Saluda, NC—November 7th, 2021
The premier competition in Southeastern whitewater paddling can be summed up with one word: electricity.
The annual Green Race is famed in the world of whitewater kayaking. Many consider it to be the most prestigious race in the sport. The section of river known as The Narrows brings gradient changes and hard tight turns created by rock faces and cracks that characterize the race course. Kayakers are forced to make split-second decisions to find a successful path through the features. The search for this “A-line” can be thought of in a similar way to climbing: there is an ideal route to maximize efficiency and conserve energy. Kayaking is similar – paddlers must avoid holes and crevices in the rocks with the capability to kill while battling their way downstream.
As whitewater kayaking has grown in popularity, so has the desire to explore and paddle more aggressive and remote rivers. The Green Race is a product of pioneers who looked to push the envelope of what was possible in whitewater. Aptly described as the “Super Bowl of Kayaking,” the first successful run of The Narrows on record was in 1988. The segment is home to rapids with names like Go Left and Die, Pencil Sharpener and—perhaps the most famous— Gorilla. The section has claimed the lives of at least 3 people over the years. With that in mind, paddlers understand that they need to be at the top of their game to traverse down the rapids.
Just a week after peak fall colors, it is a cool 55 degrees. Autumn is in full stride. The air is crisp and clear – a hiker’s delight. I start my walk to watch The Green Race for myself. I reach about half a mile from the action and hear the noise before I see a single competitor. The hike is now a descent to the gallery above the river.
Silence for a couple minutes…
Onlookers explode in unison. Cheers, cowbells and applause. With a tethered rope to guide hikers down, we position ourselves in what is now dozens of people in a single-file line to reach The Narrows. I round the corner and glimpse the sea of people hovering, perched on the best vantage points they can find to view the action. A myriad of bright colors made up of dry suits, PFDs, kayaks, paddles and helmets contrast with the natural earth tones of fall in the mountains. The boulders, rocks, tree branches and clearings in between each feature serve as The Colosseum seating. The gladiators? The kayakers. The opponent? The raging river.
As we find our place among hundreds of ardent onlookers, I fixate on the river guards. Tethered with ropes, they stand on rock islands adjacent to the end of one rapid and the beginning of another with throw bags in hand. My gaze drifts out from there and catches the rapids themselves and the scenery above.
Wow, that’s a lot of people. Each face resonates differently. By observation I create stories for each face enthralled with the race. I fixate on a man who I assume to be a first time spectator. Next to him, a friend explains each move the kayakers are making, what challenges they face at the next feature and the strengths of their form. I wonder if he and I are having the same feelings as we see the race for the first time. As a raft guide and amateur kayaker, witnessing such talent from paddlers was a humbling experience. As each paddler skillfully negotiated the rapids, a hunger grew within me to try it for myself. I remember one overwhelming feeling as I traversed back up the steep trail: appreciation. The community and passion shared by the participants and spectators of The Green Race left me with a desire for more.
During the hike out of The Narrows, I reflected on my experience that day. Did I get lost on my way in and make the hike twice as long? Sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely. This was a holiday for whitewater enthusiasts – a day to celebrate the sport that often feels so niche within the broader paddling world. This event was able to use an individual sport to bring together a community who are all in love with the same thing. And, man, was it a party. Seeing hundreds of people compete and celebrate alike was a sight I won’t soon forget.