Kayaking’s Wildest Competition
The Whitewater Grand Prix is paddling's most insane event, a scrappy, alcohol-soaked gauntlet that sends competitors down some of the most fearsome rapids in the world. It's so dangerous and spectator-unfriendly that many sponsors won't go anywhere near it. But it might be exactly what the struggling sport needs.
In Early May, Quebec’s Mistassini River is still full of ice. Muscled up with spring runoff and stained almost black by tannins from tundra far to the north, the eddies are swirling, acre-wide slurries. Underneath a highway bridge in the town of Dolbeau-Mistassini, 40,000 cubic feet per second—almost half the flow of Niagara Falls—rush through a narrow gap and then plunge over a jagged line of granite bedrock ribs. Oceanic waves, some more than ten feet high and 70 feet wide, rise and break, and the river implodes into churning pits of whitewater known simply as Bridge Rapid. Normally, no one here pays the rapid much mind—it’s just another thunderous falls in this broad, waterlogged province—but today there is a spectacle brewing.
Cars and vans topped with crayon-colored kayaks are parked along the road, and a dozen boaters in helmets and drysuits line the bridge, studying the maelstrom. Motorists slow to see what’s happening, and eventually a small crowd forms. The kayakers are in town for the third edition of the world’s toughest whitewater competition, the 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix, a grueling two-week, six-event contest designed to anoint the world’s best all-around paddler.
Bridge Rapid is too dangerous even for the Grand Prix—at this flow, it’s one of the biggest in the world—but that fact hasn’t deterred roughly half the field from considering a run at it. Today is not an official stage, and the only thing at stake is prime footage. While the paddlers huddle on the bridge for an hour, discussing tactics and routes and ratcheting up courage, the Grand Prix’s photographers and videographers fiddle with their camera gear.
Eventually, 28-year-old Chris Gragtmans is ready to run probe. “Mind if I go first?” he calls to Spaniard Aniol Serrasolses, who is also preparing to put in. “I’m not trying to be tough. I just don’t want to have to watch any carnage before I go.” Serrasolses nods, and a few minutes later Gragtmans launches from shore in his nine-foot plastic expedition kayak. He crosses the eddy and turns into the current as the Grand Prix media team sends drones into the air. He is whisked with astonishing speed down the broad, foam-streaked tongue toward the erupting chaos below. Within seconds he appears as a tiny water bug skittering between exploding waves twice his height.
Where the river churns against a rock island, he is swept left and lines up a hydraulic big enough to flip a tugboat. He charges into the maw and disappears. After ten anxious seconds, he pops up downstream of the hole and rolls upright. Gragtmans gives the OK. It’s on.
After a few more successful runs, a commotion arises as two of the youngest competitors, 20-year-old Kalob Grady and 21-year-old Dane Jackson, paddle their tiny carbon-fiber freestyle kayaks toward an enormous 12-foot-tall wave at the top of the rapid. It would be ideal for surfing if it weren’t located directly above the deadly rapid. Grady slides smoothly into the pocket and begins throwing air screws, the sport’s most spectacular trick—an inverted flip in which the kayak spins on its axis like a spiraling football. Next up is Jackson, two-time defending Grand Prix champion and son of Eric Jackson, the most decorated paddler of all time and the owner of Jackson Kayaks. His air screws are even bigger. Again and again he spirals his kayak clean above the river and splashes down in perfect control. “That’s probably the burliest wave ever surfed,” says one awestruck competitor on the bridge.
Then the unthinkable happens. Jackson accidentally drops his paddle. It flashes into the foam pile behind him and is gone. The crowd freezes. Jackson leans forward over his deck and begins furiously hand-paddling toward the eddy. He can’t quite make it and is swept downstream toward the pounding ledge holes. He leans his whole body against one churning wave after another, the tiny kayak flicking back and forth. Somehow he wills his way around the fatal ledges, and in a few seconds he sloshes safely into an eddy at the base of the falls, arriving just before his paddle.
Everyone is astounded. “That’s the most progressive thing I’ve seen in kayaking,” fellow competitor Rush Sturges, at 30 one of the sport’s elder statesmen, says while shaking his head.
At the Whitewater Grand Prix, the days off can be just as important as the stages. Taking inspiration from events like mountain biking’s Red Bull Rampage, held annually in a remote spot not likely to attract many spectators, the Grand Prix’s main objective is to create videos of elite athletes competing in the most dramatic and demanding settings. Whether or not the footage is captured during an official stage makes no difference to founder Patrick Camblin, 32, a former professional kayaker who grew up on the banks of Canada’s Ottawa River. Most athletes wear at least one GoPro, and a media team accompanies them whenever they hit the water. Every few days, Camblin and company upload short highlight reels to Vimeo, where the clips have become some of the most popular whitewater segments of all time.
Editing video into the wee hours every night is only part of the challenge. During the day, Camblin must also choreograph a nimble, guerrilla-style operation and oversee all the judges, timekeepers, and safety procedures. By design the Grand Prix has no set locations, and while the scoring criteria vary from event to event, the freestyle stages are all about who can throw the biggest, most technical tricks and the downriver stages are either timed or head-to-head races. All the rivers are within a day’s drive of Quebec City, but where the caravan of staff, volunteers, and 35 competitors—28 men and seven women—end up is dictated entirely by the water levels, which change daily at this time of year, depending on rainfall, temperatures, and snowpack.
For the three races in the 2014 edition, Camblin hopes to cue up Class V rapids that few, if any, of the competitors have even seen. For the three freestyle stages, the optimum water level occurs when a targeted river wave—features with names like Detonator and Black Mass—is at its steepest. Most freestyle competitions are technical affairs with little risk. “At the Grand Prix,” Sturges points out, “even the freestyle is scary.” The waves are often so fast and twitchy that many people struggle to even catch them. And getting flushed from one can be dangerous. During the 2011 event, while the athletes were practicing on an Ottawa River wave called Gladiator, a recreational paddler had to be resuscitated after drowning in a hydraulic just a few yards downstream from the venue.
Between stages the competitors may opt to lie low and recuperate or, as they did that day at the Mistassini’s Bridge Rapid, attempt to cure their hangovers by paddling one of the world’s most fearsome stretches of whitewater. “When you get a group of hard chargers like these together,” says Sturges, who has notched dozens of first descents around the world, “the vibe is contagious. Everyone kicks their game up to the next level.”
The next level is what the sport desperately needs if it’s going to rebound. According to the research firm Leisure Trends Group, whitewater kayaking hit its peak in 2002, with 3.9 million paddlers. By 2004, that number had fallen by half, and it’s stayed there ever since. Meanwhile, whitewater-kayak sales have been stagnant for more than a decade.
During the sport’s heyday, whitewater competitions were booming and top pros like Eric Jackson made as much as six figures from sponsors. “We called it the golden gravy train,” says Lisa Kincaid, a former professional kayaker who is now the marketing manager at Kokatat, which makes paddle-sport accessories. Elite paddlers mounted ever more challenging expeditions to remote mountain gorges in places like Madagascar and Tibet; others chased notoriety by seeing who could huck the highest waterfall. By 2009, when Tyler Bradt launched himself off Washington’s 186-foot Palouse Falls, he landed on Good Morning America—but barely made a cent for his harrowing stunt. The massive SUV marketing budgets and booming kayak sales that helped fuel the sport’s brief ascension had disappeared, and the larger paddling companies had already begun shifting the bulk of their resources toward more accessible activities like kayak fishing, recreational kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding.
“It’s not surprising,” says Brad Ludden, one of the most successful paddlers from the early 2000s. “Kayaking is a hard sport to learn, can be scary as hell, and takes place mostly on remote mountain rivers. The consumer base is never going to be huge.”
Camblin acknowledges as much, but he’s convinced it could be a lot bigger if the competitions were more entertaining. “They’re boring to watch and boring to compete in,” he says. Last year’s World Freestyle Kayak Championship was held on a knee-high wave on North Carolina’s Nantahala River that wouldn’t give a drunk inner-tuber pause, Camblin notes, much less “inspire a 15-year-old kid to share the footage on social media.”
Figuring out how to do that hasn’t been easy. Even with nearly every one of the world’s top paddlers committed to this year’s event, Camblin failed to convince a single whitewater company to sign on as a cash sponsor. Once again there is no prize money.
When I stopped by his hotel room one night a few stages into the competition, Camblin and his two video editors, Matt Baker and Andrew Pollock, were way behind on their production goals despite some very late nights. They’d posted just one recap video and one course preview. All three were bent over their glowing 27-inch Macs, while two other staff members sat on the rumpled beds working on competition scoring sheets.
At the two prior Grand Prix events, Camblin had a staff of six paid videographers and editors. “This year,” says Camblin, who is laconic and heavy lidded even when rested, “I’m relying on two friends who will help me for free.” Heading into this year’s event, Camblin was $80,000 in debt, largely from financing the first two Grand Prix events himself—including paying for three-quarters of the competitors’ room, board, and transportation. (In 2014, he covered these expenses for only half the paddlers.) To save money, he recently moved back in with his parents and gave up his old beater car.
“If I can pull off one more of these,” Camblin told me before the event, “I think companies will see it as a proven concept and worth investing in.”
It’s not a far-fetched idea. NBC Sports recently made deals with Red Bull Rampage and GoPro Mountain Games to air recaps of the events. A couple of months before the 2014 Grand Prix, GoPro swooped in as a pilot sponsor, writing a big enough check that Camblin thinks the event will break even. “We signed on because there was so much content availability,” says Gregg DiLeo, a GoPro marketing manager who handles whitewater. “We really like getting involved in core events.”
The first time most of the competitors see the Shawinigan, the site of the second downriver race, they’re suffering the aftermath of a bender in Montreal, where a good chunk of the field had been clubbing until closing time following the boatercross event. It’s a gray, 40-degree day, with winter road sand still not swept from the streets. The course looks brutal. Brown, frothing snowmelt plunges over three successive rock-strewn falls. There’s no safe route at all down the right half of the middle falls, a 30-foot-high jaw of broken rock. Worse for morale is the fact that many of the racers arrive just as Nick Troutman finds himself in serious trouble.
Troutman, the 2009 world freestyle kayak champ and husband of Emily Jackson, Dane’s sister, is a 26-year old Canadian with the ebullient personality of a camp counselor. He isn’t hungover but still makes a terrible mistake. On his first practice lap, he chooses to run the low-head dam above the first falls. The dam does have a safe passage—a six-foot-wide notch where the current pushes straight through. Unfortunately, Troutman misses it by a few feet and plops sideways into the deep, deadly seam.
The hydraulics below low-head dams, which are designed so that water flows over the top, can be impossible for a boat or a body to escape, and there is panic from the competitors and race staff onshore. Many paddlers have died in similar circumstances. Knowing this, Troutman doesn’t try to paddle out of it—instead he wet exits and dives as far away from the dam as possible. Amazingly, he escapes, but he’s now being swept downstream toward the three punishing falls. With windmilling strokes, he makes the shore just at the top lip, crawling to his feet on the slippery boulders. He watches as his kayak is dragged down the rapid and crumpled by submerged rocks.
The crowd lets out a collective sigh. “That’s terrible,” Sturges says. “That’s the Grand Prix,” another competitor replies. Everyone nods, their faces slack and rubbery with fear. But soon enough it’s back to business. Some go suit up for their own runs while a few of the men turn their attention back to their phones, swiping away on Tinder, as they do whenever there’s a lull in the action.
At the inaugural Grand Prix, eight kayakers swam during the first time trial. In 2012, when the event was held in Chile, there were broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder, and Olympic slalom paddler Mike Dawson spent two days in intensive care with a lung infection after he nearly drowned in a sieve. That same year, Chilean Marcos Gallegos was pinned in his kayak under a submerged log and struggled to keep his head above water for nine terrifying minutes before another racer rescued him. After just two stages at the current Grand Prix, two competitors have dropped out with shoulder injuries and one is paddling with a broken finger. “It’s the hardest stuff anyone’s ever competed on,” says Shane Benedict, cofounder of Liquidlogic Kayaks. “I hope they’re prepared for the worst.”
Spooked by Troutman’s close call, the field votes to nix the first falls from the course, eliminating the risk of being swept down the unrunnable side of the subsequent rapid. When the time trial begins, racers are released from shore in two-minute intervals. They careen down the rock-strewn rapid like pachinko balls, bashing through curtains of spray and trying to keep their kayaks pointed straight off a sheer 20-foot drop. After fighting through a sticky hydraulic at the base, sometimes upside down, they sprint toward the next falls, a chunky 25-footer squeezed between broken rock ledges, and ended with a 50-yard sprint to the finish line.
One racer bounces onto his head halfway down the reef but rolls up quickly and keeps sprinting. Another flops over the falls backward. It starts to rain, and I find myself standing next to racer Joel Kowalski’s mother, one of just a handful of spectators. We watch as the paddle is ripped from one woman’s hands in the middle of the rapid. She bails out of her boat, and it plunges over the 20-foot falls alongside her. “That wasn’t very good, was it?” Joel’s mom says. According to my tally, it’s the sixth swim of the Grand Prix so far.
Only Dane Jackson makes the course look easy. In addition to his previous two Grand Prix victories, he also won the 2013 World Freestyle Kayak Championships and made the podium in three other disciplines—squirt boating, C-1, and open canoe, which would be like Shaun White winning a gold medal in the snowboarding superpipe and then clicking into skis and medalling in moguls and skiercross at the same Olympics.
“He is hands down the best kayaker in the world right now,” says Sturges. “He’s superhuman.” By all accounts, he has that rare combination of innate talent and unflagging dedication to his craft. Most of the competitors made four or five practice laps on the Shawinigan course, but Jackson estimates he logged over 20—so many that he cracked his boat. Where the Shawinigan’s rocky course makes most racers’ strokes choppy and violent, like they’re in a fistfight, Jackson’s are fluid, and his kayak scythes downstream like it’s on rails. He easily wins the stage, moving into first place in the men’s standings.
Later that evening, in the motel’s generic conference room, it’s Troutman who’s leading the field, exuberantly organizing a drinking game called Rage Cage. I can’t follow the rules, which include Ping-Pong balls and stacks of cups rotating around the table, and do my best to blend in and avoid having to drink the King’s Cup, a nasty mix of vodka and Coors Light.
While most of the competitors are here, Camblin is absent, as are the three Ph.D. students (geomorphology, physics, and parasitology). There are a few ironic mustaches and mullets, but the aesthetic is more goofy than hipster. Evan Garcia, one of the top men in the field, frequently wears a Mexican wool poncho, while Jackson plods around in a pair of puffy slippers fashioned to look like giant cans of Molson.
Although the party goes past 2 A.M. and the group consumes about ten cases of beer and several bottles of vodka, it’s a pretty tame gathering by Grand Prix standards. At the Chilean event, Sturges, who in addition to producing eight kayak flicks has released a pair of hip-hop albums, freestyled on stage at the host resort until forced off by the management and was then kicked out entirely for juggling beer mugs—poorly—on the dance floor, breaking several. In 2011, in Dobleau-Mistassini, a competitor trapped a skunk he’d found wandering around outside and tossed it into a room where a dozen people were hanging out drinking.
By this point, the competitors have settled into a fairly predictable rhythm: heavy drinking at night followed by woozy morning carpools, first to get coffee and egg sandwiches at the nearest Tim Horton’s, then to a parking lot beside one of the province’s flood-swollen rivers, where Camblin delivers the day’s briefing. Depending on the stage, they’ll either stomp through a slippery wet gorge, scouting every square foot of the frightening race rapids, or huddle up wet and steaming around a smoky campfire beside some thundering wave. Other times they’ll help with safety, as they did at a freestyle stage held at the Black Mass wave, taking turns raising a flag whenever a car-trunk-size chunk of ice was heading toward a surfing kayaker.
To save money, most of the competitors share vehicles and cram four to a room. They cook “gypsy stir-fry” on Coleman two-burners on their doorsteps, at one point using ingredients salvaged from Troutman’s garbage. When not paddling, they’re editing and posting their own GoPro clips, learning to fly drones, or giving each other mullets in the parking lot. Wherever they go, there’s always an airplane crash of damp gear—yellow GoreTex drysuits, blue personal flotation devices, and black neoprene spray skirts—hanging from every available hook, railing, and ledge.
A few days after the Rage Cage party, the inside of Camblin’s hotel room also looks like something exploded. There are Red Bull and Pabst Blue Ribbon cans everywhere, and for some reason they’ve set up the ironing board. They’re still a few stages behind schedule, but when they post new videos online, the clips quickly rack up a few thousand hits. People are definitely following, though the viewership isn’t as high as in previous years. (“That’s because I didn’t have someone whose job it is to spray the stuff all over the Internet,” Camblin will tell me later.) “Surprisingly,” he says, “GoPro is still happy with us even with our glacial posting pace.”
For the most part, everyone else is happy, too. There has been the usual grumbling about some of the scoring and timing organization. One racer feels she would have won the boatercross if the finish-line rules had been explained more accurately, and another complained that the big-trick guidelines changed in the middle of the competition. But most buy into the overall concept of creating great footage and are happy enough to follow Camblin around frozen, soggy Quebec for two weeks, taking huge risks for the cameras.
“The credibility he has among kayakers is incredible,” says Ryan Bailey, who is covering the event for kayaking pub Banks Mag and is one of the organizers of the sport’s other new pinnacle event, Idaho’s North Fork Championship race. “I don’t think anyone else could pull this off.”
The problem, of course, is finding more sponsors to sign on. “Paddling companies have told me that they are not interested in working with the Grand Prix due to how critical Patrick is of other events,” says Eric Jackson, who pulled out of this year’s event following the first stage after voicing his discontent with the scoring system. As Bailey acknowledges, “Patrick is definitely more of an artist than a salesman.”
Even if Camblin were the world’s best pitchman, he might have trouble getting his own struggling industry on board. “It’s a price issue for us,” says Liquidlogic’s Benedict. “I love the Grand Prix concept, but we don’t have a sponsorship budget.” A few months after the 2014 Grand Prix, in an effort to streamline costs, Liquidlogic decided to shift to a direct-to-consumer model. Last December, the Payette River Games, which has offered the biggest purse left for whitewater kayakers, announced that it is cutting the kayaking events in lieu of stand-up paddleboarding. “We have really enjoyed doing our best to promote and expand the sport of whitewater kayaking over the past four years,” event organizer Mark Pickard said in a press release. “But we’ve decided not to underwrite the expense of hosting another kayak event.”
The most notorious rapids are defined by what lurks below their surface, unseen. There are drops that have been run safely hundreds of times, and then one day some variable conspires to hold a body in the rocks below. Others, like the one at the crux of the final racecourse on the Basse Cache River, do strange, violent things to a kayak on seemingly every run. The best kayakers possess an ability to divine a river’s intentions and to negotiate, by timing and force, a course through. But none of them can plan for what they can’t see.
At its crux, the 50-foot-wide Basse Cache slumps into a 20-foot-deep cleft against the right wall. The racers all want to run left, across the grain and over a ten-foot shelf of galloping whitewater, but so far every one of them gets subsumed trying to do so. They reemerge as many as five unnerving seconds later, one with knuckles bloodied, another with his paddle snapped in half, and a third with his helmet cracked.
Lots of them didn’t want to run the rapid at all. Two weeks of fear, competition, and crowded cars and hotel rooms have ground them down, and now they’re faced with a river too high to run, let alone race.
“I’ll walk away,” Adriene Levknecht, an intense 26-year old paramedic from Greenville, North Carolina, calls out to other female racers scouting the river. “I’ll just start driving south.” They cluster in a knot, discussing whether to hold their course on an easier section or to race at all. Mutiny is in the air.
Camblin is confident that the flow will drop to reasonable levels overnight. “The alpha guys will step up,” he says. “There will be a race, and it doesn’t matter if they don’t all run it.”
The next morning, the flow has subsided but is still too high for a pair of very dangerous rapids downstream. Camblin decides to shorten the course and posts a squad of volunteers below the finish line to fish out swimmers before they’re swept downriver. “If you swim, we let your boat go,” Camblin says at the briefing. “No chasing equipment.”
During the race several do swim, their spray skirts imploded by the big drop. Each is pulled ashore by ropes thrown by rescuers, but several boats are swept around the corner. The women ultimately do race, charging through the sluicing gorge with steely resolve. Eventually, the mood lightens and the Basse Cache slalom becomes competition at its best—skillful, difficult, and spirited. A cluster of spectators gather along the big rapid, and some skinny girls wearing backpacks full of Red Bull show up from Quebec City and pass out free cans.
The timing isn’t announced during the race, but the top finishers are obvious because there are only three clean runs. The first is Garcia. The second is Sturges. In the short history of the Grand Prix, Sturges has never won a stage, and it feels like he’s due. But no one is surprised when, on the final run of the Grand Prix, Jackson flashes across the chaotic ramp, plops cleanly into the pool, and beats Sturges’s time by a few fractions of a second, once again winning the Grand Prix.
At the closing party that night in Quebec City, Troutman dances on the bar, the Ph.D. students are once again notably absent, and one of the volunteer staffers manages to get a Tinder match to show up. It appears to be going well—other than the fact that I hear her say that all the kayakers, even the women, smell like mildew. At one point, Sturges pulls me outside to perform one of his newest songs, rapping over beats he plays on his iPhone. He’s not as good at hip-hop as he is at paddling, and the lyrics are a little earnest for my taste, but his rhymes are layered and complex.
Camblin sits mostly to one side, wearing his usual flat-brimmed cap and sipping on a whiskey and water. He looks sleepy but happy. At the awards ceremony, he had deflected most of the thanks, even making Bailey announce the winners. He also somehow managed to skip the official post-event group photo. He’s got a long way to go, with the last two videos as yet untouched, but he’s satisfied that the event went off well.
He talks about taking the next Grand Prix to Nepal and says he’s been figuring out how to hold a future stage in the Niagara Gorge, a massive Class V run below the falls that’s currently illegal to paddle. Toward the end of the evening, Sturges does handstand push-ups on a table beside the dance floor, which is packed with sweaty kayakers, and when I see the staffer leave with his Tinder date, I think it’s probably time for me to call it a night, too. I scan the bar for Camblin, hoping to say goodbye, but apparently he’s already slipped out the door.
Frederick Reimers is a former editor at Paddler and Canoe & Kayak magazines. This is his first feature for Outside.
A full gallery of images from the Whitewater Grand Prix.