Chasing the Ghost
The Little White Salmon race is one of the West Coast's most technical and committing whitewater races. The race has a distinct grassroots vibe despite drawing paddlers from around the world to compete. By allowing only class V kayakers familiar with the run and discouraging spectators the race further fosters a paddlers only vibe. Nevertheless, a few stoked family members and friends hike in. It's a challenging hike through difficult terrain in order to intercept the river at one of the few accessible falls along the course.
The course covers the main portion of the classic Little White Salmon kayak run. The most committing drops are covered while long stretches of Little White Boogie are passed over. Little White Boogie is a catch-all for the rapids that are still class IV-V but don't have a widely accepted name. Because of the limitations of available safety teams, the race truly embodies some of the Little White mentality of paddling. You’re on your own in there. Participating in the race requires that you be comfortable paddling a completely solo Little White lap, at your fastest pace, with little to no mistakes.
This year there were 59 racers making it one of the largest showings in the event's history. With singles and team categories the racers split up with 44 male, 3 female, and 6 team participants. Racers were spaced out in two minute intervals. Top seated racers and paddlers who had participated in recent years got priority in the starting line up. I picked up a 32nd starting spot. A few friends were spread out on either side of me in the lineup. This was a relief at first. Being placed behind an extremely fast person can be demoralizing, but being chased by one can be even worse. Or you can use that fire to go faster yourself.
“I’m just here to participate at a high stroke rate.” I often say this when asked if I’m racing or how I think I’ll do. While I am competitive I am also acutely aware of my abilities in relation to the course and the level of competition. So perhaps you'll understand when I say that my first Little White race was a lifetime paddling achievement for me. It was a culmination of learning a difficult run so well that I was comfortable paddling it solo. Knowing it well enough to race it. And I took 27th—which was dead last that year. I had no illusions then and had none this year as well. Still this year was to be different. I was going to chase that me down and pass him. I had several more seasons on the run had paddled it in a variety of boats. I was ready.
This year I entered a different man. I had been juggling school, work, life, and trying to train for the race all season. I had spent most my days off paddling the Little White. I was feeling great, feeling good. This year I was going to “compete”—not just participate. I was going to beat the ghost of me from years past. And then a week before the race disaster struck. I had a rough swim and had to hike out the river without my kayak. My confidence in racing wavered. Even though I knew the race wouldn't require the same technical set of moves I had been severely reminded how quickly things can go wrong. Thinking about it left me literally shook.
Over that weekend I spent some time with some friends to help me get my head right and back on the river quickly. I would be paddling a different boat: a much lower volume river runner. That changed how I would race and I worked on getting as many laps in with my “new” boat as possible. I took more conservative lines while trying to gently test the limits of my paddling in this other boat. My confidence came back with every clean lap. Even so race day was just around the corner.
I got a few more practice runs in the days prior to the race and opted to camp out in the gorge Saturday evening to be ready for Sunday morning. Once the sun rose I moved into town to grab some breakfast and attend the morning racers meeting. A few hours later shuttles were running and we began one of the hardest parts of racing; hurry up and wait. Racers made their way to the course start solo and in small groups. The first paddlers started at noon with racers launching every two minutes. My 32nd starting spot meant I had some time to kill. As well as anxiety to build. To offset it we sat around joking;wondering if the winning time had already been set and speculating on who would take podium finishes.
When the anxiety of sitting at the put-in became too much I paddled in and sat at the course start, Getting Busy. Getting Busy is a half mile long boulder garden culminating in Boulder Sluice, a 10-12 foot drop over a waterfall. It is arguably one of the best parts of the run. Paddlers who were waiting their turn perched on the boulders; cheering their friends on as one-by-one racers took off downstream. Soon enough it was my turn. I climbed into my Axiom 9.0 and got ready in the eddy. Then the start ritual began. Capo, the race organizer, wishes you well and counts you down and before you know it you’re dropping into Getting Busy. Usually this rapid goes really well for me. But today for me it was a great place to lose some time. I did the kayaking equivalent of tripping several times as I navigated it pulling myself together as I came into Boulder Sluice.
The end of Getting Busy is the one part of the run that may cause East Coast paddlers to feel at home during the race weekend. It’s one of the only places with non paddling spectators meaning a screaming crowd of friends and family. It is pretty fun, and distracting, to hear your name shouted as you run the sluice though. Just make sure you plant the stroke before you look over.
The rest of my race continued in the same fashion as Getting Busy. Stretches of good split with time stealing mistakes. I had planned to paddle at 40-50% effort through major rapids and increase as “flat” sections came up. However, every mistake drains your energy faster. I was still fighting my boat and taking too many useless strokes. The run favors smoothness over power, or the rare combination of both. I was showing myself as a master of neither. I continued on and made several more agonizing mistakes costing me even more time.
In the back of my mind I thought slow is smooth smooth is fast. I repeated this mantra to myself over and over again yet to no avail. I kept reflexively fighting my boat instead of working with it. Finally after running Backender and nearly repeating a "beatdown" from my first race a few year back I let off the drive. I’d had better and faster laps, in that same boat, what was going on? I was anxious, tired, and not really having as much fun as when I'd started. My frustration was boiling over into my paddling and that never ends well. The finish was only two named rapids away, but there was a good bit of ‘little white boogie’ in between. I relaxed; something I realized I should've done two miles ago. It was no surprise my lines suddenly got better. I settled into paddling with the ghost of my first race instead of trying to beat him.
I ran Bowey's Hotel, a sticky ledge with a complicated lead in. The finish line was one waterfall away. As I lined up for the final waterfall before the finish the sound of a boat landing off of Bowey’s drifted downstream to me. Shocked I stole the first intentional glance backwards all race. There was Will powering downstream. Eating up the distance as I glided into Wishbone. Will was gaining on me. I turned back downstream and hit the gas. Several thoughts flashed through my mind.
Damn, he’s fast.
Followed immediately by
Damn, I’m slow.
Stay out the way.
But he is not passing me!
Wishbone's lip engulfed my field of view and I was airborne. The thirty some odd racers in the pool cheered us on as we cranked across the finish line. Will closed some of the distance and finished very shortly after me. Despite nearly being passed I was stoked to have finished with overall clean-ish lap and another amazing experience of a solo Little White lap.
Sitting in the pool below Wishbone all the racers compared laps. We watched the other thirty odd racers finish their laps and were treated to some extra stylish lines off Wishbone by a few. Usually there is an event downstream but concerns over erosion and access to the popular final large falls on the run nixed the slalom, or trick event. Paddlers simply paddled through, running or walking the falls, and on to the takeout where we exited the river.
The Little White Race brings some of the best whitewater kayakers in the world to the Columbia Gorge. Reading the final race times is a veritable who’s who of whitewater. Sponsored athletes, local favorites, and dark horses rounded out the Top 15. Even with such a impressive showing from the top seats the rest of racers, extremely skilled paddlers in their own rights, follow reasonably close behind in finish times. One of the best rivers, it seems to bring out, and demand the best from paddlers who enter its rapids. I was stoked to find that I had beat my time from my first Little White race by approximately 33 sec. But, if you look for my name on the list it’ll still be dead last. And almost a minute behind the next closest racer. At least I’m consistent. Next year I’ll paddle with the ghost instead of chasing him. He seems to have better lines.