Feel the rush of extreme kayaking on the North Fork

Boise - The Idaho StatesmanJune 5, 2014 

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Kayakers launch off a ramp and into some of the toughest whitewater in the North Fork of the Payette.

When I talked to James Byrd three years ago, he was wild-eyed and brimming with Class V enthusiasm about a kayak race he was planning on the North Fork of the Payette River.

Was he crazy? I thought to myself.

The North Fork? The miles of boulder-strewn, turbulent froth between Smiths Ferry and Banks that's full of some of the toughest rapids in the state?

That North Fork?

Yep, and not only that, but through Jacob's Ladder and Golf Course, the crux rapids in a stretch of the North Fork that gives even crazy-brave kayakers white knuckles and butterflies.

Byrd said he wanted the "best of the best on the hardest course."

He succeeded, and set a new standard for Class V kayak racing.

The event returns June 12-14, and it's definitely worth checking out. It's Byrd's masterpiece, and an opportunity for anyone to see world-class paddlers on a world-class course.

Kayaking has long had its freestyle competitions, and their roots can be traced back to Idaho and its "whitewater rodeos" in the 1980s. There's also long been kayak slalom races, which were Olympic events.

The North Fork Champion combines elements of both, and the event does for kayaking what the Red Bull Rampage did for mountain biking.

During the Rampage, mountain bikers choose their own course down a mountainside where huge jumps, ramps and drops are blended into the terrain.

The North Fork race is similar because paddlers negotiate the toughest rapids and also have to pass through slalom gates that force them to take lines they would normally avoid.

Also like the Rampage, videos, YouTube clips and other media spread images of the event worldwide. A video done by Boise-based River Roots last year has 36,000 views on Vimeo.

The whitewater slalom race is the show piece of the event, and it brings the world's best paddlers to Idaho, some of whom already live here.

"It's set up to highlight the badasses," Byrd said. "I want to showcase how good the paddlers are, and the energy of the sport."

It also gives spectators the closest thing possible to a cockpit view of Class V whitewater.

"They can literally be 10 feet away and see how wild the water is," he said.

The race also has a unique opportunity for local up-and-coming paddlers to mix it up with the best.

They can compete in a preliminary race, and the top five paddlers will join the elite paddlers in the main event.

"I want it to highlight the locals and the unknowns and put them on the map," Byrd said.

All competition aside, the North Fork Championship is also a festival that celebrates kayaking and rivers.

Whether you're a Class V paddler or a rock-sitting spectator, you can join the party.

After the race is the "Stoke Float," and if you're skilled enough to run the lower section of the North Fork, you can join the armada of kayakers.

The event starts at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 12, with the Melt Awards at the Egyptian Theatre in Boise. Tickets are $12 and $14 on the day of the show.

The night features whitewater films and photography, and mixes audience, stars and film makers.

"All the people who make and who are featured in those videos will be there, so come and have a beer with them," Byrd said.

You can also join the party at the North Fork Championships headquarters at Weilmunster Park in Garden Valley, where there will be a concert Friday night with music provided by Sneaky Pete and the Secret Weapons.

Again, it's a chance not only to have a good time in Garden Valley, but also rub elbows with the competitors and everyone else involved with the event.

The race is followed by the Payette River Games June 20-22 in Cascade, both of which will bring people from around the world to compete at some of the finest venues in the country.

And it's all a short drive away from the Treasure Valley, and an opportunity to not only see great outdoor athletes compete, but see how much fun they can have doing it.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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