I left Charlottesville, VA and started driving at 4am on Saturday, Aug. 27 to head to White Haven, PA for the 5th annual Lehigh Classic Whitewater Race.
A couple weeks back when I realized Saturday was free of any of our kids’ activities (a rarity,) and due to the fact that the Wye Island Regatta has become unfriendly toward kayakers in recent years in terms of entry fees, I went looking for a kayak race somewhere that I could do on Saturday instead of the Wye Island Regatta on Sept. 10–a race that I’ve done already multiple times with the boats I own so I have nothing new to offer or bring to the game.
I found the Lehigh Classic online (through the U.S. Canoe & Kayak Races page on Facebook. Disclaimer–I created that group) and decided to sign up and try some paddling that would be unlike any I’ve done before.
The Lehigh Classic is held on the Lehigh River, through Lehigh Gorge State Park, when the local dam releases water which creates Class III river conditions. I researched this section of water online and when the water is low it appears to be mostly technical Class II rapids and when the water is released it has some Class III features, but nobody knows exactly what the water release will be in advance. I’ve never tried Class III rapids in my very tippy Cobra Viper kayak so I decided to enter the race and paddle that boat.
I wanted to try something new and push my limits and I definitely paddled at the limit of–or just above–my skill level in the Viper.
When I got to the race to register and shuttle, I asked everyone I could what to expect from the water that day. They informed me that the dam release was around 1700 cfs so there would be Class II and “easy” Class III rapids with a few sections of flat water. Everyone kept telling me it was easy Class III’s and there was nothing to worry about, but they didn’t realize I was paddling a 17′ long, very tippy kayak, so I was worried.
In retrospect, it would have been an easy, fun day in my whitewater boat so everyone was right. They just didn’t realize what a challenge I had in front of me with my particular boat.
The first bit of bad luck occurred when I caught a shuttle to the starting line. When I got there I quickly realized I forgot my helmet cam in my takeout vehicle at the finish line, so there is no actual race video.
The second bit of bad luck happened shortly after I put in the water and was paddling to the starting line for the race which was approximately 1 mile downriver from the put-in.
I was paddling through a set of continuous Class II rapids when I notice a chute, river-right, between two rocks that was the slot to hit.
As I neared the chute, a kayaker in a whitewater boat approached the chute from the center of the river right in front of me. I’m sure he didn’t know I was there, but I knew I was about to hit him. People in smaller whitewater boats just don’t realize that a 17′ plastic boat with no rocker is not easy to turn and once fast-flowing water has grabbed it, it is very hard to slow it down.
I tried to hit the brakes but I was going much faster than the whitewater boat so I did everything I could to turn to the right to avoid smacking right into the rear of the kayaker in front of me which would have made a mess.
It turned out my evasive maneuver made a mess that was special just for me.
Some pushy water grabbed me and slammed me head-on into a rock, river-right. A Piton to end all Pitons.
The force of the impact was so great that it overturned me, bent the bow of my kayak, and caused my right foot brace to slip out of its slot and shoot all the way forward on the rail such that my foot could no longer touch it. For a split second I thought, no problem, just roll, but at that very same split second my head collided with a rock underwater and I realized I had to wet exit.
The dent/bend in the bow of my kayak from hitting a rock before the race began
My neck is still sore from this incident 24 hours later and the scratches in my helmet tell the tale.
The impact probably would have knocked loose my helmet camera so forgetting it was probably a blessing in disguise. That impact with the rock probably would have sent my helmet camera to live with the fish forever.
I got to the side of the river and pumped out all the water as best I could and tried and tried to reach in and fix the foot peg but I just couldn’t reach it. I knew race time was approaching to I decided to jump back into the boat, get the the starting and then pull the boat out onto dry land and crawl up into the boat if I needed to or otherwise do whatever had to be done with the foot peg to fix it.
As luck would have it, I encountered another wave train of Class III’s that gently rolled me to the right. Normally not a problem, but at this moment it was a very big problem. I couldn’t brace with my right foot and tried to throw down a bracing stroke but it was too late. Bloop! Over again. The river was shallow at that point and I had no chance for a roll so I just grabbed onto the boat and swam the rapids. These were the rapids that led to the starting line so I’m sure I made a great impression getting to the starting line in full swim mode.
Good thing no cameras were around.
Doh! Can’t get away with anything these days.
Getting to the starting line in style
I was told there were still 20 minutes until the start of the race so I relaxed a bit, pumped out my boat again, and had time to fiddle with the foot peg. I was finally able to reach it and much to my surprise, it was not broken so I was able to simply slide it back up the rail and click it back to its position.
I was already tired, embarrassed, and worried about what the rest of the river had in store for me that day.
I went into survival mode and just wanted to make it down the remainder of the river section with as little drama as possible.
As we lined up in the eddy for the start of the race I found myself next to a gentleman paddling a Pyranha Speeder that he had borrowed and only paddled three times. He told me he was uncomfortable with the tippyness of his craft and said when the race started he intended to stay back and let everyone get a solid start and that he did not want to interfere with me. I quickly confirmed that I, too, was in survival mode at this point and his plan sounded solid to me and I would hang back with him.
The race began and the two of us let all the wildwater and long boats get off to a good start before we even paddled away from the shoreline.
Wildwater boats lining up for the start of the race
I made it through the first few sets of rapids without a problem so I started thinking about race mode again.
When I got to the first flat water section I started throwing down the best flat water wing paddle sprint strokes I had to try to click back into race mode.
I rather quickly started passing the plastic long boats and paddled for quite a while behind a guy in a red LiquidLogic Stinger. I was finally able to pass him but was aware that he was not too far behind. I then saw the last of 4 carbon/Kevlar wildwater boats that were in the race ahead of me and came to the full realization that the leaders were at least still in sight. I still had a chance to get back in the race.
Soon I approached a standing wave in the center or the river and at this point I had learned it was better for me to take the wave trains head-on rather than skirt them because skirting them caused more of a rolling action, which was not desirable with such a tippy craft.
As I neared the large wave, I saw the tip of a large rock in the center of it so I quickly tried to adjust to just skim the right side of the wave.
The bow of my boat had already hit the rock and my boat was being pushed up the rock. By the time I got to the top of the rock I felt like I was at the top of the world looking down but quickly feared that I was now stuck on the top of a rock in the middle of the river.
The river had a different idea.
Water pushed on my stern until I was at the 9-o’clock position and then d-o-w-n I went over the top of the rock. I’m sure it was the ugliest sideways boof ever and I plunged for what seemed like an eternity down the 5 or 6 feet into the hole below the rock.
I don’t entirely remember the exact words that came out of my mouth during that incident, but I’m quite sure my mother would not have been proud of me in that moment.
Still rocked by what had just happened, I somehow managed to bob up and get out of the hole with relative ease and keep paddling.
I have no idea how I managed to save that one.
The race continued and I did my best to avoid the many rafts on the river that day while throwing down massive bracing strokes when needed to stay upright. I continued to close the gap on the wildwater boat I could see but alas, I finally ran out of river.
Oh, how I envy the large wings on those wildwater boats
I crossed the finish line in 4th place amongst the men, 5th place overall. I was 2 minutes and 34 seconds behind the overall winner. I was also the first plastic boat across the finish line and the only boats ahead of me were the four carbon/Kevlar wildwater boats, so I felt very good about what I actually accomplished once the race began.
My accomplishments were rewarded at the awards ceremony with “The Carnage Award,” given annually to the paddler who encountered the most trouble during the event. I will cherish this round little slice or wooden goodness for the rest of my life because my shins paid the price for it.
I’m not sure if I paddled way above my skill level in that boat or whether I evolved as a paddler and raised the bar on my skill level, but after I drove the 5-1/2 hours home I couldn’t wait to jump in the shower and wash the fear and sweat off my body.
It was a long day.
I took a long nap this afternoon after attending church (I gave thanks for still being alive.)
After working on the boat with a heat gun today the boat is almost back to normal and I placed my “Carnage Award” in a position of prominence on my awards rack.
The people who participated in and organized this race were all so wonderful and nice to me. I can’t thank them enough, especially Brian A. who stayed with me up to the starting line to make sure I didn’t kill myself before the race began.
Turns out, he pulled the toughest assignment of the day.
Anyone who can get to this race in future years needs to do so. It runs through absolutely beautiful scenery in the gorge and the water during the dam release on race day makes this mostly a continuous Class III race with separating sections of Class II and one or two flat water sections.
I’ll be back next year in a more sensible boat.
Some video from Eric Jones…