The churning chocolate milk-hued water of the Greys River was filled with 12 boaters paddling furiously to get the edge on one another before the class V rapid Snaggletooth intensified.
As they reached the first massive wave, many of the boaters were stuck together, not able to paddle without striking kayaks on either side. Miraculously, none flipped in the first wave, but the rushing water did send a couple of competitors sideways as the next large hole approached.
Eric Parker was clear in first position Saturday as he took the inside line tightly against the left riverbank into the rocky and technical part of the rapid. His lead held, and he eddied out at the bottom as the winner while the tangle of boaters behind him struggled to fight for places in the last section of the race.
The stage for the Wyoming Whitewater Championships was set Friday at the Gilcrease Cabin on the Hoback River. At 6:30 p.m. the downriver race paddled off. Kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, and rafters were all welcome to compete. This race was the more laid back of two days of competition, encouraging fun and togetherness with the river community.
“The goal of that event on Friday night is sort of get the whole community together,” Jackson Hole Kayak Club Executive Director Reed Hutton said, “get everybody out onto the water and sort of celebrate the coming summer season.”
Thirty-eight kayaks, paddleboards and rafts were entered in Friday’s race.
The event features a mass start down a short section of the lower Hoback. Kayakers typically use longer boats, and physicality is not permitted between boats.
The raft team of Teton Whitewater wound up winning the race in its category. The winning kayaker was Jackson resident Wes Heustess. The tandem kayak winners were a team of Rendezvous River Sports owner Aaron Pruzan and Jackson Hole Kayak Club alumni Hunter Cooper.
As the event wound down, the party kicked up. Live music and a barbecue drowned out the sound of the rushing river below. This lasted well into the night, and attendees were able to camp there rather than head home.
Friday’s race was “a massive success” in Hutton’s eyes, even if it was just a warm-up to the big show.
“It’s a ton of fun and a really good kind of event for us to get on the map and get people stoked for the season.”
Saturday’s event took place on the Snaggletooth rapid on the Greys River. The legendary stretch starts with three river-wide holes in a row, then rounds a bend and turns more technical. The section around the bend is filled with hidden rocks and a strong current. At this time of the year’s peak runoff, the first three large holes are the more challenging part of the rapid, with multiple paddlers flipping in the big first wave. This was a kayak-specific event, as the class V rapid can be a challenge for even experienced boaters.
Twenty-one competitors tackled the heats in groups of four or five. The first two racers to reach the finish line in each heat advanced, and the third-place finisher went to the losers bracket. After a slight mix-up in the winners group, the racers and organizers decided to change the final to a mass start of all 12 remaining racers. Chaos ensued, with one athlete getting hit in the face with a paddle in the oversized heat, but Eric Parker, who had stayed in front of the mass of boats the entire race, landed himself in first. He won a hatchet and a cash prize.
Drivers on the Greys River Road, which cuts right above the action, frequently stopped to watch the competition for a while before continuing on their way. Competitors who weren’t involved in the current heat cheered from the side of the road.
The age of competitors ranged from single digits up to the younger racers’ parents, and everything in between. Most of the athletes have been competing in this event for years.
Finalist Zander Ulmer remembers the winner, Eric Parker, competing in the event for as long as he can remember: “He was in the club back in 2010 before I even started so it’s just a long train of kayak clubbers coming to this every year.”
Most years also include a slalom race on the rapid aptly named Slalom right above Snaggletooth, but this year’s event stuck to only the boater cross.
The competition takes place a week after the Bigfork Whitewater Festival in Montana and two weeks before the North Fork Championships in Idaho. This is no accident, as the club wants to bring competitors from these events.
“It’s kind of a traveling circus of characters and river people,” Hutton said. “They’re all traveling around looking for places to go, and if we can get any of that sort of traffic it’s awesome to make it more of a regional event than just a local one.”
The awards ceremony on Saturday was followed by a few speeches by organizers and athletes about their love for the event and the camaraderie shown by the kayaking community in Jackson.
The Jackson Hole Kayak Club is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Hutton looks forward to the future of the Wyoming Whitewater Championships.
“It’s an event we can keep building on and making bigger and better and more well attended in the future.”