Giant Slalom on the Slave River

This year at the Slave river Paddlefest, we introduced a new event: the GIANT SLALOM. It's not just giant because it's on the Slave river, but it certainly helps.

Giant Slalom from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.

The course was on English channel, which was awesome. English channel is one of the smaller channels, but it's steeper, and because it's so little, all that gradient is much easier to handle. We started river left, above the main hole. There is a line to the left of the hole, which is faster because you don't have to ferry all the way out into the current before starting to move downstream. After the main hole, the rapid necks down a little and loses a lot of elevation as it drops into a big V wave. The "gate" was in the river right eddy. You had to circle around a rock outcropping over there. The V wave in the fastest part of the course was not playing nicely. It tended to toss people back to the left, away from that crucial eddy. To make matters worse, the V wave was backed up by a surprisingly powerful hole, which I will call the linebacker. After circling the rock, you had to ferry back across, usually using that linebacker hole, and touch the rocks on the left bank. The first half of the course was fairly straightforward, but entering and leaving the eddies at the bottom caused a lot of trouble. We had a lot of competitors miss the entry to the right eddy. If you miss that eddy, the current below the rapid sort of piles up onto an island, and there are a few MORE holes down there. There was a little carnage, but in true Slave river style, it was more fun than frightening. I think that it's the warm water that makes it easy to push the envelope.
Leif and Rob Murphy at the steep part just before the V wave.  Photo by Dave Crerar.

The field was pretty stacked. There were FIVE of us competing. If you've watched the video, you know how it shook down, but here's the pro commentary.

I went first. During practice, I had never really missed the left line at the first hole. But during my race lap, I was thinking a little too far ahead. Coming in to the tongue next to the hole, I was trying to carve back to the right too early (to get back to the fast current below the hole), and I carved right into the hole itself. I bounced a few times, but came right out. I never even fell all the way down into the trough of the hole. I rolled up, thinking the race was lost, and tried to rally the rest of the lap to maybe get top three. I barely made it over the V wave, and came into the right eddy low. I tried to pace myself across the flatwater, and was really feeling like I had lost. The rock move was not smooth. I missed a lot of strokes and hit the rock with my paddle a bunch. When I peeled back out, I managed to make the jet ferry across the backup hole the smoothest I have ever made it. I came into the final eddy high and felt like I had a really good sprint to the finish. Overall, I felt like my mistakes were minor enough that I had a chance of finishing well. I felt like I could beat other "mistake" runs, but certainly not a clean run, even a conservative clean run that went right of the first hole.
Typical scene at the English Channel crux.  The "gate" is visible in the eddy on the right side.  Josh Singleton (inverted) is about to experience the linebacker, and John Blyth and Rob Murphy are on either side of the V wave.  Photo by Dave Crerar.

Next up was Natalie. She took the conservative line through the top, and was looking smooth and still fresh coming into the V wave. When she hit the V wave, the shoulder picked her up and tossed her back into the center, right into the backup hole. She rolled there, then got rolled again on some of the boils against the low island. By the time she was back up and paddling, she had been pushed to the left at the very bottom of the rapid. She was way low, against the island, and entered the river left eddy about as low as you can enter it. To finish, she had to paddle all the way up the eddy, which is about a quarter mile. She looked bummed when she finally made it up to the finish rocks.

John was after Natalie. Apparently, he had a whole plan for that river right eddy. When peeling out of the river right eddy, you get a close look at the currents at the top of that eddyline. They are rowdy. His plan was to try to enter lower so as to not get rejected. In the video, you can see him move left a little before the rapid drops. He entered the V wave from the left with a ton of speed back to the right and WHAM! GOT REJECTED! Just like Natalie, he was lightly tooled in the backup hole, then flushed into the river left eddy. However, John stayed a little more upright, and was able to realize that he was getting rejected, allowing him to drive into the left eddy a little sooner, for a much faster finish than Natalie. In fact, his bare time was probably faster than mine, but since he had missed the gate, there was a 2 minute penalty added on.

With John, Natalie, and I in the bottom eddy, it was time for the main event: Zack Fitzpatrick. I was super stoked to see Zack's line. He is a tiny little paddler, barely as tall as my elbows. The Salve is a really huge river for him. But that hadn't been slowing him down; he'd been charging harder than anyone on the trip. He swam out of Rockem' Sockem, then returned for redemption anyway. In the race, he got rolled early, passing the first hole in the upper part of the rapid. He rolled up quick and started driving right during the elevation drop, entering the V wave on the right side. He got tossed a little, and ended up in the backup hole. After a quick slapping, he flushed out, got some Congo style whirlpool action, but ended up flushing to the right. He was super low in the right eddy, up against the lower island, but he was the second person to make the eddy. He saved energy and worked up the eddy at a controlled pace. After making the rock move, he took two tries to peel out of the eddy. I think he was nerving himself up to battle that hole again. By this point he was moving pretty slow. My estimation was that he was just aiming to finish, with no thoughts of winning or losing. He peeled out, and entered the backup hole for round two just perfectly. He started surfing across, got a huge bounce and landed his first blunt ever (a goal for the trip) accidentally. He pulled his shit back into control and went back to ferrying. It was looking like he might be pulling into that second place spot, since we were the only two people to make the move so far. Then, on his last bounce, as he exited the hole, he bounced up, his nose came down a little, and as landed he was completely eaten by a boil. Just totally head under vanished. Pow! Eaten! Capsized! Sank my battleship! Visiting the fishes! He was out. He rolled up, got whirlpooled a few more times, and ended up flushing down the right side eddyline, to the wrong side of the island below the rapid. He didn't make it to the left bank until the end of the run, several hours later.

It was at this point that I realized that my "not as good as a clean run" lap was actually the fastest lap so far. However, if there was one person that I was worried about, it was LUKE VOLDEMORT, who was up next. Luke has a slalom paddling background. He played it down quite a bit, but I had been keeping an eye on Luke. He has a much better stroke than mine, and what's more, he was super de duper fired up, like a rabid tiger just released from a cage, because he had been teaching beginner and youth clinics for Aquabatics all week, and this was his first day of paddling on more or less his own schedule. I was nervous, but happy that I was at least top two.

Luke took the conservative line through the top. I learned later that my messed up line past/through the top hole had changed pretty much everyone's mind about taking that line. Luke was looking smooth through the V wave, and nailed the move into the right eddy. He was totally slalom paddler style through the narrow channel around the rock. Then, coming back across, in a weird surge, the backup hole completely vanished and there was nothing there to surf across. Luke got pushed way downstream, almost against the island, and had to dodge the hole way way down there before even starting to paddle back up the left eddy. He was as smooth as possible once he was locked in to that line, but there was just so much more distance involved that it had to be slower.

The real question was how Luke's mistake on the return ferry would balance out against John's mistake. John had a time penalty for missing the gate (2 minutes), but had salvaged the run by entering the left eddy very high and fast. Luke had made the gate but lost time returning. When our head judge Helen Panter compiled the scores, it turned out that John's salvage had indeed saved him just enough time. Both John and Luke were around 4 minutes, but John was 30 seconds faster. My lap that I had been beating myself up about was actually the cleanest lap. Basically, I had gotten a little unlucky, but every single other racer had gotten even more unlucky. Once that sank in, I started celebrating. Apparently, I had won by default. In fact, come to think of it, I had crushed everyone! Wooooooo! Yeah me!

I am understandably a little nervous about next year. What will I do if there are more than 5 racers?

The final results were:

1) Leif Anderson
2) John Blyth
3) Luke Volmerhaus
4) Natalie Anderson
5) Zack Fitzpatrick

For more info on Paddlefest, check out the Fort Smith Paddle Club website, or check out the promo video that I put together for paddlefest 2013. The water's warm, the waves are sick, and there are no crowds. If you want to come up and paddle the Slave, contact Natalie and me. We have a house there and we're going to set up a sort of informal kayak hostel.


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