The Green on speed

Green River

Royal flush: Tasting adrenaline, Green River-style. photo by Shelton Steele

Editor’s note: The Green River Narrows is a dangerous, unforgiving place; people have died here, and access to the river is restricted. Accordingly, the Green River Race is intended only for expert paddlers with considerable experience here.

Wikipedia defines sport as “an activity requiring physical ability, physical fitness or physical skill which usually, but not always, involves competition between two or more people.” Kayaking is certainly a sport, but for most who pursue it, the element of competition rarely exists.

The challenge, instead, lies in untangling nature’s riddle: namely, the river. Kayakers must rely on their individual physical abilities, fitness and skill as well as their river knowledge to safely navigate each rapid.

Some of the most difficult rivers in the world are tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina, and the Green, in particular, has become the definition of class V kayaking. So what happens when the best boaters in the Southeast add the element of competition to the river’s most challenging stretch? The result has a name: the Green River Race.

The Green River Narrows is a class IV to V section defined by low water volumes and boulder-choked rapids. It’s a labyrinth of chutes, slides and drops. If you haven’t been there, try to imagine a steep, technical ski run or, better yet, an impossible mountain-bike trail. Now add the fact that you can’t see farther than 10 feet down the mountain, and as soon as you run one drop, gravity blindly pulls you into the next. You’re getting close to a picture of the challenge the Narrows presents. Rapids with names like “Frankenstein,” “Boof or Consequences,” “Go Left,” “Die,” “Zwick’s,” “Gorilla,” “Scream Machine,” “Power Slide” and “Rapid Transit” make up what paddlers know as the “Monster Mile,” the stage for one of the world’s best extreme-kayaking races.

The Green Race was born on a shuttle ride in West Virginia 10 years ago when local paddler Jason Hale put the challenge of a timed downriver race to fellow Asheville boater Leland Davis. At noon on Nov. 4, 80 or more kayakers will suit up and accept this year’s challenge. Most of them will be from the Southeast. Asheville, naturally, is home to a large concentration of the talent pool, and local contestants have the huge advantage of being able to paddle the Green year round. Although no one spends 12 months training for the race, it’s safe to say that boaters are in training every time they hit the Narrows. Once a year, the clock proves just how good they really are.

To add the element of time is to take one of the most difficult sections of whitewater anywhere and put it in fast-forward. There is only the kayaker, the river and the clock. In 1996, Clay Wright laid down a stomping time of 4 minutes, 57 seconds to win the race. Last year, five-time winner Tommy Hilleke beat his own record by 10 seconds with a time of 4:34. Tommy’s smoking time is superhuman fast — so fast, in fact, that Tommy might have trouble matching it himself.

While the clock will record exactly how fast the racers go, time is relative to the challenge at hand. Most kayakers would consider safe passage through the Green River Narrows at any pace to be the crowning achievement of their whitewater careers. And once a kayaker has survived the run the first time, the river presents an infinite number of new challenges each time he or she gets on the water.

Predicting who will win the 10th annual Green River Race is nearly impossible. Racing the Green means trying to minimize the number of mistakes a paddler makes during one run on one Saturday, once a year. There is no such thing as a mistake-free run on the Green. A dozen or so local boaters will probably be on the bubble, but the river, as always, will determine the winner.

[Paddler and freelance writer Shelton Steele lives in Asheville.]

This year’s Green River Race happens Saturday, Nov. 4, at noon. To learn more about the event, visit the “Green River Flows Page” of the local paddling Web site

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