Sunday, November 16, 2014

Northwest Territories Waterfall Tour

Greetings, fellow explorers! This week, the Leif and Natalie Show visits the distant NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, deep in the heart of a tiny North American country known as Canada. As always, we journey out in search of adventure and whitewater. Here is the video of this episode:
NWT Waterfall Tour from Leif Anderson on Vimeo. HD! Full screen! Now!

This week's quest was simple: investigate the mythical waterfalls on the many creeks surrounding the Great Slave Lake. These waterfalls are caused by isostatic rebound. The thick ice sheet laying over the continent during the ice age was heavy enough to depress the earth's crust around the Great Slave Lake. After it melted, the crust rebounded upward. The process of rebound continues today. The creeks and rivers in the region began to incise downward into the uplifting terrain, and the usual method of erosion is for waterfalls to form and gradually migrate upriver. Fortunately for us, there happens to be a highway that circles the Great Slave Lake at the approximate location of many of these waterfalls. Because of the incredibly sparse population in the Northwest Territories (approximately 10 kayakers / 519,734 sq miles = 0.00002 kayakers/sq mi) most of these waterfalls have never been investigated.

We were joined in our quest by Ben Ghertner. Late friday night, Ben and Natalie left from Yellowknife, and I left Fort Smith (home of the mighty Slave river), planning to meet up near Lady Evelyn falls. The team was unable to complete the rendezvous in the dark northern night, but finally met up in the cold mists of the next morning.

Lady Evelyn falls was probably first descended back in the 1990s, for one of the Scott Lindgren films. Our team of researchers was unable to find evidence of any other descents, despite several minutes of googling. The Northwest Territories were experiencing a severe drought, and we decided that the water was too low for Lady Ev. The lip was shallow and made a sharp transition to vertical, which would make it hard to land vertically. Nobody wanted to start out the tour by falling 60 feet into a faceplant or painful flat landing.

"Maybe next summer" became the motto of the trip. We traveled from creek to creek, and almost all of them were dry. Wallace creek (which we later heard had been run) looked like a very small creekbed, which probably supports flows less than 100 cfs in a typical summer, but if it had 200 cfs or more there was a nice punchbowl 40 footer at the end of a tight mini-gorge that could deliver some beautiful airtime. McNally creek had a 20 foot drop with a strange lip, right off the highway. This one has been run several times, including a descent by John Blyth. Both creeks were so low, it looked like someone was running a garden hose down the creekbed.

Eventually we arrived at Louise Falls, on the Hay river. Hay river is a big river, draining a big region to the south, so it still had some water (although it was the lowest our team had ever seen it). On one of our trips to the Slave, back in 2007, Conor Flynn decided that Louise looked good to go, and fired off the first known descent.
From Conor's 2007 descent
From Conor's 2007 descent
From Conor's 2007 descent
We arrived with flows a tiny fraction of what they were for Conor, and although the falls-to-rock transition in the first half looked a little more intimidating, the hole at the bottom was nonexistent, so we made several runs. In 2007, we spent several hours setting safety and then extracting ourselves from the pool below the falls, but with the lower water, we were able to walk back up the riverbed immediately adjacent to the slide, and laps were relatively easy. The low water also allowed us to explore the river right side of the falls, which shows some promise for going big. We restricted ourselves to a smaller line. We downclimbed onto a shelf halfway down the falls and boofed off of it. Ben bagged the first descent of this drop. Plenty more lines, like the full drop on the far right, or the straight lip in the center, are still waiting to be run. Most look like they need a touch more water.
Our descent of the left line at Louise

Ben stoked after his first descent, with Leif still on the ledge, about to launch.

After Louise falls, we headed a few minutes upriver to Alexandria falls, which used to be the world record tallest waterfall. The conventional line is down the left bank at high water, but as Rush Sturges learned, there is a cave behind the curtain of the waterfall. He spent a little time back there but was able to swim through the waterfall to escape. At low water, the curtain doesn't stretch all the way across the drop, and getting out from behind it would be no problem. This opens up the possibility of running a line straight down the center of the river, which makes the waterfall much more of a punchbowl drop. Hunt Jennings was the first person we ever heard point out this idea. He noticed it after extensive google image searching. The levels perfectly matched the photos he had shown us. We decided that the possibility of a broken back was just a little too dangerous for us, given the amount of big waterfall experience that we had. Setting up a safety team at the bottom of the drop would have also been a daunting proposition. If Hunt had been there, he might have geared up, but we decided to call it a day.

We drove a few hours that night, and woke up to Coral falls and Sambaa Deh falls the next morning. Sambaa Deh was really the core of the reason for the Waterfall Tour. Natalie and I had been there a year earlier, at similar levels, with no boats, and I had speculated that the drop could be run. We kept discussing it, and decided that a tour of the local waterfalls was the best way to attack it. In a tour, there was no pressure to run any one specific drop, and even if one (or many) of the drops were not good to go, the team was practically guaranteed to get on the water at least somewhere.

We decided to warm up by running Coral falls, just upriver of Sambaa Deh. We made a quick initial scout of Sambaa Deh before heading upstream, and thought that it looked good to go, although we wouldn't make the final call until we came back. Coral falls was a nice 10 foot ledge, with a variety of lines. We spent some time running the various options and having a good time. The center line would have been a lot of fun, but looks like it lands on a rock shelf.

After Coral falls, we returned to the cars, had some lunch, and commenced our full scout of Sambaa Deh, which involved a more thorough investigation of the exit from the gorge, during which we all got separated and lost in the woods. We eventually met back up and just went and asked the park manager if it was possible to get into the gorge below the falls. He had a pile of maps sitting right there to answer that very question. We memorized his beta and set up our cameras.
Ben and Natalie scout Sambaa Deh falls

Sambaa Deh is more of a rapid than just a single waterfall. There is a small boof/slide thing that drops into a narrow gorge, which twists back and forth a few times before getting to the huge fan slide that is the main event. The main slide looked good to go almost anywhere, but best in the center. This is necessary if it's going to be runnable, since you might get off line in the upper gorge, and we weren't going to tolerate the risk of a truly dangerous part of the slide being in play. It's a simple game theory calculation. Take the consequences of missing a move and the probability of missing the move, and multiply them together. Compare the result to the cutoff listed in table 7. We were dealing with an unknown upper gorge, which made the probability of being off line at the lip of the slide low, but not trivially low. Similarly, the left side looked survivable, but far less preferable than the center. We decided that the risks were low enough that we were going to attempt the drop.

Ben and I walked the rapid a few more times before the final gear-up, and he pointed out a few subtleties of the current right at the lip, which caused me to change my plan a little. I was going to dodge left of the last wave and cut back to the right, to avoid drifting left, but after discussing with Ben, I changed my plan to a straight blast down a narrower line to the right of that same wave, which actually looked easier and set up a better momentum for the final slide.

Eventually there were no more excuses, and we got in the river. Ben and I decided on lemming safety, and Natalie set up the cameras to capture our runs. Ben and I paddled through a few waves and regrouped in a nice eddy before the start of the rapid. I had managed to convince him to let me go first, since I had been scouting this drop since the last year. I started the GoPro and dropped in.

You can barely see me in the entry, having just completed the first boof.

During the approach, I made a last-minute decision to switch my line a little. I had planned to run the very first entry drop to the right, but saw that my approach was sending me left with speed, so I decided to just carry that momentum into a left boof, which worked beautifully. That great feeling of the boof set an awesome tone for the twists in the gorge above the fan slide, and I had an even smoother line than I had hoped for. I came up to the lip of the main drop exactly where I had planned, skimming past the eddyline on that narrow line to the right of the final wave, and zipped straight into the slide. It was exactly as we had hoped, fast and relatively smooth, with just the right amount of kick at the bottom to boot the boat free of the small amount of recirculation at the base. I hooted a hollered a little at the bottom, which is rare for me. Ben followed a moment later, with an equally awesome line.

The final bounce

After our runs, Ben stayed at the base of the falls while I headed downstream to hike out and take over filming while Natalie ran the drop. I got a little lost again, and ended up rock climbing out of the gorge, but made it eventually. I gave Natalie a couple minor pointers based on my run, and she headed up to go fire off the drop. There's always a little bit of anxiety watching your spouse run a difficult drop, so I had a couple irrational flutters in my belly, but I trust Natalie's skill and I wasn't too nervous. Natalie went left of the final wave before the main slide, so that when she circled around behind it and entered the big drop, she had a touch more speed to the right than Ben and I had had. This sent her a little more right, which was a teensy bit shallower, but seemed to paddle just fine.

Natalie's finish
I met Ben and Natalie at the correct takeout point and we hiked back to the cars, stoked on a successful mission. We had really only run 2 out of 6 of the waterfalls we looked at (counting Coral and Sambaa Deh together) but we were still highly satisfied. We even managed it in just one weekend, not the 3-4 days we had originally planned (see Kent, you should have come with us!) Maybe next summer, with more water, we'll bag a few more drops.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tea Time on the Stikine

Last summer on a trip report of the Stikine, our friend Dave Spiegel wrote:

“But despite the many, very real challenges of pulling off this run, it seems to me that it’s becoming more and more common as the next generation of boaters begins to paddle at a higher level. The river that was once the biggest challenge in whitewater has become a training ground for those looking to achieve even higher levels.” (full write up)

This summer/fall the Stikine saw many many crews paddle through its steep and committing canyon. It seems that Dave was right on point. It is now more common for a crew of paddlers to go to the Stikine and run it multiple times. First as a three day, then as a two, or even a one day trip. Perhaps one of the most impressive feats this summer was Nouria Newman not only becoming the second woman to run the Stikine (I guess that makes me the third) but the first woman to run Site Zed. Check out the video of her run. After being there and seeing this impressive feature I can say that the next generation surely is taking kayaking to the next level. Nouria didn’t run it to prove a point. She looked at the rapid and realized that she had the skills to paddle it cleanly, and that she did.

Usually Leif and I leave the North while the Stikine is still high in early to mid August. This year we stayed at the Slave River until late September and so we were around to jump on an opportunity to join our friend Ash and his crew of british boys on a three day descent of the canyon. The crew was quite large, 11 people. We had 5 Brits who travelled from England solely for this trip (sorry boys - there’s no way I am going to remember all your names), Two ex pat Brits from Southern BC (Ash Bullivant and Nick Bennett) who were showing their countrymen around and then 4 randoms- Me and Leif (USA), Adrian Mattern (GER), and veteran Corey Boux (CAN)- for whom the Stikine is a “backyard run”.

Paddling the Stikine has been in the back of my mind for the last couple years but it hasn’t been something that I felt that I must do to the point where I wanted to make a special effort to go. I confess that when I am not kayaking I don’t really follow all the videos and blogs and internet hype (Leif takes care of this and some for me!). I tend to focus on other things such as my family, my research or my teaching. I like to do runs for the first time without seeing all the video footage first. I get to look at rapids and decide on my lines based on what I see and what I feel at the moment rather than having preset notions about what lines have been done before. This is why I ran the Stout Ten on the Middle Palguin. I knew I wanted to run the 70 foot waterfall just below the Stout Ten, and because I hadn’t watched any video footage beforehand I didn’t know about the option to seal launch in between the two drops. I just assumed that you had to run the pair together as one rapid. Because it looked doable, I did it and had a nice line.
I guess this bridge is supposed to be instantly recognizable?
Before I paddled the Stikine this all I knew about the run:

  • It is a beautiful overnight class V bigwater remote canyon in Northern BC
  • There is a rapid on it called Site Zed that most people portage
  • I knew some people that paddled it and one that got helicoptered out a few times (not going to name names on the poor dude that got helicoptered out of multiple expeditions)

  • Sometimes this lack of video watching actually pays off. While everyone else was talking about their nerves before the trip, I found myself surprisingly calm. I knew that it was a committing canyon of hard whitewater, but based on conversations with people that had run it before, I felt very confident that I had the skills to not only navigate it safely but to have a good time doing it. I was looking forward to the following three days.

    The crew was obsessed with getting a photo at this sign.  No idea why.

    I loved the trip. Not only was the whitewater was amazing but the geology was simply breathtaking. I got to see rocks associated with delta fronts, braided/meandering rivers, tidal nearshore environments, magma chambers, lava flows, and compressional tectonics. The fault plane at site Zed in the river left wall was incredible. But I digress. Most people probably don’t want to hear me geologizing. The whitewater is big. The consequences are real (swimming would be a nightmare). The scenery is out of this world. The Stikine is truly a special amazing place and I feel honored that I have been able to visit it.

    If you are unsure if you are ready to do the Stikine, then you probably aren’t ready. If you are comfortable in big water then this is a doable and quite enjoyable trip. I think a good test is to ask yourself these questions, “would I feel good about doing this run with a solid crew but without a guide?”, “am I 200% confident that I can roll up every time in boils, getting slammed against walls and knocked around by crashing waves”, and “can I get trashed in a violent and large hole and still retain enough calmness and skill to ride it out and escape?”. In a write up about his Spring trip (yeah - spring, not fall) Xavier Engle wrote that if you are serious about the Stikine then spend a lot of time paddling big water class V such as the North Fork Payette and Pandora's Box (see full write up).

    Wall Two, not to be confused with Wall One.

    Another way to train is to spend a lot of time playboating in big water. I attribute my ability to be relaxed and confident during the run to the sheer amount of time I have spent playboating on the Slave River (typically flows between 3000 and 6000 cms per summer). In fact, all of the boaters on our trip were also big water playboaters (or had been at one time in their past) and I think that this background really made everyone on the crew comfortable on the run. Despite the rainy and cold weather everyone was simply having a great time. There wasn’t one weak link that I had to worry about and this made the trip way less stressful that it could have been. If you want to run the stikine somewhere in your future, I highly recommend spending lots of time at big water play destinations like the Nile, the Slave, The Futaleufu or the Ottawa. This gives you practice in being knocked around and out of control while remaining calm in a low risk situations. In fact here is a great video of me doing just that, repeatedly: "5 minutes in the penalty box"

    "Don't tell me about Stikine 'traditions'.  I was doing this river when you was still in diapers, boy!" - Corey Boux

    One of my favorite aspects of the trip was going with a great group who came to the Stikine, not to prove some sort of point, but because they wanted to experience a special place with friends and be comfortable doing it. For the Brits this meant packing a huge freezer full of tea bags and brewing massive batches to share, ALL THE TIME. For Corey the homeboy Canadian, this meant going his own pace, scouting sheep to hunt and pulling out his shotgun during shuttle to bag a rabbit for dinner. For Adrian the German, this meant going “soopah lightweight”. Adrian had a prototype liquid logic boat that when fully loaded still weighed less than my boat unloaded. Admittedly, he was cold at night and didn’t sleep well, but the Site Zed portage sure was easy! For Leif and I, the only Americans, this meant pre-cooking a freezer bag full of bacon. Apparently all those stereotypes really are spot on.

    Yep.  Nothing to worry about.

    Perhaps the most special part for me was to be there with Leif. Not many people get to experience adventures like the Stikine with their significant other. During the trip, Ash made a comment about how the hardest thing about these “boys” trips was the sexual abstinence. Well, that isn’t exactly true for everyone…

    SeasonFive waterproof breathable rashguards made this trip a lot more enjoyable!

    Wednesday, August 20, 2014

    Solo paddling on the Slave: a lesson on the value of friendship

    It's getting toward fall up here on the Slave river, and this is usually the time when things slow down. Paddlers go home, the weather cools off a little, and the water starts to drop. Ironically, this is also when one of the sickest waves comes in: Rockem Sockem. I've come up to the Slave 8 different years (or is it 9?) and have not yet been able to really surf this wave.

    Until sunday.

    Rockem Sockem.  Photo by Bryon Dorr, Exploring Elements
    On sunday, the levels dropped from just barely too high for Rockem Sockem straight to the low end of perfect, which is even more perfect than perfect. We went SUPpering at mountain for the first half of the day, then packed up all the cameras (not a lot of cameras - ALL the cameras) and rallied the crew to go surf. We took a couple rides at outrageous on the way down, since it was as good as I ever remember seeing it. When we got to Rockem Sockem, I was amazed at how good it was. It was even better than I had imagined. However, having wasted most of the day, we didn't get to the wave until about 8:00, so we only had a couple hours there. I was hooting and hollering, and having a blast. When it was time to leave, I had a bad case of LRS (last ride syndrome) and sort of blacked out and took like 10 more rides instead of 1 more, which probably annoyed the rest of the group.
    Outrageous.  Photo by Bryon Dorr, Exploring Elements

    When we got home that night, I logged on to facebook to find that a good friend of mine had died that very afternoon, back in colorado. I was very sad.

    Monday morning, everyone was on different programs. Bryon and Sarah of Exploring Elements were wanting to do an easier run, John was working, Ben was slaloming, and Natalie was out of town. This left just me. I decided to go back to Cassette rapids solo, to do some thinking about life.

    The Slave is a very big river, and there are not many paddlers here. I decided to play pretty conservatively, because if anything at all were to go wrong, from a dropped paddle to a dislocated shoulder, I would be more or less stranded alone in the wilderness on the wrong side of a mile-wide set of rapids. I didn't really expect anything bad to happen, but over the course of my various trips up here, I have seen plenty of minor incidents that would have totally incapacitated a solo paddler. In 2005 at that exact same Rockem Sockem channel at high water, Josh White broke his paddle. There were four of us on the water that day, and we had an amusing time towing him across the ferry at the bottom of the rapids. Alone, making that crossing without a paddle would have been a grueling affair.

    I set up a tripod at Outrageous and had a nice little session, reviewing footage between rides to work on various tricks. The day was overcast, but without any real chill. When I was done, I headed down through Dave's Demise and then ran Rockem Sockem. The temptation to surf that awesome wave at Rockem Sockem was almost overpowering, but I figured I would be back. I hiked over a low island and left through the Land of a Thousand Holes, then biked the shuttle.

    Throughout the day, I thought about friends. Had something gone wrong out there, it would have been pretty easy for it to turn into a very difficult situation. Having just one friend along could make a huge difference. Putting aside the safety concerns, there was also the stoke factor. For me, running rapids and surfing alone is an interesting experience, but nowhere near as fun as sharing those experiences with friends. My main motivation sources that day were the purely technical focus of working on a new trick, and the anticipation of sharing the video of the day with my friends later. Speaking of which, here is the video:

    Super Sick Solo Slave Session from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.

    Friends matter, in so many ways.

    Sunday, June 1, 2014

    The 2014 WWGP Swim Team

    Before we move on to write about our summer trips I thought I'd write a post about the WWGP Swim Team. I (Natalie) got to watch and photograph every event and believe you me there was way more carnage than made it into the videos. Thus, I feel that it is my duty to get the word out. Who else will do it, and... isn't this what everyone really wants to know?

    What follows is a list of the members of the swim team and their inaugural feats, to the best of my knowledge and memory. If I left you out, then you lucked out this time. If I wrote that you swam, and you didn't or I mixed you up with someone else then I give permission to slander me all you want in the comments section at the end of the post.

    In order of joining membership, I present to you the one and the only 2014 WWGP swim team!

    • Joel Kowalski: Stakeout day before Stage 2. I'm not sure of the details but I think Kent Bretzlaf has some helmet cam footage of the rescue.
    • Lou Urwin: Stage 2: Big Water Boater Cross and Stage 4: Black Mass. Big Water Swirligrams.
    • Mattieu Dumoulin: Stage 2: Big Water Boater Cross. He's pretty embarrassed about this one, ask him about it sometime. If it weren't for this DNF I'm sure Mattieu would have been in the top 10!
    • Nick Troutman- Stage 3: Time trials practice. Nick earned himself captain of the swim team after getting stuck in a weir hole and leaping out of his boat in a superman front crawl above the sketch Stage 3 time trial. I saw this whole thing pan out and was very scared for Nick. Sketchy Sketchy Swim.
    • Tino Specht- Stage 3: Time trials practice. I think that Tino ran the bottom boof too far right and swam out of a pocket on the far right of the river. This was after Leif and I finished so I'm really not sure of the details here.
    • Hannah Kertesz- Stage 3 Time trials. I didn't even realize that Hannah swam until after the race was over. She was killing it on the top section of the course, but I think that something funky happened with a rock and a hole on the bottom drop.
    • Sandra Hyslop- Stage 3 Time trials. By now almost everyone has seen the photo of Sandra swimming the last drop of the slide. What you probably didn't know is that halfway down the slide the paddle got snagged and ripped out of her hand. Right above the last drop is a really funky hole thing. Without her paddle, Sandra flipped in the hole and wasn't quite able to get the hand roll in time. We are all glad that she made it through the drop unscathed. She actually got back up and ran a really smooth third lap after this little goof up.
    • Kalob Grady- Stage 4: Black Mass practice. Kalob lost his paddle while surfing. He made a few great hand rolls, but the big water waves and funky currents ended up taking him down.
    • Bren Orton- Stage 4: Black Mass practice. After watching Dane get in in the river right eddy above the Hawaii hole and then ferry across the river to Black Mass, Leif and Bren decided to do the same. This is actually quite a frightening maneuver. I decided to hike upstream and ferry across in the flatwater and so I didn't see the epic that went down. Leif went first and made the ferry. By the time he got to the other side, Bren was nowhere to be seen. Basically Bren's bow caught causing him to not quite make the ferry and he went straight into one of the gnarliest biggest holes I have ever seen: the curling wave at the top of the Hawaii rapid. Being a consummate playboater he was crammed into his boat with a large beach ball thing that wouldn't release when he wanted to swim. He finally made it out almost out of air. I think that it was quite the epic yet scary beat down. We are glad that it all turned out okay. He made it over to the wave and got some practice in. Bren also swam Stage 6: Giant Slalom due to a blown skirt or broken paddle or something.
    • Did someone swim the bridge rapid on the Mistassibi during stakeout?I know that Dane lost a paddle but made it through the rapid just fine. I have a nagging suspicion that someone swam this rapid, but I don't know anything for sure.
    • Leif Anderson- Stage 6: Giant Slalom. Blown skirt 
    • Ian Vogel- Stage 6: Giant Slalom. Blown skirt.
    • Marianne Saether- Stage 6: Giant Slalom. Either a blown skirt or a hole beat down, can't quite remember.
    • Martina Wegman- Stage 6: Giant Slalom. Blown skirt. Going out with a bang. Last swim of the event and a 1st place overall finish, way to go Martina!
    • I feel like I am missing another Stage 6 swim. Oh well...

    Everybody swims.

    Monday, May 19, 2014

    Live from the Grand Prix, stage 6 - Giant Slalom

    The Whitewater Grand Prix is a 6 event series combining freestyle and creekboating aspects of kayaking. In 2014 it took place mostly in Quebec. In 2012 it was a race series in Chile, and Natalie competed. Check out all of Natalie's 2012 Grand Prix writeups, and here are links to the rest of the stages in the 2014 series:
    Stage 1 - Big Trick Contest
    Stage 2 - Boatercross
    Stage 3 - Time Trial
    Stage 4 - Big Wave Freestyle
    Stage 5 - Freestyle

    After two weeks of traveling and competing, we finally arrived at the final stage of the Whitewater Grand Prix: the Giant Slalom. The event was planned for the Basse Cache river, which is French for "Arms Hat" river. We arrived the day before for some practice, only to find that the ArmHat river was off the Richter scale, way too high. There were a number of steep rapids, and the river had a very continuous character, so that if anything went wrong, rescues would be highly difficult. It was the Grand Prix, so we were pretty confident that most of the athletes would be able to complete the run safely, but the odds of all 30 athletes having two safe race laps each were vanishingly slim. Any minor mishap would undoubtedly escalate to a full emergency very quickly. There were a lot of nervous paddlers at the competitors meeting that night.

    In the morning, the water levels dropped substantially. It was still high, but it was in the range at which paddlers normally ran the river. Well, it was a little higher than that, but at least there were some rocks showing here and there, and a couple eddies. The course was still pretty serious.

    The crux of the section was a big two-stage drop just above the finish line. It was sort of a drop to slide to drop, with the final freefall about 6 feet. The tricky part was that the lip to the final part of the drop was a folding chaotic mess, with a big curling thing coming in from the left, which tended to slap your bow down rigth when you were trying to keep it up for the final freefall. It was pretty tough to stay on the surface through that drop.
    Approaching the folding seam in the Crux Drop. Click to enlarge.

    Above the crux, the course was straightforward. There was some bebop boogie water that got progressively more serious, leading into a pair of offset diagonal holes above the pool above the crux drop, then the infamous crux itself, and then below the crux there was a river-wide ledge immediately above the finish line.
    Sandra Hyslop on the final ledge.
    Bryan Kirk approaching the finish gate, with the crux and ledge in the background.

    The philosophy of the course was pretty interesting. Normally, in more conventional slalom races, the gates are placed on relatively easy rapids, but in order to hit all the gates, you have to take a pretty complicated line, catching eddies that you normally wouldn't, and ferrying back and forth doing difficult moves. For the giant slalom, the course was already pretty hard, and the gates were more like reminders of what line you would take normally. There were four gates. First, in the boogie, at the first sizeable hole, there was a gate in the green water that zipped past the hole. Then, a little downstream, in the leadin to the diagonal holes above the crux, there was a gate over on river left which set you up nicely for the right-to-left hole dodge that you would have probably hit if you were running the river. In the eddy between the diagonal holes and the crux, there was an up gate, which required you to slow down and re-collect yourself before hitting the main move, and then finally there was a gate that was the finish line, below the ledge hole, perfectly positioned to avoid a couple minor holes below the ledge. After some thought, I decided that I liked this philosophical style. A giant slalom is not just a slalom on a different course, it is philosophically a little different. Having gates that enforced certain moves that you might have made anyway made the course feel halfway between a "real" slalom and a downriver race, which is exactly what I feel it should be.

    After watching a bunch of people take slightly different lines on the crux drop and uniformly get stuffed, I hit the water for a practice lap. The top part went exactly as I had hoped it would when I scouted. I eddied out above the crux and caught my breath for a while. I wasn't feeling the jitters, but I wasn't totally calm either. The rapid was serious enough that I wasn't sure if I would style it, but I felt confident that even if I got stuffed I would make it through just fine.

    I peeled out and dropped in. The landing of the first little vertical bit whited out my vision, and still blind I felt the lip and boofed. As I boofed, my vision cleared a little and I realized that I was one wave early. I had gotten my bow nice and high onto the curler coming in from the left, but had no oomph left over and immediately pitched forward as I rode that curler over the real drop. I went deep and tapped the bottom of the river. I think that when I slapped those rocks underwater, that moment of contact popped my sprayskirt. I resurfaced slowly, getting a quick view of the lip of the ledge downstream of the crux. I stepped out of my boat and tried to jump downstream as I floated over that next horizon line. I basically ended up diving headfirst off the ledge. I went deep again, and popped up almost in an eddy on river right. A couple quick swim strokes got me to some rocks, where Jake Greenbaum helped pull me out. It was all pretty quick. Suddenly I was on the wrong side of the river, still holding my paddle, but with no boat. I gestured that I was OK, and tried to signal other paddlers to go stop my boat as it floated away, but nobody wanted to run the unscouted section downstream. I tried chasing my boat, but with no trail, there was no way to keep up. Eventually I gave up and climbed back to where all the safety was set up, at the finish line where I had swam.

    After a lot of gesticulation, I managed to get the attention of Tyler Curtis, who helped me swim back across the rapids. I headed downstream to retrieve my boat, if I could find it. I was feeling pretty bummed, worried that I would not be able to race, and a little peeved that nobody had stopped practice to help me out. However, I was in luck. Just around the bend, my boat had come to a stop with only a dented bow. I waded in and pulled her out, and started hoofing it back up to the start line. During my hiking and river crossing I had missed a racers' meeting, but I had a floating boat, and I would still be able to race.

    At the start line, I got a little more advice from Galen Volkhausen about the Crux drop (go farther left). Natalie jogged back to the car and grabbed my playboating deck plate, so that if I went deep again there was less of a chance of implosion. I used a stick to poke out my dented bow as best as I could. My focus had been shifting through the day. By this point, my goal was to finish the race. This was the last event of the Grand Prix, and I was ready to be done. I was tired and humbled after my swim, but also relaxed. I figured that it couldn't go much worse than my practice lap. All I wanted to do was avoid a DNF. Several competitors had decided not to race this course, and I just wanted to show that I could finish.
    Somehow we don't have any photos of me nailing my line, so here is one of Marian nailing her line.

    Lap one was very relaxed. I was nice and smooth through the entry stuff. I caught the eddy above the crux a little low, and lost a little time there, but otherwise the run was smooth. I made sure to catch my breath and relax above the crux, then slid in. I followed Galen's advice, and somehow totally smoothed the drop. I came flying out with a lot of speed, realized that because of my swim I had not practiced the bottom ledge, but got a nice boof anyway. However, at the last second, after my boof, I saw that I was too far right and was not going to make the finish line gate. In a snap decision, I eddied out right (where I had climbed out after my swim) and managed to peel back out and make it through the final gate. Without that gate, I would have still finished, but with an extra time penalty. My eddy out was slow, but faster than the penalty.

    For lap two, my goals were completed, but I realized that I might do ok. I maintained that relaxed and smooth attitude, but tightened up some of the minor moves. At the crux drop I turned a little too far left and landed sideways, which lost me a lot of time. However, having cleared the crux and knowing exactly what to do on the final boof, I stayed relaxed and managed a relatively clean finish. Regardless of how I had placed, I was done. The Grand Prix was over.

    My strategy paid off a little. A couple really good paddlers were hammering hard, since this was the last chance to move up in the standings. Paddling too hard led to some mistakes for a few people. Marcos Gallegos, who is an especially fast paddler, had bad luck on both runs, breaking a paddle for a DNF on his first lap, and missing the finish gate for a time penalty on his second lap. There was an assortment of other swims and crashes, from imploded skirts and broken gear. I ended up near the bottom of the pack, but ahead of a few people that I strongly respected, so I was happy overall.

    Live from the Grand Prix, stage 5 - Freestyle

    The Whitewater Grand Prix is a 6 event series combining freestyle and creekboating aspects of kayaking. In 2014 it took place mostly in Quebec. In 2012 it was a race series in Chile, and Natalie competed. Check out all of Natalie's 2012 Grand Prix writeups, and here are links to the rest of the stages in the 2014 series:
    Stage 1 - Big Trick Contest
    Stage 2 - Boatercross
    Stage 3 - Time Trial
    Stage 4 - Big Wave Freestyle

    Stage 6 - Giant Slalom

    Stage 4, the big wave comp at Black Mass, had been the low point of the series for me. However, things started to take a turn for the better that very night. Joel came back to the hotel room pretty late and didn't snore at all. Natalie and I woke up bright and early to learn that the day was a stakeout day, which basically meant free day. There had been a lot of talk about a big green wave way upstream on the Mistissibi, which everyone kept saying would be perfect for our surf boats. We loaded up a small crew of the two of us, Tino Speicht, Graham Ball, and Erik Boomer, and headed up to check the new wave out, with the plan of trading off the medium Element between whoever could fit in it.

    After thinking we were lost, losing our trailer license plate, and listening to the super scratched and skippy Django Unchained soundtrack all the way through, we finally found the wave. It was a little high for sure, and the wave looked just barely surfable, but there was a nice eddy and we had nothing else to do. Getting geared up, I immediately felt the stoke begin. It built quickly.

    Once in the water, it still took me several tries to catch the wave. I almost got frustrated watching Tino catch the wave every time in the medium Element, but instead I fed that energy into my growing stoke, getting to the point where I was so stoked that I was hooting and hollering in excitement just to see other people catch the wave. After maybe 45 minutes or so, I finally got a ride on there, and was even more stoked. The wave was like a wild stallion, or at least, it's sort of how I imagine a wild stallion would be if I knew anything about horseback riding. It was very big and smooth, but it would build up and crash, then flatten out again, which led to some really interesting moments. At any given instant, it seemed as infinitely smooth as Skookumchuck, but the changing shape made it much more exciting.

    After another trancelike couple tries, I caught a second ride, and managed to throw a pretty massive clean blunt. I bounced in time with a crash, so that suddenly while I was in the air, the wave dropped out from underneath me and I was flying. A ride or two later, I managed to get an airscrew that was similarly large. The day soon faded into a blur of paddling up the eddy at a medium workout pace, trying the wave (maybe catching it, but often not) and repeating. Every now and then I managed to get a trick or two, but they were very rare. However, I was still very stoked. Whenever anyone managed to catch the wave, I would cheer, and whenever a trick was thrown, I would go nuts. The only tricks I remember were a huge panam by Natalie, a blunt and an airscrew from Graham (although his skirt imploded on the airscrew), and a ton of different tricks from Tino. However, it wasn't about the tricks. I was just stoked to be on the water, not having to get in and out of my boat, sessioning a wave with a group of friends.
    Frame capture from a video by Erik Boomer.

    Partway through the day, another truck full of paddlers showed up, some of whom hung out on the bridge to watch, some of whom joined us in the water, mostly in creekboats. I managed to show off with one or two more tricks, but continued to just feel the stoke, watching Bryan Kirk throw some blunts and panams in his creekboat. Eventually, I noticed that I was the only one in the water, and that most of the other people were packing up to leave. Somehow I had been so blissed out that I had spent the entire day paddling, not taking a single break. I took one or two more rides all alone, thinking of a whole bunch of people. In my head, I dedicated rides to Dave Schmitt, to Will Parham, and to a few others. I finished just before sunset, and climbed out of the water exhausted. Natalie and I loaded up with huge grins on our faces and went back to have a nice dinner together. We even spotted our trailer license plate on the side of the road where it had fallen off, and stopped to grab it. It was pretty much a perfect day, although I think that during the entire session I only managed about 6 tricks total.
    Jakub watches Nicole's ride at the Put-In wave.

    The next morning, the Grand Prix went to the so-called Put-in Wave on the Mistissibi for a 6-trick freestyle comp. This comp was more focused on how many tricks you could do, although only your best 6 moves would count, to maintain some focus on amplitude and style. The wave was honestly not that large, but it was big enough to get inverted pretty easily. More importantly, it was a friendly and predictable wave, where most competitors could stick the majority of their moves.

    On my first ride, I can't remember exactly what I did, but I barely stuck any moves. Second ride, same story. However, I maintained that easy attitude from the day before, and stayed relaxed and confident. On my third ride I managed to get 6 moves, (helix both sides, airscrew both sides, flashback and backstab). I later learned that some of my moves didn't score fully (imperfect execution), but I was still happy that even if I hadn't won the event, and hadn't had an exactly perfect ride at the top of my potential, I had at least showed what I could do. I hadn't choked.

    After the event, as was becoming standard, Natalie and I sessioned the wave until we were the only ones around. Natalie made some huge progress on her clean blunt, as well as polishing up some of the details of the finishing stroke and edging on her normal blunt. She also raised a few eyebrows by showing off her helix right before and after the event. I was pretty proud there, because I don't think any of the female WWGP paddlers had a helix that was anywhere near as consistent as Natalie's. We attained back to the car through the gathering dusk feeling pretty content, only to find that someone had assumed that we wanted to do the run, and had shuttled our car to takeout for us. Luckily the lines through the rapids hadn't changed much with the higher water levels. We packed up and headed south again for the final stage of the Grand Prix.

    Thursday, May 15, 2014

    Live from the Grand Prix, stage 4 - Big Wave Freestyle

    The Whitewater Grand Prix is a 6 event series combining freestyle and creekboating aspects of kayaking. In 2014 it took place mostly in Quebec. In 2012 it was a race series in Chile, and Natalie competed. Check out all of Natalie's 2012 Grand Prix writeups, and here are links to the rest of the stages in the 2014 series:
    Stage 1 - Big Trick Contest
    Stage 2 - Boatercross
    Stage 3 - Time Trial

    Stage 5 - Freestyle
    Stage 6 - Giant Slalom

    Stage 4 was a "3 trick standard" freestyle comp on the Black Mass wave, in the Hawaii rapid on the Mistissibi river, deep in the heart of real Quebec. This was probably the low point of the series for most competitors.

    The scoring was pretty simple. Each paddler had the same number of attempts at the wave. If you caught it, you had two minutes to throw whatever tricks you could. Your best three tricks were scored (with combos counting as a single trick). Sort of vaguely similar to ICF rules, there were point values for each trick, with different bonuses that the judges could add if the trick was particularly large or awesome. The goal with that scoring format was to strike a balance between pure amplitude (which we had with the big trick contest) and pure consistency (which would be rewarded with a format that scored more tricks).

    We had an unusually long break before this stage, waiting for the water levels to line up. We had been kind of worried after the creek race that there wasn't any water yet in the Mistissibi river, but the ice breakup seemed to be happening just in time, so we headed north anyway. On arriving, the levels were too low, but getting close. We managed to stretch it out and wait one extra day, getting some low water Black Mass late the day before, and then on comp day, the levels were just on the low side of perfect. By the way, Natalie and I shared a hotel room with Juanito de Ugarte and Joel Kowalski, and yes, the rumors are true. Joel snores like a machine.

    Black Mass is a big wave. Like many big waves, this means that it's pretty tough to surf. During the practice day, I brought my conventional plastic boat (the Dope) which was nice and easy to keep control of, but not particularly unique. I agonized over boat choice right up to the morning of the event, and eventually decided to paddle my surf kayak, the Element, for the unique wow factor and extra speed.

    In practice, I took forever to get my act together, since it was a huge challenge to get in and out of the water in a composite boat. The waves hitting the shore in the eddies were like ocean waves, crashing on rocks. I managed to catch the wave on my first try, and threw a pretty big airscrew. I figured that the Element was the right boat choice.
    Photo by John Rathwell.

    After my one practice ride, the comp started. We cycled through the competitors pretty fast, and I was the first one to catch the wave. Feeling relatively stoked, but cautious, I decided to start conservatively, throwing a flashback, which was a little flat, then a strange clean blunt, which I didn't stick. I figured that was better than nothing, but I really wanted to hit a large trick like my practice airscrew, to maybe end up in the highlight reel. After the long hike back up, I got back in the water, watched a couple other paddlers try, then dropped in and missed the wave.
    Competitors.  Not too stoked.

    This is not too big a deal, I tried to tell myself. I have some tricks on the board already. However, that niggling little bit of doubt started to creep in. I hiked all the way back up again, and scouted how to catch the wave more closely. And missed it again. I started trying pretty hard to stay in the stoke zone, but it kept getting harder. I started to feel the cycle of the competition. Hike up. Drop in. Miss the wave. I kept trying to break into the stoked zone, reminding myself how awesome it was to be surfing Black Mass, which had been one of the waves I had been wanting to surf for almost a decade. I managed to avoid full frustration, but I was not fully stoked and relaxed. At one point I did manage to catch the wave, but I was a little too greedy for the big moves, and flushed off in a front surf while still waiting for a more perfect setup. Eventually it came to my last attempt. I got as centered as I could, and honestly felt pretty stoked, but still blasted right through the wave without catching it.

    During the event, I had been very focused in on myself, but it turned out that many other competitors had been having a very similar experience. As soon as the event ended, there was a big crowd of paddlers waiting for revenge surfs. There was a nice long string of rides where the more relaxed competitors busted out their biggest tricks. I myself managed to catch the wave finally, and threw a pretty big clean blunt. So on the rides immediately before and after the competition I managed to perform, but not when it counted. My mojo needed some work. I relaxed for a while on the bank, and eventually it was just Natalie and I sessioning the wave. Everyone else hustled off to the hotel to hear the results. Even in the relaxed environment, with just the two of us, I couldn't seem to fully re-engage my groove. This day was basically the low point of the whole series for me.

    This photo of the same trick also by John Rathwell, since we don't really have any other shots.

    Thursday, May 8, 2014

    Live from the Grand Prix, stage 3 - Time Trial

    The Whitewater Grand Prix is a 6 event series combining freestyle and creekboating aspects of kayaking. In 2014 it took place mostly in Quebec. In 2012 it was a race series in Chile, and Natalie competed. Check out all of Natalie's 2012 Grand Prix writeups, and here are links to the rest of the stages in the 2014 series:
    Stage 1 - Big Trick Contest
    Stage 2 - Boatercross

    Stage 4 - Big Wave Freestyle
    Stage 5 - Freestyle
    Stage 6 - Giant Slalom

    After the boatercross, we headed north to Shawinigan. As we were packing up, I was a little nervous because we didn't have a phone or really any way to check internet on the road, so I got the most precise directions available, straight from Pat.

    "Pat, where exactly are we meeting?"


    "Like, at a park, or maybe at a Walmart?"


    "Just get there and everything will sort itself out?"

    "Shawinigan, Leif. Shawinigan."

    Based on this conversation, I figured Shawinigan was like a small Colorado town, nestled in a narrow valley, with a river through town with some obvious rapids on it. Funny story: Shawinigan is a city with a population of 50,000. There are like three rivers that join there. Natalie and I had a rough trip up there, getting separated from the rest of the little convoy we formed due to a quick police stop. Apparently, both our tail lights were non-functional on our trailer. We spent an hour or so lying under the trailer, messing with the wiring and replacing a bulb. We finally got back on the road and rolled into Shawinigan around 1:30 AM, which was a rough change from our established sleeping schedule. I was driving, and I was barely holding it together. I found a wide spot on the road into town and we set up our "RV" (actually just our car, not a "real" RV) right there.
    Not happy campers - fixing the taillights at midnight.
    When we woke up the next morning, we found that the road was a pretty major street leading into a big city. We spent some time looking for a Tim Horton's, got online, and couldn't find much of anything about anything. The majority of the other paddlers had partied in Montreal the previous night, and hadn't started motivating yet. We found directions to what we thought might be the run, and started exploring around in the woods outside town. Around lunch time, we decided that the reason we were having so much trouble finding the run was that it was behind a locked National Parks gate, and we decided to return to town for more internet and some food.

    On the way back in, we took a slightly different route than we had in the morning, and caught a glimpse of what might have been some sick rapids, right there in town, just a few blocks from where we had camped. A quick pit stop at McDonalds (they have free wifi too) confirmed our suspicions. The rapids had been right there all along.

    Ok, so, Shawinigan shennanigans completed, we finally connected with the rest of the group, and walked down to look at the course. It was terrifying. We're from Colorado, so we're used to mank. This was still a manky course. At the top was an artificial weir, which led immediately into a slidey drop that ended in a hole and kicked to the right. Below there, there was a short break before the main drop, which was a multi-stage slide to falls with a nasty looking right side and a bumpy ride down the left. This landed in a sizeable pool, which was followed by a minor slide to hole sort of rapid.

    We scouted and whined about the course with a couple other paddlers that were standing around. Eventually Nick Troutman, Mat Dumolin, and Bren Orton came paddling up to try out a couple practice laps. Everyone was saying that the course would probably start in a micro-eddy just below the weir, but there was a line down the center of the weir that was good to go, where a narrow flake of rock interrupted the hole and allowed an easy slide past the dam. Mat and Bren floated right through, but when Nick came up to the lip, he was about two feet to the right of where he wanted to be, despite signals from Kalob Grady who was standing on an outcropping below the drop. He dropped basically sideways into a lowhead dam right above a slide right above another slide. Everyone on shore immediately switched into emergency mode. Nick took one stroke, felt how stuck he was, and immediately pulled his skirt and jumped downstream, using his boat as a platform. He swam like a freaking champ and broke free of the backtow from the dam right away, then busted hard right to get to shore before the slide. As he was doing his best freestyle stroke, everyone was scrambling to get a rope up to the top of the slide (safety had been set at the bottom of the slide). The rope got there just as Nick managed to completely self-rescue and stand up in the shallow water near the shore, completely unharmed. His boat ran the slide and got the bow busted in, but we managed to recover his paddle and sponge. I was of particular help, wading partway out into the eddy just above the main drop to use a stick to snag his sponge before in plunged into the abyss. Bystanders agreed that I was pretty much the hero of the day.
    Heroic photos by John Rathwell.

    So, needless to say, after that little show, Natalie and I were even less stoked on the racecourse. Bren and Mat scouted some more and waited for Dane Jackson to get his gear on and join them. They all ended up running the multi-stage slide to waterfall and making it look acceptable. On the slide to hole drop at the bottom, Bren managed to break his paddle and take a swim too, bringing the tally up to two swims, a broken boat, and a broken paddle, only halfway through the practice day.

    We decided to paddle anyway. We geared up unenthusiastically, and by the time we got to the rapids, everyone else seemed to be down for the day. We walked the weir and associated slide, and put on just above the multi-stage thing, on river left. On closer examination, we decided that it wasn't all that bad. The main dangers were if you were to run the right half, which seemed to land on rocks. The left had a slide to hole to slide to hole to 15 foot waterfall. The real crux was the hole just above the 15 footer. It really felt like two halves; a tricky fast entry ending with that hole, then a nice boof. With just two of us around, we set safety at the hole above the boof, and Natalie went first.

    About halfway through Natalie's first run, we were suddenly really glad nobody was around, because a can-opener flake in the entry slide kicked her into the air and spun her out. She dropped backwards into the hole above the boof, rolled, and ran the man boof backwards. It would have been very embarrassing to have people see that one.
    Whew. Nobody will ever know.

    After watching Natalie's run, I planned out my entry very carefully, got in my boat, and did just about the exact same thing. We had a good chuckle about it, and got up the gumption to give it a few more goes. As we kept working on it, a few other paddlers made their way onto the course, so that we weren't alone anymore. The common problem seemed to be getting kicked by the can opener and either spinning out or losing speed right above the hole above the boof. After just a couple laps, Natalie got it figured out and gave me a few pointers. The main trick for me was to point the right direction, regardless of where on the slide I was. I was pointing too far left, in hopes of moving to the left. This meant that the can opener flake was hitting the side of my boat and causing all kinds of problems. Instead, if I just pointed straight downstream, and hit the flake dead on, I had a much better time skipping right over it.

    After finally making peace with that little flake, we took one run down the bottom slide below the boof. It was a diagonal left to right move, and the hole at the bottom of the slide didn't really stop us much.

    The decision was made to start the race in the exact spot we had started: in the eddy river left just above the beginning of the main drop. Having people run the slide above the main drop (even leaving out the weir) just placed too much pressure on the athletes. Running that top slide would set you up to be pushed right, but the main slide needed to be run left. It would be terrible in a race to have to decide how close to cut it on a ferry with consequences that severe. I'm sure we all could have made it, but racing it was not feasible.
    Mariann at the main boof.

    On race day, we got there early and I spent a lot of time warming up more properly, going all the way to sprint speed in the warmup. I was feeling good. The format was best two times out of three laps, which was a good balance of consistency and luck. On my first lap, I did ok but not great up top, skipping just right of the dreaded flake, but losing speed with a chest shot in the hole above the boof, and exiting a little far left of where I wanted to be from that move. In the final slide to hole, I flipped in the bottom hole. I was really out of breath from the sprint to get to that rapid, and rolling was really hard, but I held it together and managed to finish.

    Evan was actually way off line in this photo. Annoyingly, I'm pretty sure he beat me anyway with his other runs.
    For my second lap, I again was not that great on the top half, but got even worse on the bottom rapid. I planned my left to right move again, but was somehow just a little farther right than planned, and I hit a new flake during that slide, which killed my speed and kicked me offline to the right. I sort of half-slid, half-surfed down a diagonal wave which kicked me to the far right of the slide, which was a lot slower.

    Galen pulls past Seb, who set safety for a nasty pocket on river right.

    Some people had worse luck with the can opener flake, which is almost visible up there.

    Capo shoots Kalob.

    Bren shows how it's done on the main boof.

    For my final lap, I tried to relax a little, because I had two relatively solid finishes. If I wanted to do well, it was already too late, so the pressure was off. (I told myself that, because if I wanted to not do badly, I had only one chance left.) On the slide, I went straight over the top of the can opener flake, and managed to keep a little speed through the hole above the boof. On my boof, I got just about to the right spot, which was far enough right that I landed in the current going straight into the next drop. As my vision cleared from the boof, I knew that this lap was going well. On the final drop, I stayed away from the trouble flake that had kicked me to the right, but this meant that I was a little too far left. I had a nice clean line down the left, keeping my bow dry, but it landed me deep in the left eddy, which was super slow. I sprinted out as fast as I could, but my final run was basically toast.

    My runs were definitely not the fastest, but I did manage to finish all three with no major mishaps. There was plenty of carnage. During lap two of the girls, there was a string of bad lines. The most exciting was when Sandra Hyslop had her paddle snagged on a rock in the upper part of the first slide. She slid a few more feet with no paddle, then flipped just before the hole before the 15 foot boof. She surfed upsidedown for a few seconds before pulling. I was standing right there, setting safety. We tossed her a rope while she was still upsidesdown, hoping she would be able to grab it as soon as she surfaced. Unfortunately, she popped up right as she was going off the 15 footer, with no chance to get the rope or stop herself. She dropped the main drop out of her boat and went super deep when she landed. There was a big scramble to get ready to try to rope her out of the hole at the base of the main boof, but when she resurfaced from that dunking, she was well clear and managed to self-rescue to an eddy on the left. Luckily, her only injuries were a couple minor bruises to her legs. There were plenty of other crashes, but none quite so notable as a swim over a waterfall.
    Sandra's infamous swim.

    The aftermath.

    The general mood of the athletes was a little improved at the time trial. Many people felt like they didn't paddle as well as they could have, which was easy since minor mistakes really make a big difference in a course this short (the winning times were well under a minute for a clean lap). However, there were absolutely no controversies. Personally, I was bummed because my slower times put me near the bottom of the pack, which brought my overall standings way down. I had harbored a secret hope of surprising everyone and ending up well overall, but I felt a little crushed, like my finish here had made that impossible. However, we still had two freestyle comps left, which could be my chance to move back up.

    After the race, we got much more detailed directions, went to an auto parts store to fully replace our tail lights, and headed north again to Lac St. Jean for the next events.

    Sunday, May 4, 2014

    Live from the Grand Prix, stage 2 - Boatercross

    The Whitewater Grand Prix is a 6 event series combining freestyle and creekboating aspects of kayaking. In 2014 it took place mostly in Quebec. In 2012 it was a race series in Chile, and Natalie competed. Check out all of Natalie's 2012 Grand Prix writeups, and here are links to the rest of the stages in the 2014 series:
    Stage 1 - Big Trick Contest

    Stage 3 - Time Trial
    Stage 4 - Big Wave Freestyle
    Stage 5 - Freestyle
    Stage 6 - Giant Slalom

    After the big trick contest, we packed up and headed over east to the Rouge river for the big water boatercross. The rains closed in and the weather cooled off quite a bit. Also, of incredible importance, we drove approximately 5 minutes north of a particular bridge, which meant that all of a sudden, everyone started speaking French instead of English.

    The Rouge is a pretty sweet river. We were there at relatively high flows, but I imagine there are good rapids there at almost any level. The river is not incredibly large (for our race, the flows were close to 400 cumecs, which is less than 15,000 cfs), but it's steep enough that the rapids still have a lot of power. We had a warmup day, and spent that day searching for waves. The standard wave for that region is White Dog, but it was a little too low still, so instead Natalie and I took a nice little session on a set of three waves up by a bridge upstream. There were no huge moves to be had, but we had a good soul session.
    Soul surfing

    By race day, we were a little bedraggled. It was certainly hard to motivate to put on wet gear every morning, but fortunately we just got a bunch of brand new Kokatat gear, so we were actually putting on pretty dry gear. On top of that, (or rather, underneath) we also use SeasonFIVE rashguards, which are waterproof breathable and stretchy, so that even when you're changing out of your drysuit you can keep your underlayers nice and dry. Still, the constant dampness associated with camping and cooking in a neverending downpour was definitely having an adverse effect on our moods.

    The race was held on a rapid called the Gauntlet. Actually, it started on the wavetrain just upstream, but the crux was definitely in the named rapid, where the river narrowed down and steepened up. There were no really sticky icky holes, just big powerful crashing waves and swirly eddylines. We started river left, and ferried out into the main current right above a slightly blind horizon line. Dropping over the right spot on that horizon line was important, because there was a curling wave over there that could chest-slap you and cost you a lot of time, and you wanted to skim just past the edge of it. After that curler was a hundred yards or so of relative flatwater, then the entrance to the Gauntlet.

    The Gauntlet starts with two offset holes. The first is on river left, on the inside of a turn, and the second is just downstream on river right. Avoiding one hole would force you towards the other hole. There were a couple different strategies for dodging both holes. The popular strategy was to stay towards the center, so go to the right of the first hole, then drive back left to avoid the second one. However, it was also possible to sneak down the far left bank, on the inside of the turn, in a little ribbon of current between the leftmost hole and the shore. Nobody was really sure which was faster, but the general feeling was that the center line was where the moving water was, so it was probably faster.

    Entering the haystacks, with the offset holes almost visible in the background.

    Lane Jacobs in the haystacks.

    After the two staggered holes in the entry, there was a short section of flatwater, then the river dropped into a massive wavetrain. About 5 or 6 haystack pyramid waves were relatively stable in that section. Just when you thought the wavetrain was starting to die out and calm down, the river dropped again! The second drop was almost like a slide sort of thing into a confusing mess of very shifty compression waves. Just as these waves started to calm back down, you had to move hard right to get over to the finish line.
    Natalie in the confusion.

    The finish line was near the bottom of an eddy on river right. The entrance to that eddy was guarded by a nice punchy hole. Again there were two options. You could either zip in high between the hole and the eddy, for a guaranteed eddy catch, but an entry very high in the eddy, or you could go around the outside for a much faster entry, with a higher chance of missing the move (for a time penalty).

    We started off with a time trial run, where each competitor paddled the course alone. Originally we were going to use the time trial to determine our bracket position, and the bottom half and top half were going to battle it out within their groups to reshuffle their positions, but with no possibility of moving between brackets. Fortunately, we decided to shift strategies to a more standard boatercross format. Position 1 (Evan Garcia, by the way, had the fastest time trial) would be heat 1 of the first round. Position 2, heat 2. Position 3, heat 3, position 4, heat 4, and position 5, heat 1, and so on. So the first heat of head to head had first place, fifth place, ninth place, thirteenth, and so on. In that first round of head to head racing, we had 4 heats with 6 or 7 people per heat, and the top 4 advanced. For the people that didn't advance, the time trial run broke their tie. The 16 athletes that advanced were put into two heats of 8, with the top 5 from each heat advancing into a super packed heat of 10 people for the final round.

    I would say that my round was tough, but hey, it's the Grand Prix. Every round is tough. It's remarkable how confusing it all was, and I don't quite remember who was in my round, except for the fact that Galen was there, which I remember because we made a peace treaty to not mess with each other during the race. Off the starting line, I was immediately in last place. Everyone else seemed to pull ahead a lot quicker. I tried not to freak out, and did manage to start catching up during the flatwater. We were mostly ducks in a row taking the left line past the offset holes. Through the big haystack waves, I seemed to carry a little more momentum, perhaps because of my larger mass, but it wasn't enough to pull me into the top 4. I was going to need some luck. In the jumbled compression waves, I crept a little farther ahead, but still didn't really make any definitive passes. My last chance was the finish line eddy. I was close enough to feel a bit of the jumble that was happening as everyone tried to zip in below the guard hole, and I made the snap decision to take the conservative line between the hole and the bank. It totally paid off, as I got a lucky surge and a smooth turn, landing relatively deep in the eddy, headed right for the finish line banner, ahead of a couple more people and definitely in the eddy. While I was making this lucky pass, at least one person (maybe Chris Gragtmans?) had been unable to make it into the eddy. I managed to luck out and take third in that heat, advancing me to the next round.

    I don't even know what heat this is.  Maybe a prelim of some sort?

    There's me, in one of my heats.  I think this was semifinals.  I didn't know what was going on, I just paddled.

    After a nice hike back up to the start, we were ready for the next round, this time with eight people in the water. Again, it was a huge jumble and I don't really remember who was in the heat with me. Again, I got off to a slow start, although not as far behind as in the first round. I managed to pass someone to move into seventh place at the offset holes, and was gently jockeying for another pass through the haystacks. In the compression waves, I have no idea what happened. I literally have no idea where I was in relation to the other paddlers, except for a vague impression that I was not going to make the cut. When my sight cleared and I started making the finish line move, I again went for the conservative line, hoping that the large pileup would push some people out of the eddy. There was someone ahead of me who had had the same thought. This round, I was not so lucky, and didn't smooth the eddy move, getting spun out pretty high in the eddy. I took a bunch of slow sweep strokes and tried to pound my way to the finish banner. Apparently I ended up in seventh in my heat, not eighth, but either way, it wasn't enough to advance. In the time trial I had finished 20th, so the other number seven semifinals position guy was ahead of me, putting me in fourteenth place.

    After being eliminated I took a cue from Chris Gragtmans and ran a couple extra laps on the main part of the rapid, trying some kickflips, and getting my stoke re-aligned. I was bummed not to make top ten, but I consoled myself with the fact that this is a pretty illustrious competition, so I should be proud to have been faster than even a single one of my competitors. I ferried across and chatted with Natalie, where she was taking photos. Pretty soon I was back in the clean-burning happy zone. Eventually the finals round was assembled. They were a huge mess, with tons of paddlers spinning out and getting pushed all over the place. It was a hoot to watch.
    Definitely some excitement to be had.

    Pretty sure this was finals.  A huge explosion of action.

    Stoke re-alignment

    Haystack stoke.

    Apparently, during the other semifinals heat, there was a bit of a finish-line kerfuffle. There was a big pileup at the finish, and there was a lot of controversy about what exactly constituted a finish, whether taking a hand off your paddle invalidated you touching the banner, and whether you could paddle back up from below to touch or if that counted as missing the eddy. The stakes were pretty high, so obviously there were some really strong feeling involved. I have avoided getting too embroiled in the details, since everyone involved was so bummed out. I think I heard that anyone that took their hand off the paddle was disqualified from that particular round, which made them effectively last in that round, despite their time trial results. However, this is just rumor, not anything official. It's double tough to fix because it was the second to last round, so the people that didn't advance didn't get to paddle finals. This means that any changes after the fact are almost impossible. It sounds like a big sticky mess, basically, and I'm lucky that our rounds turned out so simple. I feel like although it hasn't been perfect, everyone has acted about as well as they can. Ideally, we wouldn't have even had these issues, but now that they're here, they can't really be fixed after the fact.

    We loaded up that night and headed deeper into French-speaking territory, bound for Shawinigan for the next stage.