Every year there is one week that I continually have on my mind and look forward to: The North Fork Championship. At this point, the NFC has established itself as the premier kayaking event in whitewater. Having grown up in Boise and literally learning to paddle on the Payette, it makes this event even more important and special to me. Each and every year my goals and expectations for this race just keep getting raised. The NFC is composed of three races: the Expert race (Thursday), Boater X (Friday), and the Elite Race (Saturday), as well as the Whitewater Awards down in Boise on Thursday night. Basically, my goals have developed from:

  • Qualify for the Elite Race
  • Make top 10
  • Make top 5 in all three races

Of course each year I want to win the whole thing, but this year I was really focused on doing something that has not yet been done: Winning every race at NFC. To do this, I was super focused on all of my training runs trying to get as comfortable as possible. Since the slalom gates for Jacob’s Ladder weren’t hung until Wednesday afternoon, I spent a good chunk of the first part of the week doing practice laps on the qualifier course. Doing laps on Jake’s could only help so much since we had no idea where the gates would be. Another thing to mention quickly is the difference in water level in this year’s race compared to last year. Last year was a huge snowpack all across the west, which resulted in high water for the race. Having the race at 4,000 cfs was epic because it was one of the biggest rapids you could race on, but it also limited the challenge of the gates. This year, snowpack was right at 100% and the dam operators continued to be very strange and only release 1,500 cfs when it could easily be 2,000. With runoff in-between Jake’s and the dam, this meant the flow was about 1,800. This allows for ridiculously tough gates to be put in because the rapid isn’t quite as hard. This year’s flow was very similar to NFV IV and V.

Photo by Phill Morrow

Thursday: Expert Race, TV interview, and Whitewater Awards

This year the “Expert Race” which also acts a qualifier for the main event was moved from the rapids Juicer and Crunch to S-Turn (which is also the site for the Boater X). In the past when I had needed to qualify for the Jakes Race I had done a TON of race laps to get ready for it in the past. With the new course, myself and everyone had to kind of relearn the fast lines and get those all dialed in. In my opinion, racing on S-Turn is much harder. The previous course had been around 7 minutes long, and times were ridiculously close. Now, I had estimated that times were going to around the 1:50 mark. Also, S-Turn is a very hard rapid to keep the bow dry because of all the steep and close three-foot-tall wave trains in the calmer parts of the rapid. This makes it challenging to really sprint as fast as you would like to because then waves just start to crash on your chest and slow you down. The week leading up to the race I did a bunch of laps to where I knew each and every wave and where I wanted to be for each. On race day (Thursday), I wanted to go early on in the start order so that way I could get down to Jakes and get more practice laps. 

My race run went well for me and afterwards I was thinking that I was probably going to be top 3 with that run, but didn’t know if it was fast enough to take the win. You can watch my race run here —

I had felt pretty good in the top stuff, being direct and smooth through the top waves and curlers coming from the right, through the choppy wave trains, down the steeper ramp section, and the narrow tongue right afterwards. I was keeping hard pulls on my strokes, staying dry and not taking chest shots, and staying in a straight line… all good things when racing. Basically, I was right where I wanted to be and using each wave to get to my next spot. Towards the end of my race run, I had a couple spots where I had to take some correction strokes, and went in a bit of slow water right before the finish line. Overall I was stoked with it, but just figured that someone like Gerd, Dane, Pangal, EG, etc. would have been just a little bit smoother. From there I booked it down to Jake’s with Adrian Mattern to get some practice laps on the course before a TV interview in the early afternoon.

Once down to Boise, Dane and I smashed some studio time at KBOI channel 2 news with Natalie Hurst to talk about this years North Fork Championship. From their everyone began to pack the house at the Egyptian Theater for the Whitewater Awards to watch the highlights from the past year of kayaking! Before the show started Bailey went on to announce the Wildcards from the race, and the overall winner from the day’s race. I had had a good feeling that I could have one, but once I saw the results I was pretty surprised. In a 1:50 ish race, I had somehow won by over 2 seconds! If you look at the results, there were a lot of places within the same second all throughout the list, so having that big of a lead was pretty crazy for me. Regardless, I was stoked and my goal was on its way… Race 1/3 checked off.

Friday: Boater X

The morning of the Boater X, I loaded up my stuff and rallied up to Jake’s to get a bunch of laps before the race in the afternoon. It was nice to get up there early and be basically the only one doing laps for a while, and then have some time to rest before the Boater X.

Photo by Jody Voorhees

Having won the time trial on the course that the Boater X was the next day definitely gave me confidence. The last three years in the Boater X I had made finals with one 3rd place finish, and two last in the heat finishes. This year since everyone had been practicing so much for the Expert Race, I knew that it was going to be even tougher to do well. In past years, heats were arranged alphabetically by first or last name, so I would end up usually racing the same people each year. I had mention to James (the organizer) that seeding by time in Expert Race would be a better way to do it. That backfired BIG TIME. My first heat was absolutely stacked. Matias Lopez, Evan Moore, Johnny Chase, Seth Stoenner, Todd Wells, and myself. WHAT?! NFC Boater X is always stacked, but I was definitely not super stoked about this heat. 3… 2… 1… Go! The 6 of us are off. All I was really trying to focus on with each heat was just do what I did yesterday. I had the fastest lines already, so there is no point in trying to make a pass and go where it is slower. Matias ended up in 1st after the heat with me a few boat lengths behind, making us the two that would advance on. We were the first heat to go, so watching the finish for the following heats to see who would move on was definitely scary. My second heat was even more stacked believe it or not, and could have been the finals round! Myself, Matias, Matej Holub (2nd from the expert race), Pedro Astorga, Dane Jackson, and Joe Morely. This round was especially tough. Right in the first wave I got tangled up with Matej and Pedro, but was able to squeeze through neck and neck with Matias with Dane out front. I would say for 70% of the course, Matias was right on my stern, giving me little bumps and taps. I hit his boat with my paddle like 4 times and would lose it with one hand. I was able to hold him off and keep the inside corners and push him into slower water all the way down, but at the finish he took the inside going into the eddy before the banner. As he had the inside I was able to turn just enough to get under his bow and push him just out of reach to where I could touch the finish banner a little after Dane. Once again I got to watch the finish line to see who I would end up against in finals. Dane, Kalob Grady, Vavra Hradilek, Eric Parker and Tren Long were the last 5 standing. The finals round is where I had my cleanest lines and avoided to get tangled with anybody. Vavra was out in front for the first quarter of the race, and I was able to just do my race lines, as he was getting off line and just using his super human strength and paddling super hard. Once I passed, I just put my head down and tried to stay smooth. Towards the end of the course, I started running out of gas and Kalob Grady had been charging along and starting to catch me. Once I got to the finish eddy, I almost messed it up and went in too straight, and had to turn at the last second to touch the banner. I barely got it by the fingertips of my ring finger and pinky. Right then I put my hands up in the air with two “number one” signs knowing that I was that much closer to getting my goal. 2/3 check

Photo by Mike Leeds

Saturday: The Elite Race – Jacob’s Ladder Giant Slalom

The day has come. The day that I wait all year for. I didn’t sleep too great the night before because I was so anxious for the race. The gates this year were going to be a tall task for everyone to nail. To begin the race after going off the Red Bull Ramp, “Rodeo Hole consisted of two gates where racers had to go right of the first gate and boof moving left to get to the left side of the gate about 5 yards downstream. This is a tough move because landing Rodeo instantly wants to typewriter you to river right if you don’t get all the way out. The set up angle for the first gate was a little awkward, so it was just tough to get far enough left. From there, the course continues down to “Rock Drop”, where the move was a double up starting after the boof into the eddy on river left, and then immediately ferrying directly across the river through the unpredictable feature to another up gate on river right. From there, a ferry back to river left going into “Taffy Puller” was necessary to make another up left, which is super fast current after a whiteout to boof a rock to make the eddy. At this point I was always super lactic, even though it was only about 45 seconds into the race. From there you had to ferry back to center right of the river to do an up right gate behind the “Witches Tit”. Witches Tit is a very pointy, large rock that creates a very deep and powerful curler hole coming off the left side. This was always my most inconsistent gate, as it was very hard to boof the left side, and still get behind the rock up high and not get swept downstream. After this hard gate and being exhausted, it is another 35 second sprint down to the finish line.

Photo by Jeremy Allen

I was starting to feel pretty confident with my runs I was having, and felt like I was about as consistent as I could be. Having placed 7th last year, that meant I was one of the last racers to go. I watched a little bit, but mainly just listened to music and paced up and down the course through the crowd, getting fist bumps and high fives from everyone. Once it was my turn to go and I am at the top of the ramp I got the chills just like I do every year. Once Marty Rood gave me the go ahead, I took a deep breath and began to slide down the ramp. I charged into Rodeo Hole, really watching my line up to make sure I didn’t hit the gate with my bow.  Got my bow up and carried speed straight downstream, correctly maneuvering both gates. Once I got down to Rock Drop, I was higher up on the boof than I wanted, which made me not have the fast carve back upstream. It wasn’t that bad, but just enough to require probably two more strokes. I lost a lot of time doing the ferry and I got really stalled out in the middle. I reached hard and pulled myself high into the eddy. My Taffy through the Witches Tit wasn’t awful, as I didn’t have to recover from downstream too much. My line through the bottom was good, as I didn’t lose speed anywhere. I wasn’t sure just how fast it was, but I nailed all the gates and knew I could go faster in some spots.

After the first runs, athletes get shuttled back up in the official NFC Toyota Tundra. As we got to the top of the course I began to stand up from leaning against the rear windshield. As the car was placed in park, it rolled ever so slightly for me to lose my balance a little bit and put my hand around the side. Someone had hitched a ride back up with the shuttle, and as I was trying to get my footing around the three boats in the back of the truck… BOOM! An awful pain shot through my hand and all the way up my arm. The guy had slammed the door very hard right on to my left hand. I instantly hopped out of the truck, let out a few swear words, kicked the gravel, and grasped my hand in pain. “No, no, no this can’t happen.” From there I was in tears from the combination of pain and disbelief that I may have just broken my hand in between runs. I immediately found ibuprofen, ice, and James Byrd to try and get my hand taped up. I kept the swelling down a good bit, but it still began to swell and holding my paddle was no easy task. I consider myself to have a high tolerance for pain, but this was making me question if I could do my second lap. I decided to just say “screw it, I’m going”. 

Photo by Jesse Dellamotte

As it got closer and closer to my turn, I could feel my hand more and more, and just got very quiet and calm trying to not think about it. Again, I was at the top of the ramp with a taped hand and got the OK from Marty. The first 10 strokes were agonizing and I was already not lined up for the first gate. My bow lifted up and I sent the first gate swinging. A hit is a 5 second penalty. From there I went down and had a little bit smoother run through Rock Drop, and I was able to go without getting stalled out anywhere. Going through Taffy, I got slightly squirted on the eddy line before wrapping into the eddy and going back out into the current and over to Witches Tit where I was ok getting in and out of there. From there to the finish line, I just felt like I had had no power left and felt super slow. Going past the finish line I grasped my hand and then hit a rock and flipped over. Once my race was over I was just pretty quiet and knew that I hadn’t had the run that I needed. I knew I was still top 10, which is still a big accomplishment in this race, but I really wanted that top spot. In NFC IV, had a good run to take 5th,  and the next year I nicked a gate with my GoPro  which cost me 5 seconds and put me back to 4th. Without that touch I would have won. Then last year I had two epic practice laps, but just wasn’t as fast after my run and I was pretty upset with myself and how I raced. This year was just kind of like “well, just wasn’t the year again.” 

Once back at Weilmunster park in Crouch, the awards kicked off in the evening, announcing the Top 10. As the list went on, my name had yet to be called as we got to the Top 5 spots. Coming in at number four, my name was called. From there I was 10 seconds off of the top 3, who were all within a second of each other. Aniol came out on top, with Gerd and Dane right behind.

As mentioned in the very beginning, NFC is more than just another race for me. It is a time that all my friends and the best paddlers in the world come to my hometown and home river for the premier whitewater kayaking race in the World. All of this wouldn’t be possible without James and Regan Byrd who are some of the best people I know, and work so hard to make this dream of an event a reality. And as always, thank you to everyone for all of the support. I’ll get it one day! Next year I might just have to walk up the course to avoid another off water injury;)

Full results here: 

Alec Voorhees

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