Jerry’s Baddle

We still miss you, Jerry.

Jerry Beckwith (1957-2006) was an avid and accomplished road biker and kayaker with an affinity for the paddling style known as “steep creeking.”

John Pilson. Photo by Ben Edson, Downstreamphoto.com

I first met Jerry while kayaking, and like hundreds of Western North Carolina paddlers, I’m filled with fond memories of him. He took me down the Watauga my first time in 2002 on a snowy, gusty, 34-degree day, loaning me his dry suit in case I swam. Jerry also led me on my initial venture down Upper Big Creek in the Smokies. On that trip, I nearly had to jog to keep up with him as we hauled our boats up the trail: me huffing and puffing and falling behind while his long legs just kept striding away. At the top, he turned around and hollered wryly down the trail, “Wow! I didn’t think you’d keep up—most people can’t.”

Everyone who knew Jerry will tell you a uniquely funny story about him. And there isn’t a person among them who won’t get a bit misty-eyed recalling his warmth and generosity of spirit.

Fate took a sad turn when Jerry was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, less than a year before his death in 2006. The degenerative nerve-and-muscle disease usually strikes between the ages 40 and 70 and can take a variety of forms. There is no known cure for ALS, and on average, patients tend to live only a few years after its onset. Proper diagnosis isn’t simple, and it’s often achieved by eliminating a myriad of other conditions the symptoms might indicate.

Saturday, April 19, will mark the third annual run of a remarkable—and grueling—kayaking-and-bicycling biathlon held in his honor. Jerry’s Baddle raises money for ALS research and also supports ongoing, permanent access to the Green River for whitewater paddlers.

Held at Jerry’s favorite spot, a magical place called the Green River Narrows, the Baddle requires entrants to paddle the entire section, including long stretches of class IV and V rapids, a run of 45 minutes to an hour that finishes at the Wilderness Cove campground, three miles downstream. Then they hustle to put on biking clothes and pedal a grueling 26-mile road course that begins and ends at the same campground, climbing—and then descending—for a cumulative elevation change of 4,000 feet.

Hard to beat: Two-time Baddle winner Adam Herzog tackles the road-course during last year’s race. Photo by Ben Edson, Downstreamphoto.com

Paddlers and bikers can team up as a “Green Team,” or an individual “Green Man” can do it all. Bikers can also enter the “Green Monster” alone and compete in as many as three laps of the course, for a total of 78 miles.

Eat your Wheaties, friends, as there is no other dual-sport race in the country that features both serious class V kayaking and a road-bike component of any sort, let alone the switchback-filled course used by Jerry’s Baddle.

Adam Herzog, a two-time winner of the combined events, was already an accomplished class V kayaker when he heard about the Baddle, and he says he got into road biking specifically for this event. The race, says Herzog, has changed his whole outlook and focus on “extreme” racing. “Zog,” as he’s known, is widely regarded as an animal on the course. Still, there are some accomplished road bikers who have gotten into paddling, and Adam may have his hands full as he defends his title Saturday.

After the race, the Wilderness Cove campground will host an awards ceremony, food offerings including barbecue and jambalaya, a silent auction of outdoor gear donated by local and regional bike and kayaking companies, and a special raffle—not to mention live music and a fire going well into the night.

There he goes: Riley Cathcart negotiates the Narrows during last year’s Baddle. Photo by Ben Edson, Downstreamphoto.com

Unlike the famous Green Race held every fall, in which paddlers run only a half-mile stretch of the Narrows and are required to face the signature —and scary—rapid known as “Gorilla,” participants in the river portion of Jerry’s Baddle are allowed to portage Gorilla (or any other rapid they wish to skip). In fact, most of the event participants are Green regulars with no expectation of winning and precious little competitive road-biking experience. They just want to challenge themselves a bit and be there for Jerry and the community of which he was a part.

In all his hundreds upon hundreds of runs down the Narrows of the Green over the years, Jerry Beckwith never ran Gorilla. Today, a memorial plaque is affixed to a rock on the portage route around it, including this quote from him: I’ll run it next time.

[Green regular John Pilson lives in Asheville. He sometimes thinks he’ll run it next time, too. But probably not. Or maybe yes. Why not? As long as it’s next time.]

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