Idaho kayakers challenge world’s best on Payette River

Tren Long is accustomed to paddling in obscurity in extreme whitewater that most people wouldn’t test with their toes.

So he embraces the rare opportunity to take on a beast like the North Fork of the Payette River in front of a crowd.

Long is among the pros in the international field for the North Fork Championship’s elite race Saturday afternoon about 10 miles north of Banks.

“I’ve run that drop a lot over the years, and never in a million years would you think you’re going to hear (the cheers),” said Long, who lives in Eagle and operates Cascade Raft and Kayak. “You can hear them the whole way down. ... It’s impressive because of how loud the whitewater is.”

The course runs through Jacob’s Ladder along Idaho 55. It’s Class V rapids throughout. Spectators are welcome but encouraged to wear life jackets if they get close to the water.

“Be very savvy about being up there watching,” said Jesse Murphy, a former participant who is helping with event publicity. “The racers themselves are kind of putting their lives on the line. We like spectators but don’t want to try to get all of Boise up there.”

The event begins at 10:30 a.m. Thursday with a qualifier race full of amateurs and up-and-coming pros. They’ll race the lowest two rapids on the North Fork with the top five qualifying for Saturday’s main event.

The Melt Awards kayak film festival is Thursday night at the Egyptian Theatre in Boise — a chance for people to meet the kayakers and see some kayaking action without crawling on the rocks along the North Fork. The festival will feature four short films and the movie “Chasing Niagara” about Rafa Ortiz’s attempt to run Niagara Falls. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance (link in this story at IdahoStatesman.com) or $13 at the door.

BoaterX is set for 3 p.m. Friday. It features heats of six paddlers racing at one time through S-Turn Rapid. The top two advance from each heat.

The elite race starts at 1 p.m. Saturday. Each competitor gets two runs.

“The race is 3 to 4 minutes long,” Murphy said. “It is a tough and grueling race aerobically and physically as well as the whitewater itself. It’s kind of like wrestling a gorilla but you also have to be precise while you do it.”

The event drew competitors from more than 15 countries last year. It’s among the top extreme kayak races in the world, Murphy said.

Alec Voorhees of Meridian — a 19-year-old rising star — won another of those elite races last week, the GoPro Mountain Games Steep Creek Championship in Colorado. He credited his win, in part, to the North Fork-like conditions.

Voorhees finished fifth in the North Fork event last year. His dad, Mike; brother, Hayden (16); and possibly brother Connor (12) will compete in the qualifier. Next year, he hopes to get his mom, Jody, in the race, too.

“It’s definitely the event I look forward to every year because it brings just so many paddlers from all around the world to my home river, which is pretty awesome,” Voorhees said. “I get to show people ... why this is my favorite river to kayak on.”