Fear of low-water, wood, access and insurance issues that have plagued many other extreme kayak races weren’t enough to prevent organizers from staging a rollicking Little White Salmon Race this year, making the Northwest classic one for the record books with more than 82 kayakers signing up to race.
(By Adam Chechire Edwards)
While an inconsistent winter had fear of low water levels leading up to this year’s Little White Salmon Race, other headaches included new wood sprinkled throughout the run, as well as access and insurance issues that have challenged other Class V races nationwide in 2023.
But while insurance has become a huge hurdle, the Great Falls Foundation was able to insure the race allowing it to continue for another year.
Access was also an issue around the Little White due to land ownership changes surrounding the Little White Gorge. Spectators, always discouraged, were significantly down this year as access to Boulder Sluice and Spirit have become an increasingly hotpoint issue with the current landowners and members of the community. Instances of graffiti, trash left behind and unsafe practices have led to a tenuous relationship surrounding accessing one of the region’s most pristine waterfalls.
Long Boats Added
All that withstanding, with 82 registered racers (and around 78 competing) the core event has slowly grown over the years. The biggest change this year was the addition of long boats. For years the race has not allowed longboats. The course is extremely steep, safety is thin, and truth be told not many are willing to practice longboating the Little White at proper flows. In the past interested parties had been told they would be disqualified if they showed up at the start in their longboats. Given the seriousness of the race course and the general lack of longboating culture in the region the rule made sense.
Last year though the gates were opened with a change in organizers made the race open class. Todd Wells and Galen Volkhausen both raced prototypes of Daggers new longboat the “Vanguard.” Wells secured the men’s division win in 2022 and the timely release of the “Vanguard” in 2023 saw a significant portion of the fastest times, podiums included, being put down in Dagger’s new longboat. Both Nouria Newman and Evan Garcia, Waka team paddlers, paddled “Vanguards” and took 1st place in Womens and Mens.
It is important to remember though the Little White Race is an elite race down a grade 5+ river. The top 20-30 racers have logged significant time in the craft of their choice and are familiar with water levels. Alternately the top placing finishers are often locals or internationally renowned kayakers who spend significant portions of their winters/springs in the region on the run. For example, Benny G Marr narrowly missed out of placing in the top ten while paddling a Waka OG. His time in a “short boat” shows that prowess and familiarity will overcome an extra three feet of boat.
It seems the advent of safer faster longboats may change the paying field of the Little White race in the future. Perhaps boat classes, similar to “The Green Race” will be an addition at future events. While the race has not grown to the size of “The Greatest Show in Sports,” it will need to consider how to adapt to advancing boat technology. Also the increase in paddlers of expert caliber, or attempting to step into the expert category will require organizers to continue finding safe ways to adapt and accommodate the desires of the general paddling and racing communities. All the while balancing those desires against the wonderful resource the race is meant to celebrate.
Racer Interviews by Seth West found below.