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.


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