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2015 Payette River Games Cuts Kayak Events

Kayakers need not apply

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For Alec Voorhees, 18, and his brother Hayden, 15, the Payette River Games were an opportunity to compete against some of the best kayakers in the world.

The three-day event, held in Cascade at Kelly's Whitewater Park, attracts kayakers from all over the globe, including the reigning men's gold, silver and bronze medalists from the world championships and some of the biggest names in kayaking.

"It's really helped elevate my kids' kayaking," said Jody Voorhees, Alec and Hayden's mother. "It was drawing the level of competition that raised the bar for them. We had the cream of the crop, best of the best. For our kids to be able to compete in that arena definitely elevated their kayaking."

This year, however, the Voorhees brothers won't be competing at the Payette River Games, which happen Friday, June 19-Sunday, June 21.

In December 2014, event organizers decided to remove kayaking from the games altogether, shifting the focus toward stand up paddleboarding.

"I was surprised," said Jody Voorhees, who works with Kelly's owners and PRG organizers Mark and Kristina Pickard throughout the year.

"In talking with Mark as we were finishing last year, we were talking about how the PRGs could expand to a week instead of three days, because we were gathering a lot of local interest in kayaking and the other river sports," she said.

Voorhees said managing all the different events—which included several kayak competitions like freestyle contests, boatercross races and an eight-ball kayak sprint, as well as similar races on stand up paddleboards, river surfing, beach volleyball, Frisbee golf, dog fetching, bocce ball, yoga, lumberjack contests and more—became too time-intensive for the Pickards.

"Just juggling everything was a big undertaking," Voorhees said. "We're super grateful [Pickard] carried that for the first few years, put Kelly's on the map and set the stage."

The decision came as a shock to the kayak community.

Responses ranged from understanding and sympathy, to disappointment and downright anger.

When the announcement hit the Payette River Games athletes' Facebook page, a handful of boaters jumped on the comments.

"I'm so disappointed," wrote Boise kayaker Laurie Rogers.

"I see this announcement as alienating community participants in an event that was originally centered around engaging the community, and exposing locals to the possibilities for recreation on the Payettes [sic] and at Kelly's Whitewater Park," she added. "I participated in several kayaking events as a beginner in 2014. I am sorely disappointed that the 2015 Payette River Games will fall short of my expectations and aspirations."

Last year, the combined purse for all events topped $100,000—the largest purse in whitewater history—divvied up 50/50 between kayaking and SUP events. This year's purse stops at $50,000. In a press release, PRG organizers said eliminating kayaking eliminates a large expense.

"We have really enjoyed doing our best to promote and expand the sport of kayaking over the past 4 years through our competitions with record-setting purses. It has been a fun and thrilling road, but after many volunteer hours we have committed and substantial personal funds donated to put on the large-scale Kayak events, we have decided to not underwrite the expense of hosting another kayak event [sic]," the announcement said.

Boise Weekly reached out to PRG organizers, but received no comment.

The announcement stated that eliminating kayak events would free up more river time for the "much larger" field of SUP athletes: last year, 90 SUP athletes attended the event. This year, organizers expect 150-180.

Before the decision was finalized, Mountain View High School science teacher Samuel Goff got a call from Pickard.

"He said, 'What do you think about dropping kayaking and going exclusively SUP?'" said Goff, who has been organizing kayak events for two decades. Goff was a PRG volunteer for several years, before they were even called the Payette River Games.

"[Pickard] had all this rationale about why we want to do it, and I said, 'You know what, Mark, the thing that's really cool about being an event organizer is you can do whatever the hell you want. If you want to try something different, go for it,'" Goff told BW.

Goff said this is a big deal for athletes who like competing on the world-class wave features at Kelly's and who rely on the purse. For spectators, though, it won't really matter.

"They're really not all that fun to watch," Goff said. "You go sit at a freestyle event and you have a bunch of people who don't even know what's going out there. It gets boring quick."

Voorhees doesn't think this change is permanent. She said the organizers approached her a few months ago, asking if she was interested in putting together a separate kayaking event. They said an event could be held at Kelly's at no cost.

Meanwhile, the World Freestyle Kayak Championships are in Canada in August, and both Alec and Hayden made the U.S. freestyle team. Training will take up most of the family's time, as well as that of other athletes who could help put on such an event.

"We don't see [kayaking] removed from Kelly's. It's just on a hiatus this year," Vorhees aid. "We know the athletes would love to come back. It's a great attraction for Idaho and good for the town of Cascade."