Explore June 14, 2019

Fear Factor

The North Fork Championship challenges the world's best kayakers

“Without any doubt, NFC [the North Fork Championship] is the biggest event in kayaking,” said professional kayaker and Red Bull athlete Aniol Serrasolses. “It draws the best competitors in the world because it’s the hardest race to win right now, and it also brings the larger community together of a big variety of people: spectators, a whole bunch of kayaking characters, and brands—who are interested in whitewater or might just be seeing it for the first time.”

The North Fork of the Payette River is world renowned for its difficulty, boasting 16 miles of continuous class V whitewater that also happens to be roadside. Winding down Highway 55 between McCall and Boise, the run can be broken into sections of varying difficulty. It ends at the confluence with the South Fork of the Payette in Banks. Jagged rocks dumped in the river during road construction form many of the steep rapids of the North Fork and give it a reputation of having unforgiving whitewater.

The hardest rapid on the run is Jacob’s Ladder, or Jake’s, and it is the venue for the main event of the North Fork Championship (NFC), held June 13-16, where athletes are not just making their way down, but are also launching off a huge Red Bull ramp into the river and then racing as fast as they can through gates that push them to navigate even more challenging and extreme lines than they normally would. Due to the difficulty and volatility of the river, the NFC is known for being anyone’s race to win. 

North Fork Championship competitor Aniol Serrasolses, 2018 champion, taken during the 2017 races.
Photo by Jasper Gibson

James Byrd, who co-founded the event with his wife, Regan, 8 years ago, said they created it to give “all of the energy of kayaking a worthy venue, to both push the sport and share it with a larger audience.” Byrd, along with McCall local Tristan McClaran, holds the record for running the entire North Fork, including Jacob’s Ladder, in 2010 at the record flow of 9,000 cubic feet per second, which is over four times the average summer flow. 

For the event’s inaugural year, the Byrds reached out to 30 of the best kayakers in the world to compete, and almost all of them came. 

“True to this river, local legend Ryan Casey won the first year among top competitors and names in the sport from all over the world,” recalled James. 

When asked about Jacob’s Ladder and the race, Casey offered: “For every other rapid on the North Fork, there is this 99 percent [chance] that you are going to get your line, but for Jake’s it’s always a roll of the dice. My paddling buddy Henry Munter and I always used to say, ‘See you at the bottom, sunny side up,’” implying that just paddling to the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder right side up the entire way is often the best you can ask for, even for those at the very top level of kayaking. 

In previous years, the competitors in the finals were voted in as an Elite Division with 10 additional “Wild Card” competitors qualifying in a preliminary downriver sprint race. This year, all competitors in the Jacob’s Ladder World Championships Finals will be determined at the Kokatat Qualifier, a downriver sprint on S-turn rapid on June 13, and in the North Fork semi-finals head-to-head races on June 14. This is also the first year the event will have a Women’s Division, in which women will have the opportunity to compete for the title “Queen of the North Fork.” They will also compete for prize money equal to that of the men’s division: $5,000 for first, $2,500 for second, and $1,000 for third.

A primary contender for the Women’s Division is Nouria Newman from France, who holds the only female descents of Site Zed on the Stikine (“Kayaking’s Everest”) and who recently completed an expedition down the Pascua, a big-water run in Chile that few have even attempted and that a couple of high-level teams have walked out of mid-attempt. Newman has raced in the NFC multiple years and claimed a top finish of 8th overall in the Jacob’s Ladder race in 2015. In the past, a number of women have taken on the Wild Card qualifier time trial, but the only other woman to compete in the Jake’s race was Katrina Van Wijk, who was the first to be invited to compete in the Elite division in 2014.

“Kayaking is usually sucking for girls,” noted Newman, referring to the usual lack of women’s divisions and lower cash prizes for women’s events. “So, I have to come back this year, even though I didn’t plan to, because for the first time since the Sickline race, there is an equal Women’s
Division for an event in kayaking like this, and I am happy NFC is doing it and an advocate for it.” 

From the beginning, the North Fork Championship has been just as much about bringing together and building the whitewater community as it has been about pushing the limits of the sport of kayaking. This year, there will be a river conservation night and symposium on June 11 at Payette Brewing in Boise, which, in Byrd’s words, “blends the sexy with the serious.” The evening will bring a diverse group of “movers and shakers” in local and global river conservation together to inform and inspire this crew that spends so much time on rivers, as well as others, about what’s going on and how to be more aware and involved in river conservation and advocacy. 

“Sponsored by Payette Brewing, this conservation night in Boise is a really important piece of the event,” said Byrd. “We’re here to have fun, but we’re also here to talk about some important challenges to our rivers in order to get people to become more involved. We’re also really stoked that this year NFC will be the World Championships and reach a broader audience of paddlers, from countries worldwide. We’re really reaching out all over, there will be contestants from Nepal and other more far-reaching destinations, and we’re working to highlight them, their country, and their rivers.”

June 13, after the qualifying race, there will be a night showcasing films, photos, and the day’s results at the Egyptian Theatre in Boise. June 14 and 15 there will also be the NFC Whitewater Festival at Weilmunster Park in Crouch, with music, beer, food, yard games, slow bike races, and whitewater industry vendors.

When it comes to this Idaho river, something that distinguishes the NFC is the widespread fear factor for the competitors. “At NFC,” Newman said, “you’re trying to paddle a rapid that’s really really hard, and it’s the only race where I’m actually really scared before I drop in every time. It’s less about precision compared to other races and more about making it through.”

This year will be NFC’s biggest year ever, as the open format has competitors from near and far flocking to the site of some of the world’s hardest whitewater hoping to not just make it through, but to win it all. 

This article appears in the Issue of Territory Magazine.