for the race / pay your $10 and then catch a ride back up to the top. Start order is based on the order that you line up in so you can choose to paddle in front of, behind or with friends and family. It was fairly low water this spring so it took us 33 minutes to do 4 miles. The race ends at “The Riverside Grill” at River Runners, one of the local rafting companies. Awards (prizes!) to follow the race and yummy food and drinks from the Grill while you are waiting.
Hunter Vincent – GoPro Games
Next up was the GoPro Games in Vail, Colorado. This was a bit more of a structured event and you need to sign up online ahead of time as many of the events at GoPro Games reach capacity. There is the famed Steep Creek Race and then there is the DownRiver Kayak Sprint race. You want the Downriver Kayak Sprint Race! It is a mixture of young kids through to seasoned pros and everything in between. This is also where you see a lot of old school long boats being pulled out of garages as people work to improve upon their times from prior years. Consider it low key competitive…This race is also 4 miles long on a class II+ section of Gore Creek, where the water is COLD as it’s fresh from the snowpack. It is faster moving than the Arkansas River so times are more in the 20 minute range. Shuttles are a bit tricky as the start location is in a residential neighbourhood and it’s an 8:30 am race start, which makes for an early start to the day. We paired up with another family so one vehicle did the paddler drop off while the other did the cheering squad and pick up at the end of the race, which is right in the village. All athletes that register for GoPro Games get a SWAG bag full of goodies (T-shirt, Hat, socks, snacks, stickers etc.), which makes just showing up a win for everyone! There is no formal awards ceremony so we chose to head off for ice-cream in the village to celebrate with friends.
Lee Vincent – Ocoee River Race
Our third race was the Ocoee River Race in eastern Tennessee. It is an 8 mile race on class III that runs from the put-in through to the last rapid on the Middle Ocoee. It is organized by the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club as a fundraiser for the Team River Runner chapter in Chattanooga. You have to be a member of TVCC to race – family memberships are only $20 and then the race itself is free. It will fill up so be sure to sign up online ahead of time. Your starting number is based on when you sign up, so earlier is better. Everyone is out for a fun time with a mixture of competitive focus – some people are out for the win and have been doing training laps for the last few weeks, others have bets in place with friends to see who can be fastest and the majority of people are here for a fun time with friends and to challenge themselves. The race is very well organized and this year they had 130 racers and 190 starting slots as over half of the people race multiple categories (long boat, short boat, duo, handpaddle, raft etc.). Depending on when your number is called there is a fair amount of stand around and wait as people are sent off in one minute intervals. The shuttle is an easy one as the road runs alongside the river and there are always people coming and going. If everyone in your group is racing try to set shuttle ahead of time so you will have your vehicle at the bottom when you are done. Race times range from 30-40 minutes, which makes it a manageable challenge for newbie racers. The hardest part of this race is dodging the commercial rafters – there is rubber everywhere! There is a family friendly awards banquet and party at Adventures Unlimited, a local rafting company, however the fun does start to wind up the longer people have been there and enjoying the free beer, so time your stay wisely.
Hunter & Lee – South East DownRiver Race at NOC
Our last race of the year was the South Eastern Downriver Race held on the 8 mile class II+ section of the Lower Nantahala River in western North Carolina. It is run by the Georgia Canoe Association and feels more like a local community race. Sign up online to help them know how many people are coming and it’s a bargain $5 per person to participate. This is a mixture of serious paddlers (they are the ones in the actual carbon downriver and slalom boats) and recreational paddlers (in long boats, short boats, duos and canoes) but the overall vibe is one of FUN. This is a lower volume river so run times are between 60 and 70 minutes, which makes for a LONG race. It was a good one to finish with as it allowed us to use all of the mental and physical skills we have developed through the other races. The Nantahala Outdoor Centre provides free shuttles after the race and there was a simple awards ceremony with medals for every class and some long standing trophy awards as well. If you still have energy left after the race then grab your play boat and spend some time throwing freestyle tricks in the hole!
Hunter being dwarfed by KarmaUL at South East DownRiver Race at NOC
The five biggest things we learned in our first year of downriver racing are:
- Don’t be shy – give it a try and use what ever boat you have on hand (we paddled in Zen’s, Nirvana’s & KarmaUL borrowed from a friend)
- Ask lots of questions – everyone is happy to share information on the race and their race lines
- Be sure you know where the finish line is so you can gauge your effort (which specific bridge or turn does it end at…)
- Just paddle… you may not be the fastest but sometimes the one that can just keep paddling wins the race
- Challenge each other and have fun – that’s why you are out there
Check out your local paddling club and sign up for your first DownRiver Race as a family – you’ll love it!
Group photo before Race to the Grill
– The Vincent Family