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North Fork Championship Pits Kayakers Against Payette River

Speed is key on the Class V rapids in international competition

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"You drop into that rapid and then after that, it's the most chaotic, powerful, insane, awesome rapid," said paddler James Byrd. "It's a sense of speed and power that I've never felt before in a kayak."

It's a feeling kayakers from all over the world will experience Friday, June 8, and Saturday, June 9, during the first North Fork Championship, a competition that will include an on-river race on the Payette and film screening at the Egyptian Theatre Thursday, June 7.

The main race happens on Jacob's Ladder, a stretch of the North Fork that spans three-quarters of a mile along scenic Highway 55 near Banks. Local kayakers maintain a healthy respect for the Class V rapid, which has claimed injuries and lives in the past as it winds between sharp rocks and continuous white water, proving a challenge for even the most experienced kayaker.

Byrd, 27, moved to Boise four years ago to live at the gateway to Idaho's whitewater. He has been paddling for 19 years and is the organizer of the race, the biggest kayaking event to take place on the North Fork of the Payette yet.

The North Fork Championship has been in the back of Byrd's mind for years, but it took a shoulder injury last fall to put the plan into motion.

"That sidelined me for a long time," Byrd said. "I had to put my energy into kayaking somehow."

Byrd started writing emails and making calls, sending in proposals and securing permits in October 2011, in preparation for hosting 30 elite kayakers from around the world. Byrd got applicants from Germany, Czech Republic, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, France, Canada and all over the United States.

Things will kick off Thursday, June 7, when the Egyptian Theatre hosts The Meltdown, a whitewater film festival featuring many of the kayakers who will paddle in the next day's events.

The Friday, June 8, race acts as a qualifier on the lower three miles of the North Fork of the Payette. Roughly 80 competitors will be released into the river in groups of five, every three to six minutes starting at 5 p.m.

"With music playing and people cheering and helicopters flying overhead," Byrd said.

The course takes 20-25 minutes with some flat spots where kayakers will have to paddle hard to beat each other.

"Even in a flat spot, it will be fun to watch," Byrd said.

The five paddlers who "live on to the next day," as Byrd puts it, will compete in something much more serious among the 30 "elite" athletes Saturday, June 9.

The race through Jacob's Ladder, near mile marker 86 on Highway 55, will be a slalom course with gates hung from trees. Byrd estimates it takes three or four minutes to complete. The paddler with the fastest time wins and takes home a $4,000-$5,000 purse.

Jacob's Ladder is known for its danger and safety is a concern for the event.

"Dude, I don't sleep sometimes because of the safety issue," Byrd said.

Isaac Levinson, 22, will paddle in the elite division of the race. He'll travel from Atlanta to compete and has kayaked competitively for the last five years. He even made the Top 10 in the Olympic qualifier race to go to London this summer.

"One of the guys who worked at Liquidlogic [Levinson's sponsor] passed away on that river last year," Levinson said, referring to the Payette. "It's heavy stuff."

Though the athletes are aware of the danger, Levinson and Byrd remain confident. Water levels should be around 2,500-3,000 cubic feet per second, a fairly safe flow.

"These people do this all over the world," Byrd said. "Jacob's Ladder isn't harder or crazier than anything else they've done. But it will be on the upper end of it, I guarantee that. These people's skill levels are not questionable."

Byrd said he's confident that the kayakers will assess the rapids with their skill level and be respectful and smart.

One of the biggest motivations for Byrd to put the event together was to get local paddlers competing with the biggest names in the world.

"There's so many really good paddlers here that can come to this race that work a 9-to-5 that can paddle with these paddlers that go all over the world all the time paddling," he said.

But this also proved to be a bump in the road for the race. Byrd created an "elite" list inviting kayakers from all over the world to skip the qualifier and go straight to Jacob's Ladder. That upset several local paddlers.

Jesse Murphy grew up paddling the North Fork. Though he lives in Denver, he still made the elite list.

"The paddling community is so small that this caused some upheaval," Murphy said. "A lot of local paddlers expected to make that list. But James had a vision to showcase the North Fork. He could have made it a grassroots event or a big impact. He got the movers and shakers of kayaking out here."

Murphy said local kayakers who were upset about not making the list may not see the bigger picture of the event. But he said the list is fair, and there is Idaho representation.

"People want to be a part of [the race], and that's cool," Byrd said on the controversy.

The qualifier race held the day before was open to anyone who wanted to apply. The field is now set and Byrd will race in it himself.

The top two paddlers who win the elite race Saturday will move onto a competition hosted by White Water Grand Prix in Chile this December.

"I paddled [Jacob's Ladder] the other day," Byrd said. "I just couldn't stop laughing and having fun."

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