The Rowdiest Kayak Race in America (Spectators Included)
In the whitewater mecca of Asheville, North Carolina, the first Saturday of November belongs to the Green River Narrows Race. First established 20 years ago by a group of 16 hard-charging locals, the race has grown into one of the country’s most competitive and respected, with the biggest names in the sport returning year after year to battle it out.
There’s no money on the line and no barrier to entry. But it’s been called the Super Bowl of Kayaking for good reason, packing a raucous audience atop the tight canyon walls of what locals call the bedrock coliseum. As photographer John Webster discovered, it’s also a damn good time.
Photo: The three-quarter-mile-long course is notoriously brutal, taking paddlers through a chain of powerful class V rapids punctuated by a narrow 18-foot drop dubbed Gorilla. But it’s what happens out of the water that sets the Green race apart: whereas most backcountry whitewater competitions only draw a handful of spectators, the Green packs the crowd ten-deep, with spectators just feet from the the river, their cheers and hollers blasting off the tight canyon walls.
In the days leading up the 2015 race, a record 161 racers descended on Hendersonville, North Carolina, the closest town to the course put-in. “There were kayaks all over the place–along the highway, at gas stations, at the Waffle House,” said Webster, a Boise-based kayaker. “Everyone was speaking the same language of whitewater.”
The Green River is dam-released, meaning kayakers can count on reliable flows almost 300 days a year. This year, heavy rains, coupled with a scheduled double release, meant the river was running above 200 percent—hovering around 20 inches, more than double the normal eight—in the days leading up to the race. The water level dropped half a foot by race day but not before breaking a few paddles.
The combination of consistent, year-round flow and the dynamic hydraulics from the tight Green River gorge has nurtured a vibrant whitewater community and kept the race, one of the sport’s oldest, relevant. “There are a lot of rad paddlers here who deserve a well run race on their home river,” said race organizer John Grace, who competed for the 16th time this year, just days after his wife gave birth to twins. “This is a worthy group and worthy river.” Paddler Curt Lamberth is pictured here.
The race is light-hearted—the waiver includes the clause “I have been warned of the stupidity of this activity”—but the stakes are high. Racers gathered around the starting line to blow off steam and catch up with friends. “Paddling is intense, especially when you’re doing it on a really high level,” said Shane Benedict, co-founder of Hendersonville-based kayak maker Liquidlogic, which calls the Green its home river. “And that intensity tends to transfer over to your relationships.”
Paddlers gathered around race organizer Jason Hale. Hale, who was part of the inaugural race and holds the record for participating the most number of times (18), is the spiritual leader of the race. In his outgoing voicemail message, he says, “A clean river is a like a mean shiver. Who's racing, who's chasing, who’s placing? Going to be on top, don't stop. Go left, go fast. Leave a message.” His pre-race speech—part Braveheart monologue, part pep talk—is the stuff of legends, and includes the warning: “You will hear a roar like you’ve never heard before!”
To reach the river in time for the high-noon start, spectators scramble two miles down a rain-sodden ravine. This year, a record 1,500 committed to the rainy hour-long hike in, hauling in dogs, chairs, and lots of blankets.
The winner receives a stained glass trophy made by local paddler Todd Graff. “We all know we're not going to make any money racing the Green,” said Adriene Levknecht, a top kayaker from Greenville, South Carolina, whose seven wins have earned her the nickname Queen of the Green. “We do it for the energy, the vibe, the spectators—for when you come around the corner of Gorilla and 700 people are standing in a gorge.”
This year, the competition was buzzing with talk of breaking the elusive four-minute barrier. (The course record is 4:10, set in 2012 by Mike Dawson during high water.) Ultimately only the women’s record fell, with the 27-year-old Levknecht posting a 4:38, beating the 2013 record of 4:43. A record 60 racers finished in less than five minutes. “A lot of events are just about the top two or three,” Grace said. “But we make a point to celebrate first-time racers and those who, after four or five years of racing, finally broke the five-minute barrier as much as the champions.”
One of the Green’s greatest challenges is that some of the heaviest whitewater lies near the end of the course. Racers have already battled major rapids, like Go Left or Die, when they come up on Gorilla, a chain of whitewater made up of five ominously named segments like Pencil Sharpener and Scream Machine. “It’s steep, it’s continuous, and the hardest rapids don't come until you’re two-thirds of the way through,” said Grace. “There aren’t a lot of races where you’re hitting the hardest rapids tired.”