Kayak racers brave waterfalls in search of best time

Posted April 30, 2014, at 5:33 a.m.
Simon Labbe negotiates one of the drops at Smalls Falls on the Sandy river during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19, 2014.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Simon Labbe negotiates one of the drops at Smalls Falls on the Sandy river during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19, 2014. Buy Photo
Jeremy Cass runs the 20-foot-high drop at Smalls Falls on the Sandy River during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19.  The race course was only about 1/8th of a mile long, competitiors had to negotiate five of the six waterfalls dropping about 60 vertical feet between the start and finish.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Jeremy Cass runs the 20-foot-high drop at Smalls Falls on the Sandy River during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19. The race course was only about 1/8th of a mile long, competitiors had to negotiate five of the six waterfalls dropping about 60 vertical feet between the start and finish. Buy Photo
Jeffrey Tillinghast negotiates one of the six drops of Smalls Falls on Sandy River during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19. The three drops pictured total about 38 feet in height.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Jeffrey Tillinghast negotiates one of the six drops of Smalls Falls on Sandy River during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19. The three drops pictured total about 38 feet in height. Buy Photo
Kayakers make their way to the top of Smalls Falls on the Sandy River before the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Kayakers make their way to the top of Smalls Falls on the Sandy River before the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday, April 19. Buy Photo
Chuck Mathieu waits for other boaters in the eddy below one of the drops of Smalls Falls on the Sandy River in Township E on Saturday, April 19. After finishing the race Mathieu was one of the group of kayakers who decided to run the falls again.  He landed the largest drop a bit too close to the rock wall, he believes, and hit the wall with left paddle blade and the water with the right blade simultaneously and broke the paddle shaft. A testiment to his skill, he was able to run the remaining drops with the broken paddle.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Chuck Mathieu waits for other boaters in the eddy below one of the drops of Smalls Falls on the Sandy River in Township E on Saturday, April 19. After finishing the race Mathieu was one of the group of kayakers who decided to run the falls again. He landed the largest drop a bit too close to the rock wall, he believes, and hit the wall with left paddle blade and the water with the right blade simultaneously and broke the paddle shaft. A testiment to his skill, he was able to run the remaining drops with the broken paddle. Buy Photo
The finish line of Smalls to the Wall kayak race on the Sandy River was in the pool below the final drop. Trained volunteers provided safety and timed the competitors as they hit the water above the falls and hit the orange buoy (at right) to complete the course. The race was conducted with certified swiftwater safety volunteers and and ambulance crew standing by in case of an injury. Though some mistakes were made by boaters, no one required a rescue during the race.
Gabor Degre | BDN
The finish line of Smalls to the Wall kayak race on the Sandy River was in the pool below the final drop. Trained volunteers provided safety and timed the competitors as they hit the water above the falls and hit the orange buoy (at right) to complete the course. The race was conducted with certified swiftwater safety volunteers and and ambulance crew standing by in case of an injury. Though some mistakes were made by boaters, no one required a rescue during the race. Buy Photo
Aaron Bauman works on the launch ramp at the starting line of the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race on the Sandy River in Township E Saturday, April 19. The ramp was used to bypass the first drop. Race organizer Andrew Cooper and safety coordinator Jeremy Cass thought it would have been dangerous to run that section it at that water level.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Aaron Bauman works on the launch ramp at the starting line of the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race on the Sandy River in Township E Saturday, April 19. The ramp was used to bypass the first drop. Race organizer Andrew Cooper and safety coordinator Jeremy Cass thought it would have been dangerous to run that section it at that water level. Buy Photo
Mike McVey (left), Jane Koopman (center), and Margaret Williams share a laugh as they look at photograps taken during  the runs of Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race on the Sandy River in Township E. Koopman and Williams were the the only women in the field of 11 competitors in the race.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Mike McVey (left), Jane Koopman (center), and Margaret Williams share a laugh as they look at photograps taken during the runs of Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race on the Sandy River in Township E. Koopman and Williams were the the only women in the field of 11 competitors in the race. Buy Photo
Jeremy Cass (top) watches as Andrew Cooper lines up for one of the drops during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday April 19th 2014.  While Cooper organized the race and and Cass was the safety coordinator they both participated in the event posting their timed runs down Smalls Falls on the Sandy River.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Jeremy Cass (top) watches as Andrew Cooper lines up for one of the drops during the Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race in Township E on Saturday April 19th 2014. While Cooper organized the race and and Cass was the safety coordinator they both participated in the event posting their timed runs down Smalls Falls on the Sandy River. Buy Photo

It does not take much to start a kayak race. Select a body of water, pick a start and finish line and see who’s fastest. However, if you pick a course that includes several Class 5 waterfalls surrounded by sheer cliff — no matter how short the race — the risk and complication grows immensely. This race appeals to a new breed of whitewater enthusiast. They are not afraid and most of us would call them extreme.

Andrew Cooper has been a regular at such a spot on the Sandy River. Having run Smalls Falls in Township E near Rangeley frequently over the past few years, Cooper came up with the idea of a challenging, fun, picturesque and easily accessible race he named Smalls to the Wall. The distance is just about one-eighth of a mile, but the allure came from having to negotiate the 60 feet of vertical drop in the form of six waterfalls along the way. Cooper has been planning the race for a couple of years, getting sponsors and safety volunteers and even hiring an ambulance for the competition.

Finding kayakers who are able to paddle these waters is becoming less difficult because of the sport’s recent popularity. Similar events were started by Taylor Walker and Jeremy Cass on the West Branch of the Penobscot River and the Kennebec River three years ago. They both were well attended and will continue this year as the Maine Whitewater Championships under Walker’s leadership.

These events appeal to experienced whitewater kayakers who are looking for friendly competition. In some ways they are very similar to the downriver races held across the state each spring, only the bar has been raised. Many of the competitors know each other and spend a lot of time time paddling together.

The first Smalls to the Wall steep creek kayak race had 11 registered competitors, who each had two timed runs down the falls. They all managed to get through the course without major trouble, requiring no assistance from the extensive safety crew. The fastest man was Chuck Mathieu, paddling the course in 44.75 seconds, while Jane Koopman posted the women’s best time, completing the course in 57.22 seconds. Competitors and spectators said that the event was a lot of fun and they are looking forward to the 2015 Smalls to the Wall.

 

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