On June 13, Katrina Van Wijk got the words "TiTs Deep" tattooed along her rib. It was the day before the main event of the North Fork Championship kayak race down Jacob's Ladder (a continuous Class V-plus rapid) on the North Fork Payette River. Van Wijk had learned that three racers wouldn't be competing. As an alternate, she would now be in. She would also the first woman to compete in the top race since the championship began in 2012.
"'Tits deep' is something that me and my girlfriends started saying on the river as a kind of morale boost," Van Wijk said. "It just spread. The mission became to empower women in extreme sports--that we can do it like anyone else."
Getting on the prestigious list of the North Fork Championship elite race is one of the most "tits deep" things Van Wijk has done yet. And it wasn't easy.
Qualifying is a complicated process: The 10 fastest paddlers from the year before are guaranteed a spot, then applications are open. The original 10 vote on 20 applicants. Out of those, 15 get to race and five spots are set aside for those who can make it to the top of the qualifier race a few days before the event. Five alternates are selected, as well. A total of 30 paddlers race.
What's more complicated, though, is why more women aren't on that list. Race organizer and founder James Byrd said four women applied to race Jacob's Ladder this year. Only Van Wijk was picked and then, only as an alternate.
"Katrina is one of the boys," Byrd said. He is adamant about not making a separation between men's and women's divisions, as most kayaking events do.
"I want to leave that at home," Byrd said. "Let's make it a level playing field: the best of the best. This is a hard river. People die on it. It's a serious rapid, and not everyone can do it. There are few women that are strong enough or skilled enough to run it. It's definitely not a gender thing, it's just for the best paddlers. ... When I saw Katrina applied, I voted her in."
This section of the North Fork Payette is known as one of the hardest stretches of whitewater in the world. It regularly takes the lives of experienced kayakers, though the race itself has never had any fatalities. The last death was June 5, 2013. Before that, two died in 2011, only a month apart from each other. The summer of 2009 claimed another.
Tren Long has run safety during the race for the past two years. He has been teaching swift water rescue classes for 15, and understands the severity of this run.
"For me, it's a weekend full of angst," Long said. "From a safety perspective, the stats are against [the paddlers]."
Long knows the problem areas on the rapid and stores caches of rescue gear nearby. But one of the biggest concerns on Jacob's Ladder, Long said, is flush drowning.
"It's like getting water down the wrong tube when you take a drink," Long said, "except in a Class V rapid. You continue to inhale water and even if you're not submerged, you drown. It takes 45 seconds."
Long said the mechanics of paddling can make a big difference for women. He said there's no strength requirement, but "if you're a strong guy, it's easier. Having less body mass makes running big water more difficult."
Emily Dickerson doesn't disagree. She runs the North Fork regularly and competes in other races around the Northwest. But she has no interest in competing in the North Fork Championship.
"Women, we have a different style of boating. Dudes can power through things," Dickerson said. "We have to have finesse. We will get knocked off our lines. We will have to do all sorts of things to get back on our lines. ... People don't break their legs or scrape their arms kayaking like they do dirt biking or playing soccer. But people die in our sport."
Another area paddler, Lila Lills, said women aren't as likely to paddle at this level because they have other things going on.
"My friends and I, we're in careers and have other things going on in our lives, and I think that might be the difference between female kayakers and male kayakers," Lills said. "We usually have something else going on in the peripheral that makes it more important to take care of ourselves rather than making kayaking No. 1."
Lills said she wants something like the North Fork Championship to be in her future, but like many men and women paddlers, she weighs the risks.
"Think about how many female paddlers who you know of who have died on whitewater," Lills said. When none come to mind, she added, "Is that just because there's less of them kayaking? Or is it because they think differently, and they don't take risks as often?"
Even in her nine-foot, 79-gallon creek boat, Van Wijk was knocked off her line during the June 14 main race. She made her way down the three-quarter-mile course into the first drop, struggled to paddle around the first gate and was flipped upside down trying to cross the river to meet the second gate. She recovered and fought her way down the rest of the course, flipping again near the bottom. Van Wijk was upside down long enough for safety crews on the banks to start preparing throw bags. She finished the race in 3.24 minutes--last place. But she is confident this is only the beginning of women making their way into the NFC--beyond the qualifier and boater cross races, both of which have a handful of female paddlers each year.
"[There have] been times where you don't know if you're really welcome here or whatever," Van Wijk said, "especially when we were younger and the teenage boys always think this is a man's world. But once they get over that and you get over that, you realize everyone's out here for the same reasons: because we love it. Gender doesn't matter, and we kayak because it brings us to these insane places. And every rapid brings personal challenges and goals along with it."