Local paddlers and participants from around the Northwest celebrated Central Oregon’s kayaking culture Sunday at a Northwest Cup Slalom Paddle Series race in Bend.
About 30 racers braved freezing rain, raging water and a difficult course at the sixth annual Riverhouse Rendezvous slalom kayak race on the Deschutes River behind the Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center in Bend. The race is a Junior Olympic qualifier.
Spectators lined the shore and leaned over the two walking bridges spanning the course Sunday morning, watching men and women compete solo and in two-person kayaks while the freezing rain came down.
Bend’s Bert Hinkley — who organizes the event, sets up the course and also competes in the race — acted as the announcer during the 10 a.m. to noon segment. Hinkley, the Pacific Northwest representative of the National Whitewater Slalom Committee, called out the names and hometowns of the racers as they maneuvered the course.
“It’s good to see you all here,” he said to spectators. “You never know when you yourself might decide, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”
Greg Snider came from Medford to participate in the event. It was his first slalom race in 22 years.
“It’s a very good course,” Snider said. “The gates are set up, intentionally, in places that are not right where the river is flowing.”
Participants are challenged to maneuver their kayaks between poles hanging a few feet apart, called gates, which are set up at intervals along the course. The poles are striped either green and white or red and white. Racers pass through the green-and-white striped gates while going downriver. They’re required to pass through the red-and-white striped gates while paddling upriver against the current.
Racers are timed, with penalties handed down for hitting a pole (two seconds added to their time), or missing a gate altogether (50 seconds added), said Hinkley.
“Whitewater kayaking is the only sport where the playing field is moving,” Hinkley said. “You have a dynamic medium and a dynamic athlete.”
Snider’s wife, Connie Snider, who participates in the sport but didn’t compete Sunday, said slalom racing presents particular challenges to kayakers because they’re asked to deviate from the path of least resistance down the river and guide their boats along more challenging routes.
“It forces you to do things you wouldn’t normally do on a downriver ride,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the skills I have today without having done slalom courses.”
Sunday’s event consisted of separate morning and afternoon races. Hinkley raced in the afternoon and acted as the announcer during the morning races, rooting for paddlers over the loudspeakers with words of encouragement like, “Up, up, up, up. Paddle hard, paddle hard.”
Hinkley’s wife, Dani Hinkley, said some of the racers are newcomers, but many participants come back year after year.
“It’s a small family of familiar faces,” she said. “Racing is difficult. Like a lot of things, it takes more patience and you have to work at those skills.”
Bert Hinkley set up the course Friday, and he said many race participants run the course several times in preparation for the Sunday event.
The race is traditionally held in late March because usually by mid-April, the Central Oregon Irrigation District redirects the water in the Deschutes to farms via canals, reducing the water volume and making this section of river unnavigable for kayakers until October, Hinkley said.
The first iterations of the Riverhouse Rendezvous started in the 1970s, Hinkley said. It went on for a few years but died out until 1994, when the race began again. In 2002, organizers again stopped staging the race, he said. The Hinkleys took over in 2009 and have been hosting ever since.
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