“I want to remind everyone that whitewater slalom is not golf. It’s not tennis,” race organizer and announcer Bert Hinkley told the crowd of 50 or so who gathered to observe the annual Riverhouse Rendezvous on the Deschutes River on Sunday. “If you see great execution of skill, cheer! Ring that cowbell!”
Although the onlookers watching from the Washington Street Bridge and the Riverhouse Hotel never quite rose to that level of rowdiness — and there was not a cowbell to be heard — they offered plenty of encouragement to the nearly 50 competitors who came from across the Northwest to compete at the Rendezvous, the second of nine events in the Northwest Whitewater Slalom Cup.
The paddlers included veterans like Seattle resident Boo Turner — a former member of the women’s national team who has been competing for decades and won the women’s masters division Sunday with a run of 147.35 seconds — as well as relatively inexperienced juniors and adults trying out their first whitewater race.
Joel Martin, who lives in the Seattle area, recorded the fastest time of the day with 115.83-second run, while Hood River’s Ryan Bahn was the quickest in the canoe division, completing the course in 120.67.
Some of the more serious competitors raced in specially designed racing kayaks, but in addition to categories based on age and gender the Rendezvous included separate divisions for canoes, recreational kayaks and two-person kayaks, which are devilishly difficult to maneuver and are being dropped from the Olympic program. Jayson Bowerman, who helped organize the event with Hinkley and Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe owner Geoff Frank, even took a turn down the slalom on a stand-up paddle board, finishing about 80 percent of the course before wiping out.
Despite the presence of beginners and harder-to-manage vessels, Hinkley said he did not design a novice-friendly course.
“I’m not racing, so I made it hard,” he jokingly informed the crowd. “Next year I’ll race and it will be easy.”
While the Rendezvous course begins just below the Riverhouse Convention Center and ends at the far end of the Riverhouse Hotel each year, the 21 gates can be moved to make the course more or less challenging. The racers must paddle downstream through each of the green (or “down”) gates and turn and power upstream through each red (or “up”) gate. Two seconds are added to a competitor’s time whenever he or she hits the hanging gate, and 50 seconds are added for each missed gate. Each kayaker is allowed two runs, and the faster of the two times is used to determine the winner.
This year, many competitors had trouble navigating the transition from the 10th gate, a down gate, that forced them to cross horizontally across a churning maelstrom (or “eddy”) below a protruding boulder to reach the following up gate.
“Bert does a good job with the course every year,” said Marlow Staton, 30, a native of New Zealand who recently moved from Bend to Portland. “This year he mixed it up quite a lot, which is actually really good.
“It’s a challenging course — the up gates are pretty hard, pretty slow, and require a lot of effort, so you’ve got to keep on keeping on to not get too dejected as you’re going through one of those really slowly.”
Hood River’s Sarah Leith Bahn, a former national team member who was the only woman to enter the women’s senior racing division, said she found more trouble on the back of the course.
“Honestly, I thought (gates) 17, 18 and 19 were the hardest. They go by really quick, and you’re really tired at the end of the course,” said Leith Bahn, who is married to canoe winner Ryan Bahn and has raced just three or four times since she retired from whitewater slalom in 2004. “It was a really hard course; I was exhausted at the end. It was very physical, and I would like another chance, but you only get two.”
Five of the racers were cadets (under the age of 15) or juniors, including three competitors who traveled together from Calgary, Alberta.
“Anytime I see young people coming up to race, accepting the challenge and learning and growing, I’m excited,” Hinkley said after the event, as the racers pulled the gates in from the river and cut the wires suspended across the Deschutes. “I love the sport.”
The cadets share his high hopes for whitewater slalom. Nina Gaudsmith, a 12-year-old who lives in Roseburg, said she hopes to make it to the Olympics.
Gemma Grochmal, one of the two 13-year-old Calgary residents who competed Sunday, has her sights set on something a little more immediate. When asked about her goals, she gestured toward her teammate and the event winner, Jocelyn Taylor.
“I’d like to beat Jocelyn — one day.”
—Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org